Parody As Prophecy

Parody As Prophecy

In the first episode of I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002), during a dinner meeting with the commissioning editor of the BBC, there is a scene where a creatively bereft Alan desperately clutches at straws to get back on TV by suggesting a string of bizarre, attention grabbing programme titles:

Cooking In Prison. Youth Hosteling with Chris Eubank. Monkey Tennis… Look if you don’t do it, Sky will.
(A Room With An Alan, 1997)

“Monkey Tennis” has since seeped its way into pop-cultural jargon to comically refer to the lowest common denominator of TV programming. It is a concept so ridiculous it achieves its level of satire perfectly because it always hovers just past the line of believability. But, whether the idea was arrived at independently of anyone on the development team having seen Alan Partridge or not, 2012 saw an actual cooking show set in prison reach the screens of Channel 4 – Gordon Ramsey’s Cooking Behind Bars. Fifteen years after the joke was made, it would appear Alan Partridge’s absurd joke managed to enter the straight-faced realms of reality. This is just one instance of what has become a growing phenomenon of satire from the past gaining a kind of prophetic quality with age, becoming unsettling foreshadowers of the future of modern culture. In their time they seemed absurd, but examining them retrospectively suggests that the trajectory of modern culture was fated for their fulfilment.

Alan Partridge first appeared on the radio news parody show On The Hour (1991-1992), the start of a long line of endeavours co-creator Chris Morris took into deriding the way news was presented. The concept eventually made its way onto television in the form of both The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997-2001). Visual gags about the news ensued, chiefly criticising the news’ use of, and over-dependency on, garish graphics by taking them to their comically ridiculous extreme. From the overly epic opening titles to the convoluted and illogical statistics graphics, Brass Eye in particular was focused at deriding news programming’s incessant pandering to audiences through their use of flashy visuals substituted for straightforward content and facts.

 

Although Brass Eye was cancelled in 2001, the level of absurdity of actual news graphics seemed to develop far beyond that of the satire itself. As Charlie Brooker points out in the Screenwipe (2006-2008) clip below, they are a bombastic art form that “actively distract you from the information they’re supposed to convey.” Looking at the CGI helicopter floating in front of Jeremy Thompson in 2008, it makes a graph composed out of foxes heads on sticks from 1997 seem less absurd than it should.

 

The mention of Charlie Brooker leads us to further examples of this phenomenon. Morris was joint scriptwriter with Brooker on the severely underappreciated comedy Nathan Barley (2005), which aimed to satirize the culture surrounding the media industry but now almost looks like a blueprint for the rise of hipster culture and social obsessiveness over the cutting edge. “It’s been out for three weeks in Japan. Where’s yours?” Barely says of his new phone, the Wasp T12, which has both a camera and primitive music ‘app’ function, a full two years before the iPhone revolution. The stupid fashion senses now seem closer to mirroring rather than exaggerating the ‘uniform individuality’ of styles typically found with inner city anti-conforming creative types.

left: a hipster, right: screenshot from Nathan Barley.

left: a hipster, right: screenshot from Nathan Barley

Ten years on so much of Nathan Barley seems commonplace its difficult to distinguish the show’s inventions from the already existent without a timeline of technological advancements. Barely is a self obsessed “media node” who delivers a regular video blog to his website, trashbat.co.ck, predating YouTube and ultimately predicting an entire online culture of ‘Youtubers’ who gather enormous followings just through speaking to camera (Pewdiepie, Jenna Marbles etc). Brooker has gone on record explaining that it was Morris who was insistent to include this aspect of the show, which, along with his involvement in Brass Eye, suggests that he may inadvertently hold the ability to tap into a forecast of cultural change (source).

When faced with these examples it is difficult to put away the famous quote by Marx in reference to history repeating itself: “first as tragedy then as farce” (Karl Marx: Selected Works, vol. 2, 1942). But it would appear that these two states have the ability to reverse in their occurrence. Here we first have the farce, then the tragedy is in its fulfilment within reality.

An interesting comparison to draw on this phenomenon is with the genre of science fiction. Sci-fi has a long history of accurately predicting the future, be it the video calls from Metropolis (1927), earphones described in Fahrenheit 451 (1953), wireless earpieces from Star Trek (1966), the personalised adverts in Minority Report (2002) or the multitude of predictions made by Arthur C Clarke (source).

The differences between satire and science fiction are obvious, but boiled down to their elements they bare the same core intention: to use exaggerated forms of reality to comment upon the everyday. It is one of the many great virtues of fiction: to tell lies in order to tell the truth. But whereas science fiction often aims to project forward and thereby makes estimations on technological and social advancements, satire seeks to ridicule the present with a ludicrous version of it. Brass Eye (1997-2001), The Thick Of It (2005-2012), Not The Nine O Clock News (1979-1982), Yes Minister (1980-1988), all of them are grounded in the (then) present day, amplifying elements to ludicrous extremes in order to expose and mock them.

This is where the depression lies. Seeing as the act of satire is to raise elements of reality to comical levels, the act of it coming true bares so many more distressing implications than that of science fiction. When the bizarreness of reality surpasses that of its own satire, it not only suggests a further demise of those elements originally mocked but it also suggests a demise in the quality of satire itself. Charlie Brooker’s very first project, the website TV Go Home, which listed a fake TV programme schedule, came to an end when Brooker saw the legitimate show Touch The Truck (2001), a game show where a group of contestants sought to win a truck by attempting to keep their hand on it the longest. Brooker has stated that television at that point had become far more bizarre than anything he could imagine to ridicule it, and so felt it was time to stop (source). Indeed, when the most ludicrous form of something already exists, what reason is there to mock it? Its mere existence is the mockery, one need only to point at it and the goals of satire have been hollowly achieved.

Perhaps a ‘futureproof’ approach to satirise the present day is to blend both comedy and science fiction together. By looking back from a contrived futuristic standpoint it is possible to comment on the modern day through a ludicrous writing of human history. Futurama (1999-2013) was one of the best at handling this, the episode with a robotic reincarnation of Richard Nixon running as president being one of the most prominent examples. But Armando Iannucci’s short lived show Time Trumpet (2006) is another great example of the direction more comedy could take.

The show is set in the year 2031 and is formatted as an in-depth look back at early 21st century, with testimonial interviews from celebrities recalling some of the bizarre events which took place. The tone carries an influence of Brass Eye in that the jokes are in the extreme absurdity of the situations described, but holds the added asset of fake hindsight to summarise the (actual) present day era.

Just as we now are able to use hindsight to collect a group of events and social changes into a decade with a distinct ‘feel’ to it (60’s – sexual liberation and the summer of love, 80’s – baby boom and poodle rock etc.), Iannucci was able to summarise the first decade of the twenty first century while it was still playing out. And the contrived testimonies relayed to the camera in the clip below paint the decade very much for what it was – a turbulent, paranoid and confused time where extremes of terrorism and political correctness clashed into a massive an ridiculous mess.

 

But even this extreme is not a failsafe. These coincidences of fiction and reality are merely that – unknowable in their true origin and only quantifiable after the fact. Who could predict the next ‘Cooking In Prison’? To us these concepts remain amusingly implausible until the moment they exist. If parody can be embedded with prophecy then it is certainly written in an elusive and unrecognisable print.

Daniel Noall (2015)

Music In Motion: Movie Soundtraks Of 2014

music in motion: soundtracks of 2014

When listening to an original movie score I often wonder what it is that draws me to re-visit it outside of its intended accompaniment to an overall viewing experience. As appose to a soundtrack built out of existent songs, such as the feel good nostalgia heavy yester-pop of Guardian’s Of The Galaxy, an original movie score does not contain any pre-attained social signifiers to riff off or subvert. Guardian’s Awesome Mix was a tool for indicating not only the time from which Quill originated from but also how far he was from home (both the songs and the means of listening to them – a cassette tape). But, while it is a grand selection of tunes and has probably exposed a younger generation to a series of older classics, it is still possible to listen to Cherry Bomb without thinking of a gun wielding racoon (just about).

This is the fundamental difference between a ‘Music From The Motion Picture’ soundtrack and an original score: a direct link with, and signifier of, the atmosphere of a movie. It aids in creating the mythos of the world the story is set in and can transport a listener to that place without actually watching the movie itself.

One of 2014’s strongest soundtracks, Gone Girl, was extremely successful at this and was almost destined to be so as a result of the workflow Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take in composing soundtracks together. For The Social Network, their first ever film score collaboration, and first collaboration with Fincher, Reznor’s and Ross’ lack of film scoring experience led them to create a series of extended mood-scapes from the tone they felt reading the film’s script. As appose to writing themes for characters or even scoring scenes, they composed music which fitted into, and reflected, the world the story was revolving around (source). The results won them an Oscar, and their approach continued into subsequent Fincher projects The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and, most recently, Gone Girl.

The tone throughout Gone Girl is one which holds an unsettling air that things are not ever what they seem. There is a sinister underside to every seemingly sincere moment, with the movie’s first half in particular suggesting an artificial quality underpinning all of the sentimental flashbacks. The soundtrack captures this perfectly. Drifting ambient tones create a feeling of unease, calculated and methodical but remaining inscrutable (embodying the opening lines of the movie: “What are you thinking? How are you feeling?”). Even some of the sweeter melodies feed slowly into building waves of aggressive distortion which engulf and mute the harmonies.

 

The best example of this is the track Gone Home. It starts so innocent, almost wholesome, seeming to invoke a feeling of love enduring and uniting all. But the notes slowly begin to drift off-key, and the static swells up into a schizophrenic mess that abruptly cuts off to restrain and re-compose itself. In creating their world reflecting mood-scapes, it would seem that Reznor and Ross have inadvertently created one of the character’s themes after all.

Another interesting origin to one of the year’s soundtracks was Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar. Hans Zimmer was brought in once again to score and has spoken of Nolan approaching him before production even began with one page of typed dialogue depicting a message from a father to a child, asking him to produce a piece of music inspired by that. From this, Zimmer composed the main theme to Interstellar without ever knowing the plot or that it contained any sci-fi elements whatsoever (source).

Once fleshed out and worked around, the soundtrack to Interstellar reflects very much the ambitions of the story. The comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey are apparent, and the soundtrack does have those long powerful organ notes that emulate the closing of Also Spranch Zarathustra, but Interstellar attempts to inject a deeper emotional element than Kubrick into both its story and, subsequently, its soundtrack. It is a story not only about discovery but what is left behind, the relationship between families and generations and the bonds they create being infinite and unquantifiable. The “epicness” of the film stems from a small emotional core, and while Zimmer’s grand booming orchestrations very much match the striking cosmic visuals, the main refrain directing much of the soundtrack is a heartfelt melody that is played as both a subdued melancholy piano piece and a great organ crescendo head rush.

 

From grandeur to minimalism (and my personal pick for best soundtrack of 2014), Under The Skin took the polar opposite approach to science fiction in almost every way from Interstellar. Fantastically dark and subtle while remaining ambiguous enough as to maintain respect for its audiences’ intelligence, Jonathan Glazer’s film saw a malignant alien masquerading as a beautiful woman, roaming the streets of Glasgow seducing men whom she traps and harvests for their meat. The film takes a methodically slow approach, drenched always in the waking presence of dread.

A unique film which is accompanied by a wholly unique soundtrack. Mica Levi, of Micachu and The Shapes fame, was commissioned to create the score after Glazer heard her Chopped and Screwed project with the London Sinfonietta, which, as the name may suggest, involved warping and looping various sounds into a disorientating assembly (source). Her work on Under The Skin certainly carried over this same mentality of experimentation, with shrill violins playing out a chilling three note refrain distorted and pitch shifted over a dark minimalist rhythm. The whole effect is one of constant unease, watching as men helplessly submit to the forces of seduction from an alien intruder, blissfully unaware of their own impending demise.

 

The track Lipstick To Void best demonstrates this. With very little dialogue and absolutely no hand-holding in its execution of the story, the film really relies on Levi’s soundscapes like this to bridge the gaps and give viewers the suggestion of events through the ambience. The muted drums slowly giving way to the hypnotic strings, it sounds alluring, almost erotic, but all the while carrying a sinister femme-fatale edge to it that forebodes the piercing pitch bends towards the end.

Those were some of my favourite soundtracks of 2014. Here are a few I’m looking forward to hearing in 2015 (both original and not):

– Inherent Vice, Jonny Greenwood (Not yet released in UK)
– Birdman, Antonio Sanchez (Not yet released in UK)
– Enemy, Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (Not yet released in UK)
– Star Wars Episode 7, John Williams
– Hateful Eight, Various
– Knight Of Cups, Various

Worst Hangover Movies Vol. 1

DoggieWoggiez12

 

Escapism, that’s the name of the game. When movie magic can temporally nullify an aggressive hangover it’s important to stick to the safe and soothing. Go searching for an undiscovered classic or a refreshing change and you run the risk of unearthing forces which can lower you to a whole new level of sickness. These are some of those films.

Wake In Fright

Have another drink, mate! A movie showing the ugly underbelly of the Australian outback and the extreme-macho-competitive forces which rule it. Through the overbearing hospitality of the small town which he finds himself stuck in, English overseas teacher John Grant is taken on a local tour of debauchery and binge drinking, spiraling deeper into vices of excess, dependency and violence brought on by peer pressure and one-upmanship. The sweat, the heat, the ferity and the drinking – those with already sensitive stomachs will have their condition worsened two fold from watching this.

 
 

Jerkbeast

In its original incarnation as a public access TV show in King County, Washington, back in 2001, Jerkbeast featured a giant paper mache demon taking abusive calls off of viewers and retorting with the foulest, loudest insults possible. When the show’s creators decided to make a movie of Jerkbeast, it produced the kind of low budget indie fever dream you would expect. The plot chronicles the rise and fall of the Jerkbeast and his co-presenters’ insane punk band, whose name goes through changes such as Blood Butt, Anus Pussy, finally to settle on Steaming Wolf Penis. With band members consisting of a serial rabbit killer, a necrophiliac and a giant foul-mouthed monster, and with thrash-punk songs like ‘Looks Like Chocolate Tastes Like Shit’, Jerkbeast won’t be soothing any headaches for you (although it is bloody funny).

 
 

Doggiewoggies! Poochiewoochies!

The third feature film from schlock archivers and psychedelic found-footage mashup artists Everything Is Terrible, Doggiewoggies! Poochiewoochies! is a recreation of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain made entirely out of clips from hundreds of dog related films. A surreal take on an already surreal movie, on paper it sounds almost impenetrable. But the most commendable quality of EIT’s editing skills is that they are able turn the unwatchable into the watchable. Not only do they repurpose clips to take on hilarious new meanings, but they identify and pick out running tropes from the cosmos of film and splice them together into extended sequences that are so bizarre and funny for their endurance and apparent abundance of source material (see below for an example that highlights the use of dog puns). Insane in both concept and in execution, it may prove too much for those feeling fragile. Straighten out a little before you take this trip.

 
 

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

To those already initiated into the uncomfortably surreal comedy world of Tim and Eric, this may be the safest choice on the list. To those discovering the duo for the first time, it may be the worst place to start from. After gaining much praise and a loyal following from their various work with Adult Swim, Tim and Eric’s first feature film continues many of the nightmarish parodies of the middle-America public-access/ shopping-channel zeitgeist that they honed on The Awesome Show, heightened even further in fitting with the over the top “million dollar” movie budget. As appose to the skittish and erratic nature of Awesome Show, the jokes in the film pivot around a narrative that sees the two take management of a failing shopping mall in order to make back the money they owe to a murderous film producer for squandering his investment. Tim and Eric is purposefully disturbing and niche at the best of times, and one scene demonstrating the healing powers of something called “Shrim” is enough to tip any unsuspecting viewers with the shakes over into a spewing spree.

 
 

Enter The Void

A film which in places simulates a psychedelic drug trip and in others shows the viewpoint of a ghostly spirit floating through time, space and others’ consciousness. Loosely enacting some of the ideas in the Tibetan book of the dead, the entire film is from the vantage point of a boy living in the neon drenched drug district of Tokyo who, after being shot by police, is taken on an outer-body experience through his bereft sister’s present and their shared troubled past. If you are still feeling the effects of the night before then the opening credits alone might be enough to give you a brain aneurysm. If not, the point at which a gigantic CGI penis is thrust into the camera lens might do instead.

 
 

Vol. 2 coming soon. Suggestions welcome!

The Review As An Artform

The Review As An Artform

 

What is it about the internet that makes opinions so entertaining? Since its birth and integration into the everyday there has been a surge of widely consumed entertainment that now seems almost indicative of the internet itself – The Video Review. Whether it’s the lack of necessity for high production value or the ability to get recognition based on popular search terms, the internet is full of playthroughs, commentary tracks, vlogs, top 10s – entire production companies dedicated solely to media journalism. But rather than a traditional approach to a review (i.e. a list of pros and cons with the final thumbs up or thumbs down verdict), the internet has given rise to a type of review which transcends the idea of simply ‘consumer advice’ and instead takes on a level of entertainment themselves which is entirely unique.

Take the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace. Running at ninety minutes, we are taken on a moment-by-moment deconstruction of the movie by the uncomfortably creepy character of Mr Plinkett: an impossibly old man with a taste for pizza rolls, whose review is constantly interjected by spliced together apparent home-movie footage of various female kidnappings.

 

The movie is picked apart in astonishing depth over a feature length running time, and the video is humorous enough simply on this level. But what becomes clear fairly rapidly is that the character’s creator, Mike Stoklasa, really knows his stuff. All of his observations on character motivation and story structure are well articulated and backed up with watertight evidence from the source itself. He has a way of pointing out the subtler pitfalls of the movie which many will agree with but would fail to fully identify themselves (the absurd number of ‘multiple endings’ for example). If ever there were to be a definitive explanation of why The Phantom Menace was terrible, this would be it.

But it’s something more than just a list of criticisms, the choice to channel them through a reprehensible character adds something to how they are received and processed. There is conflict going on between what is said and who is saying it. It generates friction and humour and allows Stoklasa to make profane un-academic statements like “The Phantom Menace is the greatest example of cinematic blue balls in the history of motion pictures”, without losing any credibility to his overall arguments. The whole thing is darkly comic, ironically a lot more enjoyable than the film itself, and cannot be described as wholly a review or wholly a character study. It exists in the murky waters somewhere between opinion and fiction.

This idea of enjoying others articulate their opinions is not something inherently exclusive to the internet (Charlie Brooker, Siskel and Ebert, Andre Bazin – all examples of reviewers who have prospered beyond the idea of consumer advice within traditional media). But to trace the evolution of the online video review is not a single linear line running from print to bytes. It is style and form of filmmaking which, in my opinion, is limited to, and only made possible by, qualities which are entirely exclusive to the internet.

Since its birth at the tail end of 2005, YouTube has always been from the get-go a (relatively – depending on your relationship with copyright infringement) consequence free platform for amateur filmmakers to try out new ideas without the pressure to appeal to a wider audience. In those exciting dawning years after its launch, around 65,000 videos were being uploaded to YouTube every day [1], and what it lead to was a surge in fringe entertainment hitherto undiscovered and untested by traditional media. Reaction videos, vlogs, mashups, Rick Rolls, remixes, live playthroughs and, yes, video reviews – all of them owe their existence to the creative freedom on the internet. To use an advertising phrase, the internet is very good at exploiting ‘gaps in the market’. In fact, it’s probably what it’s best at.

On top of this, the early twenty first century has seen the phenomenon of social media grow to become a stature of daily life. With the ability to created updates, micro-reports on ourselves and events, social media offers an outlet for its users to become opinionated and expressive. The opportunity to have your own rhetoric immortalised on the internet is a tantalising one, and what distinguishes it from, say, having your letter published in a magazine is that the independency permits, even actively encourages, everyone to take a turn. Twitter reports an average of 500 million tweets sent every day [2]; a never ending stream of observations, criticisms and witticisms made under topical hashtags. “What’s On Your Mind?” read the luring words in Facebook’s status box. Whether it’s written or read, interaction with social media always leans towards a sharing of opinions. It is used as an alter to speak from and, conversely, the pews from which to listen. By its very nature this means that all content is user generated, built entirely out of what is fed into it – something comparatively absent from traditional media.

From this, it is possible to trace the birth of the video review from a pregnancy between these two of the internet’s most liberating qualities: being a platform for creativity, and being a platform for opinions. And when these two inevitably fuse together we get creative approaches to how a review can be delivered.

Consider next one of the many video reviews by Ben “Yahtzee” Crashaw, creator of the Zero Punctuation video game review series. Well known for his pleasingly simple animation design and fast talking, his videos contrast the long-winded dissections of Red Letter Media in favour of brevity and cutting quips. His videos only ever run at a maximum of five minutes on a weekly basis and, for the space of time (both production-wise and running time), he manages to find an impressive number of new creative ways to deliver his reviews.

Take his review of Wolfenstein (2009) for example, where the whole review is delivered in the form of a limerick. As well as being well written and extremely funny, here the form of the review actually helps to affirm the opinions it contains – so bored is Yahtzee by the mediocrity of the game’s “safe and comity designed” nature that in order to review it he is forced to engage in something creative just to find something worthwhile to say, or even to compensate for the game’s own lack of imagination.

 

Here then we have two contrasting examples of online reviews which demonstrate just how versatile the genre’s form can be. This is without touching on the amateur skit based reviews of The Nostalgia Critic, the animated compare and contrasts of Sequelitis or the trope exposing parodies of Honest Trailers. However, as versatile as all of these are from each other, what becomes abundantly clear when grouping these types of videos into a genre is that very few of them are positive. Angry Video Game Nerd, Cinema Sins, Your Movie Sucks, Everything Is Terrible – internet audiences seem drawn to the scathing putdown. Why is this? Perhaps it is infinitely more entertaining to witness someone’s disappointment than their appreciation. Or maybe there is only really humour in exposing something’s flaws. Finding the merits in something is incredibly subjective, even divisive, but everyone likes to nod and laugh to a good moan about ‘the-worst-movie-ever’. On the internet, there is very little joy in the joyful.

– Dan Noall (Dec 2014)