Monday, September 13, 2010


Some years ago, we were in the dollar store and we picked up a couple of those cheap-o DVDs, the sort with the ultra-thin cases with the bad center teeth that almost always result in the disc rattling around inside. Japanese monster movies, obscure action films, and fifties television seem to be what dominates the rack, and having something of an interest in all three, we have on occasion plonked down a buck. A lot of them we haven't even seen.

Such was the case with The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-57). It wasn't until we were going through our DVDs three or four weeks ago that we came across it on our shelf and finally popped the sucker in our player. We were expecting something that, if not bad, at the very least hadn't aged very well. To put it mildly, we were wrong; it's an absolutely terrific piece of television, and we were so impressed with the four episodes on the fly-by-nighter that we actually purchased a box set containing the entire series. Said box will set you back fifteen dollars and two quarters, and it's well worth that paltry investment, as you get all thirty episodes (sixteen in black-and-white, fourteen in colour) in reasonably attractive packaging with some nice digital restoration work (for the most part; some of the colour elements have faded beyond the point of repair). The fly-by-nighter, which presents four episodes that had been in colour in black-and-white, with a lot of artifacts and freeze-frames, is not recommended.

The show presents a realistic yet romantic (in the classical sense) slant on Arthurian legend. It's a world without Magic-- all sea serpents, enchanted blades, and wizards (including Merlin) are thoroughly but cheekily debunked-- but with plenty of magic: strange adventures, black-hearted villains, and daring rescues of damsels in various states of distress abound. The writing is pretty damn sharp most of the time, utilizing a lot of humour that's still pretty rib-tickling over fifty years later without undercutting the sense of simple honest adventure at the heart of the program.

There's a fair amount of nuance to be found, too. The first episode, The Knight of the Red Plume, is a good example of what I mean. All but a few of Arthur's knights have been slaughtered in battle with another king's forces, many by the hand of the titular knight. Sir Gawain's brother is among those slain, and possessing a piece that was broken off of the Red Plume's sword, he swears vengeance. Lancelot (William Russell) shows up, wishing to join the Round Table. He only asks that he be judged for his actions henceforth. It's soon made clear why: Lancelot's sword and Gawain's shard are a perfect match.

First episode of a new TV series, and you have the untrusted new arrival blamed for scores of deaths. Think of the ways this could go, the ways it would go in so many other series: Lancelot didn't do it after all and he proves himself, slowly gaining their trust. Or, Lancelot did do it, but he wants to redeem himself, slowly gaining their trust. What the series gives us, instead, is: Lancelot did it, he was indeed the Knight of the Red Plume. He killed all those other knights, sure, including Gawain's brother, but it was in honourable combat. He didn't do anything wrong, so he damn well isn't going to apologize. Just because someone is on the other side of the battle doesn't mean they're evil.

Lancelot always conducts himself with honour, hewing impeccably to the code of chivalry, and is always presented as being exemplary in all things: moral, intellectual, physical. He's the sort that gets to express outrage at a wrong that needs righting and make the occasional high-minded speech about the true nature of chivalry. Which could be really insufferable if it wasn't leavened by a whole lot of charm on Russell's part. When he takes the piss out of Merlin's "magic"-- and it's something he does quite a bit-- it's always with a smile, with a sense of bemusement. His interactions with his squire and the various damsels-of-the-week have a similar playfulness that goes a long way towards preventing Lancelot from being some kind of stuffed shirt.

There's also the way Russell conducts himself in the swashbuckling scenes. Almost without exception, whenever he crosses swords with a villain, no matter how foul, and no matter how dire the consequences, he does so with the biggest, goofiest, most wonderful and infectious grin you've ever seen: a big open mouth of pure soundless-squealing joy as he hacks away at someone's shield. It gives the fight scenes an incredible energy that sustains them despite some pretty bad staging (said staging being the only part of the show that really hasn't aged very well).

Equally appealing is Lancelot's squire, Brian, played by Robert Scroggins. Scroggins excels at wringing laughs from looking slightly bewildered, put-upon, and clueless. He also gets a lot of the show's best lines, often exploring a tension between his gallantry and cowardice. Usually, a juvenile lead in this sort of show exists merely for viewers to roll eyes at; Scroggins makes Brian's appearances a surprising delight.

Also surprisingly delightful are the aforementioned damsels-of-the-week. Each is given a distinct personality, from the sniffling girl of The Ugly Duckling to the captive who doesn't much feel like being rescued thank you very much in Roman Wall. It's rare for a damsel-of-the-week to have much of a personality today; 'twas even more-so in 1956.

The show does have a few mis-steps (avoid Theft of Excalibur and Lancelot's Banishment if you can, as they turn on the characters acting like gibbering asshats all of the sudden and for so discernible reason), but on the whole it's excellent entertainment; when it's at its best-- Caledon and The Outcast on the more serious side of things, along with slyly comic concoctions like The Black Castle, Sir Crustabread, Ferocious Fathers, and The Ugly Duckling-- it's really quite exemplary stuff.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

We Were On the News.

The question is never, will the news distort the truth in pursuit of an easily-digestible narrative, but how they're going to do it. That's both a knock and not a knock at the same time; if you've got twenty-two minutes to impart to the viewer a general interest digest of local and national happenings, you're going to have to shape your footage into something with a direct thorough-line. This is something that, having been in politics, I was acutely aware of-- a nuanced statement or position reduced to something that got me into hot water, because when everything has to be timed down to the second, there's just not a whole lot of time for nuance.

I remember when the Kilpatrick scandal hit the national news, and on that level it simply became about Kwame Kilpatrick being caught sending some naughty text messages. But it was never really about that-- it was really about, on a specific level, the men he fired to prevent his sexual history from coming to light and the taxpayer money he spent to fight their unlawful termination lawsuits and, eventually, to pay them off; on a more general level, it was about a level of hubris of almost Greek proportions. Saying it was a sex scandal really missed the point of the story.

I wouldn't say that this story about us precisely "missed the point" of us, and we're not exactly offering our commentary on this news story in the above video to necessarily "take them to task" or "set the record straight". It's more about highlighting a process, to take a short glance at the methods used to shape that particular narrative.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

"So, What Have You Been Doing For The Last Two Years?"

Every time I look at that sidebar and see SON OF A SEAHORSE (2008), I cringe. Not because I think it's a bad film; I think it's a great film, actually, especially now that we've shorn ten minutes off to transform it into something meaner and leaner, something that really lets the bleak despair shine through. Which is, of course, the most important feature of any comedy.

No, I cringe, because this is 2010, and soon it will be 2011, and 2008 seems awfully far away. What have we, the scrappy, keep-our-overhead-low, hand-made mom-and-pop-eration filmmakers been doing, exactly, with the last two years?

Well, we tried to make a film-- that would be Olivia Forever!!-- that we stopped making for the time being. Partially this was due to soul-sucking production delays-- everyone seemed to have something go terribly wrong in their personal life as soon as someone else had theirs in order-- and partially it was because of an inability for Tom and Mary to see eye-to-eye on things. And since we're making films together, with equal partnership being the stated goal, seeing eye-to-eye is immeasurably important, more important than just soldiering through and hoping to figure it out in the editing. Close collaboration has its advantages and its disadvantages. We are, however, much closer to seeing eye-to-eye, and after we've tidied the script up to our satisfaction, we're planning on doing the whole thing over again from scratch.

In the wake of Olivia's implosion, we announced another project, The Scottish Play, adapting the work of the bard about a certain thane. The plan is to do Shakespeare, to use his words-- why else would you do Shakespeare?-- while providing our own peculiar reading of those words, a reading that errs more on the side of comedy than tragedy (not "classically", in terms of structure, but practically, in terms of laffs) and recasts the thane-- actually without much difficulty!-- as a milquetoast neurotic. We're very early in pre-production, a term which here means that we're making sure we're seeing everything eye-to-eye before we start cramming Shakespeare down our actors' throats and trying to fill all the parts.

There's another script we're working on, one that has its origins in a nightmare. It's something that, if it sticks, we can shoot much quicker than Olivia Forever!! or The Scottish Play-- and that would, of course, go a long way towards correcting that cringe whenever I see the (2008).

And since life isn't just about making films, we've been doing other things. Like, for one, working on the DVD for Seahorse. Tom's been hard at work on some game design-- both video games and tabletop-- but of course, you knew that already, having no doubt bookmarked Second Party Games a long time ago. We've started a D&D campaign, and while we're trying to get our current films jump-started, it's been a fair replacement for the social element of filmmaking that-- as homebodies and squares-- we've been missing in the interim. We've made a concerted effort to try and plow through some of the various screeners for review we've received, and to write about them-- and other films-- with some semblance of intelligence. Also, Tom almost died, but then he got better.

So, we've been keeping busy, and we'll be busier still in the months to come, and my hope is that all that busy will result in some new and shiny additions to our sidebar.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Steven Wilson's NOODLES ON MY BACK.

Invasion Creations

For me, this little film is pure joy: like watching Fred Astaire dancing on ashtray sand. It's so charming, so simple, so effortless, and so gosh-darn warm and friendly. With the exception of a flippant "what-the-hell"-- and even that isn't so bad-- it's the rare surrealist piece of web cinema that doesn't traffic in violence, sex, cruelty, and bodily functions.

Not that, mind you, I have much of a problem with any of those; it's just nice to come across something that's gently demented instead of demented demented. The non-sequiturs and bits of nonsense-- from the titular noodles, to his love of hopping and soda beverages, to the appearance of his doppelhippo-- are just delightful.

The film alternates the quick cuts and fast rhythm of each verse with long wide tracking shots that emphasize the repetitive, delightfully stupid chorus. This contrast is what really makes the film, I think, and there's something almost formally elegant about that first tracking shot, which gives us the hippo, adds the whistling ape, and then the humming, hovering bird. Each animal gets its own sound, its own layer added to the mix; in this way, the shot functions also as a foregrounding of the very process of audio mixing.

And no appreciation would be complete without mentioning Roy, the squeaky-voiced pig with the tiny legs and the giant head, and the delightful duet he sings with the hippo. Roy is not just another animal, not just back-up, but a secondary lead making his debut over halfway through this 113 second opus; note how the other animals momentarily disappear when Roy appears, only returning for the chorus, thus focusing our attention on the two leads and their relationship.

That relationship can be read, without much difficulty, as an imbalanced one. It's all there in the final exchange of dialogue, as Roy, a bit too earnestly, tells Hippo he hopes to see him again soon; Hippo starts to make a hasty-if-lumbering exit, which Roy awkwardly mimics, probably wishing he hadn't spoiled the moment.

I'm not (necessarily) implying that Roy's crush on Hippo is sexual in nature, because I think the world of Noodles On My Back is a profoundly asexual one. But if you've ever been the nervous, socially-awkward one who sometimes desperately sought the attention of someone cool (meaning, in this case, both superlative and relaxed), and, having received it, said something a little too earnest and true, you know what the rest of Roy's evening is going to feel like.

The film, then, has a twinge, if only a twinge, of sadness-- just a little drop of agony in its bright blue boundless ocean of joy. That little drop is enough, I think, to deepen its hue, to make it more than a piece of mere electronic ephemera.

(Plus, it's just lots of good, clean fun.)