Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Trouble with Blakeys

The shoes in question

Dem damn Blakeys

Just recently, along with other assorted crap I splurged my hard-earned on, was a pair of english officer's brown parade shoes I chanced upon on Ebay whilst looking for some surplus boots. They're pretty simple, a pair of decent capped Oxfords, with a leather sole. The quality is respectable, and they were a snip at 39 quid. Indeed, Silverman's army and navy suggests they're made in Northamptonshire and cost the MoD more than £200 a pair (yeah right). They're also quite hard to come by, apparently.

As you'd expect for army surplus they look pretty hardwearing, and herein lies the problem, because unbeknown to me, the toes and heels come augmented with steel tips (segs) or 'Blakeys'. I was peripherally aware of these from reading The Chap a few years back, under a section dedicated to combatting low-life, where it suggested wearing Blakeys because 'the sharp rapping sound will alert will alert would-be assailants of your impending arrival, and let them know you are a gentleman of substance, not to be trifled with' (or words to that effect). Basically, a ninja wouldn't wear them.

And bloody hell, they are loud. I just wore them down the shops to get some bacon and a copy of the Guardian, and was immediately conscious of the ringing crack of my footsteps, as it reverberated off the walls of the estate I live on. And as I tramped down Kingsland Road, I became slightly paranoid that people were noticing, because I sounded like a two legged horse.

Furthermore, I nearly came a cropper on a wet section of floor in the Kingsland shopping centre, when the leather and steel soles failed to find purchase on the smooth surface, making them seem only mildly less perilous than well-worn crepe soled Wallabees, which are a bleeding liability in the rain.

So I've taken them off. Partially because I've got wooden flooring. Mostly because I don't want to sound like a tapdancer on Mogadon. I don't know what to do with them really, as otherwise, they're nice shoes, but I can't really imagine wearing them down the pub as is, and given that they're nailed-in, removing them seems unlikely, without resoling them entirely.

Having said that, a quick glance on assorted forums would seem to suggest that they were quite the thing in the 70s with skinheads and mods, and from what I can see, people who care about their shoes seem positively pro-Blakey. Indeed, there's now a Blakey-blog (so new they're still using Lorem Ipsum in one of the posts) and you can follow them on Twitter, should you think a manufacturer of metal shoe protectors actually has anything interesting to say.

But I'm not sure it's something I think I can buy into, so sadly, might be the back of the closet for these badboys, (though in their favour, doing a running slide on concrete does apparently generate sparks – why didn't I have these things as a kid!?). What do people think?

In the meantime, here's Matchstick Men and dogs by Michael Colman & Brian Burke from 1977, a song which immortalises the Blakeys legacy with the line about the "kids on the corner of the street who wore sparking clogs". Enjoy.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Thursday, 14 January 2010


Late on this one...

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Road

Last night I went to see The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the sam name, at the Rio cinema on Kingsland road. It was absolutely packed for opening night, but if you were going to put money on where in the country a film like the Road was going to sell out, I guess a converted Art Deco cinema in Dalston would be a pretty safe bet.

And so to the film. I'm a big fan of McCarthy's stuff, and so are a great many people – including Oprah Winfrey, which is a good thing if you want to shift paperbacks in the states (kind of like the Richard and Judy's ertswhile bookclub, if they'd been a single person, black, and American). Much has been said of his lyrical, spare prose, and specifically of this novel, how it doesn't have a conventional plot – something which many opined would make it an 'unfilmable' movie. In one of the the only negative reviews of the novel I've actually heard, science fiction writer Spider Robinson (who critiques it from the vantage of this genre and seems utterly bemused at the acclaim it receives) describes its narrative architecture thus:

"Absolutely no structure at all, no shape, no attempt at pace, no spine or direction or measurement"

Compounded with:

"The paragraph is the height of his thought's evolution, its largest unit of meaning'"

But then Cormac McCarthy is a master of the aphoristic sentence, and in a similar vein to his (literally) bloody wonderful Blood Meridian the narrative pretty much is the picaresque bone-strewn journey of its protagonists, while you as the reader are just along for the ride, taking in the landscape through the grand sweep of the prose, though whereas Blood Meridian – set in The American midwest of the 1800s – seems perversely, sanguinarily exultant, The Road, inhabiting a post-apocalyptic near-future seems a quieter, more meditative coda to the whooping barabarism of the former. And no, there are no plot twists, trapdoors or switcheroos; the ground the characters cover paced instead by the meter of McCarthy's sonorous, measured intonation.

Nonetheless, one of its major successes is managing to portray the withered otherworldliness of the Earth McCarthy reveals to us. In my last post, I spoke of some of my concerns regarding lazy use of CGI, and here the makers have opted instead for a distinctly traditionally 'real' approach, having filmed on location in Pennsylvania and tornado-torn New Orleans, and the cinematography is simply stunning. Granted, some digital massaging has been effected post-production to rob the screen of green and shift to a colour gamut of subdued blues and greys, but nonetheless, what we're presented with is an utterly believable, cold, sterile, ash-clogged vision of hell. Indeed, they were onto a winner releasing it in January - as the world of the Road is almost like a kind of ultra-January, January x 1000, too bleak to bear.

And the acting isn't too shabby, either. For it must be said that in terms of characters the film has a pretty minimal bunch of players to field, but the father-son relationship – which obstensibly is the book, feels surprisingly authentic. I was all primed to hate the kid, but his performance is pleasingly sans fromage, and Viggo Mortensen is great. Together, they make for some touching, and at time heart-wrenching scenes. The only time I grimaced slightly was at the very end, when the needle on the cheese-ometer bobbed briefly into the red with a close up of a FRIENDLY DOGGY, but otherwise the whole thing remains refreshingly un-Hollywood, and there's no reconvening in front of The Whitehouse with president Danny Glover, to toast the new dawn.

But yes, the book is probably better. One of the film's major shortcoming is that, unmediated through McCarthy's resonant language, the whole affair seemed more straightforward: less introspective, less lonely, less elegaic. So I guess the only question is – and the thing which most critics seemed to take issue with – why bother? given that at best, the film is only ever going to as authentic a translation of the novel as possible, and the kind of people who go and see it are, quite possibly, the people who read the book years back. I'm not sure this bothers me. The alternative would have been for the director to cook up some counterintuitive interpretation, and risk almost certain crucifixtion at the hands of reviewers. True, it's not a work of stand-alone genius, and it is inherently derivative of the novel, but its strengths are appropriately cinematic ones, and in this, it is a very valid success. And come to think of it, bar the second and third books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I thought were about the most boring things ever), I think I'd struggle to think of a film adaptation of a book, that actually outweighs its source material. Any ideas?

As a bonus, here is Cormac McCarthy taking the unexpected step of talking to Oprah Winfrey in 2007. He seems like a pretty genuine, calm, genial individual, rather than the wizened, squinting, Nietzshean hermit you might have imagined him to be, but I still think he should consider a beard. Anyway, there's the usual retarded Youtube babble in the comments section, but ignore that as Cormac actually has some interesting things to say.

Friday, 8 January 2010


Amidst the camp of the just departed festive season's televisual offerings – a sparkly landscape punctuated by James Corden, soap specials and the usual anthropomorphised animated animals – there were some feature length moments that gave me cause for reflection on the state of filmic production (of a specifically cataclysmic thrust) in recent years.

Most noticably was big-bucks, small-brains disaster movie 2012, a grandstanding armageddon flick in the tradition of The Day after Tomorrow, albeit potentially even less interesting. Now, at the time of viewing, Christmas had already begun to exact its toll on my senses in terms of consumption of both alcohol and food, and I was not, to put it bluntly, at my most alert. Nonetheless, I had to consult Wikipedia just now to reacquaint myself with the film's 'plot', as the only extant mental image I can summon to mind still is a cloudy montage of John Cusack's worried looking face surrounded by assorted overblown computer generated effects, and a sensation of near transcendental boredom. It was like a secret dross nictitating third eyelid (as posessed by certain reptiles to retard dust and the like) crept across my peepers imperceptibly, filtering out the waves of tired cliche bombarding them.

Which seems sort of odd really, as when I first saw the huge poster for it, leering across the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland road, I remember thinking: "Y'know, I bet that film won't have much in the way of brains, but it might be worth watching for sheer spectacle". Unfortunately, even in this arena, it remained woefully deficient.

Indeed what really struck home though, was how utterly unimpressive CGI effects have become, taken at their own merit. Maybe we've become too aclimatised to these wonders, but it seems that as the trompe l'oeil of technological wizardry becomes ever more commonplace, it's a case of ever diminishing returns for visual pyrotechnics that might have once dazzled.

2012's problem, first and foremost (aside from its shocking paucity of ideas or ambition) is its inability to charm or captivate on any kind of emotional level. The backstory, consisting as it does of some flimsy science, garlanded by weedy acting, merely a pretext for a bunch of exploding stuff, happening to characters you really couldn't give a rat's ass about. This really isn't so much a story about how humanity would cope in the event of such a happening, as... a bunch of exploding stuff.

For even CGI benefits from judicious use. Didn't you hear guys? less is more – even with explosions! There are films once hailed as technologically groundbreaking, now looking relatively antiquated (eg: Jurassic Park, Terminator 2) which still pack far more of a punch than this, due to the antics in post production remaining relatively contextually appropriate (indeed, the 'digitalisation' of the T1000 in this sequel seems an astute move in one-upmanship over the outmoded, analogue T800 as the then nascent franchise cruised into the nasty nineties).

Another issue that seems to plague films like 2012, aside from the phoned-in performances, is the lack of any internal physical validity to the action. During a discussion with friends the other weekend, conversation fell on this very subject, and my friend Will mentioned seeing Mad Max 2, and noted that, although hammy, the effects still retain vigour and kinesis. We discussed also how the stop-motion techniques of Ray Harryhausen, though blatently unreal, still manage to captivate due to their sheer, well, animation, and how the vertiginous painted backdrops and ravines of 1947's Black Narcissus remain sumptuous in their super-saturated technicolour majesty. For surely, in their limitations and artifice, these older methods were necessarily more symbolic, and as such, demanded careful attention to integrate them into a film's Mise-en-scène, as opposed to merely splicing them in at the editing stage.

Special effects are still, for all their sophistication, at the mercy of human imagination; and outmoded techniques – though palpably false – can still be oddly entrancing. This could be to do with them posessing an inherent physicality – The Airfix-built starships that populated science films of the seventies are actual objects, for example – travelling down wires against a perforated black curtain which is actually a starfield. Or sets! If Alien was to be filmed now, I hugely doubt Swiss odd-bod Giger's biotech fetishes would actually have manifested at Shepperton studios, rather than being quietly rendered on a bank of PCs overnight in a post-production house in Soho.

No doubt this all sounds like shameless nostalgia from a child of the 70s, and to some extent, I'm come quietly on that. Nonetheless, I do sometimes suspect that the smoke and mirrors of analogue production in film often forced the industry in general – from the effects guys up to the directors, to work harder, be more resourceful, and moreover, invites viewers to engage more. A problem common to many digital formats (be it in the arenas of musicmaking, art, design or film) is that the regulated mathematical perfection of the end product is often sheer and flat, shorn of the drama imparted by 'noise', chance and the human hand – a 'quality' that seems fraudulent when manufactured by Algorithm or conscious manipulation.

Which isn't to say that there haven't been films utilising these effects I've been impressed by. I thought Danny Boyle's Sunshine was pretty great, and they spent a full year editing that and adding effects (though tellingly, the entire thing is something of a paen to, you guessed it, films of the 70s). And Lord of The Rings... well, yeah.

But surely – SURELY – the bar is so high now that a big effects budget is about the flimsiest pretense you can have for grinding out yet another hackneyed potboiler, when nowadays you need something on the level of Avatar to get it taken seriously, soley on these merits. So In fact, why not fuck the effects, and spend even a quarter of the money you were going to splurge on wank hiring a writer with even the faintest glimmerings of an original idea. Go on. I double dare you.