Friday, December 02, 2016

Ancient Briton Independece Party

Apparently someone, somewhere in Britain has dug up some bones from the Roman era which have turned out to be of African origin.  I'm amazed that Nigel Farage, Paul Nutter and the rest of the UKIP, BNP, Britain First and EDL types haven't been calling for them to be repatriated as they are clearly illegal immigrants.  "We don't want any bloody foreign bones here - especially if they were black when they were alive.  The bastards!"  I can imagine them crying.  I do wonder if there was an anti-immigration movement in Britain during the Roman occupation?  Were there groups of Ancient Britons, faces blue with woad, huddled in huts muttering about how since joining that bloody Roman Empire, they were being overrun by hordes of immigrants from everywhere from Gaul to North Africa?  Coming here, stealing our jobs and women - who do these bloody Romans think they are?  Was Boudicca actually the leader of the Ancient Briton Independence Party rather than the Iceni tribe?   If only she'd held a referendum rather than burning Londinium to the ground and rampaging around the country massacring people.

It's curious how many people seem to think immigration to the UK is a new phenomena.  Interestingly, they often seem to be the same people who talk nostalgically about the 'great' days of the British Empire - the self same Empire which was one of the main engines of immigration to the UK.  Just like the Roman Empire before it.  Indeed, it was policy as far as the Romans were concerned to always post legions recruited from some other part of the Empire to any given occupied territory in order to lessen the threat of popular uprisings and rebellions.  Hence the presence of North Africans in the UK during the Roman occupation.  They also had a policy of offering retiring legionaries plots of land in occupied territories for similar reasons.  Unlike the British Empire, the Romans rended to practice multiculturalism and religious tolerance.  (I know the latter might come as a shock to Christians, but the fact was that as long you didn't disrespect the Romans' gods, they'd let you worship anyone you liked.  The early Christians, however, insisted upon proclaiming their god as the only true God and condemned the Roman gods as pagan idols.  No wonder they were persecuted).  Perhaps we should have remained in the Roman Empire - from the stance of increasingly intolerant Brexit Britain, with the prospect of a Trump presidency in the US and the rise of the extreme right across Europe, the days of Rome's ascendancy suddenly seem halcyon.  Sure, they could be a bit draconian when dealing with opponents and the Emperors were often homicidal maniacs, but at least they didn't have austerity - just look at all the roads, aqueducts, villas and amphitheatres they built, all at public expense.  Let's start the campaign now to bring back the Roman Empire!


Thursday, December 01, 2016

So, Is This Christmas?

It's December, so it must be Christmas.  I know that the municipal decorations have been up in the streets and shopping centres since mid-November, but with the advent of December we've had the appearance of workplace decorations.  In my office at least.  It's at times like this that I'm glad that I spend most of my working day outside of the office.  I've always felt that tinsel in the workplace is inappropriate.  For one thing, work is meant to be unrelentingly dull and soulless, otherwise there'd be no relief in leaving it at the end of the working day. For another, some of us don't like having someone else's conception of the festive season being thrust in their face.  Damn it, when will people respect the fact that I celebrate Winterval, not Christmas?  Besides, it still is only the first of December, still too early for indoor decorations, in my opinion.  As my regular reader(s) will know, I don't put my modest decorations (two Christmas trees) up until quite late in the Christmas run up.  I'm guided in this by my childhood memories of Christmas, when the decorations wouldn't go up before the last but one Sunday before Christmas Day - and my family weren't weird in this respect: back in the seventies it was the accepted practice.

The start of December also brings up the vexed matter of seasonally themed stories on The Sleaze.  Usually I leave any attempt at this until late in the day, which usually results in disappointing traffic - this sort of story has a very limited shelf life.  That said, they do have the potential to yield results on an annual basis, as Christmas rolls back around again.  And again.  But releasing the story too early in December can also be problematic, with readers perceiving you as having 'jumped the gun'.  Then there's the problem of finding a new angle every year: I've had Santa gunned down as he made an anti-globalisation protest, revealed as a white supremacist, outed as gay and championing pagan Yule tide rites amongst other things.  I'm not sure there are many more variations left, which is why, in recent years, he's been largely absent from the seasonal stories.  Anyway, as last year's story was actually pretty popular despite being published on Christmas Eve, this year I've perversely decided to release the 'official' Christmas story today.  It's started slowly, I'll admit, but I'm hoping that it will pick up traffic as Christmas gets closer.  We'll see.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Rambling Post

Having kept to single theme post-wise last week, I've decided that I want to be eclectic this week.  So, after yesterday's musings about Fidel Castro and our tendency toward tunnel vision when it comes to assessing the lives of public figures, I thought I'd just ramble a bit.  Following yesterday's post about the death of Castro, it's important to remember that he wasn't the only public figure to have passed away during the past few days.  Joining this year's veritable holocaust of celebrities, Ron Glass died on Friday.  Yeah, I know, Ron who? many of you are saying.  But for some of us Ron Glass was a familiar and beloved figure, having played Detective Ron Harris for pretty much the entire run of Barney Miller.  Harris was the squad room intellectual, (until the arrival of Detective Dietrich and his store of esoteric knowledge in series three, that is), and at one point wrote a highly fictionalised version of his career as a New York cop, which became an unexpected bestseller and  boosted his ego until it became unbearable to his colleagues.  But even at his arrogant worst, Harris remained a witty and urbane character and it is a tribute to Glass' acting skills that the character never became completely dislikeable.  Anyway, as my tribute to Glass, I've spent the past few days watching a selection of episodes from Barney Miller.  Very much of its era, Barney Miller remains an excellent example of the seventies and eighties US ensemble sitcom.

To change the subject completely, you might recall that model railway locomotive O bought relatively cheaply on eBay, due to the fact that it had been repainted into the wrong livery.  Well, I've finally obtained a paint stripper that should, if the claims on the bottle are correct, remove the existing paint schemed, leaving the model ready for repainting.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the time to test the paint stripper out, prior to applying it to the whole model, so my restoration project still hasn't moved on that much.  I have, however, decided that, as I don't actually have a functional model railway layout at the moment, due to the fact that my spare room, where it would normally live, is currently full of junk awaiting disposal, I'm going to have to set a up smaller 'test track., where I can run and photograph, the new locomotive and other projects as they progress.  I say 'test track', but it will, in reality. be a small, eight foot by four foot, layout, where I can also experiment with stuff like electrics, landscaping and the like.  All I have to do is find time to buy the materials I need to start this new layout.  Well, I've rambled enough.  Who knows what the next post will bring on this week of eclecticism?


Monday, November 28, 2016

Castro: Hero or Villain?

We can't let the passing of Fidel Castro go unremarked.  An icon to those of us who like to piss off right wing knee jerk reactionaries, the public commentaries on his life which have followed his death have demonstrated the folly trying to make real life figures conform to our simple dualist expectations: they can be only good or bad, according our personal prejudices.  Inevitably, we all perceived Fidel in terms which conformed with our own world views - for Jeremy Corbyn he was a hero of socialism, bringing relief to the oppressed Cuban people, whereas, for Donald Trump, he was an evil dictator, suppressing democracy and oppressing his enemies.   Neither perception allows for the possibility that Fidel, like any other historical figure (or any human being, for that matter), could be a complex and multi-faceted character, capable of simultaneously being both saviour and oppressor.    So it is that Fidel Castro undoubtedly improved the lives of the Cuban people by toppling the Batista regime (which effectively allowed the country to be run for the benefit of the US mobs) and instituting a revolution which has brought them universal healthcare and education.  It also shouldn't be forgotten that he came to power on the back of a genuinely popular uprising.

On the other hand, Cuba under Castro was a one party state, with dissent suppressed, often violently and an unwillingness to put the undoubted popularity of many of the regime's policies to the test at the ballot box and thereby legitimise them in the eyes of the international community.   The poor human rights record of Cuba under Castro is also indefensible, with 'enemies of the state' being imprisoned without trial and subjected to torture, not to mention the suppression of artistic expression (if it didn't conform to state dictated norms) and institutionalised homophobia.  Obviously, all of the good stuff can't cancel out this dark side to Castro's revolution: there is no 'cosmic balance' which measures the good and bad we do and determines which side of the scales, overall, we end up on.  But we shouldn't ignore the good whilst highlighting the bad when assessing someone like Castro - wherever we stand on him, we surely have to, at the very least, acknowledge the existence of the other perspective. 

But that's the trouble, as human beings, we tend to want to be able to neatly categorize people on a simplistic, black and white, basis.  We blinker ourselves to their faults/virtues depending upon our perception of them, which frequently renders meaningful debate impossible.  Just look at the case of Tony Blair - all those Corbynistas just can't see beyond his role in the invasion of Iraq and therefore refuse to have truck with any political policy 'tainted' by association with him. On the other side, his supporters constantly seek to justify a pretty much unjustifiable war in order to preserve the rest of his political legacy.  They are both right and they are both wrong.  It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that Blair was spectacularly wrong on at least one major issue, yet still achieved a lot of good for a lot of people with many of his domestic policies.  Just like Fidel, he was simultaneously both hero and villain.  Neither could be anything else, of course, as this is the human condition.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Forgotten Films: The Mutations (1974)

I did a 'Random Movie Trailer' post about The Mutations a while ago, since then, I've actually managed to see it in full, so I thought I'd round of our week of schlock by having a closer look at it.  One of a plethora of independently produced horror movies that appeared in the early seventies, as Britain's established horror producers, Hammer, Amicus and Tigon slid into terminal decline, The Mutations is curiously old fashioned.  Whilst other independent horror movies often looked forward to the slaher and gore movies of the eighties and nineties, The Mutations looks backward, clearly drawing inspiration from the Universal Frankenstein films and, most significantly, Tod Browning's notorious Freaks, with its combination of a traditional mad scientist plot with a freak show background.  But, it was the seventies, so there were also the, now obligatory, nude scenes. 

The film involves crazy university lecturer Donald Pleasance moonlighting as a crazy scientist attempting to create a new life form which fuses plant and animal, using his unwitting students as experimental subjects.  The victims are abducted for Pleasance by a group of circus freaks, led by real life dwarf Michael Dunn (who, along with Skip Martin, enjoyed a long career in such roles) and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker wearing heavy make up which, I assume, is meant to represent acromegaly   Whilst Dunn is a less than enthusiastic participant in the abductions, Baker, who runs the freak show, is a full partner in Pleasance's nefarious activities, even assisting him in his lab.  Pleasance has apparently promised Baker that he will cure his deformities in return for his assistance, (in much the same way that Karloff's Dr Neimann promised J. Carroll Naish's hunchback that he'd rectify his spinal problems in 1944's House of Frankenstein). 

Inevitably, the experiments Pleasance carries out in his impressive, Frankenstein-style lab, (situated, naturally, in his old dark house), don't turn out well and tend to end up in Baker's freak show as new exhibits.  These failures include an unfortunate female student who becomes a 'Lizard Woman' and her boyfriend, who ends up as the magnificently barmy 'Venus Fly Trap Man', after he unwisely investigates her disappearance.  It is the latter creature (a bizarre looking rubber suit monster whose chest opens up to entrap his prey, whose life force he absorbs) that provides the film's climax, crashing through the skylight in Pleasance's lab, to attack the mad scientist just as he is conducting his latest experiment upon Julie Ege.  Baker, meanwhile, falls foul of the dogs which guard Pleasance's house, after the rest of the freak show members. led by Dunn, switch sides.

Directed by celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff, (who directed a number of schlocky genre movies in-between cinematography gigs), The Mutations, not surprisingly, looks a lot better than its low budget would suggest. Despite its somewhat traditional subject matter and plot structure, the film has a surprisingly seedy feel, with its landscape of  cramped student bedsits and damp and wintry looking London locations, including an out of season Battersea Park playing host to the freak show, creating a sense of urban isolation and loneliness.  Despite living in the middle of a teeming city, people can vanish without anyone noticing for days, or be chased through deserted residential streets without finding help or sanctuary.  The sleaziness culminates in Baker's desperate visit to a Soho prostitute, a sequence which becomes surprisingly poignant, with the lifetime of rejection and isolation which motivates the freak show owner laid bare.  Indeed, despite being virtually unrecognisable under his heavy make up, Baker gives a spirited performance throughout the film, whether drawing unexpected audience sympathy in the Soho scene, or furiously rejecting the overtures of friendship from the 'freaks'.  Pleasance gives a relatively restrained performance in the sort of role he could probably have played in his sleep by 1974, going for understated insanity rather than full blown craziness, in his portrayal of the scientist.

However, despite the film's many virtues, which include some good acting performances, decent production values, good pace and, for their day and budget, reasonable special effects, The Mutations remains problematical.   Despite the fact that it eventually makes the denizens of the freak show sympathetic characters, it can't obscure the fact that it also exploits them for horror value, presenting them as being as 'unnatural' as Pleasance's creations.  From their first appearance, when Dunn and a fellow dwarf follow and abduct a girl in the park, they are deployed as figures of menace and fear - the girl runs in fear from a dwarf for no other reason than he is a dwarf.   The exploitation of their status as disturbing anomalies is emphasised further in the sequence where the students visit the freak show and various of the 'freaks' are paraded before the cameras, for the replusion and titillation of both the show's audience and the cinema audience.  The film's treatment of these characters seems hugely insensitive, even for 1974, and feels as if it belongs in an earlier era.  Perhaps I'm being over sensitive from my twenty first century perspective - maybe there still were freak shows of this type touring the UK in the seventies.  Nevertheless, films which parade real 'freaks' for horror value, always make me feel uneasy.  Not only is it distasteful and exploitative, but it also suggests that the movie has no confidence in the horrific potential of its own plot and monsters.  Which is a pity as The Mutations is, otherwise, a reasonably entertaining B-horror movie.


Thursday, November 24, 2016

What is Mondo?

'What is Mondo?' asks the titular presenter of Mr Mike's Mondo Video, (Saturday Night Live alumni Mike O'Donoghue, who also directed and co-wrote this 1979 parody of the Mondo genre).  It's a good question and one that we'll probably not answer here, but as I've decided that we're having a 'Schlock' week here at Sleaze Diary, it seems appropriate to take a look at this schlockiest of movie genres.  To start at the beginning, the whole Mondo genre takes its name from 1962's Mondo Cane, an Italian documentary which purported to show footage of unusual rituals and social/sexual practices from around the world, be that man hunting women in New Guinea, German drunks, cross dressing Gurkhas or Cargo Cults.  There is a particular emphasis upon animal cruelty, with sequences involving the force feeding of geese to produce foie gras, the eating of dogs in Taiwan and shark hunting in Malaysia, and rituals surrounding the dead and dying.  The film was a surprise global hit and, consequently, spawned an entire genre.  The subsequent Mondos included a direct sequel to Mondo Cane (composed mainly of unused footage from the first), and numerous imitators, often focusing on a single theme, such as Women of the World or Sweden: Heaven and Hell.   Although the genre eventually encompassed films made in the US and Germany, it remained an essentially Italian phenomena.

Clearly designed to shock, the Mondo movies existed to provide forbidden thrills to cinemagoers, showing them stuff they couldn't see either on TV or in 'legitimate' documentaries.  Tabloid film-making, in essence.  Although often described a 'shockumentaries', Mondo films are probably more accurately described as 'exploitation documentaries', sharing their sensationalist tone and subject matter with more conventional exploitation movies.  The problem, as far as many critics were concerned, wasn't so much the exploitation element to the films' subject matter, (although, particularly in the UK there was much objection to the scenes of animal cruelty), but the fact that they presented it as being factual.  The accusation leveled at them was that much of the footage was faked by the film makers.  And, indeed, some of it was, particularly in the later movies where, on occaision, you can even recognise some of the actors pretending to be real people.  However, the makers of Mondo Cane always maintained that none of their footage was faked.  Which, I suspect, was technically true: I don't doubt that the bizarre (to westerners, at least) rituals they showed were based on real rituals and the participants genuine locals, but I strongly suspect that they have been recreated for the cameras, rather than the crew simply turning up, fortuitously, at exactly the right time to film the real thing.

But does it matter whether the 'documentary' footage presented by Mondo movies is real or not?  Whilst a handful of Mondos might claim to have some serious purpose - Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom come to mind -but most present themselves simply as entertainment.  Besides, to criticize the Mondo genre for blurring the line between fact and fiction seems somewhat hypocritical from the standpoint of the twenty first century, where such techniques have become the norm, not just in so-called reality TV, but also documentaries.  Remember the short lived furore when it ws revealed that an Arctic sequence involving polar bear cubs in a BBC David Atte borough documentary had been recreated for the benefit of the cameras?  If even our most revered documentary makers think such techniques are OK then Mondo has clearly become mainstream.  But it is in 'reality' TV that we see the true legacy of Mondo movies, with shows like Made in Chelsea purporting to show the 'real lives' of their subjects, but simultaneously admitting that some scenes have been 'restaged' for TV. But artifice has always been a significant part of supposedly legitimate factual TV.  A friend of mine once appeared in an episode of one of those Great Train Journeys series with Micheal Portillo and described to me how all of his scenes were filmed in one take, with Portillo's questions and reactions filmed seperately, the whole thing spliced together in the editing suite to make it appear that they were actually having a conversation.  In fact, at least one of the cutaways to Portillo supposedly reacting to something my friend said was taken from a completely different sequence and his reaction is actually to something completely different.

The truth is that no matter how spontaneous much factual TV might appear, in reality, quite a bit of it has been rehearsed.  Even something like Shed and Buried, which regulars here will know is a particular favourite of mine when it comes to such shows.  Shocking though it might seem, when we see Henry and Sam rock up to someone's barn or shed for a rummage, the fact is that this isn't the first time they've met the owner of the premises - this is all being restaged for the benefit of the cameras (which, amazingly, weren't just there to capture their arrival from the right angle by coincidence),  But does it lessen my enjoyment of the programme? Of course not.  It makes for a far more polished production.  The same is true of all those programmes where reporters knock on an interviewees door and it is immediately opened by the later, who warmly greets the reporter - trust me, that's been carefully rehearsed.  They aren't really meeting for the first time. But it doesn't matter, as it is a convention we've come to accept.  Just like Mondo movies - we know that, at least in part, they aren't real.  That's the accepted convention of the genre.  But, to get back to the original point and to try and answer the question 'What is Mondo?', these days we'd have to say that it is mainstream TV, where reality is what we choose to believe it to be.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Horror Express (1972)

One of those international co-productions which proliferated in the seventies, Horror Express is a film which holds fond memories for me, as I recall seeing it when it first came onto UK TV when I was still in my teens.  I watched it again recently, on the Horror Channel, and still found it bizarrely entertaining.  The film, which mixes science fiction with horror, apparently owes its genesis to the purchase of a set of train miniatures and sets by the producers, who then structured two movies around their investment.  (The other film was the western Pancho Villa, which starred Horror Express' 'Special Guest Star' Telly Savalas.   Which leads one to assume that shooting on Pancho Villa ended early and Savalas still had a day, or two, left on his contract, explaining his fleeting presence in Horror Express).

The period train setting inevitably gives the film something of a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, a feeling emphasised by the presence of an eclectic collection of passengers - Russian aristocrat, Rasputin-type mad monk, police inspector, lady safe cracker, scientist and a pair of British paleontologists - and a plot structured around an investigation into who is killing the various characters.  (It later transmogrifies into a 'who is the monster?' investigation).   The focus of the action is the frozen prehistoric ape man, possibly the 'missing link', which Christopher Lee's Professor Saxton has discovered in Manchuria and is now transporting back to Europe on the train.  The discovery has attracted the attention of Lee's rival Dr Wells (Peter Cushing), who is desperate to examine the contents of Saxton's crate, stowed in the baggage van.  Unfortunately for both of them, the frozen creature is host to an alien life force desperate to find a way back to its own planet.  As the ape man begins to thaw, the alien fries the brains of various characters who approach it, acquiring their knowledge and memories.  After a brief rampage, the now reanimated ape man is shot and killed by a police inspector travelling on the train, but not before the alien presence has transferred itself to the inspector's body.  Saxton and Wells are inevitably forced to join forces as the killings aboard the train continue. Things are complicated by a mad monk who believes the alien is Satan and decides to swap sides and become his acolyte and Savalas' Cossack officer and his men who board the train at a remote station. 

The film's greatest strength is undoubtedly the presence of Cushing and Lee, both on excellent form, delivering well judged performances: playing it relatively straight, but knowing when not to take things too seriously.  By contrast, Telly Savalas delivers an incredibly over the top performance in his relatively brief appearance.  He gives the distinct impression that he is only there due to contractual obligations, barely keeping a straight face, with his Captain Kazan coming over as a New York gangster rather than an Imperial Russian officer.  It is, however, a hugely entertaining turn, which doesn't seem as jarring as it should due to the fact that the whole film feels slightly surreal.  Indeed, it is one of those movies whose scenario is heavily dependent upon the viewers' suspension of disbelief. As long as you accept the initial set up of a frozen fossil hominid playing host to an alien intelligence, then everything that follows more or less makes sense.  That said, even if you accept the initial scenario, there are several developments which strain that suspension of disbelief.  Why, for instance, does the Inspector's left hand turn into a hairy replica of the ape man's hand when he is taken over by the alien?  The transference of physical charaxteristics of the previous host makes no sense.  Moreover, when the alien subsequently jumps into the monk's body, neither of his hands turn hairy.  He does, however, acquire the hitherto unmentioned ability to reanimate the dead as zombies.  

But these are minor quibbles.  Horror Express is a thorough;y enjoyable, albeit barking mad, movie, with surprisingly good production values, convincing miniatures work, entertaining performances from its leads, a reasonably original concept behind its plot and is well paced, to boot.  With the presence of Cushing and Lee, its period setting and somewhat light hearted tone, Horror Express is reminiscent not so much of a Hammer film, as some have claimed, but rather a Tigon production of the same era, Blood Beast Terror or The Creeping Flesh, for instance. (Both of which are utterly barmy movies which I've enjoyed immensely).  Anyway, Horror Express is currently part of the Horror Channel's rotation (although they've sourced a pretty poor print for their screenings), so you can check it out for yourselves.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Sssssss (1973)

After the various meanderings and diversions of the past couple of weeks, I was hoping to get back to the schlock movies for a while this week.  My plans, however, have, as ever, been blown off course somewhat by other events.  So, instead of kicking off with a write up of a seventies horror flick, (that, hopefully, will now come later in the week), We'll start with a quick random movie trailer for another forgotten seventies horror film.  1973's Sssss (aka Ssssnake) is a film I've only ever seen in German.  I don't speak German, but that really doesn't matter.  This is the sort of film where you really don't need to know what's being said to understand what's happening.  Interestingly, it offers a rare leading role to character actor Strother Martin, whose whining and wheedling minor outlaws, small town bankers and grubby hustlers have graced many a western.  Here, he's a deranged herpetologist obsessed with turning a human into a snake.  Consequently, he starts injecting his daughter's unwitting boyfriend, (also his assistant), played by Dirk Benedict (long before either Battlestar Galactica or the A-Team),  with cobra venom.

Benedict inevitably starts trying to bite people, before going all scaly, losing his limbs and slithering about the floor like a snake.  Eventually, he turns into a real cobra, not a giant one, just a regular one, which subsequently dies in a climactic fight with a mongoose.  Yes, really.  Oh, and Martin dies after being bitten by another of his snakes. Along the way various people threatening to interfere with Martin's plans are killed by his snakes (real ones, not ones which used to be people) and there's a diversion to a carnival freak show, where one of Martin's earlier, less successful, experiments is on show.  And that's about it.  It's a pretty odd little movie, but it has all the right ingredients for a minor schlock classic: a crazy scientist, carnivals, freak shows, rubbery monsters and a small town setting.  But these elements never quite gel and it all feels slightly unsatisfactory - pergaps the anti-climactic ending is to blame.  To be fair, it's surprisingly ruthless, with most of the sympathetic characters dead by the end of the film's running time. Also, Martin, even in German, makes for a suitably slimy and deranged villain. 

So, we're off on what, I hope, will be a week of schlock.  Stay tuned.


Friday, November 18, 2016

TV Therapy

Well, it's Children in Need again, when the BBC generously tries to boost the pub trade by displacing its regular Friday night schedule with its annual telethon.  The other channels all graciously decline to complete, (because its for charity, so we all should be forced to watch it), putting on repeats and stuff they would never normally schedule in prime time. Thereby depriving me of my usual dose of Friday night trash TV therapy.  Which is how I come to find myself watching Goldeneye again, which is currently showing on ITV 4.  The fact that it is now old enough to be shown on ITV's fourth channel, rather than the main channel or ITV 2, is an indication that Pierce Brosnan has now joined the ranks of Connery, Lazenby, Moore and Dalton as a 'classic' Bond, too far in the past to appeal to younger viewers.  It's still a reasonably entertaining film, although it is scary to realise that it is now twenty years since I saw it at the cinema during its original release.  Luckily, I have other entertainment in reserve for this cold Friday evening.  Amongst these is an episode of Cash Cowboys I recorded earlier today.

If you aren't aware of what Cash Cowboys is, amongst other things it is the current preferred daytime TV viewing of my best friend - she started texting me about it earlier this week, (yes, she probably is insane, but I am, nonetheless, very fond of her) - which is why I've been recording it while I've been at work and watching it in the evenings.  Basically, it is like American Pickers, which shows on Dave, except that it is in Canada and involves more beards, cowboy boots and stetsons.  Obviously, if you've never seen American Pickers, then that previous explanation is meaningless.  Put simply, both series involve a couple of dudes driving around in a van, rummaging through the barns, sheds and collections of people they encounter along the road and trying to find stuff they can bid for, in the hope they can sell it on for a profit.  The main difference between Cash Cowboys (which, I've learned, is actually called Canadian Pickers in its native Canada) and American Pickers is that the Canadian guys are just so much more laid back.  Moreover, everyone in Canada seems just so polite. Which makes for very relaxed viewing.  It is far less frenetic than another of my daytime TV guilty pleasures, Storage Hunters, for instance.  Which makes a nice change.  Consequently, though, Cash Cowboys lacks the underlying sense of threat implicit in American Pickers:  you can't help but fear that at any moment the guys in the latter show are going to have a potentially fatal encounter with a family of murderous hillbillies.  Whilst Cash Cowboys hasn't quite displaced Travel Channel's Shed and Buried as my go to laid back TV show to unwind to, it does have the advantage that I haven't yet seen every episode at least five times.  Anyway, I'm off to watch that episode I've got recorded...

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Unskilled Leisure

Whilst slumped in front of the TV the other evening, it occurred to me that even our leisure time is being deskilled.  For those of you unfamiliar with the nomenclature of sociology, deskilling is the process by which formerly complex tasks requiring skill and experience to complete, are replaced by a streamlined process comprised of a series of simplified tasks, which are often mechanised and which can be completed with little or no training.  Essentially, it is what happened when the production line replaced small groups of artisans operating out of workshops, hand crafting components, as the main industrial process.  Those skilled artisans, who could charge relatively high rates for their work, were displaced by unskilled, or, at best, semi-skilled employees forced to accept a flat wage.  Traditionally, this sort of deskilling, which conveniently forces down wages, was confined to the industrial sector, but, in past couple of decades, there have been concerted efforts, often on the back of modern IT systems, to deskill white collar work.  Increasingly, there are attempts to break down office work into a series of simplistic tasks, which can be written on a 'job card' and, in theory, can be carried out by anyone, regardless of skill level.

But I've digressed from my original point: the deskilling of our leisure time.  Nowadays, it all seems to involve us passively consuming entertainment streamed to us through our TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones.  We don't have to do anything other than decide what it is we want to watch or listen to, then watch or listen to it.  There is no skill involved.  Back in the day, before multi-channel TV and the internet, we used to have hobbies -we'd spend our time building plastic kits or model railways, or doing stuff like carpentry or engineering projects.  I used to know people who had their own workshops or mini machine shops in their sheds and garages, where they used to do stuff like making their own furniture, or building things like miniature traction engines.  If we weren't making things, were playing games, both the outdoor and indoor variety.  With regard to the latter, there were all manner of quite complex board games, not to mention war games, both the board variety and the miniatures-based type, where you could use all those model tanks you'd built and those model soldiers you'd built.

Now, I know that we still have games, in the form of electronic games and computer games.  I know that these do involve skill, but I can't help but feel that it isn't the same.  These days, games of this type seem to based around reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination, rather than the more cerebral skills required of the games of my youth.  Which, I know, is top do modern gaming a disservice, but there you are. But when the modern computer revolution started in earnest, it seemed to offer the prospect of new kinds of skilled leisure.  I remember the days of things like the BBC Micro and the various Sinclair micro-computers, when we could still actually write programs for them ourselves.  People even wrote their own games.  But, slowly but surely, that changed and home PCs became things you simply used to run professionally produced software, with everything pre-written.  It was the same with the internet:  in the early days everyone was coding their own wild and wonderful websites, it seemed herald a new age of creativity.  But, again, surely but slowly, surfing the net became an ever more passive experience, with proper websites giving way first to personal blogs (which at least were still creative, albeit using a pre-coded and hosted platform) then Facebook pages or Twitter accounts.  The walled garden of social media platforms, where everything you see and experience can be moderated, measured and controlled and you only interact with people you know, have become the main internet experience for the majority of people.  It's all about just consuming content pushed at us by others rather than creating our own.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not getting nostalgic and advocating that we return to the days when the main way to pass the long winter evenings ws to whittle away at a piece of wood.  But it would be nice if we could just be a little less passive when we're not at work.  The modern workplace is soul destroying enough, without our free time being reduced to merely consuming corporately created and approved 'content'.  For me, the joy of creativity, be it writing stuff like this, creating stories for The Sleaze or recording and editing together podcasts and films, is what keeps me going through the stultifying dullness of work.  With work becoming increasingly joyless and unsatisfying, I find myself turning to more and more creative outlets: the rekindling of my interest in model railways being one example.  So stop just watching TV, or reading stuff like this on the web, and go and do something!