Saturday, November 6, 2004

A Hard Day's Night

I recently bought A Hard Day's Night on DVD and last night I watched it for the first time in years. The movie holds up quite well, despite the fact that it has been 40 years since its first release. Indeed, it is even better than I had remembered.

Of course, A Hard Day's Night is best remembered as The Beatles' first film. As hard as it is to believe, it was conceived even before The Beatles had arrived in America. What is harder to believe is that it was shot in only six weeks for a cost of only £200,000. In part, the tight shooting schedule was due to The Beatles' own hectic schedule. Prior to shooting they made their historic first trip to America, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and performing at Carnegie Hall. Following shooting they left for a tour of Europe. Both the tight shooting schedule and the low budget were also largely due to the thought of financiers and others in power that The Beatles were a passing fad. It was then thought that they had to get the movie into theatres as soon as possible. Never mind that many at the time thought The Beatles were here to stay. At any rate, A Hard Day's Night began shooting in March 1964 and was in theatres by July 1964.

From the beginning it was decided that A Hard Day's Night would be different from previous movies featuring pop acts. Prior to A Hard Day's Night, cinematic vehicles for pop singers differed little from standard musicals, in which the protagonist sings a few songs and gets the girl. Often there would only be a few good songs, with the rest of the soundtrack being made up of "throw away" songs. From the outset it was determined that A Hard Day's Night would not resemble previous movies featuring pop singers, that there would be no "throw away" songs (there would be no "Do the Clam"), and that comedy would be at its forefront.

The director on what was then known as The Beatles One was Richard Lester. Lester was a veteran of both American and British television. In 1964 he may have been bets known for his work on The Goon Show, featuring both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. In fact, it was with the Goons that he made his first short film, The Running, Jumping, and Standing Still Film, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Lester would then direct two comedies, It's Trad, Dad! (which capitalised on a short lived resurgence in jazz in Britain)and The Mouse on the Moon (the sequel to The Mouse That Roared, featuring the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.) It was through The Mouse That on the Moon that Lester met A Hard Day's Night producer Walter Shenson. As fans of The Goon Show, The Beatles were quite happy that Lester would direct. Indeed, given his experience in television (which had smaller budgets than major motion pictures, then as now) and his experience in comedy, he was perhaps ideal to direct A Hard Day's Night. Lester was able to bring something entirely different to the project that other, more experienced movie directors might not have been able to.

Indeed, A Hard Day's Night is a very different sort of film. Screenwriter Alun Owen proposed that the film depict a typical day in the life of The Beatles in exaggerated fashion. While very little survived from Owen's original screenplay, the basic premise survived intact. A Hard Day's Night has almost no narrative, showing The Beatles approximately 48 hours before they are to make a TV appearance, goofing around and trying to keep Paul's very clean grandfather (the brilliant Wilfrid Brambell) out of trouble. The movie is shot in like cinema verité, and yet there is a surreality about the film. One moment The Beatles are on a train, the next moment they are running beside it. John sinks into a bath full of bubbles, only to apparently disappear. While A Hard Day's Night looks like a documentary, it has the off centre sensibilities of The Goon Show.

Of course, with A Hard Day's Night Lester has been credited with inventing rock video. It is hard to argue against this. In particular, both the opening sequence played out to the title song and the sequence on the train's baggage car featuring "I Should Have Known Better" resemble rock videos from latter eras.

I cannot deny that I love A Hard Day's Night. The movie is filled with Liverpuddlian humour, bizarre bits of comedy of the sort for which the Goons were known, unstoppable energy, and great music. With A Hard Day's Night, Richard Lester and The Beatles changed rock movies forever. No longer would rock movies be the standard Elvis Presley vehicle or a DJ with a stream of rock acts. Richard Lester and The Beatles proved that rock movies could be funny and artistic.

Friday, November 5, 2004

Fantasy Authors Who Have Influenced Me

Growing up I was always fascinated by mythology, folklore, ancient civilisations, and the Middle Ages. I was also very young when I discovered both J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. Between my preoccupation with mythology, folklore, ancient times, and the Middle Ages, and my love of Tolkien and Howard, it was perhaps natural that I would be drawn to other fantasy writers. From my teens onward, I have read many, many fantasy novels. And some of those novels were by writers who have come to have a lasting influence on me.

Among those writers is Michael Moorcock, whose tales of Elric of Melnibone have always fascinated me. Moorcock created Elric in direct opposition to REH's Conan and other barbarians like him. Elric is an albino, physcially weak, and sickly. Making up for his physical weakness is a keen mind and a cultured intellect. Elric is the emperor of Melnibone, his family having ruled the empire for literaly centuries. Both his curse and his boon is the sword Stormbringer, a sentient and evil black blade which devours the souls of those it slays. This gives Elric the strength he needs, but also wracks him with guilt over those whose souls the sword has devoured. Elric is a tragic character, one who feels he must stray from the cruelty and selfishness of his Melnibonean ancestors, but who at the same time feels a duty to his ancestry. The Elric Saga is about as far from either Tolkien or Howard as one can get. Indeed, while Aragorn and Conan are heroic figures from the beginning, Elric is an anti-hero who must evolve into a hero.

Another fantasy writer who had a large impact on me was Fritz Leiber. Leiber was a contemporary of both Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft. Among his most famous works is perhaps Conjure Wife, which has been made into three different features films (Weird Woman, Night of the Eagle, and Witches Brew). Despite the fame of Conjure Wife, it is his series of short stories and novels centring on Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser that I love the best of this works. Fafrd and the Grey Mouser first appeared in the novelette "Two Sought Adventure" in Unknown, August 1939. They were an unlikely team to be adventuring together. Fafhrd was a huge, hulking fellow, who at time was not very bright. The Grey Mouser was rather smaller, but gifted with both cunning and wit. Unlike Howard's heroes (Conan, Kull, and so on), neither Fafhrd nor the Mouser is superhuman. They often get beat in fights and they don't always get the girl. Unlike Tolkien's heroes, neither Fafhrd nor the Mouser are moral paragons. They have their moral weaknesses and can ocassionally be guided by sheer selfishness. Ultimately, what sets Leiber's heroes apart from other fantasy characters is that their sense of humour. Both Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are able to laugh in themselves. This is a good thing, as the situations they get themselves into can sometimes be quite funny. Anyhow, I always liked the way that Leiber portrayed his heroes as more or less human, neither wholly good, but hardly evil, with their own weaknesses and foilbles.

Stephen R. Donaldson is another writer who has had a big impact on me. Donaldson wrote the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a pair of trilogies featuring one of fantasy's few anti-heroes. Covenant is a leper, constantly suffering and shunned here on Earth, who finds himself in another world called the Land. There he not only finds himself in perfect health, but the only thing standing in the way of Lord Foul, the villain bent on undoing the Land. Covenant is an unlikely hero. He can be selfish. He can even be impulsive. And while Donaldson's work has been compared to Tolkien, it actually has as much, if not more, influence from Shakespeare and Mervyn Peake (of Gormenghast fame). The original trilogies were published between 1977 and 1983. I have heard that there is going to be a third trilogy, but I don't know if the first book in that trilogy has been published yet.

Another fantasy author who has had an influence on me has been Katherine Kurtz, author of a series of novels centred around the Deryni. The Deryni are an ancient race with magical powers (apparently some form of psionics) existing in a world not far removed from medieval Europe--indeed, Catholicism even exists there! Kurtz's work is filled with all sorts of political intrigue, both on the side of the various nobles and on the side of the Church. They are also marked by very strong chararacters and an eye to accuracy in the details of medieval life. In fact, this is what sets Kurtz's work apart from that of many other fantasy writers. Kurtz's world feels as if it could have actually existed. It is easy while reading one of her Deryni books to forget that one is reading a fantasy novel rather than a historical novel.

All of these writers have had a significant impact on me. They are much of what inspired me to be a writer. And I feel all of them are very different from the Tolkien and Howard imitators whose books often fill the racks. I would recommend their books to anyone.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

Current Songs I Like

I suppose at any given time, everyone has recently released songs that they really like. I'm no different than anyone else in that respect, so that there are a few songs out right now that I particularly enjoy.

Among them is the most recent single put out by the Denton, Texas band called Bowling for Soup, "1985." The song is about a middle aged housewife named Debbie who is "preoccupied with 1985." Now there have been songs about people who are stuck in the past before (Led Zeppelin's "Livin' Lovin' Maid" comes to mind), but for the most part they have been condemnatory of their subjects. This is not the case with "1985" It is wholly sympathetic with Debbie in her yearning for a bygone era. Considering how well it has done on the charts, it would seem a lot of people can sympathise with her. I know I can, as I do sometimes find myself nostalgic for 1985.

Another song that is out right now that I really like is "Lady" by Lenny Kravitz. Now I'll admit that the song is somewhat repetitive--Kravitz uses the word "lady" nearly 20 times throughout the song--but it reminds me of something that could have been released in the early Seventies. I think it is a very fun song.

"She Will Be Loved" by Maroon 6 is another song out right now that I like. Near as I can tell, the song is basically about a fellow who has yearned for a girl for years and been there for her through thick and thin. The song seems very romantic to me, especially with its lines about spending everday in the pouring rain on her corner. It takes a man truly in love to wait in the pouring rain...

Finally, I love "Accidentally in Love" by Counting Crows (a group I've always loved anyhow). To me the song sums up that the out of control feelings and the euphoria that occurs when one finds out he or she is in love.

Anyhow, there are more songs out right now that I do like, but I really can't list all of them right now. It does seem that the past few months have been good for music.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Halloween and Blue Oyster Cult

Today is Halloween, my second favourite holiday after the Yuletide. As a child I loved Halloween because it meant trick or treating, which also meant tons of candy. As both a child and an adult I loved Halloween because it was also an excuse to be someone else, if only for an evening. Over the years, as both a child and an adult, I have been Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger, a skeleton, a Vulcan from Star Trek, a vampire, a punk vampire (complete with razor blade necklace--I wore a gorget with that one to prevent severing my own jugular), and many other personas quite unlike myself in real life.

My earliest memory of Halloween stems from when I was about four or five years old. I remember that my parents took my brother and I to a local Halloween party, complete with apple dunking and other Halloween games. My parents dressed my brother and I as farmers, complete with bib overalls (at this point we didn't get to choose what we wanted to be...). I remember when we came home that Jason and the Argonauts was on KRCG. It is then not only my earliest memory of Halloween, but my earliest memory of a Harryhausen movie as well!

As an adult I have celebrated Halloween by handing out treats to the kids, watching horror movies, and listening to Halloween type music. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of Halloween type music out there. Alice Cooper is standard Halloween fare, as is the original Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne's solo work. Of course, when it comes to Halloween, there is no better band to listen to than Blue Öyster Cult. While best known for "Don't Fear the Reaper," nearly their entire discography consists of songs with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

BÖC had it origins in a group known as the Soft White Underbelly in the late Sixties. The Soft White Underbelly were fairly successful. Among others they opened for Muddy Waters and the Grateful Dead. They even managed to land a record contract with Elektra. Unfortunately, the group was already experiencing problems by that point, often finding themselves at creative odds with original lead vocalist Les Braunstein. Les Braunstein abruptly quit the band and Eric Bloom was hired as the new lead vocalist. Unfortunately, this did not please Elektra, who regarded Braunstein as the star of the band! Fortunately, they permitted the Soft White Underbelly to record another album.

With Eric Bloom as their new lead voalist, the band moved away from psychedelia to heavier, more rock oriented music. They decided that, since the name Soft White Underbelly had a history behind it that wasn't always pleasant, they needed a new name. Initally calling themselves the Stalk-Forrest Group, eventually Sandy Pearlman redubbed the band Blue Öyster Cult. The band didn't particulary care for the name at first, but it stuck. It was in January 1972 that Blue Öyster Cult released their first album on Columbia, complete with the classic "Cities in Flame" and the Kronos Logo (the hook and cross symbol that appears on most of BÖC's album covers and merchandise). At this point in their career BÖC's music tended to be dark and ominous. Both "Cities in Flame" and "I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep (later retitled "The Red and the Black")" were definitely heavy metal not too far removed from Black Sabbath. Even at this time, however, BÖC had their trademark sense of humour--"I'm on the Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep" portrayed in somewhat tongue in cheek fashion an outlaw fleeing from the Canadian Mounted...

Blue Öyster Cult followed their debut album with Secret Treaties in 1974. Popular with fans and critically acclaimed, Secret Treaties continues to be a fan favourite. Among other songs, it featured the classics "Dominance and Submission" and "Astronomy." Despite the critical acclaim, however, BÖC continued to be a cult band, with little in the way of major success. All of that would change with the release of their fourth album, Agents of Fortune in 1976. It was at this point that many people, including myself, discovered the band. The band that had been a cult favourite actually produced a top 40 single, no doubt one of the strangest top 40 singles of all time. "Don't Fear the Reaper" went to #12 on the Billboard charts. A contemplation of death (I have always thought it was about a dead lover returning to take his lady love to the other side myself...), the song was still very accessible. In addition to being a smash hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper" turned Agents of Fortune into BÖC's first gold record.

It was also with Agents of Fortune that BÖC became the band we know today. In effect, the group had become a sci-fi/fantasy/horror fans' dream. "Don't Fear the Reaper:" would obviously appeal to horror fans and, later, Goths, while E.T.I., with lyrics about Men in Black, would obviuosly appeal to the Sci-Fi types. From this point forward Blue Öyster would write songs that were either about fantastic subjects or at least touched upon them. Indeed, Spectres featured the classic "Godzilla (possibly their biggest hit besides "Don't Fear the Reaper") and "Nosferatu (based on the classic silent vampire movie)." The song "Joan Crawford," from Fire of Unknown Origin, portrayed the terrifying prospect of that dead actress returning from the grave. From Club Ninja (the album cover of which depticted a space station) was "Dancing in the Ruins," which sounds for all the world to me like a celebration of the apocalypse.... The band even co-wrote songs with fantasy writer Michael Moorcock. "Black Blade," from Cultosaurus Erectus , centred upon the sword Stombringer from Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series. Moorcock also co-wrote "The Great Sun Jester" from Mirrors.

As the Eighties progressed and Blue Öyster Cult released fewer albums. They declined in popularity, despite their obvious influence on both heavy metal and the Goth movement. Despite this, the band has continued with a large legion of fans and their performances still draws crowds to this day. While many bands from their eras are playing county fairs, Blue Öyster Cult still performs in clubs. Indeed, BÖC continues to be one of my favourite bands to this day. Not only are they an excellent haavy metal band with roots in traditonal rock 'n' roll, but they are one of the few bands that have produced a signfiicant number of songs with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror theme. Their music then reflects the sort of books, movies, and TV shows that I love. I rather suspect that they will be popular with people like me for years and years to come.

Happy Halloween, everyone!