From the opening moments – The Machine showing flashbacks of recent events – we feel as if we are in a different dimension. There’s a disorientation to things, made manifest in John Reese’s rumpled and empty bed and Harold Finch’s pretence to Sameen Shaw that there are no new Numbers, which is only true because he is ignoring the Machine’s efforts to contact him.
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is leashed upon the world. Reese has left, in silence, gone to Colorado where he sits in a bar drinking whisky, ignoring the litle man getting a beatdown from a bigger thug. ‘Lethe’: a Greek word meaning Oblivion, or Forgetting.
And the flashbacks return, brief vignettes from the life of a bright, eager, intelligent boy in 1969 and later, a boy interested in birds, learning about them from his father. Ah yes, his father: a man with some kind of illness that is slowly eating his memory, a father being looked after with love and devotion by an extraordinarily bright boy, who will restrict his own life to take care of his father. We do not need to be told the boy’s name is Harold.
But if the Numbers can’t come one way, they will come in another, via Root, still caged, but now voluntarily, in her Faraday Cage in the Library, yet able to piece together the Number: Arthur Claypool, a man in late middle-age played by Saul Tubinek, about whom there is a very small digital footprint. But a man about whom Finch has a natural advantage: Shaw is too eager to return to action to recognise that Harold knows Arthur.
But Arthur Claypool is in Hospital, with a brain tumour. He is a dying man, joking with Shaw, posing as the Doctor she once was, about being a honeybee rather than a dragonfly: a dragonfly has a life expectancy of four months, a honeybee of four weeks. As long as you don’t mayfly on me jokes Shaw in return.
But the hospital is no laughing matter. Claypool is surrounded by security, Secret Service security. That’s because Arthur works for the NSA, the National Security Agency. He is privy to secrets, but his condition destoys some memories but floods others out, uncontrollably. The name of Samaritan is mentioned for the first time. It will be mentioned in every episode to come.
Claypool is a target. He’s a walking leak, a magnet for agencies who want his secrets and a magnet for agencies that want his secrets locked up real tight, maybe even dead tight. Rudy has them, he says at one point, under the influence of sodium pentathol: has what?
But Claypool is a target for Vigilance, our privacy-terrorists who’ve laid mainly low hilst the drame of HR has been working itself out. To get everyone out, Finch has to do the one thing he’s been trying to avoid all along, appear before Arthur Claypool. His old friend, his fellow genius, his ‘brother’ at MIT. Harold knows Arthur and Arthur knows Harold.
They flee to a safe place, Finch, Shaw, Claypool and Diane Claypool (Camryn Manheim), Arthur’s wife who he doesn’t recognise, sweet, helpless, gentle, distraught that her husband doesn’t recognise her, but we who have been here before recognise her (I’m pretty sure I had her pegged first time round).
Why does everyone want the dying Arthur. It’s that name: Samaritan. Samaritan was a Machine built and designed by Arthur to accept, analyse and interpret all surveillance feeds post-911, to pre-identify terrorist activity. An AI, an artificial Intelligence that could learn, remember and grow. Samaritan doesn’t exist. It was scrapped, a few weeks before Arthur could complete it, in 2005, along with a host of other prjects all with the same intent. Arthur knows why Samaritan was scrapped: because somebody else got there first, somebody built a Machine that did it, that worked.
Arthur’s memory is full of holes. He remembers Harold, but he doesn’t remember Diane. Unfortunately, he remembers why he doesn’t remember Diane.
Let’s cut away though, to Reese, in his Colorado bar. Not just Reese, but Fusco, assigned to watch over Reese but also concerned himself for the Man in a Suit who gave him the impetus to turn himself around. Reese will let Fusco stay provided he doesn’t talk and accompanies him in drinking himself into oblivion, into Lethe.
But Fusco has changed more than we think. He’s on bourbon and soda, hold the bourbon. Reese is in despair. A genuine war hero is celebrated in this bar, with photos and clippings. Fusco spots the resemblance: Reese’s father, a Vietnam vet. Who survived the war and was killed at the oil refinery. Reese is burned out. No matter what they do, bad things happen. Doing good things is pointless, entropy always wins, why bother raging against the dying of the light? Fusco will have none of this. Reese changed his life for the better, is he saying that was pointless. Fusco provokes a fight, out back, in the driving rain. at first, Reese merely dodges but Fusco is a tough little bugger. They’re starting to fight in earnest when the lights and the siren of a cop car interrupt them.
And why does Arthur Claypool not remember Diane? Because she’s not Diane. Diane died two years ago, Arthur can remember the exact date he buried her. ‘Diane’ is another whose real name we will never know. The name we will know her by is Control. Agents bust into the room, outnumber and overpower Shaw. Hersh enters. What is it all about?
It’s about Samaritan. It may have been scrapped but Arthur still has the discs and Control wants them. As a bonus, she has the creator of the Machine. She wants to know where that is. One of them will tell her what she wants to know. That will be the one who lives…
This is a two-parter. And it’s a gateway. We have already stepped through it.
I’d hoped we would maybe make it out of this decade without another loss of the stellar kind but no such luck. Farewell Neil Innes at the age of 75. There’s an obvious choice for a song to celebrate what he could do, but I have another from the same period that I hold as a greater favourite, from dozens of Saturday and Sunday mornings on Junior Choice. Farewell, Mr Urban Spaceman, it had to come true one day, thanks for staying in orbit as long as you did.
Welcome to the last instalment of Film 2019, and the third of three ‘interlude’ films before I commence a shortened season of Film 2020, with a crop of single film DVDs acquired since the last batch ran out. My choice is an unusual one for me, as big, bad adventure films based on books and video games are not exactly my thing. I did see the trailer for this Jumanji sequel a couple of times in 2017, and made the same comment each time, that I would happily sit through a version of the film editted to show only every scene with Karen Gillan.
So it made some kind of backwards logic for me to choose this film and, waddaya know? I pretty much enjoyed it.
It is a video-game film, down to its roots. Four disparate players, nerdy and weird Spencer, football jock ‘Fridge’, self-centred and empty-headed blonde Bethany and cynicial, defensive loner Martha, get into trouble at school and are put into detention. They’re supposed to be cleaning out a school basement but distract themselves with an old Nineties games console and a game called Jumanji, about which they know nothing, until they find themselves sucked into the game and playing their avatars. There is a curse on the land and they have to a) find the Jaguar’s Eye, a massive emerald, and b) restore it to the eye of the sacred Jaguar. It’s a video game, alright.
What makes the film actually enjoyable is its self-awareness, and the willingness of the principal cast to play against their types, most notably the refreshingly ego-free performance of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – tall, shaven-headed, has muscles on his muscles – as Spencer, under the name of Dr Smolder Bravestone. ‘Fridge’ becomes the noticably short Mouse Finbar (originally misread as Moose), played by Kevin Hart, becoming Bravestone’s sidekick and bagman. Martha gets to be Karen Gillan, red hair, cropped halter top, tight and short shorts and knee-length boots (you’re starting to see why I said what I did about the editted version, aren’t you?), destroyer of men and expert dance-fighter. Bethany draws the shortest of straws, coming out as cartographer Shelly Oberon. Unfortunately for her, Shelly is short for Sheldon: she’s a middle-aged, bearded, fat little bugger and she’s also Jack Black.
There’s actually nothing that’s particularly original about the film. You know which way its going to go, and I don’t just mean the video-game/CGI fun. There’s only two games to play and these are the playing against type between the avatars and their teenage selves, and the eventual transformation of the flawed teenagers as they progress, learn to work as a team and start to draw aspects of their avatars into themselves.
Spencer has always been into Martha (despite the post-grunge way she dresses herself, it’s easy to see that Morgan Turner is close to being a bit of a babe already, as well as possessing an intelligence second only to Spencer, and an independence of thought), and she’s always been into him. It’s a measure of the film’s intelligent approach to keeping everything offbeat that their kiss as Bravestone and Ruby is horribly awkward and embarrassing whereas their kiss as Spencer and Martha is simple, instinctive and looks like a helluva lot of fun!
Fridge is the only one to resist being his avatar, for understandable reasons given the physical discrepancy between the two, but knuckles down when the game logic – or the need to get out and be restored – demands it. But naturally, the greatest contrast is Bethany as a man. Jack Black, without ever descending to a falsetto, uses a softer, higher register to his voice, reflecting Bethany’s femininity, but hers is the longest and most affecting change throughout the game. From her initial, self-entitled, dismissive mode, which shows her as a monster of ignorance as to the existence of others, without the slightest weepiness or self-loathing, Black brings Bethany through to being a genuine likeable human being, whose togetherness with her game friends carries over into real-life.
There is a strongly sentimental element to the film,. There’s a short prologue in 1996, in which the game box (from the original film) is found by a jogger on the beach and passed to his son, who disdains it until it turns into the video game that our quartet will discover twenty-one years later. In 2017, the quartet know his home as the Freak House and Alex Vreeke as the boy whio disappeared. A long way into the film, he turns up as the fifth player, with one life left, believing himself to have been trapped for two months.
Getting Alex home becomes a priority for the group higher than completing the game: the two things are the same but one is completing a game and the other is serious, and the film refuses to point out that in taking their responsibility to Alex to heart, the players have completed their transformation.
And yes, they win, and yes, they’re returned to the basement in 2017, except that Alex doesn’t make it, and we see the group continuing IRL. And then the film hits us with its whammy, which may be obvious but which is still genuinely affecting. The Freak House is no longer neglected, but well-maintained, and clearly both loved and lived-in. A car draws up, two kids get out and jump on their grandfather. The driver is Alex, an adult. He sees the four teens and understands who they are. He went back to 1996. In gratitude for the ‘girl’ who saved his life, he named his daughter Bethany.
Yet even this sentimental slop is quickly undercut as Fridge, with the onsent of the gang, drops a bowling ball on the console. Nobody gonna get sucked into this sucker again! Until this month’s sequel starring the same cast. I may have to go and watch that.
Seriously though, the film is not unflawed. The prelude, introducing us to spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha, is overlong. On the other hand, the game scenery is gorgeous, all mountains and deep valleys, right up my alley. But it attempts and mostly succeeds at keeping a balance betwen the straight context and the comic dislocation, without toppling over into mundane action or complete silliness, and that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s worth watching for more than Karen Gillan, I have to admit.
I have an indeterminate relationship with The Teardrop Explodes. ‘Reward’ was an irrepressible burst of joy, with some of the greatest non-soul horns ever to decorate the top 10, and I had a major Thing for the re-recorded single version of ‘Treason’. But the wider world of the album diffused the energy of such individual songs without replacing it with melodies of the same standard.
A couple of the succeeding singles were strong without even scratching the superstructure of the chart. One of these was the enigmatic ‘Tiny Children’. It had slipped through the cracks in the floorboards of my memory until it appeared in a YouTube sidebar, an omission that suggests the need for an urgent replaying. For this song is many things but one of the them that it is unforgivably lovely.
When first I heard it, I was captivated by the sound, the utter simplicity. There are only two instruments on this track, an organ extemporising on a minimalistic melody that obliviates the need to develop its theme and, over the coda, a distant drum, echoing on three beats, 2 and 1, and 2 and 1, as we who have listened sit in silence.
Over this limpid, eliding melody Cope sings, using his upper register without the sense of straining for power that marked the rest of his work with the band. His voice stands separate from the organ, still and detached. You imagine that he has his eyes closed as he raises his face, seeking a purity in his expression.
What he sings is as fragile as the melody. There is a YouTube video that connects this song to child abduction and abuse, and in his immaterial way, this may be what Cope is expressing, but his words are abstracted lines, connecting by succeeding instead of continuous meaning. Sometimes the words explode in your mind, creating unshakable empathies: Cope sings helplessly of calling someone’s name in Colin’s house (the song was written in the house of a friend called Colin), implying that there is no answer.
Later he sings of making a meal of ‘this wonderful despair I feel’. The song is composed of this, fractured lines whose leap from one to another obeys a logic completely alien to the audience. What Cope sees inside is something we cannot see ourselves, yet his performance convinces us that it is something that we should shudder before wanting to too clearly understand. What it is shakes him, shakes his faith in whatever we has previously believed in. Oh no, he sings plaintively, I’m not sure about the things that I care about.
Oh no, I’m not sure, not any more.
This undermining is so fundamental that he repeats these lines, leaving us with this finality, as the organ takes advantage of a greater freedom, with the melody, and the solo drum pounds a slow motion military beat.
And now this fragile song has returned to my mind, I find that though I don’t understand it in words, I cannot listen to it without tears rising to my throat, if not my eyes, because on another level I understand that this song, as flimsy as a spiderweb, and as weightless as it too, is about sadness and bewilderment, and beauty, and the inability to distinguish between these and misery.
No-one can live here too long.
In issue 296 of Adventure Comics, editor Mort Weisinger tore a strip of a reader who’d demanded the Tales of the Bizarro World back-up be dropped. According to Weisinger, the Bizarro’s had lifted Adventure‘s circulation higher than it had been before, and spawned 5,000 postcards per month of Bizarro ideas.
Four months later, he dropped Tales of the Bizarro World and replaced it with the Legion of Super-heroes. It was the Silver Age: what else can I say?
So the Legion era of Adventure had begun, with new Legionnaires appearing every month, characters, costumes, powers but not necessarily personalities we would become immensely familiar with as the Sixties began to take form. And, to my tremendous surprise, there was a death as early as issue 304.
This was the famous death of Lightning Lad that I learned about in the Sixties when I first tried the Legion. It was the culmination of an odd tale that had Saturn Girl use her power to secure her election as Legion leader and immediately turn into a tyrant who grounded every Legionnaire in the process of stealing their powers. Yet this turned out to be an act of sacrifice: made aware that a Legionnaire would die battling a villain, Saturn Girl sought to protect her team-mates by becoming the only active Legionnaire. But Lightning Lad discovered her plot and beat her to the punch, sacrificing himself for her.
It was the beginning of a long romance, for when I learned of his death, he had already been resurrected. But that it had come so early in the series stuns me – unless Weisinger was thinking that with over a dozen of them already, who’d miss the odd one here or there?
The Legion of Substitute-Heroes, second only to the Legion of Super-Pets when it comes to dumb Legions, made its debut in issue 306. Back when Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen were perpetrating Ambush Bug on us all, they combined for a gloriously funny Substitute-Heroes Special I used to own: to my glee, I now learned just how closely they based their goof-up on the original! I wish I still had it.
There was no forgetting Lightning Lad’s brave sacrifice at any turn, not least in issue 308, where ‘he’ returned to life, only to be exposed – not that literally – as his own very much alive twin-sister and replacement, Lightning Lass, whose hairdo was an atrocity: Thirtieth Century? You gotta be kidding me.
By issue 309, the Legion were so popular, they had taken the lead-spot in the comic, though Superboy continued to get the cover, which was a bit ludicrous in issue 310 when Superboy’s story was about him exchanging minds with Krypto and the Legion’s about they’re all being killed…
I shall pass over the Superbaby story in issue 311, which hit depths of silliness to make the Marianas Trench look like a puddle to get onto the following story, which was the supposedly always-planned story of how Lightning Lad was restored to life (at least that’s how Weisinger promoted it in the lettercol, just like he described Bizarro as a fixture four months before dropping it).
I’d heard about this story almost as soon as I discovered the Legion but this was the first chance I had to read it. The Legion are searching the Universe for ways to bring Lightning Lad back to life but all methods fail. Except that Mon-El knows a surefire method whose only drawback is that it will kill whoever does it. Saturn Girl, the telepath, can tell he’s holding something back, though Mon-El’s only keeping schtum because he intends to sneak off and sacrifice himself. Once the truth comes out, the legionnaires vie to be the noble one. Except that Saturn Girl intends to cheat by ensuring she gets struck by the lightning that will do it. And she does, and she dies… except that it’s Chameleon Boy’s protoplasmic, telepathic pet, Proty, who has decoyed her away and substituted himself in her place.
I knew all of this long ago, but reading the story at last, even with John Forte’s stiff, unemotional art, was actually surprisingly moving, which it had to be to overcome the Lana Lang spoiled brat humiliated by Superboy for-her-own-good story that backed it up. Pairing these two stories in one issue was plain bad editting.
Though Adventure was still a Superboy title, the Legion’s series was now taking first place every month. This didn’t matter to the Boy of Steel, who had had his own solo comic since 1949, and it was quickly becoming apparent that his future-colleagues would be taking over Adventure for themselves. Indeed, their story in issue 313 disposed with Superboy early on in order to feature Supergirl, who actually appeared twice in that she was revealed as being Satan Girl, who unleashed a lethal plague upon the girl Legionnaires.
With so many Legionnaires, there was barely time to show everyone off, so a three page guide as to who, what power and what origin was included in issue 316, which extended the roster to 23, by including Jimmy Olsen’s occasional Elastic Boy persona and, lumped together as one, the Legion of Super-Pets (look, I won’t talk about the Super-Pets unless I’m actually forced to, ok?)
Finally, in issue 317, exactly seventy issues after their one-off debut, it became official: ‘Adventure Comics featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes’ became the logo. The story introduced Dream Girl, temporarily, as a beautiful new member causing all the boys to fancy her, the girls to get green-eyed, and seven Legionnaires deactivated, all to needlessly divert one of her premonitions of their forthcoming death which was actually of android versions of them. Confused? Dreamy also fixed it that Lightning Lass lost her now-unneeded powers only to be re-gifted with the power to make things light (Star Boy, who makes them heavy, apparently hasn’t got a reverse gear).
The issue also reduced a ‘Hall of Fame Classic’ feature, otherwise known as reprints, which did no more than demonstrate that Superboy stories hadn’t change in over a decade, and to cap it off, the lettercol featured a letter from a Dora Knight, asking why Saturn Girl can be Legion leader when the boys are so much stronger than her? I’d give a lot to know if Miss Knight became a feminist and worked out the answer.
Right from his first appearance, Bouncing Boy had been a bit of a joke Legionnaire, rarely used, and that was clearly the general opinion at DC because in issue 321, he was abruptly, and undramatically, de-powered and demoted to permanent reservist. Of course, I know that won’t last forever.
I knew that at some point I’d catch up with my own first Legion story, though I didn’t expect it to be as early as issue 323, when Proty II sets a clever puzzle to determine the Legion’s new leaders – who turns out to be their old one, that smart blonde cookie, Saturn Girl. I even recognised the Hall of Fame Classic back up featuring Krypto. Every panel locked into place out of my memory.
But for every decent, and sometimes clever, story there were still a couple of dumb ones, usually based on some or all of the Legionnaires being dickheads, though that’s not possibly the ideal word for the story in issue 326 when the six girl Legionnaires get a mad on against the boy Legionnaires and set out to trap and kill them. There could have been a worse explanation for this too but I’m in no hurry to find one.
Interestingly, each girl Legionnaire got in a smooch with their chosen target first (and Triplicate Girl managed three, the little hussy), except for Saturn Girl, who couldn’t get Superboy to sample (wot an idiot!).
One of the problems with trying to read American comics in the Sixties was the erratic distribution. No two consecutive issues could be guaranteed. Then again, my budget for comics was strictly limited. Which one of these was responsible for my only reading the second half of the Legion’s first two-parter, in issues 330-331, I don’t know, though I remember the story as clear as a bell, as well as the Hall of Fame back-up which featured Lana being genuinely concerned for Clark without trying to penetrate his secret identity. Yes, they could write them.
Although I remembered a couple of stories earlier in the run, it was not until issue 340 that I fully caught up with my early enthusiasm for the Legion. This was the first half of the two-parter that introduced Computo, Brainiac 5’s evil super-computer, which changed Triplicate Girl into Duo Damsel by killing one of her three bodies (without any apparent trauma either) and which warped the Legion into the Batman ’66 Camp Era by introducing wise-cracking. Ah, the memories!
Indeed, there’s something special about this era of the run for me. The stories are (probably) no better nor worse than those before and those to come, but these are the stories from my time, full of back bedrooms at Brigham Street and Burnage Lane, re-reading runs on quiet summer holiday afternoons and evenings, each panel engraved on the eyeballs of memory. Star Boy’s expulsion. The Super-Stalag of Space. Jim Shooter’s unadvertised debut as a 13 year old writer by introducing four new members simultaneously, which was also the point that full-scale Legion stories supplanted the Superboy reprints.
One more thing to add about the Legion at this time is that it had something DC wasn’t supposed to have: continuity. Not necessarily in the form of subplots that became stories, but in situations that actually changed the status quo, like Lightning Lad losing an arm, Bouncing Boy his powers or Star Boy his membership. All these themes were brought together and restored in one go in issue 351.
And suddenly it all stopped. The Sun-Eater, the Fatal Five, Ferro-Lad’s sacrifice. The Adult Legion. I remember the cover to the first part of that but I read none of them. And none that followed, nor even saw the covers. This puzzles me now. This was only 1967 and I did not start losing interest in comics for another year. The only significant change was our move from East to South Manchester: was distribution really that random that by moving half a dozen miles away you could lose sight of an actual title? Or did I suddenly lose interest in the Legion?
Or did my childhood interest in comics, the Justice Society aside, start to fade earlier than I recall? I always thought it was 1968 because that was when I started on the football magazines, and besides, my parents had barred me from buying American comics at the full price of 1/-, a bar I got around, which a trickiness that well-befitted my future career as a Solicitor, by buying a preferred title in the newsagents coming out of school, selling it for 3d to a willing accomplice and then buying it back from him for 3d, so that I could truthfully say I’d bought it cheap off someone at school.
That was Burnage Grammar School, or High School from my Second Year on. I only went up into the Second Year in 1967: could I, who was naïve and immature for my age, have been that sneaky that early?
But the Legion stories that follow, two-parters all of them, are complete mysteries to me. Shooter, still only a teenager, was writing them, skilfully enough despite Weisinger, with some variable art, not all of it coming from the reliable Curt Swan. But the Legion’s days were numbered.
I have little to say about these late adventures. This was a strange, transitional period for DC, whose older writers, backbones of the company, were losing the plot, sometimes literally. Marvel was a threat kept in check only by DC owning their distributors and limiting them to no more than eight titles. The writers were demanding benefits as employees whilst being treated as freelancers for DC’s benefit. Things were slipping.
Some of the Legion’s stories were mildly memorable. The introduction of Shadow Lass, who’d already been seen dead in the Adult Legion’s hall of fallen heroes, as Shadow Queen, joining the Legion because she fancies Brainiac 5 (she’s not seen Mon-El yet), and that being the crucial point in issue 368, when a female governor of a world amplifies the girl Legionnaires’ powers and has them throw the boys out preparatory to installing a matriarchal government on earth, only for Supergirl to break her conditioning out of jealousy over ‘her’ Brainiac 5. Sheesh.
And the story in issues 369-370 not only introduced the Dark Lord Mordru but smashed Superboy’s Smallville continuity, with Jonathan and Martha Kent losing twenty years each and drawn unrecognisably whilst Lana Lang and the two girl Legionnaires who come to Smallville in Superboy’s ‘time’ all wear 1968 mini-skirts. Though apparently the Kents had taken a youth serum in Superboy and nobody noticed…
Issue 373 introduced Don and Dawn Allen, the Tornado Twins, ‘direct descendants’ of The Flash, though not as direct as they’d end up being years later.
And then, after issue 380, and a story whose only memorable moment was that it saw Chuck (Bouncing Boy) Taine showing his first feelings for Luornu (Duo Damsel) Durgo, the Legion were gone, without warning or explanation. They’d had an 81 issue run and whilst their replacement would have a stable run, for a while, emiwould have have so stable a lead feature again.
So the Silver Age was over, at least so far as this series was concerned, cover date May 1969, actual publication probably March. Join me for the Bronze Age, next.
We’re nearly halfway through this Lou Grant rewatch, so perhaps an element of fatigue is creeping in, but I ended up far less impressed by this week’s episode than I anticipated at the outset.
Whilst I’m generally in tune with the show’s liberal ethos, I welcomed an episode that seemed to have nothing more to it than a good, potentially thrilling story. a charter plane carrying the State Championship winning members of a High School Basketball team is missing, overdue, possibly crashed. Billie and Animal are sent to cover the story.
Of course, the episode title gives it away. The plane’s been hijacked, hidden on a disused airforce base, somewhere in the great nowhere, and a ransom of half a million dollars is demanded (to which 2019’s response was “cheap”.)
The set-up is there and there’s lots that can be done with it. But the boys are from Todesca, a desert town of 4,000 inhabitants, a nothing place out in nowhere, and their sheriff may be the traditional little town type in looks, but he’s neither stupid nor pig-headed, which makes for a pleasant change but cuts down on your dramatic posibilities.
And then the episode bogs itself down with cutesy humour, a rivalry between Billie and Rossi over who covers what parts of the story, the ‘naval’ dress their down-at-home hostess buys Billie, and a background story, introduced neatly from the A story, about the Trib being bought out by the McFarlane chain.
Everything gets further and further away fromm the kidnapping. I don’t know if it was a budgetary thing, or whether it was the series trying to encompass the notion within their self-set parameters, but everything pertaining to the real drama, the investigatio, the arrest and the rescue took place a very long way offscreen, whilst an overstrong contingent from the Trib futzed around on camera on worthless and nowhere near funny enough trivialities.
As I said so many time when watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, this is an object lesson in the changes to series-writing betwen then and now. The show should never have tackled this subject when it couldn’t bring tension, concern and, above all, a presence to the subject. It made a decent start, with the poignancy of an early scene, using mainly pictures not words, of a town set-up to welcome its conquering heroes, its kids, its boyfriends, left with banners and flags that looked hollow in the suspicion of loss, and then it forgot entirely that these were a generation of youth in a 4,000 person town in favour of cheap silliness. A bad job.
East of Laughter was the second and final Lafferty novel published by Bath’s Morrigan Publications. Like Serpent’s Egg, I found and bought it in the same Altrincham shop, the standard edition first, the slipcased Special Edition several years later. The number of copies printed isn’t disclosed this time, though I doubt it exceeded the 1,010 of the earlier book, only that the Special Edition consisted of 260 issues (ten specially bound and lettered copies were for private distribution) of which mine is no. 137, signed not only by Lafferty, but also Gene Wolfe, who contributed the essay ‘Scribbling Giant’, about Laff, to this edition. East of Laughter was also the last R.A. Lafferty book published in hardback in his lifetime.
At different times, different readings of this book produce in me different effects. Last time, I came out of the end thinking this a poor book, a confused book, a book without any real story, just a collection of what might as well be described as vignettes. There is, just as in Serpent’s Egg, a group of outstanding persons, a Group of Twelve, named as such from before the outset and consisting of fifteen persons, of whom several die during the course of (non-)events.
There is a difference of substance in that all the Twelve are adults, and all are human (except for Prince Leopold the Great, who is werehuman and spends most of his time as a Black Panther whose body is covered by golden fur except for a band across his forehead that leads people to think of him as a Golden Panther with a black bar across his forehead). Although this is to count both John Barkley Towntower and Solomon Izzerstead, mathematicians both, as separate people when the latter is a growth on the belly of the former, a talking bellybutton that actually talks more than its ‘host’.
But that reading was of a book that just went from person to person in the Group, and from place to place, home to home, without interest. That is not the book I have just re-read, again.
Don’t ask me how this book can have changed so much between then and now: this is R.A. Lafferty. Such things may be expected to happen.
It is true that this book doesn’t explain itself, but leaps headlong into whatever it is that is going on, setting neither context nor time nor place (though we may later guess that we are somewhen towards the end of the Twentieth Century, so almost contemporaneous, except that Lafferty had written no more since a devastatingly debilitating stroke in 1984). What we take to be the story is offered to us by someone signing themselves Der Alpenreise (which translates on Babelfish as AlpineTour(?))
This is about the Pillars Who Sustain The World, and the effect on the World if those Pillars have to change. Now there are Twenty-One Pillars, divided into three sets of seven. There are Seven Saints, who are always pretty easy to replace as competent saints are somewhat commonplace, and Seven Technicians, who are only slightly more difficult because of the overabundance to choose from. It is replacing the Seven Scribbling Giants, who write all that was and is and will come, where the problem arises, and not least in replacing their chief, Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais. Lose one Pillar, and the world rocks. Lose two, and it faces catastrophe.
And if one is murdered and the other six all want to lay down their nine-foot long goose-quills and die…
It is, or by now should be easy to anticipate that this book is about the replacement of the Seven Scribbling Giants, and that all these replacements will come from within the Group of Twelve, all fifteen of them, including Jane Chantal Ardri, who is killed early on but who is written back to life at the age of nine, growing a year a day. If you’ve read every word I’ve said about Lafferty by now, you should have expected that.
This is indeed the book I read this time, jauntily swinging from place to place across a nine day week (if you were not anticipating that, you are definitely not amongst the about a million people in the world who know about and enjoy the Eighth Day of the Week, and even such a clod as yourself will understand that you are not amongst the about a thousand people in the world who know about and enjoy the Ninth Day of the Week).
(It is probable, but we cannot say for certain, that these about a thousand people have come to this knowledge by reading a copy of East of Laughter and that if only you had petitioned the publishers of this book to increase its circulation by enough to permit you also to have purchased the same, your embarrassment might have been spared).
Each day is spent at one of the far flung homes of a member of the Twelve, and which has its own incidental music, specially composed and named for the day and the place, but scored for different sets and numbers of instruments.
There is, naturally enough, the same symbolism as in Serpent’s Egg as to the Group of Twelve, irrespective of its irregular number, which is supplemented by one of that Twelve playing Judas. There is a balancing between the wonderful forgery, better than the original, a forgery for which there was no original, the statue of the Laughing Christ, and the last replacement Scribbling Giant, who is the Riant, or Laughing Giant, who can only come into his Giantship because of the actions of the Judas.
And, for once, we are not left to forge an outcome for ourselves, for the Change is completed and the World is once more full and the quills of the new Giants begin to scratch away.
Instead of a dull and meaningless rote, as last time, we have a buoyant, irrepressible redemption of the World and Men. The difference is astounding. Maybe I am now reading the Earth-2 version? How would I tell?
Oh, my. Such a perfectly balanced episode, with a horde of actions, emotions and revelations all drawn together in the pursuit of a just revenge. Did this episode last forty-six minutes or did it draw you into itself for a lifetime?
Detective Joss Carter is dead, killed brutally by Officer Patrick Simmonds, the last HR standing. There is no title sequence, not even the series’ name. Just Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’, one of the most powerful recordings ever made. Carter’s ex-husband, her son, sit in a cemetery, with looks of indescribable pain on their faces. From a distance, Finch watches, also in sorrow, alongside Shaw, who disappears when he back is turned. Shaw wants revenge.
So too does John Reese, shot and wounded, seriously, by Simmonds, but single-mindedly determined to exact revenge, on both him and Alonzo Quinn. John is off the reservation. Jim Cavaziel gets something into his eyes that you had better pray you never see in real life because that is the expression of someone who has gone far past what it is to be human.
And so the episode becomes a multi-layered chase, as the team tries to find and stop Reese, which is like trying to find and stop a will o’the wisp. Instead of Carter, there is Fusco, the weak link, the joke cop, but this is Kevin Chapman’s coming of age in this series. He is now what they have, and he rises to the occasion.
They find Shaw. But Reese is always ahead of them. To find him they nneed to find Quinn in protective custody and to find Quinn they need Root.
There are once again flashbacks, four in total, at four different times, each of someone speaking to an interviewer. Finch, in his wheelchair after the Ferry bombing that killed hiis closest friend, discussing grief and survivor’s guilt. Dr Sameen Shaw, a technically brilliant surgeon who lacks the emotional commitment that makes the difference between fixing and healing. John Reese being psych-profiled for his fitness to be Black Ops, but only as a means to get close to and execute a traitor. Let’s just hold off on the fourth for a moment.
Reese, dying on his feet, gets to Quinn. He’s going to kill him, but first Quinn has to give up Simmonds’ escape route Here is where the quartet catch up, Root, Fusco, Shaw and Finch, but it is Harold, who willnot lose another friend, whose gentle voice reminds John that this is not honouring Carter. Carter wanted Quinn her way, the right way, the legal way. Evidence, arrest, trial, conviction. But John”s body is failing and only his will animates him now. He pulls the trigger, but the chamber is empty. Three take him away, fusco stays to secure Quinn. As they drive off to get John urgent medical attention, Root, speaking with the voice of the Machine, says that Mr Reese is not the only one out to kill Simmonds.
And inside, Fusco finds the note written by Quinn of where to find Simmonds.
We cut to that final flashback, Fusco and a therapist, traume counselling, Fusco has just shot and killed someone for the first time, in self-defence. He’s our Lionel, tough, wise-cracking, forever defensive. Until, assured that whatt he says is completely confidential, he changes. The dead guy was a drugs-dealer. He shot and killed an off-duty rookie last year, kid was 24, baby on the way, the dealer got off. It wasn’t a clean shoot. Fusco trailed him for weeks, just to get him alone, let the guy see him before he put two in his chest. They call it The Devil’s Share, an act of redress for the world’s shittier things. Fusco sleeps like a baby.
So you think you know. Fusco intercepts Simmonds. He’s got a gun, Simmonds hasn’t. But Fusco has his eye on higher things. Despite the disparity in their fighting strengths, Fusco tackles Simmonds, yes, even with a broken finger in plaster. It’s simmonds’ to win, to execute Lionel and escape after all. But Fusco is a tougher little bastard than we’ve everr been allowed to see before. He whips Simmonds, breaks his arm.
Because Fusco was once the kind of cop who would execute a criminal. But then he got a partner who respected him, who treated him right, who got his back and, though this is insaid, more importantly trusted him to have her back. she showed him how to be a good cop, and drew Lionel Fusco back towards being a good cop. She saved him from himself. And Fusco won’t let that go over a piece of crap like Simmonds. Fusco brings Simmonds in. Fusco rises.
So all is well that ends. John will live after receiving treatment. Root, having been freed, returns to her cage in the Library voluntarily. Something big is coming and she and Finch need to work together.
And in the hospital room where Simmonds is being guarded, a seated, miling, almost cherubic face looks at him from the shadows. Brilliantly uncredited, Carl Elias addresses the still scornful Simmonds. He is awaiting Civilisation’s punishment. But neither he nor Elias are civilised. Joss Carter didn’t like Elias, but Elias liked her. Elias is here to watch The Devil’s Share be taken. John was not the only one who intended to kill Patrick Simmonds, Number of the Week.
One last word. We’ve seen Fusco rise to the occasion. This is also the point that the Team really forges itself into a Team, around the loss of one of its own.
Was this really only 46 minutes? Only in our lives.
One of my friends on a Forum I help to administer, has posted about spending Xmas Day away from home for the first time ever. This has reminded me of my mother’s last Xmas. She had lung cancer and, to relieve her from shopping and cooking, she and I were invited to my sister’s parents-in-law for Xmas day. It was my firxt Xmas not spent with just our family, and the only real thing I remember about it was that the film premiere that night was the first Michael Keaton Batman, the one with Jack Nicholson as The Joker. They were all going to watch it, and I realised, as the comments flowed, that nobody except me had any idea about the film, that they were expecting another Adam West ‘Biff! Bang! Pow!”, and I had a secret glee at watching their faces once it started.
We only watched about fifteen minutes of it. Mam was tired, and I took her home, made sure she was settled, and slipped off home myself.
The following day, she started to be in pain, and she died three days later, with me there to see how peacefully she passed, more or less in her sleep. That was twenty-eight years ago. It’s a memory that’s sad and painful but I thank my friend for recalling it to me today. Tomorrow, I have the Xmas that circumstance has forced on me, yet which I have embraced, namely on my own, happy and free, and only communicating with those of my friends who drop in to that Forum. If I could have a Xmas in company, it would be with people whho are no longer here to share it.
The second film in this end-of-year interlude is another recent film that I intended to watch in the cinema – it’s Aardman, it’s Nick Parks: what more do you want? – as soon as I saw the trailer, but which, when the film got into the cinema, I unaccountably never made the time. Maybe I was prescient?
Early Man starts well, with a series of captions as we zoom in on a very familiar plant. ‘Earth’, it starts out. Then it informs us that this is ‘The Neo-Pleistecene Age’, a gag that flops by sounding too scientifically accurate. The next one bust a gut though: ‘Near Manchester’. Finally, ‘Lunchtime’. I’m giggling happily.
Then an asteroid bursts through the prevailing cloud cover (oh yes, it’s Manchester alright), striking the earth and gouging out a massive valley, whilst blowing cavemen and insects and dinosaurs all over in beautifully realised slow-motion (there’s a brilliant sight-gag as a cockroach, watching the swelling ball of light from afar, whips out a pair of sunglasses).
When the impact is over, the tribe enter the valley cautiously. They find the heart of the asteroid, a more or less sphere made up out of hexagonal panels. It’s still too hot to hold in their hands so they kick it about. Lo and behold! Football is invented. Jump forward a few ages and, thump, the film falls flat.
Not immediately. We meet Dug, our hero, a young hunter in the tribe that occupies the valley, the great crater now an idyllic woodland surrounded by blasted landscapes and volcanoes known as the badlands (that bit must be Liverpool). The tribe, made up of the usual Aardman gang of eccentrics, are hunters, rabbit hunters, actually a rabbit hunters, the same one every day with an annoyingly shrill titter. Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is ambitious for the tribe, wanting to hunt mammoths, you know, something big enough to feed everyone, but the Chief (Timothy Spall) is stuck in his ways. I mean, dammit, he’s old he’s nearly 32.
Suddenly, the valley is invaded by war-mammoths, kitted out in bronze armour, headed by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddlestone with a somewhat unconvincing Italian accent that I’m not sure isn’t supposed to be Spanish), sweeping the Stone Age Primitives out of the valley so it can be mined for its ore, and especially its Bronze.
So far, still funny, but not as hilarious as at the start. Dug wants to fight back, is accidentally knocked out and carried back to the Bronze city, which is cearly far more civilised, meets a sarcastic girl pan-maker called Goona (who you can instantly tell is going to be important to the story: she’s voiced by Maisie Williams), and ends up being dragged into the arena in gladiator gear. The Sacred Games are about to begin. The sacred Game is… Football! And the film drops dead in its tracks.
No, it doesn’t quite do that. The set-up is that Dug, on behalf of his tribe, challenges the Champions, Real Bronzio, for the return of the valley. If the Primitives lose they labour in the mines. But the tribe have no idea how to play football and only start to shape up as a team when they end up being coached by, yes, yu guessed it, Goona, a keen and talented footballer who can never tread the Sacred Turf because, again you guessed it, she’s a girl.
What follows is as inevitable as a Boris Johnson lie. Though the animation is continually excellent, and there is a high degree of football expertise in the shaping of the story, including some quite effective allusions that are left to the audience to connect, the film is basically one long boy’s soccer serial from a Sixties comic, no better in that sense than anything I’ve recently re-read in The Hornet.
I’m afraid that from the moment football began to dominate the story, the film fell flat for me. Little of the comedy worked. There was a slight Flintstones veneer to some of the gags but the best of these, a Message-Bird that’s the equivalent of a voicemail, ruined itself by its horrible cliches of having the Queen, from whom its come, go through the sad and tired ‘how does this thing work?’ routine at its start.
It was the same with Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, although the film lacks the underlying sense that the writers just don’t like football. The game itself is actually extraordinarily hard to spoof without immediately disconnecting from all realistic aspects of it.
The idea of kitting out the Primitives in red shirts is an obvious nod to 1966 and the World Cup, made explicit by their being handed a trophy afterwards that resembles the original Jules Rimet trophy. There’s also a gag from the commentators, calling them ‘Early Man United’ which is less successful, especially on a day following the announcement of the death of the fifth of that team, Martin Peters, giving an unanticipated and unwanted poignancy to the moment.
There’s another factor that, for me at least, worked against the credibility of the film. Aardman is at its core backwards-looking. Whether you choose to call its nostalgia or retrogressive, it can’t be denied that the companies art derives from the recreation of an earlier time, and it’s presentation as some kind of idyllic age. In Wallace and Gromit it’s the Fifties, depicted as a cozy, dressing-gown and slippers are, of plain, downhome ordinariness that is, instinctively better than now. Chicken Run built itself upon a glorious spoof of WW2 Prison Camp movies, but outside the camp, the Tweedies and the world were still irrevocably Fifties.
The same ethos is at work here. The Stone Age is standing up to the Bronze Age and demanding to be left alone, to be allowed to live forever: it’s a prehistoric Fifties, charming, slightly daft, but comfortable as a warm blanket. and for me the effect doesn’t work. Aardman is flying in the face of history. Bronze replaced stone, wiped it out completely. The film takes the wrong side. In the film, someone like Lord Nooth is a very contemporary bad guy, out for power and riches, but his society is so clearly superior to that of Dug’s tribe (despite the writers’ attempt to denigrate Bronze by having Nooth rant about loving its coldness and slipperiness). Only a tiny handful of the audience will not instinctively look at the difference between the two periods and not go immediately for the Bronze, an effect not helped by having the Primitives be, well, so eccentric.
In the end, not much surprised me, which was where the film fell down. If you know not only how it will end but how it will get there in advance, the film is otiose. A shame, really. Hopefully, Aardman and Park will find a more sympathetic subject for their style of humour next time, and I can happily to to see it in the cunema.