Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Richard Widmark (1914 - 2008)

Richard Widmark - from wikipedia.orgRichard Widmark - from
Yet another obituary. Hollywood legend (yes, that's how I see him), Richard Widmark, died on the 24th March. It's crazy to think his film debut was 'Kiss of Death' (1947), crazy because he was so, so good in it (apparently he got an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe). That an actor who became a major leading man in the movies was so good playing a psychopathic killer highlights what made him so special in Hollywood; he was the original Two-Face. He could play the insane villain or the troubled hero, the man of integrity or the weak coward. Some of his best roles capitalised on this ambiguity. In 'Warlock' he held his own among such giants as Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn, playing a former criminal who becomes sheriff of a beseiged Western town despite the fact that all the baddies are his friends. 'Coma' too showed how he could play the avuncular doctor and the cold-blooded killer. Sam Fuller used this ambiguity well in 'Pickup on South Street' where Widmark's pickpocket becomes the unlikely hero of the piece. You could believe anything of Widmark, he had that kind of face. Of course what he did on screen was one thing, what he did off camera was another. Hammer Studios brought him in for their last big budget horror, 'To the Devil a Daughter'. If the 'Making of' documentary is anything to go by, Widmark was an unpleasant prima donna who compromised the production more than once. But then he was used to a different sort of studio system and we the audience really shouldn't care about that. It's what he put on screen that counts and he created a lot of complex characters that you wanted to believe in. And that, my friends, is why he was a legend.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Do You Do When the Monks Want to Eat You?

Still Valley - From wikipedia.orgFrom
I've started to dread the credit "Written by Rod Serling" when watching The Twilight Zone. Don't get me wrong, I've sang his praises in the past and still do; he was a superb craftsman. Too often though he was just too damn matter of fact. Also he sometimes allows his prose to run away with him (a little like Ray Bradbury). Then there are those similar themes surfacing again and again (the little man with a chance of redemption, the Nazi getting his come-uppance, the nostalgic yearning for the past). I watched his later series, 'Night Gallery' recently (and more on that later), but even there the episode that got Emmy-nominated, Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is a very close reworking of Serling's earlier Twilight Zone episode, 'The Trouble with Templeton'. It's also conspicuously out of kilter with the refreshing darkness of the rest of the series, being hopelessly maudlin (as usual, I'm probably in the minority on this one). Serling at his worst has his characters declaim 'seriously' in sentimental yarns lacking bite. This is the Twilight Zone, Rod, take some drugs, get drunk, have an orgasm, but get out of your dogmatic mind, for goodness sake!
Anyhow! Series Three seems to be a monumental slog by him, every episode signed 'Written by Rod Serling' (it is a prodigious feat of creativity, it must be admitted), but thankfully tonight there was one "Based on a story by Manly Wade Wellman: 'Still Valley'. Not by any stretch a masterpiece, but I recognised it as a story I'd read years ago. Set in the American Civil War, it was about a sorcerer in a Southern States town threatening to overthrow the Union army through witchcraft. The story was better than Serling's adaptation, but it still boosted me no end to see it onscreen. There's a lot in the back catalogues, folks.
Yes, the back catalogue. Once upon a time I wrote a tv series using such tales. Naturally it was never produced, but it did get me noticed by an American couple who ran a small production company. I was 'Shakespeare', they 'loved me', 'Come in and see us!' I did. They didn't want to produce my series. Instead they wanted me to write their script based on a treatment they supplied. It was wonderfully tacky stuff about blind Templar monks coming back from the dead, though there was little to the treatment and what there was was probably ripped off from Amando de Ossorio's BLIND DEAD series of zombie movies about the same subject. Nevertheless I agreed to tackle it.
Asking about a fee though changed the atmosphere. Warmth turned to chill. Between bouts of writing I consulted friends, checked with the Writer's Museum, Filmbase, etc., and the advice was the same; do nothing for nothing! Even if it's a small nominal sum, any payment would show their commitment to me. Otherwise they could have several writers working on the same thing and in the end they could choose whatever version they liked with no monetary loss. I had to have it out with them, and have it out with them I did. I was accused of not trusting them. Well, maybe, but they held all the cards and I was an out-of-work wannabe scriptwriter. I asked for a very small figure, maybe one hundred euros. After all I had done a lot of work at that point (little did they know I actually had a first draft written). No! I was a viper! I shamed them! Down the stairs! I was evicted from the office and that, my friends, was the end of that.
A shame though. I liked that script, if I do say so myself (nice scene in a library; sex scene with a seal), but as they owned the treatment, I don't own the rights. A salutary lesson in scriptwriting taught and learnt in a classroom we fondly call The Twilight Zone.

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Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - 2008)

Yes, I know it's a week since his death, but given my preoccupation with Sci-Fi lately, it's probably bizarre I haven't mentioned it before now. Sadly a giant of Sci-Fi, Arthur C. Clarke died on the 19th of March aged 90.
The thing is I have never read an Arthur C. Clarke novel. I have read many of his short stories (obviously works like 'The Star', 'The Nine Billion Names of God', etc.), but I can't remember reading a novel. Then of course there was '2001: A Space Odyssey', but I think more of Kubrick when it comes to that movie. (My understanding is that Clarke explains much in the novel left mysterious in the film, and that's probably why the movie does me.) What I loved as a child was 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World'. THAT captivated me. I never missed it, with its Fortean elements (was that an Arabic battery from the Middle Ages?), monsters (ah, that Bigfoot home movie; the giant monkey sitting on the crate; the aerial shot of the giant snake; that weirdo with the monstrous wig going into the jungle in search of dinosaurs) and strange powers (apparently Clarke distanced himself from Geller later, but still had an interest in psychic powers). But as to the novels, well, the fact is I always associated him with hard Sci-Fi, and I prefer soft Sci-Fi. It's the people and the questions, not the technology, that give me the greatest enjoyment. The more I read about Clarke now though the more I realise I may have misjudged him. Certainly 'Childhood's End' and 'Rendevous with Rama' (to be made into a movie by David Fincher, I hear) seem well worthy of investigation. I remember seeing a bizarre installation in some gallery in Australia (or was it the Netherlands) where the entire sculpture was covered in the text of 'Rendezvous with Rama'. Okay, I give in. I promise to read some of his novels.
Yes, he's up the pantheon of Sci-Fi writers, I mean. As to whether he's up there there is a matter of personal belief. Now if only we could come up with a machine to test for that kind of thing once and for all.

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The Seedling Stars

Of the four stories that make up 'The Seedling Stars', James Blish's 'Surface Tension' is generally regarded as his best. It's certainly original. Following on with the concept of 'Adapted Men', humans genetically altered for alien planets, the story has a seeding ship crashland on a planet almost entirely covered by water. With no hope of survival themselves, and their cargo of colonising zygotes destroyed, the crew attempt to do the job themselves from their own cells. Creating an aquatic based version of humanity goes without saying, but given the ecology they find, the crew decide on a radical step; they make the new humans microscopic!
It is the most successful story in the book. That it is enjoyable goes without saying; there is a certain fascination in the realisation of the recognisably human at home in such a bizarre context. Better yet are the few glimpses of the cosmology the colonists develop; it puts our own amazing predicament in the right light.
There are two writers one can link with Blish in the case of this book. It's quite clear that Blish is trying to follow in the tradition of Olaf Stapledon, a writer whose best work deals with adaptation to alien environments on a truly cosmic scale (Blish even mentions him). Also, in his constant posing of the question of what it means to be human, he prefigures the best work of Philip K. Dick. However, Stapledon's evolutionary extrapolations were cold affairs, any human warmth sucked out into the vast vacuum of the space he conjures up (although 'First and Last Men' is certainly a warmer affair than 'Starmaker'). 'The Seedling Stars', in contrast puts human stories at the heart of its speculations, usually involving the same cast of characters: the Wiseman, the Leader, and the Leader's Mate. Only the last story, 'Watershed', deviates (debatably) from this model. Unfortunately the warmth is usually muddled with the sentimental.
It's this sentimentality that means his exploration of what it means to be human never comes close to the mind-bending, angst-ridden speculations of Dick. Blish has his comforting answer to the Big Question, an old stalwart; it is the human 'spirit' that defines humanity. While this helps in his social agenda of combatting the racial prejudices of the day ('Watershed' explicitly links his 'Adapted Men' theme with racial disharmony), it makes for very cosy reading. Cosy, as opposed to challenging.
Make no mistake, this is high-calibre stuff. Big questions and big ideas wrapped up in big fun. The stories don't always work ('Seeding Programme' has some silly plot points), but if the purpose of sci-fi is to open our minds to new possibilities each one is successful. However, for all the fine writing and interesting concepts, it is still a slightly naive work. Altering humanity is not as simple as altering its form, and in showing the persistence of the so-called 'human spirit', Blish inadvertently demonstrates the conservativism of his vision. Stapledon and Dick could have taught him a thing or two still.
Now earlier today I had my knuckles rapped for omitting a certain obituary. Okay, Stephen, here it is.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Nothing Lasts Forever.. Hold On, I've Only Started!

From wikipedia.orgFrom
Well, after taking last week off, it's back to work tomorrow, and I ain't looking forward. Also a bit depressed at wasting the week. There was a lot I wanted to do, but I ended up watching old television series, reading and sleeping in. Not bad in themselves, but a holiday when I could ill afford one.
Anyhow I'm reading James Blish's 'The Seedling Stars', a collection of four interconnected stories. Blish is a far more intelligent writer than Russell and manages to intertwine scientific and philosophical issues neatly. The central idea is about genetically altering humanity to exist in the harsh environments of alien worlds. Blish knows his science, but there is a major religious subtheme going on. The first story, 'Seeding Programme', involves an 'original sin' of sorts (the creation of the Adapted Men themselves); the second, 'The Thing in the Attic', deals with Man's eviction from Paradise (and going to Hell); the third, 'Surface Tension', well, I'm only on that. I should say that in the first story, Blish also brings in a political dimension, creating a commercial entity, the Port Authority, with global power and short-sighted vision. (Let's hope the guys who run the toll bridge on the M50 don't read it. I also suspect it is Blish's Port Authority that gets lampooned in the cult classic, 'Nothing Lasts Forever'; see that if you haven't already.) He is a little naive in his argument, but there is still an implicit criticism of the restrictive demands of capitalism on science that holds true. Blish's science-goggles tend to blind him to the uncomfortable nature of some of the alternatives he seems to be proposing though. Anyhow not finished yet.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

A New Sci-Fi Chapter...or Two

'Wasp' at

Last Thursday I dropped into Chapters just as they were putting out a batch of those yellow Victor Gollancz classic sci-fi books. In the past they had them reduced to €5, but now they were €2 a pop. Needless to say I had a large armload within a minute. The manager there let out an oath as I walked by - he'd just ordered them out - and took them from me with a "That's a heavy armload. I'll leave them at the till." He did, and I bought them very soon after.
In my enthusiasm I failed to note that I had already read Michael Bishop's time-travelish 'No Enemy But Time' around four years back (that same edition is locked away in those book boxes at home). As I recall, it's well-written and intriguing, concerning a project to send a modern man back to our pre-modern ancestors on the African grasslands, or rather a peculiar recreation of that epoch (it has some slight similarities to Christopher Priest's forward-looking, but also ersatz, Wessex in "A Dream of Wessex"). A good novel, but not one that particularly rocks my boat.
Anyway soon after getting home I started on Eric Frank Russell's 'Wasp'. It's an easy read and I had it read by Friday.
Apparently regarded by many as Russell's best (Terry Pratchett gushes praise on the cover), 'Wasp' breezes along with its tale of an agent provocateur sent to an enemy alien empire to stir up discontent and mayhem. (The title comes from an illustrative anecdote wherein a tiny wasp causes a driver to crash his car killing four occupants.) Remembering that the novel was written in 1957 helps. It is transparently a tale of the Cold War, with the Sirian aliens a stand-in for Commies of all races. The 'alien' civilisation is so similar to terrestrial culture, or rather Western culture, as to beg the question why Russell gave it an alien setting at all.
I have read some right-wing sci-fi in the past, particularly by the likes of Heinlein and Poul Anderson, so I know how bad this kind of thing can get. To Russell's credit, he stays away from the politics for the most part and keeps resolutely to the dirty tricks perpetrated by hero, James Lowry. Russell fought in WW2, so I suppose he is familiar with some of the ploys used in a propaganda war, but there is little here for the modern terrorist. Starting off with treasonous stickers, Mowry progresses to easy assassinations, threats, underworld shenanigans and letter bombs. His progress is so pat, with everything going our hero's way from the outset, that it's hard to take the whole thing too seriously. But then this is meant to be at least somewhat comic. Wich might explain why all the characters are two-dimensional, including Mowry. With little background (except that he grew up on the Sirian home planet of Directa), he turns from an everyday schmo to super-agent after attending 'College' for eight weeks. With personalities this thin, cough and you'll lose them.
Even given the political subtext, Russell is not all American apple pie (actually he was British). Ultimately he is cynical about all authority, so even the so-called 'good guys' come off as callous manipulators. But even here the cynicism is delivered in such an offhand manner, that the reader will not end the book wanting to start a revolution. Far from it.
'Wasp' passed the time, but little else.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

And I don't watch telly!

There's been some interesting telly of late, so I gave 'Dirty Sexy Money' a chance tonight. Sorry, but I did watch 'Mad Men' a few weeks back and that sets a pretty high bar (and I still don't watch it). 'Dirty Sexy Money' doesn't come close. Diverting, but too light, too early. Maybe I should just tune back in to 'Mad Men'.
And did you know Russell Mulcahy did a remake of 'On the Beach'? Much as I liked 'Razorback', I can't muster the enthusiasm (not a huge fan of the original). Besides Hal Ashby's 'Shampoo' is on (believe it or not, I haven't seen that).
Actually the more I leave the box on, the more I understand why I rarely watch it.

Who Hates?

Die!!!!!! -t Coke. Does anyone sympatise with my complete and utter hatred of Coke ads? Not that I'd ever buy that evil brand, but those ads just make me get up off my ass and scream anger. And not just the 'Here's for the -' shite. There's that hypocritical games type ad and the lovely fluffy evil animation ad and - well, they're all evil. I was spitting blood when some car ad came on with the theme for 'The Flumps'. I HATE YOU TOO, YOU RIPPING-OFF VAMPIRES! Sorry, but I have a childhood to defend.
And now they're using 'Blister in the Sun' for a beer ad. Is nothing sacred? There is a novel just in the ads, I tell you, a cynical, sad novel, but one nevertheless.

Last Embrace

Just flicked on Jonathan Demme's early Hitchcock homage, 'Last Embrace', halfway through and had to keep watching. Many directors have tried to ape the great director, most notably De Palma who has tried to make a career out of it, but to my mind Demme's effort is one of the best. Roy Scheider play a secret service man grieving for his wife who suddenly finds himself the target of a deranged killer (or killers). Scheider takes the role that normally would have been Cary Grant's, and excels (sad to see his recent death), but though the movie recognises Hitchcock's earlier romantic thrillers, as it progresses it takes in his later period, the age of 'Psycho', 'Marnie' and 'Frenzy'. We also get some cheeky echoes of the classics (a shot of Princetown mirrors 'Vertigo'; instead of Mount Rushmore the film ends with Niagara Falls). However, much as it pays tribute to Hitchcock both in story and style, this is still a Demme movie. I wouldn't class myself as a huge Demme fan, but I respect him as a distinctive voice and talented auteur. Here he displays a lightness of touch that should undermine the darker elements of the story, but somehow he manages to keep things on an even keel. He also gives it a unique spin. Unlike Hitchcock's WASP-ish tales of white Anglo Saxons, this is resolutely a Jewish tale and that seems to require some humour ("When Jews get killed by a lunatic leaving Hebrew notes, naturally you have to have a committee;" or so says ageing sidekick Sam). What really makes the film though is the wonderful Miklos Rozsa score. In truth, using that soundtrack, Demme could film the phonebook and still come off with a nostalgic piece. But he didn't film the phonebook. Instead he brought a real cinematic sensibility to an intriguing screenplay and created a fine film. I know I am in the minority on this one, but I think it works and wonderfully well too.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella (1954 - 2008)

Image from wikipedia.orgImage from
I suppose like anyone interested in film, I was really shocked to hear of the death of Anthony Minghella today. An intelligent director and accomplished writer, he was an interesting, and admirable force in mainstream cinema. I saw him interviewed in Dublin several times, once, I believe, at a Film Festival screening of 'The English Patient', another time for 'Mr. Wonderful' (I think he was over again for a Beckett adaptation). He had a lot of experience and could communicate it lucidly, but as seems clear from the eulogies currently being made, he seemed to be a genuinely nice man (he even seemed to like the Weinsteins). On Channel 4 just now, I saw a visibly shaken Alan Parker discussing Minghella's work and the upshot was that here was a relatively young filmmaker (54) with his best work still ahead of him. His work until now though, seven films, were all worthy of viewing, and at least in the case of 'The English Patient' exemplary. It was a fine adaptation of a fine novel, invested with a Lean-like eye for beauty, something until that point, I wouldn't have expected from the writerly Minghella. Far from being unique, this painterly eye was evident in all his subsequent work. A writer with an artist's eye, judging from the use of the Goldberg Variations in 'The English Patient', he also knew how to use music. A loss then, a sad loss.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I got a call today from a recruiting company enquiring about my job, as in someone with relevant skills was looking for it. Go figure.

Ghost Rider

I can't believe I'm even writing about this.

If Oscar-winner Halle Berry had 'Catwoman', Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage had 'Ghost Rider'. I watched it tonight. Perhaps the worst film I have ever seen, with one small caveat: the Ghost Rider itself. Dreadful in every respect, the film had this wonderful icon at heart, an icon that rose above Cage, Mendes and the rubbish, and deserved far, far better than the surrounding farrago. A beautiful flaming light; an awful pile of shite.

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Auf Wiedersehen, Weekend!

That was a weekend!
Friday's two parties didn't leave me with much yen to show two German tourists around our fair city, but that's just what I did on Saturday. They were quite taken with the place. And though Sonya was too exhausted to stay out past 12, I was obliged to sit through another hour and a half of traditional music for Rebecca. Next morning some proper sightseeing, before I left them to their shopping to go do the Mothers' Day thing. Back in to join the girls who were Bono-spotting in the Clarence. More live music ensued in Templebar (a place I tried to get them out of, but they just wouldn't leave). I made my apologies late and headed home.
Monday was a flexi-day or I would have died, but I had my mother dropping by so it was mopping, washing and polishing that morning. She came in and said, 'There's an awful smell of detergent in this place.'
Several of my old relatives are pretty ill at the moment, so out I went visiting. Walking from Dundrum to Vincent's Hospital, I took the opportunity to walk through my Alma Mater, UCD. Wish I was still there; good memories. Narrowly missed the sleet.
My grandfather had been awoken at 12 last night to be moved from one ward to another. While I was there they moved him again, to the bed and ward he had originally been in. I'm sure there's a good reason, though I don't see it.
He's as crochety as a deaf old man who feels helpless and who has just been told he's diabetic and that his liver's shot, but they still don't know what's really wrong, could be. I sat by him trying through inane smiling to overcome the fact that he couldn't hear me and I couldn't shout that loud. Still I think he appreciated the effort.
Take a day off work and they'll find a way to crucify you. They found many ways to do just that today. Heading off to a conference for the next three days didn't help. I was trying hard not to smash my f****** keyboard by the two hours past home time it took me to escape.