Saturday, 22 March 2014

My Favourite Album Cover: The Kinks' 'Muswell Hillbillies'

I'm a bit of a sucker for album cover art. I like everything from Tiki gods spewing forth fire and destruction on old Hawaiian albums to dystopian future landscapes depicted by unsmiling synth-wielding minimalists. My favourite album cover, however, is firmly rooted in the year 1971 and the city of London. It's the Kinks' slightly schizophrenic ode to Americana and condemnation of urban renewal entitled 'Muswell Hillbillies.'

The cover is a photo of a typical london pub (presumably in Muswell Hill) which is sparsely occupied in the afternoon by what appears to be 'the regulars.' There's some besuited businessmen in the background, an old man in the foreground and a hard-to-define casually dressed man staring disdainfully to his right sporting a moustache and an orange jumper. He looks like the sort of stereotype that Steve Coogan based his Paul Calf character on: Unemployed, student-hating, extra-strong lager-drinking man's-man. You might argue that his jumper looks slightly effeminate, but the orange colour is all the better for disguising blood stains when he head-butts you in the face after daring to make such a comment.

The full glory of the cover can only be appreciated by opening the gatefold sleeve. The second half of the photo features the members of The Kinks in all their bell-bottom wearing, tie-dyed, long hair and bearded 1970s glory. They look relaxed and oblivious to the fact that Mr Orange Jumper looks ready to take them on single-handedly and give them a right bollocking. Presumably The Kinks' celebrity status and regular custom at the pub makes them tolerated by the staff and there appears to be a reluctant truce in effect.

Besides being an hilarious image, it also makes me nostalgic for my own youth. Half way 'round the world in Brisbane, Australia, I myself was able to illicit similar disgust in people for doing so very little. I was born the year this album was released, but by the early 1990's this 'hippy' look seemed to have come around again and I was an enthusiastic adopter. I felt like I was doing something right when my friends and I would walk into a pub with long hair flowing, ironic t-shirts, pirate earrings and beads and watch as all conversation seemed to suddenly cease. If it was the old west, then I would imagine the guy playing honky-tonk piano in the corner would suddenly stop also. As it was the 90s, maybe the CD in the jukebox just skipped.

Of course this shock effect can't last forever. Over time we seemed to bridge the divide between The Kinks and Mr Orange Jumper. Gradually we went from being 'the outsiders' to being 'the regulars.' Both have their good and bad points, but I always tried not to roll my eyes at the latest cocky young upstarts that came through the door.

* * * * * 

In 1994 I visited London. I was curious to talk with my uncle who managed pubs in Muswell Hill in the early 1970s and enthusiastically asked if he had any good stories about The Kinks. He seemed to be rather dismissive in the way Mr Orange Jumper might be, but it also might have to do with a big city trend of seeming casual and dismissive of people that add cultural relevance to the place where you live. My theory is the bigger the city, the more dismissive people are.

When I lived in Brisbane, I was always delighted to see local heroes Grant or Robert from The Go-Betweens walking down the street, or Ed Kuepper from the Saints. Now that I live in Melbourne, however, it seems like nobody bats an eye if Cate Blanchett is sitting at the table next to them. My small-city mind in 1994 could not grasp the fact that there was no annual Kinks holiday in Muswell Hill, or at least a monument in the town square!

That trip to London also reminded me how different pub culture was in England. Pubs used to be packed at lunch time with people downing pints in thick smoke-filled environments before reluctantly returning to work. Australians certainly didn't seem to smoke as much as the English, and it is one vice I have never really succumbed to. I remember almost getting into a fight with someone at a pub in London because I told him I didn't smoke. It seemed like an unfathomable concept.

I have to admit there are things I miss about smoke-filled pubs. The lighting was less harsh and made you feel like you were in some sort of film-noire with the light carefully dissipated and lending an unearthly aura to everything. Today the light is a lot more harsh and smells besides the heavy aroma of tobacco are all-to-easy to detect. Also, it's hard these days to know what clothes you wore out the previous evening without being physically repelled by how much they stank of cigarette smoke.

I haven't returned to London since 1994 and I find it hard to fathom how much it must have changed, with new anti-smoking laws and a general greater emphasis on healthy living. I'm reminded of one of the themes from 'Muswell Hillbillies' - urban renewal. It seems in my absence London has had another shift besides a physical transformation to a cultural one.

I can imagine if this album was made today the cover would be very different. The Kinks and Mr Orange Jumper would be leaning against the bar sharing a pint together and laughing at the people seated near the window. The air is smoke-free and pure. The people near the window are sipping green tea. They are not looking back, however and are oblivious to the fact that the other customers are laughing at them. They're too busy looking at their iPhones.

Hmmm, I might join Ray and the boys for a pint.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu Ray

I usually like to indulge myself and buy a Blu Ray box-set to watch over the Christmas holidays. This year I purchased 'Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection' to watch at my parents' house in Brisbane during our two week stay. My thinking was, at the very least, it would be a couple of hours of uninterrupted 'zone out' time to avoid awkward family conversations, nurse hangovers, or avoid the Queensland heat. It turned out to be quite engaging for everybody - It was a Christmas miracle!

My favourite memory of Christmas this year was sitting down as a family and watching 'Psycho' - even my five year-old daughter enjoyed it! I contemplated how shocking the film must have been in the sixties when it was released and how matter-of-fact the idea of a psychopathic killer with a multiple personality disorder is now. How times change.  I think the best way to enjoy these movies is to remember the historical context of the time and that ideas which seem outdated now were actually quite progressive back then. We need to remember it wasn't that long ago that people were shocked because 'the butler did it' or creepy little kids 'saw dead people.'

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the earliest film in the collection is actually one of the best - 'Shadow of a Doubt.' According to the booklet accompanying the Blu Ray, it was also Hitchcock's favourite. It's theme of evil bubbling under the surface of suburban middle-America is reminiscent of David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'. Joseph Cotten's simmering 'Uncle Charlie' is almost as creepy as Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet, although not as wildly camp and over-the-top.

Similarly, 'Saboteur' seems to serve as a template for a lot of chase films to come and even for Hitchcock's own 'North by Northwest' (which isn't included here). The film that seems to borrow most from 'Saboteur', however, is 'The Fugitive', with obvious themes of a man on the run from the law attempting to prove his innocence by catching the man who is actually responsible.

'Rope' in my opinion, is one of Hitchcock's best because it is set in one room, has only a few characters and is a relatively straightforward story. These types of films give Hitchcock the chance to work within his limitations and be a bit more experimental. In this film the camera really is another character and my favourite shot is one that lingers on a chest in which a dead body is concealed, while the main characters talk off-screen, oblivious to the fact that the maid is clearing away some books and about to reveal their crime.

The successful collaborations with Jimmy Stewart are also featured. Watching 'The Man Who Knew too Much' made me for the first time realise that I was watching Blu Ray and not a fuzzy cathode-ray image, like I had seen when I was a child. I find watching a Blu Ray isn't always a good thing and can often take you out of the story.

In 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' I was constantly distracted by the amount of blue screen shots that Hitchcock used, mainly because they obviously were on location in the Marrakech, but then suddenly it would revert to a studio recreation. I checked on the special features and found that Hitchcock was notorious for hating to film on location, but also on this occasion their filming schedule was interrupted by Islamic holiday of Ramadan and they were forced to pick up some shots in the studio.

Similarly, I realised for the first time what a beautiful and intricately constructed set 'Rear Window' was filmed on. It's great that Blu Ray allows you to see details you normally wouldn't, but it takes a bit of training to teach yourself not to focus on these and stick with the story.

'Vertigo' is the film that everybody talks about these days. British Film Institute judges bumped perennial favourite 'Citizen Kane' in favour of 'Vertigo' as the 'best film ever made' last year, which, to some, has been a controversial decision. There are certainly some innovations which are now standard such as the 'dolly zoom' effect and animation to depict his character Scottie Fergusson's mental state. These effects can appear quite laughable to a modern audience, but again, you need have to watch them from the point of view of the audience of the time.

The thing that still resonates with Vertigo, for me, is the theme of obsession and identity. Fergusson, wracked with guilt after failing to save a woman he loved from falling to her death, is obsessed with  changing a woman who is a dead ringer, into the woman he lost. Cleverly, Hitchcock informs the audience through a phone conversation that it actually is the same woman and she was playing a character all along as part of a murder plot. It makes the transformation all the more excruciating to watch. Who exactly did Fergusson fall in love with?

To modern eyes, a lot of Hitchcock's films - including Vertigo - seem to have pacing issues. Vertigo ends in the sudden death of Kim Novak's character. Modern audiences expect some sort of epilogue, but in this instance it just cuts to the credits. If Hitchcock had made 'Alien' - which certainly is indebted to his masterful use of suspense - then the film would have ended when the 'Nostromo' exploded and there would have been no final act where the alien was actually aboard the escape craft.

'The Birds' also has an abrupt ending where the survivors simply just 'leave' in a car. It seems a little anti-climactic after the first half of the film is involved in intricate character development. Big concept horror films to come, sadly, seem not to be concerned with the 'character' element of the story at all.

The one script that I believe still resonates with modern audiences is 'Psycho'. Mainly because it wilfully subverts audience expectations at almost every step of the way. It starts off as a simple story of a femme fatale stealing some money from her boss and fleeing across country, only to suddenly become a murder-mysery in the second act when the heroine is famously dispatched by kindly motel proprietor Norman Bates (or was it his mother?)

The policeman investigating the case is also unexpectedly dispatched before finally the femme fatale's concerned sister discovers the grisly truth. There are so many red herrings and unanswered questions, but I wonder what actually did happen to all that money that was rolled-up in newspaper and hidden in the night-stand next to the bed?

Curiously, The only unnecessary element of Psycho is the epilogue where the police chief explains the nature of Norman Bates' mental illness... Please - even my five year-old daughter knows what a psychopath is!

The last four or five films are not among Hitchcock's most celebrated, but there is still a lot there to love. 'Marnie' is probably among the most famous, but for me 'Frenzy' is the most successful because Hitchcock filmed it in England where he obviously felt comfortable. Times had changed, however, and Hitchcock's attempts to appear 'edgy' (was this the only Hitchcock film to feature nudity?) felt a little bit forced in an environment where the Hollywood studio system was collapsing and films such as 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Easy Rider' were now leading the way as part of the New Hollywood.

To me the Leon Uris-penned cold war thriller 'Topaz' is the least successful of these later films. It's too sprawling and epic for Hitchcock's sensibilities. It's understandable that he would try and appeal to modern audiences who had become hooked on James Bond and international spy thrillers but, to me, it is the intimate stories and discrete locations that allow Hitchcock to weave his magic.

Hitchcock's final film 'Family Plot' does a lot to rectify these excesses and is quite an enjoyable and lighthearted film. What could have been a heavy kidnapping plot is subverted by a wonderfully goofy performance by Bruce Dern and even the villan William Devane is so over-the-top camp that it is hard to hate him. It's not Hitchcock's best film, but it is a fun note to go out on.

Having come to the end of this blog, it suddenly occurs to me that maybe Hitchcock was right - some stories don't need an Epilogue - the content speaks for itself! If there's one thing I can take away from watching all these films is that style and fashions change over the years but wit and insight are perennial. Therefore let me simply say:

The End