11/22/11

Hearing things

Ornette Coleman is 81 years old. If he was Amy Winehouse he would have died in 1957. I didn't know what to expect of a musician that age, especially a horn player. But reviews of his appearance London's 2009 Meltdown Festival were good and after checking out some recent concert footage it seemed likely that he would at least be interesting. In the end he was a lot better than that.

Coleman closed the London Jazz Festival at the Royal Festival Hall with three other musicians: Tony Falanga (double bass), Al McDowell (electric bass) and son Denardo on drums. When the band started playing the bass and drums were so lively that I thought Coleman might be resigned to playing along with / on top of his backing in the manner of late Miles Davis, but he soon got stuck in there. Although he had approached the microphone with a stately half-step Coleman's back was straight, and his playing was as sharp. The trio had a boisterous style but he pushed them aside with bright, entertaining solos. His breath is shorter, obviously, but he still has the range. He played for an hour and a half with two encores and the band listening as attentively as the audience.

I'm not a jazz trainspotter but numbers included 'Blues Connotation', a cover of Ellington / Coltrane's 'Angelica' and a Bach mash up: the latter sounded better than that sounds. The quartet finished up with 'Lonely Woman.' Ornette Coleman at 81: more alive than many.

11/17/11

More Lies!

A new German edition of my first novel Lügenspiele (Pack of Lies) is coming out next year. Mana-Verlag will publish the new edition in time for the Frankfurt 2012 book fair, at which New Zealand will be the guest of honour, and hopefully in time for some other literary festivals.

The cover of Lügenspiele may change, not least of all because the novel will be available as an ebook: on black and white screen, the red of the first edition (shown above) would read as black. Or maybe that would work... Either way, I look forward to the German translation becoming available on digital: it's important to keep pace with technology.

11/14/11

Pointe blank

This is my favourite picture in the RCA's Degas and the Ballet exhibition. At 400 x 890mm 'Before the Ballet' (c.1890) is nearly anamorphic in proportion and the field of the empty floor falls away to a void. The real painting is blurry save for the feet of the dancers in the right foreground – the composition presses into the first girl's raised instep. The second dancer's exposed spine as she bends forward is reminiscent of Degas' many bathers, which Francis Bacon admired. You can see Bacon in the way in which the expanses and verticals of Degas' compositions are tensioned by the twisted human figures, and RB Kitaj in the renderings from photographic sources like a dry-brushed identikit.

Gustav Klimt would paint his figures nude and then proceed to cover them with clothes and patterning. Degas renders the dancers' upper bodies and the legs as solid forms but leaves the space between waist to knee as an impressionistic scribble. As sculptural plans his sketches for 'Little Dancer Aged Fourteen' are just plain odd: he plans the bronze in two halves and covers up the join with a real lace tutu. Beneath the fabric, the figure's right leg swells to join her stomach like a Henry Moore. The maquettes of nude adult dancers, modelled in wax as studio models and cast in bronze only after the painter's death, are fully detailed.

Many of the later, larger works that have been scaled up from photographs lose their dynamism but the hatchings and striations of his pastel drawings compensate for the magnification. 'Danseuses en bleu' still rocks. But nothing has quite the uncanny silence of 'Before the Ballet' or 'The Rehearsal.' Degas' paintings are sold as pretty, but like his 'Beach Scene' (1868) they are darker than that.

At their best the wide-framed little paintings are surreal arrangements of dead-eyed figures that play off each other but never interact. These rehearsals are have an ashen, spooky quality, from the staring dance masters to the unnatural poses of the girls. The longer you look at them, the more you realise something odd is going on.

11/12/11

November 2011

'Negativity is the enemy to creativity. So if you want more ideas flowing, happiness in the doing, happiness in the doing, happiness in the doing. I love, capital L-O-V-E, building a thing that ultimately has to feel correct before it's finished, and that feeling correct is like a drug. It's like a thing that kicks you and makes you feel so good, You almost pass out. You fall off your feet.'
– David Lynch, to Melena Ryzik of the New York Times

11/8/11

Discreet Machinery: Syd Mead (1987)


Five years after Blade Runner came out in theaters, Syd Mead visited New Zealand to lecture at an Auckland technical institute and I swung an interview, i.e. asked a friend of a friend whose father worked at the polytech if I could talk to Syd and Syd said, sure. The self-described 'visual futurist' turned up dressed like a TV detective in a suit and tie and a crumpled raincoat and indulged my very young person's questions; it was only as the conversation progressed that I realised Philip K Dick's fiction was a much larger part of my life than it was of his. Cult movies really were cult movies, then. I had an ex-rental VHS copy of the first cut of Blade Runner and I don't like to think of how many times I watched it.

Mead's lecture consisted of 35mm film slides of his paintings and drawings on twin Kodak Carousel projectors which he operated manually during his narration. The interview was recorded earlier in the day on a Phillips cassette deck and transcribed on a Sharp QL300 electric typewriter. This version of the story was published in the Melbourne-based magazine Tension, issue #12, December 1987. This week Terence Hogan scanned the pages and emailed them to me as PDFs which I converted to text using a free online OCR service and uploaded to Blogger. Give me a hard copy, right there.

*

The future was once a bright and happy place. Built on the social aspirations of the fifties and sixties and fuelled by seventies technology, Tomorrow was a time when two-car families became two-rocket families and holidaying couples went for picnics on Venus. Designers, writers and illustrators assured us that society would ease into the new frontier without so much as blinking.

A designer named Syd Mead, then working as a 'visual futurist' for US Steel and Ford Motors was – and still is – one of the great optimists. His paintings and drawings depict utopian futures filled with sleek transporters and vast buildings. Cities are slotted into mile-wide space-bound cylinders or, as in one future-projection of San Francisco, constructed as a single piece of "discreet machinery" to complement the size of the surrounding landscape as well as its ecology.

Last year a Tokyo company commissioned Mead to imagine a sport of Tomorrow. He suggested "120-foot high robot racing greyhounds." Another painting shows going to work: a giant Lazy Susan slides down one side of a skyscraper, collects the tenants in their cars and serves them coffee before sling-shooting them to work. And if personal transport becomes impractical in a crowded city, he still envisages the social need for a ceremonial form of transport for, say, a night at the opera. Patrons arrive in gold, wheelless tear-drops that hover inches above the ground and flood with light when opened. It's the designer's version of the American dream a thousand years on: Royal carriages for the Everyman.

"Science fiction," Mead smiles, "concerns itself with the technology of the future, and that's a kind of magic. Isaac Asimov has said that magic is just something beyond immediate belief – it's always been one of society's favourite things to indulge in.

"I call science fiction 'reality ahead of schedule' sometimes. You can perceive a trend and other professional futurists, maybe economists, spot trends Looking into the future and creating these scenarios is exciting because you can try and imagine what would happen if you rearranged the flavours in the cake-mix. This is called modelling. Now with our elaborate computers available, this modelling-prediction technique is being used extensively in all industries. Science fiction's been doing that for decades."

Syd Mead has published two collections of his Future: Sentinel 1 and 2. Chromed and rosy-hued, they catalogue every aspect of a day in the life of Tomorrow. They owe as much to the American tradition of landscape painting as they do to the people-using-a-product renditions of advertising; it's their content that's ahead of schedule, not their attitude. This is Mead's catchphrase idea: a future that's as old as it is new. His Future reflects the present with an almost paternal reassurance. There will be fast cars in 3000 AD, but no war.

It took British director Ridley Scott to darken the vision and bring Mead's ideas to a wider public. Scott was filming Philip K Dick's novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, cutting its six-word title down to only two - Blade Runner. The plot of the novel had been likewise reduced (with Dick's full approval) to a tight, simple future-cop tale, Chandler with rocket-fins, and this had placed a special premium on the look of the film. Mead was commissioned to design a flying car and ended up shaping the look of everything else.

Blade Runner is now regarded as a watershed in science fiction and much of that credit goes to Syd Mead's visual influence. It's a wry, mature fantasy of high-tech and low-life backwashed with smoke, rain and neon. The future has never been the same since. But Mead shrugs off the movie's influence, almost bored.

"Maybe I did the lob too well on that one," he suggests. "The reason I got involved is that the first book I had published had just come out then. Ridley Scott had my book and Chris Foss's book and Roger Dean's but he picked my approach really just because of my industrial design background. The machines had little screw-holes and the metal looked like it was split in the right place for doors to open and things like that.

"The original story for the film was Philip K, Dick's and Dick's stories were very dreary anyway. I don't agree with that vision particularly, but I was hired to help Ridley make this as interestingly a dreary picture as possible, which we proceeded to do. We invented a socio-economic theory which would fit the story and then I invented the look of things to go along with that. It was a very classical industrial design approach to movie design, which isn't done that much. I like to design for film on a very logical basis and then mix it up or change the format to fit the dramatic necessities. Starting with a genuine design programme first hopefully gives the end result a more believable look."

Mead and Scott took their task seriously. Although Mead dryly reflects on the film's flying-cars ("It would be a nightmare. allowing the average person access to a three-dimensional traffic matrix") the city depicted in Blade Runner points at what is happening in cities now.

"For Blade Runner we just took all the trends in progress today: in Chicago, New York, areas outside of Paris, all the sections that are going high-rise because of land-use – and accelerated the trends already in place to come up with a sort of peculiar vertical society. We found that you need a second layer of streets for access to and from big buildings, about sixty feet above the real street. And this would produce a basement effect on the real street which would become filled with cabling and so forth.

"It all has to do with land use. If everyone wants to be in one space you have to build the buildings taller both to create more floor space within the same acreage and to handle the loan on the cost of construction. It's all a paper accounting game. One mile away there might be nice flat land and lots of room but nobody wants to build there because it isn't fashionable.

"In LA this is now happening in Westwood which is extremely dense. Visiting there is literally not worth the trouble, unless you drop in by helicopter.

"The grid plans of our cities, in general, are not much use for anything other than keeping track of who owns what property. In Europe, the old Medieval cities began at natural pathways and landmarks. As they grew and grew and try to accommodate street traffic it becomes an absolute nightmare. You try and arrange a traffic-light system there and it's almost impossible. Tokyo's like that – an absolute nightmare. It's high-energy! I love to go there. As long as someone else drives. I was asked repeatedly if I'd copied the high-rise look of the Shinjuku area for Blade Runner but I said no, I hadn't been there since before all the high-rises were built."

*

The Japanese zeal for scientific process appeals to Mead, who regards the Sixties hippies as the last flicker of techno-paranoia.

"The whole techno-chic appreciation of machine intricacy is certainly Japanese — they just love that approach. Their mind–set is different, culturally. They can literally pretend not to be next to someone on a crowded subway. Europeans and Americans and people with that same cultural base don't like that degree of proximity – your 'bubble' is that much larger. It's to their benefit that the Japanese allow that because there is this intense pressure in their lives to tolerate things in their work and living conditions which we wouldn't put up with. It's to their benefit right now economically but it's changing — the world is beginning to flatten out in terms of cultural exchange."

It was cultural exchange that first bought Mead to Tokyo. His work in other films (Aliens, Tron, 2010) had caught the eye of Japanese entrepreneurs who commissioned him to design the other-worldly interior of the Alpha-Turia nightclub. Club patrons can phone home from a moon-module phone box and dance below a shuttle-cockpit DJ booth.

"The idea was to create a science-fiction set where the cast changed every night. It had to have cost millions and millions of dollars to build |n Tokyo, with their land prices. So this disco is a space liner, the front end of a luxury intergalactic space-liner. We have the observation lounge where you can see duplicates of all the instrumentation – an intense, information-exchange lobby, if you will. And we have the disco floor which is to the delight of all the passengers; the place where they can look out the front of the spaceship. The owners took bits and pieces of what I had shown them in sketches and then had a production company translate these vocabularies of ideas into finished wall surfaces and fixtures."

Mead says he had a great time designing the club and dancing in it afterwards; like most of his work it was a combination of dreams and day-to-day employment. More practical patrons have made an effort to keep their commissions on par with Mead's imagination but their requests, in general, are odd.

The US Air Force, commissioned him to paint a recruiting poster depicting the Stealth bomber — a project so secret that it may or may not exist. As a result, Mead was supplied with no models or plans from which to work. He would make some drawings and show them to the Air Force officials and they would say – well, they couldn't say if it resembled the bomber which may or may not exist but could he make the fins a little bigger and move the cockpit forward a little? And he would ask, 'Is that what it looks like?' And they'd say, We can't tell you. The final, full-colour poster was printed in a special edition to meet public demand.

Mead's commissioned work includes designs for customised private airplane interiors. Clients such as King Hussein and King Fahud of Oman enjoy travelling in style and the designer panders unashamedly to their aesthetic lunacies. The interior of one 747 was modelled to resemble an l8th century English manor, complete with marble floors and oak doors. Another 747 sports its own jacuzzi with jewelled star-charts on the ceiling. "It's the upper end of the market," Mead says.

*

The things that will really matter Tomorrow, he insists, are the things about which we're becoming the most blasé: electronics, computers and information.

"The manipulation of information – we haven't been able to do this before on this massive a scale. You can take a computer and produce theoretical designs for industry and then do part-trial breakdown runs, all in theory. You can design a part, run it through its tests in, say, an operating engine and have a very real feeling for how it is going to operate without actually making anything at all. Thirty years ago that would have been magic.

"We tend to live, unfortunately, with all the results of the mistakes of the past to date. You can't get rid of everything at once, short of a natural disaster, so you have to adapt. So you can think up a whole new concept and apply it or you can do a clever lob of retro fitting.

"For instance, maybe people can go to work not by cars but by electronics. Which isn't a new idea but it's becoming more possible because of the way we're organising work. Other than manipulative labour, work is tending to be the processing of information that's available from within a closed network, which is what a corporate system is. You can work from anywhere that you happen to be as long as you have access to that network. So if you have middle-management people working in judgemental positions, they really don't have to go to work. All they have to do is tap into the network and they can do their lot. That, for instance, might also be a way of getting rid of so much traffic."

The thought of a 21st century society still plagued with traffic jams: it's that same blend of past and future again. Syd Mead, 54, leans back in his chair and contemplates the futureworld nine-to-five with relish.

"People have been the same for thousands and thousands of years," he concludes. "They just use different tools. The nice use of technology would be to keep the human side of things a little bit nutty, a little bit random and let machines take care of the drudgery – that would be the most ideal, optimistic track. A writer like Philip K Dick predicts things going wrong, but you really do have to take that chance."

-- December 1987

11/4/11

The egg hatched... and a hundred baby spiders came out

Ridley Scott will direct a Blade Runner sequel. For me this is like hearing Stanley Kubrick has only been playing dead. Intrigued as I am by the Prometheus / Alien rerun, Blade Runner is the world I'd really like him to take a second run at: the one I want to see again.

Before he died in 1982 Philip K. Dick saw the movie that would bring his writing to the mainstream:
"All I can say is that the world in BLADE RUNNER is where I really live. That is where I think I am anyway. This world will now be a world that every member of the audience will inhabit... Once the film begins, you are taken from this world into that world and you really are in that world. And I think the most exciting thing is that it is a lived-in world. A world where people actually live. It is not a hygienically pristine space colony which looks like a model seen at the Smithsonian Institute. No, this is a world where people live. And the cars use gas and are dirty and there is kind of a gritty rain falling and its smoggy. It's just terribly convincing when you see it.

"Seeing Rutger Hauer as Batty just scared me to death, because it was exactly as I had pictured Batty, but more so. I could have picked Sean Young out of a hundred different women as Rachael. She has that look.

"Of course Harrison Ford is more like Rick Deckard than I could have even imagined. I mean it is just incredible. It was simply eerie when I first saw the stills of Harrison Ford. I was looking at some stills from the movie and I thought, this character, Deckard, really exists. There was a time that he did not exist, now he actually exists. But he is not the result of any one individual's conception or effort. He is to a very large extent, Harrison Ford's efforts. And there is actually, in some eerie way, a genuine, real, authentic Deckard now."
When the third version of the film was released in 2007 Ridley Scott talked to Wired about creating the future:
The future that I had seen portrayed to that particular point — without being specific or mentioning names, because that means I'm getting really critical — all of the urban films until that moment had been pretty ordinary to not very good. So, it was a challenge to say — it's the same as trying to do a monster movie it's, like, Aliens is a monster movie. Alien is a C film elevated to an A film, honestly, by it being well done and a great monster. If it hadn't had that great monster, even with a wonderful cast, it wouldn't have been as good, I don't think. So, in this instance, my special effect, behind it all, would be the world. That's why I put together [industrial designer] Syd Mead and people like that who were actually serious futurists, great speculators, great imagination, looking to the future, where the big test is saying, draw me a car in 30 years' time without it looking like bad science fiction. Or draw me an electric iron that will still be pressing shirts in 20 years' time without it looking silly. That's the stretch, that was the target: that I wanted the world to be futuristic and yet felt — not familiar, because it won't be — but feel authentic. I could buy it. One of the hardest sets to design was his kitchen. It's not Tyrell's room, which is easy because we fantasize about a giant super-Egyptianesque, neo-Egyptianesque boardroom. But the idea of saying, what is his bathroom and kitchen like in those particular times — that's tricky.
I interviewed Syd Mead when he came to New Zealand, I think late '80s. Of course I don't have a copy of it now: it's on paper in a stack of publications somewhere.*

The script for Blade Runner was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Fancher started it:
I guess I was approaching it on my own obscure level, thinking that I was making something commercial. 'This is science fiction--people will flock to see this.' Of course, I had themes I was working with that I loved and I was intrigued with. But still I thought of it as a commercial venture... They hustled my script, my fifth or sixth draft, out to all the studios in Hollywood. And so everybody read it. I mean, important people read it, in terms of studio honchos... I was flavor of the month for about two years.
David Peoples (who also wrote Unforgiven) was bought in without Fancher's consent:
I didn't know about it. That was a secret, because I wasn't cooperating with Ridley... I came back at the end, because they called me. They needed something for the rooftop scene. They just had a couple days to shoot and they wanted me to look at rushes. I came back and I wrote some stuff for them. I hated the dailies. They sold this film down the tubes. It's not gonna work. It's not anything like I wanted.
In 1992 Peoples told the LA Times:
Hampton Fancher was the key writer. He optioned the book and made it happen. Though I like the current director's cut a lot better than the original, I have no proprietary sense about the movie. In fact, I get lost trying to figure out where I am in it.
*UPDATE: Found it! The December 1987 version of my interview with Syd Mead is here.

11/3/11

It took me years to write, will you take a look?


Darragh McManus dusted off his old copy of Shirker for the Guardian's 2011 Halloween Reading List:
Set in New Zealand, this tale of one man cheating death is one of the best crime novels I've ever read. Beautiful artful prose, a great, twisting noir story, and a seriously spooky, sexy atmosphere. You'll feel all sorts of chills running along your spine.
Respect. The news went out on Quote Unquote, Crime Watch and Beattie's Book Blog – hat-tip to Stephen, Craig & Graham and big ups to Darragh. My thanks.

(I remember when I was small listening to the Beatles' 'Paperback Writer' and thinking, what other sort is there?)