Dead Tired

Suicide is painless, apparently. Living with suicidal thoughts, on the other hand, is to live in constant, crippling pain, albeit of the psychological variety.

Image The lack of physical symptoms means that help and support must be sought – it is rarely freely offered. If suicidal tendencies caused a literal black cloud to follow you around, it would be far easier for others to recognise. As it is, you are often suffering alone and in silence. It is quite common for the suicidally depressed individual to shun the company of others, preferring to cut themselves off from social contact. This is not to allow them to sit and brood on their own, but to spare their family and friends the depressing effect of their ‘broken’ personalities.

Social contact is hard, full of pitfalls for the unwary depressive. Small talk is absolutely terrifying: trying to be personable when all you can think of is shutting yourself away and cutting out the pain, or smothering it with pills, creates massive amounts of stress. Even talking to people close to you, who know of your condition, can be incredibly painful. You find yourself trying to reassure them that you’re fine, you’ll be OK, it’s just a bad patch.

Every single day is a bad patch.

You won’t be OK.

You aren’t fine.

Negative thought patterns, constant fear of tomorrow, the absolutely certain knowledge that things will never improve: these are all illogical, irrational, but they are always there and they wear you down. Knowing that the way you feel is irrational doesn’t stop you feeling it. It can make you feel much worse, knowing that you cannot trust what your own brain is telling you makes any decision almost impossible. How can I make an informed decision when I cannot trust the information? How can I do anything knowing that part of me wants to die? How can I trust myself when cutting into my arm with a Stanley knife is the most effective way to make myself feel better?

Image

 

I don’t want to be this person, but I cannot seem to change. I feel the pity and disappointment (real or imagined) from my friends and family and I just want to give up. I want it to stop. 

Or, more accurately, I want out.

Stop the world. I want to get off.

 

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 1

I watched TV in the 80s. Lots of TV. In Britain, a lot of the TV that children watched (except for the stuff shown on children’s TV on weekday evenings between 3 and 6) was American. The stuff produced for kids in Britain was often quite… odd. I remember the obvious shows, the famous ones, like Bagpuss, Danger Mouse and Fraggle Rock, but I also remember some more obscure ones, like Jamie and the Magic Torch, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and The Adventure Game. Not to mention Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Metal Mickey, Cheggers Plays Pop, King Rollo, Mr Benn, Rentaghost… the list goes on! Many of these titles I remember with fondness, some with a cringing horror and a couple with genuine confusion. Check out the opening titles to Jamie and the Magic Torch on youtube if you don’t understand why.

Look at this picture and tell me that someone wasn't on drugs

But these shows, rose-tinted though my recollection may be, are not the ones that were truly formative. These just formed a backdrop to my early years, when there were far more interesting things to do than watch telly (there were only three channels back then anyway, at least until 1982). Riding bikes and climbing trees were much more exciting! But then something changed. Friday and Saturday evenings, usually at the beginning of what they would term ‘Prime Time’, started being taken over by the Americans. A couple of names drifted across British televisions a lot in the 80s: Glen A Larson and Stephen J Cannell. Between them, they produced a huge percentage of the iconic TV shows that British children ended up watching: The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, The Greatest American Hero, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and The A-Team, as well as several less known and short-lived series (Manimal, Automan, The Highwayman). These two men, just names on a screen, shaped a generation of British kids with their heroes and villains. Yes, the shows were largely cheap crap, with recycled stock footage and the same four stunts shown from different angles, but that didn’t matter. They created an entirely fictional America, in which the sun always shone, convertibles were the coolest thing ever, everything was slightly too yellow, and every woman looked fantastic in a shiny jumpsuit.

Any excuse to show a picture of Wilma Deering (Erin Gray)

These shows were incredible to my young eyes, although if I watch them now I can see just how much television has moved on since the 80s. I genuinely believed in the formula that they were selling. I believed that the good guys would always win, even if my heart was in my mouth the whole way through each episode. I believed that facial hair often indicated a bad guy (and now I have a beard – what does THAT mean?), and women needed men to rescue them, unless they were Wilma Deering, in which case she’d kick a bit of ass (before needing to be rescued). There were other issues, ones which the child didn’t notice but the man can’t ignore. The shows were almost exclusively white (Mr T’s inclusion in The A-Team being the most obvious exception). Any racial minority was either a bad guy or a one-off supporting character at best, often appearing in a storyline about how racist everyone except the hero was. Remember that this was two decades after Sidney Poitier won his first Oscar, so black actors were not unknown, just unused. The black community shouldn’t feel alone though, because women were pretty poorly treated as well. Relegated to supporting characters, or more usually a bit of eye candy, they were invariably the love interest for the main hero, or a glorified secretary. Even the supposedly ‘strong’ characters, like the aforementioned Ms Deering, were always getting into trouble by being too impulsive or careless, and the hero would need to come and rescue them again. The 80s weren’t a great decade for female empowerment, it must be said.

Ok, now that the critique (such as it was) is out of the way, let’s have a look at what made some of these shows so great. We’ll start with an easy one: Battlestar Galactica. I won’t be talking about the new series, partly because it offends me, with its high production values and sets that don’t wobble, but mainly because I haven’t bothered watching it. I remember the original with too much fondness to watch a new version. If it’s bad, it will taint my memories of the original, but if it’s good, I’ll feel like I’m betraying the original! So we’ll stick with the original in this article.

Apparently, both cigars and shit-eating grins are in plentiful supply out in deep space.

Battlestar Galactica was pretty much a rip-off of earlier, and more succesful, science-fiction stories. Universal Studios were sued by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that they had plagiarised a large number of ideas from Star Wars (a slightly rude claim, considering how much Star Wars had stolen from earlier shows). Glen Larson was given the nickname Glen Larceny by Harlan Ellison for this very reason, and Galactica failed to make a huge impact on American television. It was a modest success in Britain, where it was repeated for a good few years. It never made it to a second season, although Larson certainly had plans for one, including bringing Isaac Asimov in as Science Consultant (which may have involved throwing pretty much everything about the first series out of the airlock!) and trying to bring in some female viewers by strengthening the characters of Athena and Cassiopeia. We’ll never know if this would have worked, obviously, but it’s worth noting that this plan did apparently introduce several elements that were picked up in the remake.

As a child, Galactica was great. Even the brown suede jackets and guns that looked suspiciously like the Stormtrooper pistols from Star Wars. Even better were the Viper fighters. A poor man’s X-Wing, maybe, but undeniably awesome. They looked brutal, dirty and cool, like they would actually fly (even if they did only have three buttons), and had huge flaming jets out of the back when the pilot hit the Turbo! Oh, and the pilots were replaced by female shuttle pilots in one two-part episode, when Blue Squadron succumbed to a mystery disease. This gave the producers an excuse to show what the flight suits looked like under the suede and velveteen.

Damn, I love my job!

Sexist? Never! The Apollo/Starbuck friendship was the classic mix of straight-laced and easy-going, with Dirk Benedict schmoozing his way across the screen with his trademark cigar clamped between his (impossibly white) teeth. These were cookie-cutter hero templates, with righteousness oozing from every pore, and their only flaws being just too damn irresistable to the opposite sex. Oh sure, Starbuck would get into trouble by being too impulsive, and Apollo would disobey orders so he could ‘do the right thing’, but it would all be fine in the end. There wasn’t really any conflict, and even the Cylons weren’t that much of a threat – having forced the fleet to traverse the galaxy looking for a new home by destroying the colony worlds, the Cylons seemed incapable of blowing up a few ships and would constantly be foiled by a handful of ‘plucky Viper pilots’ (TM) despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage. But this is the Way of the TV Hero. No matter what, you will live to win another day.

This is very clear in what is arguably the most famous of the 80s TV action shows: Frank Lupo and Stephen J Cannell’s The A-Team. It told the story of four Viet Nam veteran ex-commandos who were “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground”. The four men, Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Lieutenant Templeton Peck – otherwise known as Face, Captain ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch and Sergeant B.A. ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus, became mercenaries, hiring themselves out to any good cause that wanted help. There were a few subsidiary characters (notably reporters Amy Allen and Tawnia Baker – the only two recurring female characters who had both ‘left’ the show by the third season – and Frankie Santana in the fifth and final season), mainly made up of the military police officers assigned to hunt the A-Team down. The final important member of the team was big, black and made by GMC: the iconic A-Team van.

If you don't want to take this thing sideways on a dirt road, I don't even want to know what's wrong with you.

The A-Team spent a large proportion of their time firing fully automatic weapons at the bad guys, causing huge explosions and making jeeps spin out of control, leap a parked car and explode, yet somehow managed to avoid killing or even seriously wounding anyone! Helicopters would spiral into the ground, exploding in a ball of flame, and a few moments later the occupants would crawl out of the fire-blackened wreckage. This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the programme makers to ensure that the show was acceptable for early evening, prime-time broadcast. The violence was kept to exciting but safe levels, almost comic-book style, big explosions and wild gunfights, with no blood or death to disturb the young viewers (or the censors).

Each character filled a very specific niche, both in terms of their skills and their personality. Hannibal was the sensible leader, the man with the plans. Face was the smooth-talker, the fixer. Murdoch was the crazy one, the pilot who could fly anything. And B.A. was the strong man, the mechanic, who wouldn’t take no shit off fools! They would almost invariably get captured at some point in each episode, and end up inexplicably locked in a shed which just so happened to have all the parts and tools with which to construct an armoured, fire-breathing, racing tank (or similar). As a team, they had all the bases covered and had the righteous courage to stand up to any bully, and this was the core of the series: a group of comrades with no fear, as long as they worked together. They may not always have been friends (Murdoch was always deliberately winding B.A. up, for example), but they always pulled together like the battle-hardened soldiers that they were.

An iconic vehicle was the order of business for our next show: Knight Rider. The car in question was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a truly pimped-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was fitted with pretty much anything it would need, most of which would only be used in one episode and then forgotten, but the usual gear included a turbo boost, flame-throwers, smoke-screens, ‘Super-Pursuit’ mode, impenetrable armour plating and, of course, an Artificial Intelligence Unit with Voice Synthesizer. KITT was capable of driving itself around, so quite why it needed the presence of that mop-haired buffoon, David Hasselhoff, is anyone’s guess.

No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you will never be as cool as this picture. FACT.

The story was that Michael Long, an LAPD officer played by Larry Anderson, was shot in the face while investigating the murder of his partner. Long was declared dead, but was actually transferred into the care of FLAG (the Foundation for Law And Government), a secret organisation set up by billionaire and philanthropist Wilton Knight. Long’s wounds were healed and he was given a new face (that of Wilton Knight’s presumed dead son) and a new identity (that of Michael Knight, played by The Hoff(TM), with The Hoff’s Hair(TM) in a supporting role) with which to go out and fight crime. Michael Knight had support, in the shape of Devon Miles, the Director of FLAG played by Edward Mulhare, and Dr Bonnie Barstow, FLAG’s chief engineer, played by Patricia MacPherson. Knight would drive around California (usually) as a high-tech knight-errant, fighting crime and solving mysteries. It was pretty formulaic, and eventually lost out to The A-Team in both the ratings war and the nostalgia war.

In another case of ‘The Car’s The Star’, a 1969 Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, with an orange paint job and welded-shut doors became an iconic piece of 80s action history. The Dukes of Hazzard was a highly enjoyable romp around Hazzard County in Georgia with the Duke Boys, Bo and Luke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat), as they drove like lunatics and annoyed the local law, portrayed as the incompetent redneck Roscoe P Coltrane (James Best), under the control of the corrupt Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), the county commissioner. The Duke Boys were forever foiling Boss Hogg’s money-making scams by…well, by driving around mostly. I have to admit, I have only a tenuous grasp on the actual plot, beyond the fact that the Duke Boys were moonshine runners originally, and now had a thing about foiling Boss Hogg’s plans. Look, there was a lot of driving around, and skidding and jumping over things.

I was ten years old, leave me alone.

Ok, maybe there was another reason...

Yeah. Cousin Daisy, played by Catherine Bach and her two supporting co-stars. She drove around in her white Jeep spying on Boss Hogg for her cousins and generally kept Uncle Jesse company. There was basically a lot of driving and vehicular stunt work in the show, as Bo was supposedly an ex-stock car racer and the General Lee was modified for racing. There was also the famous ‘hood-slide’, where one of the Duke Boys (usually Luke) would slide across the bonnet of the General Lee in order to get around the other side of the car more quickly. I don’t really know why, because it didn’t really impart much of an advantage. It just looked awesome.

All I know is that it didn’t work so well on a 1983 Austin Ambassador.

END OF PART ONE

Blood-sucking Parasites!

[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]

For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.

Vampires get people in a flap

Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.

The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The VampyreThe Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.

Gary Oldman pimpin' it as Dracula

Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.

The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!

Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.

This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.

Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.

Near Dark: Rebels without a pulse

Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).

The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.

A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.

In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.

"Look me in the eye, Tom, and tell me you aren't standing on a box."

There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.

Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.

"I really hate that Stephen Dorff. Oh crap. He's right behind me, isn't he?"

In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.

So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.

Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.

But they still don’t bloody sparkle.

Hot Enough For Ya?

Man-made climate change is causing a little bit of controversy. Some idiots say climate change is a myth, or if it is happening, it’s not the result of human activities. Scientists, on the other hand, are pretty much unanimous in their support of the theory of man-made climate change.

I suspect that my even-handed and non-judgemental introduction to my subject for today’s rant will tell you on which side of the debate I stand.

To give you an example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a scientific body set up and endorsed by the United Nations to assess the risks of climate change) states that there is “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last fifty years is attributable to human activity”. The IPCC is further supported by independent scientific establishments around the world as being representative of scientific opinion. Even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists refuse to outright deny the existence of man-made climate change, although they have admitted that a number of their members have resigned due to this policy.

So what are the dangers of climate change, either man-made or natural? Well, the obvious one is the increase in global temperatures caused by the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Even the most die-hard climate sceptic cannot deny that we are pumping these gases into the air in huge quantities. We have known for decades the damage that is being done by industry, traffic and so on, but still we do it.

It certainly wasn't the dolphins that caused this

Global increases in temperature can easily lead to changes in the landscape, as plant life is less able to react to drier or wetter conditions. Plants could therefore die out in some areas, or migrate, following the cooler temperatures away from the equator. As habitats change, animal life will have to move as well, following the vegetation that forms their diet, or the animals that feed on the vegetation in the case of predators. Some species will simply die out, forced into extinction by the destruction of their habitats. Rising temperatures will also affect the oceans, killing off coral reefs and the creatures that live on them. Small creatures, such as plankton and krill, could be severely affected, and they form a large part of the diet of some of the most massive creatures in the sea: whales. Unbalancing the food chain from the bottom up could have devastating effects.

Rising temperatures will also lead to rising sea levels, with some predictions putting the rate at thirty-six inches in the next century. A rise of that magnitude would be devastating, as over 100 million people worldwide live within three feet of sea level. It would entirely swamp the East coast of America, much of coastal Europe, the vast majority of Pacific islands. London, New York and Bangkok would drown.

Ironic doesn't always mean funny.

Rising temperatures will inevitably lead to droughts, which (odd though it may seem) lead directly to an increased risk of flooding. Droughts cause more moisture to be evaporated from the ground, drying it out and killing crops, eroding soil and killing livestock. This evaporated water then returns as heavy rainfall, increasing the risk of flooding. We are already seeing a rise in the severity and frequency of drought and flood, especially in Asia and Africa. In addition, dry conditions lead to an increased risk of forest fires, something that America and Australia have experienced in recent years.

The next problem is the increased severity of storms. Warmer oceans change weather patterns, creating much more violent hurricanes and tropical storms. The eroded landscapes will be unable to withstand this increased battering, damaging them further.

"Aunty Em! Aunty Em!"

The damage to property and human life that could be caused by these storms is incalculable. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of America in 2005, killed nearly 2000 people and caused between $80 and $110 billion in property damage.

Finally, the increased temperatures will have a direct effect of health, as warmer temperatures allow diseases and disease-carriers to spread into new habitats, bringing such delights as malaria, Dengue fever, River Blindness and Ebola. The World Health Organisation has estimated that more than 150,000 people died as a direct result of climate change in 2000 alone. It suggests that the figure will rise dramatically in the future, as tropical diseases and pests move into new areas where the climate was previously too cold to support them.

Now, I should point out that climate change is just a theory (rather like the Theory of Evolution is ‘just’ a theory), but it does have the support of a huge section of the worldwide scientific community. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is happening, and it is our fault, to motivate world leaders into serious action, wouldn’t you think? Even the Met Office in Britain is currently warning of drought conditions due to a lack of rainfall during winter. I’ll repeat that: the Met Office in BRITAIN is currently warning of DROUGHT conditions due to a LACK OF RAINFALL OVER WINTER! If that doesn’t suggest that the climate is well and truly fucked, I don’t know what does!

My childhood holidays were often spent like this

The British comedian David Mitchell, in his Soapbox series of ranting weblogs, discussed the idea of the burden of proof relating to climate change. He suggests that surely the burden of proof is on the people who say it isn’t happening, rather than the ones who say it is (see his rant here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SI5ulKiZAoE). We definitely should be doing something about it, because if the people who say it isn’t happening are right and we act, then we’ll have spent a lot of money on developing renewable energy, improving sea defenses, cleaning up our atmosphere and so on. On the other hand, if the people who say it is happening are right and we don’t act, we all die a horrible, drawn out death, starving and suffocating while bleeding from our eyes and shitting our internal organs out.

Which would you prefer? I’d prefer a world in which my children (if I ever have any), and their children (likewise), can step outside and breathe the air without immediately dying.

There are many ways in which we can try to put pressure on our governments to take action on this, because it is desperately important for us to do something. Write to your MP, join or donate to charities who work on this. If you’re a scientist, please let me know if I am just spewing out knee-jerk, liberal, reactionary bile. If you don’t, I’ll assume the worst and start building my personal bio-dome in which I’ll live like a king while you all choke on the toxic smog.

Who’s with me?

 

An Entirely Arbitrary Top Ten Movies

This is my list of the top ten movies that I think are excellent at this moment in time. I fully expect you to disagree with my list, to hurl abuse at me for not including x,y or z. Good. This is in no way going to represent the movies that I think are the best ever. I may not even give satisfactory reasons for my choices. I am going entirely on instinct and allowing that to guide me. I’ll probably look at this list tomorrow and ask myself what I was drinking.

That is the beauty of movies. One day, a film will be everything you need to see, to hear, to experience. The next day it might seem to be a total piece of crap. Ever seen a film in the cinema and thought it was great, then got it on DVD and realised that it was actually a bag of arse? I certainly have.

So, in no particular order, let’s get started.

Number 1: Fight Club dir. David Fincher (1999)

What can be said about this gem? The Chuck Palahniuk novel was masterfully adapted into this violent, funny and intelligent actioner, with star turns from Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter (among others). Its simplifying of male relationships and masculine aggression is satisfying without dumbing down, and the ‘twist’ (such as it is) is handled well. The film explores consumer culture without being preachy, using the source material excellently. It is dark and stylish, cool without trying too hard, touching without being saccharine.

If you haven’t seen this film, where have you been for the last thirteen years? If you doubt Brad Pitt’s acting ability, you need to see this film. If you’ve ever shopped at IKEA, you need to watch this film. If you’ve ever wanted to destroy something beautiful…well, you get the picture.

Number 2: High Fidelity dir. Stephen Frears (2000)

A lesser known John Cusack vehicle, with supporting roles and cameos from Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert and Bruce Springsteen. Quite a cast, I’m sure you’ll agree, and they are all excellent choices for the roles they have been given. The movie is adapted from a novel by Brit author Nick Hornby, and the story is transplanted from London to Chicago, but the director and cast handle it really well. The novel focuses on the whirlwind of emotions stirred up when Rob (John Cusack) is dumped by his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). This prompts a bout of navel-gazing and soul-searching as Rob seeks out his Top Five, All Time, Most Memorable Break-Ups in order to discover why he keeps getting dumped.

Most of the story revolves around Rob’s record store and his love (or obsession) with pop music. Everything is described in terms of the emotions in music; the soundtrack supports this with tunes from Dylan, Elton John, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Al Green and a marvellous version of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On performed by Jack Black.

If you like music and feel that it has had a profound effect on you, or if you’ve ever been dumped, or in love, watch this film. It’s one of the few films that actually brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.

Number 3: The Shawshank Redemption dir. Frank Darabont (1994)

So the third film in my list is another adaptation, this time from Stephen King. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank, where he suffers the usual prison unpleasantness, but he befriends the prison ‘fixer’, Red Redding, played by Morgan Freeman. Dufresne uses his skills in accountancy to get on the good side of the guards, led by the sadistic Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown), and eventually helps Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) to embezzle funds from an inmate labour scheme.

Despite everything that happens to Dufresne, he never gives up hope, and that is the message of this movie: they cannot take your hope if you don’t let them. The Shawshank Redemption is a beautifully uplifting movie, helped by remarkable performances, stunning direction and excellently crafted story. The film is narrated by Freeman, with his instantly recognisable inflections, and spans several decades, showing the institutionalisation of the characters as they spend the best years of their lives behind the walls of Shawshank.

This is a wonderful film and deserves a place in every film fan’s collection.

Number 4: Raiders of the Lost Ark dir. Stephen Spielberg (1981)

I was born in 1975, so I was probably 8 years old when I saw this film. I challenge any 8 year-old boy to watch Indiana Jones buckle his swash across the Egyptian landscape without immediately wanting a brown leather jacket, dusty fedora and bullwhip. Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his finest roles) is the ultimate action hero: he is as flawed as he is brilliant.

The plot is a glorious blend of pulp action, Nazi bad guys, biblical occultism and rocky romance. It even has a monkey. What more could you ask for? The cat-and-mouse game of chase with the Nazi antagonists is genuinely fun, high praise indeed. Klaus Kinski famously turned down the part of Major Toht, calling the script “moronically shitty”, but the $384 million box office would suggest that the audiences disagreed.

Raiders… is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but wears its enthusiasm proudly on its sleeve. It is a true romp, with actors that really seem to be enjoying themselves. The villains are stereotypical; sneering, perverse Nazi torturers, brilliant and amoral French archeologists. The heroes are equally stereotypical; Jones switches between bookish nerd and stubbly action man with aplomb.

As a film, it is simple and wonderful. I could watch this every day for the rest of my life and I probably would never get bored. It deserves a place in every film fan’s DVD collection and is the only film on this list that I will allow no disagreement. If you don’t like Raiders… you don’t like films. Simple.

Number 5: Blade Runner dir. Ridley Scott (1982)

The first science fiction film on the list and the second Harrison Ford vehicle, Blade Runner tells the story of Rick Deckard, hired to chase down and ‘retire’ four androids (known as replicants) who have returned to Earth to try to extend their short lives. The film has had several incarnations, culminating in the Final Cut in 2007. This version was the only one that Ridley Scott had full creative control over, removing the noir style voice-over, altering the unicorn dream and many other little tweaks.

Personally, I quite liked the voice-over, despite the fact that it was mainly used to highlight the important plot points for the hard of thinking. I felt that it gave the film an old-school noir feeling, reminiscent of the detective films of the 40s.

The changes made to the film go some way towards answering the question of Deckard’s existence: Is he a replicant himself? Scott has made his opinion clear, but ultimately it is down to the individual viewer to decide on their own.

The film is based, albeit loosely, on Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? but is far more coherent. Dick was a renowned drug user and his novels often reflect that aspect of his life, questioning ideas of humanity, paranoia, authority and so on. The film entertains some of these notions, but does so in a far more controlled way, showing Deckard as a man haunted by his own life, emotionally involved in the fate of those he is tasked with ‘retiring’.

The most outstanding feature of the film is the look of it. From the smoky, dimly lit interiors to the stark silhouettes of the cityscape, the film looks futuristic, even thirty years after its release. The lack of CGI lends a gritty realism to the world, making it far more believable than modern attempts at the genre.

Overall, Blade Runner is a wonderful film, fantastically acted, brilliantly scripted, beautifully shot.

Number 6: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope dir. George Lucas (1977)

Originally released as plain old Star Wars, this is the one that started it all. Spawning two sequels, three prequels, two spin-off movies, Tv series, video games a-plenty and more merchandise than it is possible to recount, Star Wars genuinely changed the world of film forever. The cast were mostly unknowns, with the exceptions of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and the story fantastic. Harrison Ford again features, this time as the smuggler Han Solo, with Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. The film also features arguably the most iconic movie villain ever, in the six-foot six form of Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and Emperor Palpatine’s right hand man.

I will accept that A New Hope is not the best of the films, but it is the one that came first, and it introduced me to an astounding universe of adventure, laser swords, bizarre creatures, beautiful princesses, charming rogues, spaceships, other worlds, epic battles and robots. I will never forget the way I felt as I watched the film for the first time, aged four. It began a lifelong love affair with science fiction (and was ultimately responsible for my feelings of betrayal when Phantom Menace was released), and will always hold a special place in my heart. It is by far the most innocent of the six movies, and although the storylines are not completely worked out (Luke kissing his sister ‘for luck’ is possibly one of the more creepy moments when viewed in retrospect) it is still a wonderful experience to watch.

Number 7: The Big Lebowski dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)

The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, AKA The Dude, LA’s finest stoner and bowler. The plot centres around a case of mistaken identity and kidnapping, as Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the wife of disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddlestone), disappears. Dumb hijinks ensue, but really the plot of the film is not important, despite the many twists and turns that the Coens shoehorn into the two-hour runtime. The real joy of this movie is the way in which the Dude drifts from one disaster to the next, ably assisted by his best friends, the Viet Nam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the put-upon Donny (Steve Buscemi).

The dialogue and character portrayals are excellent, with some scene stealing turns from Lebowski’s aide Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and the Stranger (Sam Elliott), and really the dialogue is the main reason to watch the film. Bridges and Co. really create the sense of reality despite the bizarre situations, and it is hard to watch without laughing out loud as long as you don’t get caught up trying to follow the plot. It is a film in which very little of importance happens, much like the Dude’s life, which centres around bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flashback. Walter’s ‘Nam inspired rants and inability to accept defeat are endearing rather than annoying, and Donny, despite rarely being noticed by the other characters, is genuinely sympathetic.

I have perhaps been a little harsh on the plot. It isn’t that the plot isn’t important, more that it is merely a vehicle for moving the main characters around and allowing them space to indulge in conversation. This is a truly character driven movie and would be just as enjoyable if the main characters weren’t seeking compensation for the Dude’s soiled rug, or chasing the missing $1 million around LA. One of the Coen brothers best films.

Number 8: Watchmen dir. Zack Snyder (2009)

I know that this is going to annoy fanboys across the internet, but I don’t care. I liked this movie. I am also a huge fan of the graphic novel, and I was really quite worried when I heard that it was being adapted for the big screen, especially when I heard it was being directed by Zack ‘300‘ Snyder. I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is different to the graphic novel; of course it is. Alan Moore’s comic is unfilmable. The version that finally made it to the cinemas is a good attempt, and works very well as a stand-alone story.

The plot follows the investigation into the murder of retired hero, The Comedian (played with eerie menace by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The investigation is led by sociopathic vigilante, Rorschach (a wonderfully unhinged Jackie Earle Haley), complete with voice-over extracts of his stream-of-consciousness journal.

The action is heavily stylised, as one would expect, which fits the tone of the film well, and the lighting, set design and soundtrack all add up to a stunning spectacle. The denouement is well handled, with genuine pathos, unusual for a superhero film. There are some drawbacks, of course, but these are minor compared to the positives. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) looks far too much like a caricature, rather than the actual ex-president, and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends a disturbing amount of time being all blue and naked, but other than that the whole film is a satisfying watch and a very good example of the superhero genre.

Number 9: X-Men dir. Bryan Singer (2000)

The one that arguably started the craze for comic book adaptions, X-Men stars Hugh Jackman as fanboy favourite Wolverine, as he is inducted into Charles Xavier’s team of superheroes, the X-Men. The humans are discovering that mutants walk among them, capable of incredible feats, and they are rightly scared. Xavier believes that humans and mutant can live together in harmony, but his old friend Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen) is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he knows what the dark side of human nature can lead to. Therefore, the film has three distinct groups, none of whom are typical bad guys. The humans are largely unrepresented in the film, except by the bigoted Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who changes his tune of hate and begs forgiveness from equally bigoted Storm (Halle Berry).

The story is solid, supported by talented actors and assured special effects. The influence on the genre is unarguable too, with this film spawning two sequels, one prequel and a spin-off (so-far), as well as triggering a surge in comic book movies, from Iron Man, Spider Man, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, John Constantine, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim and on and on and on. This popularity shows little sign of slowing down, with big budget movies for The Avengers, Spider Man, Judge Dredd, Batman and Superman all due for release in the next few years. Good news for geeks!

Number 10: The Usual Suspects dir. Bryan Singer (1995)

So, for the last film on my list, I have gone for another Bryan Singer helmed project. The Usual Suspects is a cleverly constructed whodunnit, told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) to Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) in the office of Sgt Jeff Rabin (Dan Hedaya) of the NYPD. Kint was arrested after a boat was destroyed in San Pedro but has FBI protection. Kujan is desperate to get to the truth as he is obsessed with finding and arresting Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).

The film is genuinely incredible, with strong performances from the ensemble cast, and an engrossing, well told story. The shadowy antagonist is alluded to throughout, and served as one of the advertising tricks for the film: ‘Who is Keyser Soze?’ – a question I won’t answer here, on the off-chance that you have not seen it!

The Usual Suspects was not a huge commercial success on its release, but its relatively low budget of $6 million did mean that it began to make its money back reasonably quickly. Since then it has gone on to become a massive cult success and gained a strong mainstream following as well.

This film demands a second viewing, if only to see all the clues that you missed first time round, and the denouement of this film is second to none.

Right, that’s this list of random films completed, and I’m already thinking of films I should have included. So here is a quick list of the top ten films that didn’t make it:

1) Casablanca

2) It’s a Wonderful Life

3) Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers

4) Clerks

5) Mad Max

6) Reservoir Dogs

7) The Dark Knight

8) Ocean’s Eleven

9) Unforgiven

10) Akira

Sex: What’s that all about?

I'm not sure how accurate this portrayal of Neanderthal woman is.

Sex is still viewed as a taboo subject, not something one talks about in polite society. Mention sex in company and quite often you will find yourself judged quite harshly. But why? It’s the 21st century. People have been having sex since…well, since before there were people! Many people would admit to actually quite enjoying sex and often spend a considerable amount of time, money and effort actively seeking someone to have sex with. Our society tries to hide sex away, censoring television, film, adverts, images, websites and so on. And now, it seems, PayPal are forcing censorship on authors. How? Well, PayPal, the largest online payment processor, have told publishers that if they publish erotic or adult material then they will no longer be able to use PayPal’s services. This would be devastating to these publishers, so they really have no choice but to cave in to PayPal’s demands.

Is censorship right? Is it ok? Well, I think we can all agree that hardcore pornography is not appropriate for, say, primary school assemblies. There has to be a limit to what can be viewed by children, but surely adults can decide for themselves what they watch, read or even engage in. If a couple of adults want to watch porn together, who has the right to prevent them from doing so?

Sex is great. I love it. I’m sure I’m not alone in that regard. In my opinion, anything that I choose to do with another consenting adult should be legal. If someone wants to have sex with a member of the same gender as them, fine. If someone wants to have sex with half a dozen people of mixed genders, fine. If someone wants to be chained to a bed of nails, while being asphyxiated by a twenty stone transvestite in a latex catsuit, fine. It is none of my damn business. It’s also none of your business. It therefore follows that it’s certainly none of PayPal’s business, or the church’s business, or the business of government, or pressure groups, or random tight-arsed prudes.

This ***** is ******** by the ***

What is important is our attitude to sex as individuals and as a society. At the moment, the taboo on anything sexual reinforces the view that sex is somehow dirty (“Only if it’s done right” according to Woody Allen, although I’m not sure he’s the best person to talk to about it). It is invariably taught in schools as inextricably linked to teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This turns it into something dangerous and dirty, ironically making it more attractive to teenagers but still colouring their perceptions of it. This perception carries over into our adult lives, reinforcing the taboo. And we accept it. We tacitly agree that this beautiful, caring, sensuous act is something that we should be ashamed of. Watch this: http://t.co/ojPUF07I. It explains it far better than I could.

Does watching or reading pornographic material make you into a bad person? Does it make you more likely to go out and engage in rape, sexual assaults, sex crimes? No. Of course it doesn’t. Watching porn doesn’t turn you into a rapist in the same way that watching Bruce Lee movies doesn’t turn you into a martial artist. If you rape or sexually assault someone, it is because you are a bastard who wants to hurt, dehumanize, physically and psychologically damage another human being. Porn had nothing to do with it and anyone who suggests otherwise is probably a defense lawyer.

Yes. It's a picture of a big black cock. Sorry.

There have been many studies that have tried to examine the link between pornography and sex crimes. Most of these are inconclusive as they have to point out that correlation is not the same thing as causation. In other words, just because there are apparent links between the two things, one has not necessarily caused the other. In most of these studies, it has been found that sex crimes tend to decrease after the decriminalization or legalisation of hardcore pornography. They suggest that a relaxed and open attitude towards sex is a healthy one for a society to take. Any rises in the sex crime figures are often explained by an increase in victims coming forward to report them, rather than an increase in the crimes themselves. Because individuals are more comfortable with sex, they are more understanding of the boundaries and are therefore more confident in coming forward when their boundaries have been violated.

If you do not like something that you see or read, then don’t look at it or read it. It really is that simple. If you do not expose yourself to pornography, you cannot be offended by it. We should all have the freedom to access whatever we want to, as long as it involves consenting adults. You also have the right to indulge in any sexual activity that you choose, as well as the freedom to say ‘No, I don’t want to do that’. Exercise these freedoms. Enjoy them. Demand them.

"It's all this cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy." D.H. Lawrence