Saturday, 28 April 2012

My Greatest Literary Achievement

Success in the literary world is difficult to achieve in this time of fragmented media outlets and declining sales of broadsheet newspapers, but luckily I had success early on in my career when the newspaper industry was thriving.

When I was nine I had a story printed in the kids' section of The Courier Mail which was at the time the largest circulating newspaper in Brisbane. 

The story was called 'The Beginning of Life On The Moon' - It was a bold, provocative piece of writing foreshadowing the development of a self-contained colony on the moon and describing in intricate detail how this might come about. 

Like all good works of science fiction, my story built on the work of the great predecessors. The most obvious influence is Jules Verne's masterpiece 'From the Earth to the Moon', however, considering my story was written in 1980, filmic influences such as George Lucas' 'Star Wars' and especially Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' can not be ruled out.

Upon its publication the story had some detractors - especially in the schoolyard - who were jealous of my literary ambitions and success. There was the occasional dead-arm to contend with and some criticism about technical terms in the story such as 'forward pitch thrusters', but aside from that I was mostly revered from a distance with a quiet sense of awe.

It's an unfortunate flaw in my personality that whenever I encounter success in a field, I tend to rest on my laurels rather than capitalise on that success. My story was the first instance I remember of this happening - I haven't written a story as successful since. The most tragic part is I never even cashed the cheque I received for the story. I think that mostly had to do with the fact that I didn't have a bank account at the time and the amount was less than one dollar.

Although 'The Beginning of Life On The Moon' easily stands beside the great auteurs such as Verne, Lucas and Kubrick, I believe I am more like Orson Welles in that I'm a boy genius constantly living in the shadow of my early success and never being able to match its majesty and cultural impact. Welles had 'Citizen Kane' and I have 'The Beginning of Life On The Moon'.  

The story was so ahead of its time that I believe the technology to bring my vision to the screen has only really caught up now. Digital advances made in films such as 'Avatar' and 'Lord of the Rings' now provide a big enough canvas to match the breadth of my imagination.

With this in mind, dear reader, I beg you to consider the story below and help my campaign to bring this work of genius to the big screen. Let the nine year-old Trevor live again....

and, more importantly - Let the bidding war begin!!!  

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Hunter and The Hunted

It's time the world knows. I have a secret hobby. Discussing it feels very uncomfortable as the 20 year-old self-destructive me would certainly not approve. Honestly, I don't know how it came to this, but for at least the last four years I have run almost every weekend. There - that feels better. My name is Trevor Ludlow and I'm a runner.

If I look back it would seem to stem from my wife's interest in personal fitness and the guilt I felt watching her head out to the gym whilst I sat hung-over on the couch playing computer games. At the time there was a gym around the corner from our house, so I only had to make the most minimal of efforts to join, which I did as part of my never-ending and often futile-seeming quest to impress my wife.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The mental benefits were almost instantaneous as a workout at the gym made me feel less compelled to hunt down and kill strangers who would cut me off in traffic. I was also less likely to slam cold-calling salesmen's legs in my front door. The physical benefits took a bit more work, but over time I went from looking like a wasted heroin addict (which I never was - don't do drugs, kids!) to a regular human being.

People who knew that I was going to the gym often wondered how I could stand being in such a meat market - and I agree, there probably were a lot of people checking each-other out, but this never made me feel self-conscious. The sad truth is I don't think I've attracted any female attention (warranted or not) this century, so it was nothing for me to be concerned about. I'm bad at gauging this sort of thing anyway, but I've noticed my status with the ladies declining over time from a point where a waitress might give me an extra scoop of ice-cream and a sly wink when I ordered desert; to now, where audible sighs emanate from dead eyed waitresses when I ask for some sugar for my coffee - before they go on to give me the wrong change. I can understand, however, that women might not like unwarranted attention from sweaty, testosterone-fuelled, preening alpha males at the gym, which is certainly why gyms like Fernwood are so popular.

I suppose the thing that stopped me going eventually was the whole humourlessness of the affair (and the incessant blaring techno). I remember watching one guy place every available weight on one machine and then trying to bench the whole lot while making sounds like he was giving birth at a volume that made the whole gym stop and stare at him. I couldn't help myself and started laughing - I got a lot of angry stares from other gym members.

Other life-changing things happened around this time. We moved from Brisbane to Melbourne and also had a baby. This meant that the gym was no longer around the corner, and besides, now I had absolutely no money to pay for gym fees. Instead I took up running at Royal Park which was near our house in Kensington. At first I could barely run a lap (about one kilometre), but over time I could manage about 10 or 15 laps. It was great to be out in the open air, but running around a circular track often felt futile. There is a monument to the Burke and Wills expedition at Royal Park which I would often stare at and this may have contributed to the feeling of futility.

When we moved from Kensington to Coburg, however, we moved near Merri Creek which has a track that follows the creek for about 15 kilometres and is much more conducive to the feeling that you're doing something worthwhile. It's a really nice run and as long as you're not running along in the blazing sun or being chased by the unregistered trail bike riders, then it's quite relaxing.

I must admit that probably the best thing about going for a run is me-time. The outdoors is like my own mobile lounge-room. I'd never consider going out without my trusty iPod and I can catch up with podcasts such as WTF with Marc Maron and the Ricky Gervais Show (I now consider these people to be friends). I also get to listen to things which are unsuitable for my daughter's ears and music my wife doesn't like. Occasionally a rabbit will hop across the path. It feels like some kind of Disney movie with a filthy soundtrack.

As with any endeavour, running has its cliches and whenever I mention to someone that I run on weekends, the first thing they mention is the movie 'Forrest Gump'. For those unfamiliar with the film, there is a moment where Forrest Gump gets up one morning and suddenly runs across America for no reason in particular. I always smile and nod when people mention this, but there is a grain of truth to it. Sometimes when I'm running along there is a feeling that I'm running away from something or that something is running after me. It could be some form of primal conditioning left over from cave-man times, or else something could really be after me. Either way, I'm not going to stop running to find out.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

I Love Karl Pilkington

Karl Pilkington is probably best know these days as the star of An Idiot Abroad and The Ricky Gervais Show animated series. I first heard about him several years ago as one third of The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, which, for the uninitiated is basically a series of amusing but rambling conversations between friends.

I heard the podcast on a long drive from Melbourne to Sydney. The episode that got me hooked was in season five and featured Ricky Gervais devising a scenario for Karl where his family would be killed if he didn't marry either a monkey or a gay man named Graeme.

Karl was smart enough to know that he didn't want to appear homophobic in front any gay listeners but also didn't want to get any ribbing from his mates down the pub. He cleverly avoided the answer by saying that Graeme wasn't really his type and would instead ask Graeme if he'd seen any monkeys around.

After that road trip I quickly downloaded the previous series and all the subsequent 'Guide to' podcasts as well as 'XFM: From the Vault' compilations (the initial podcasts were a spinoff of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's radio show in which Karl was the downtrodden producer). I would listen to these podcasts while jogging on the weekends. Some of Karl's remarks often made me burst out laughing especially when Gervais would extrapolate some of Karl's mystical beliefs to their illogical conclusions. It must have been a strange sight to see someone running and then suddenly fitfully laughing. Running is normally such a sombre pursuit.

The thing that continually makes the podcasts interesting is wondering how the dynamic of the show works and how much Karl is 'in on the joke'. Ricky Gervais assumes the role of 'the bully' (a role he seems to be increasingly prone to accept) and Karl is 'the victim'. Stephen Merchant takes on the role of mediator but both he and Gervais will more likely gang up against Pilkington with science and facts rather than let Karl get away with his poorly researched internet stories and hearsay.

From my many hours of listening I have devised this much about the show:

- Gervais and Merchant seem to be the ones who come up with material to ask Karl about every week. Karl works on his segments which are either Monkey News, Rockbusters or his diary. Early on they were not allowed to meet during the week to discuss the show but I suspect they have a brief production meeting. They do not rehearse the show as such.

- Karl never backs down from an argument no matter how ridiculous and he never laughs. This appears to be a rule because Karl sounded disappointed one time when he was caught out laughing. I don't think Karl is a defined 'character' and most of his thoughts seem to be genuine and spontaneous.

- Ricky Gervais will dismiss something Karl says as 'bollocks' rather than admit there may be a grain of truth in something Karl says.

An example of Gervais dismissing a story can be found in Karl's 'Monkey News' segment. Karl mentioned that he had read on the internet that a monkey brain had been kept alive on 'a stick'. Gervais mocked him for this and said it was impossible. Recently while watching Doctor Michael Molesley's 'Make Me Live Forever' documentary there was a clip of an experiment from the early 1970s in which Doctor Robert White managed to transplant a monkey head onto the torso of another monkey's body. It occurred to me that this is what Karl had probably seen. Gervais, being a former biology student would most likely have been aware of this experiment but refused to give Karl any credit. (BTW if you don't believe me the clip is on Youtube, but I warn you that once you see it you'll never be able to 'unsee' it.)

I'm a fan of the podcasts more than the animated series probably because I've envisioned Karl's stories in my own mind and often prefer my take on things - but occasionally the animation really adds something to Karl's ramblings. One example in the last series is the show in which Pilkington recounted an actual meeting with some film producers in which he pitched a ridiculous premise for a film which he envisioned would star Clive Warren (Karl meant to say Clive Owen) and involved some weird lesbian brain scenario. The animated embodiment of 'Clive Warren' and the subsequent movie segments were both hysterical.

I'm also a big fan of An Idiot Abroad because it makes me realise how much Karl and I have in common. Unlike most travel shows Karl is prone to pointing out what is wrong with a certain destination rather than what is great about it. Examples of this include his visit to the pyramids where he became fixated on all the garbage blowing about in the breeze rather than the pyramids themselves. Also his swim in the Dead Sea was marred when he encountered someone else's snot in the water. Watching this reminded me of postcards I sent back to relatives when I travelled through Europe noting that 'Big Ben isn't that big' and a visit to Disneyland where I remarked that The Magic Castle looks like it's made out of plywood. Perhaps television has conditioned us to expect more out of travelling than reality can possibly deliver.

One problem with An Idiot Abroad is that you realise Karl is more 'in on the joke' than the podcasts would have you believe. There is no way that Karl could be abducted in a training scenario without having some foreknowledge about what is going to happen. The same with his prostate exam in the second series. He would have to give his consent for something so private to be broadcast on national television. Also, the fact that he consented to a second series (and possibly a third) would indicate that he's not as unwilling a participant as you might expect. Karl is nothing but practical, however, and points out that he needs some form of employment.

Ultimately, the thing that is great about Karl is that he has had very little formal education but is always questioning - even if it is a stupid question like 'Jellyfish - Do we need them?'. He's interested in things even if he doesn't quite understand them. He's like that kid in school who puts up his hand and is derided by his classmates for asking a stupid question but secretly everyone in the class was just too afraid to ask. I admire people who aren't afraid to look stupid.

I love Karl but if it was up to me to decide whether to marry a chimp or Karl Pilkington then I would probably choose the chimp - but only just. Looking at some of his photos maybe there wouldn't be too much difference between the two of them but at least the chimp doesn't have a 'head like a fucking orange'.

Friday, 6 April 2012

500 Episodes of The Simpsons

What can be said about The Simpsons that hasn't already been said, eh? That's my challenge writing this blog but also a challenge for the show's writers having to come up with a new series every year.

I've been watching the show from the beginning and I remember not being an instant fan. I'd seen a few of the shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show and thought it was okay, but when the show became a half-hour fully-fledged series it wasn't really given the promotion it deserved.

The advertisers seemed to think that because the show was a cartoon the audience would most likely comprise children, so they focussed on the antics of Bart Simpson and released the woeful late 80s synth-pop number 'Do The Bartman' as a tie-in to the series premier. A lot of merchandise was released also featuring Bart and his incongruous catch phrases such as 'Eat My Shorts' and 'Don't Have a Cow, Man'. These were quickly phased out in the show and Bart's early penchant for catch phrases was openly derided in the  'I Didn't Do It' episode some years later.

I really fell in love with the show when living in a sharehouse with about five other people. We'd watch the new episode every week and had an extensive VHS library of past episodes to tide us over until new episodes were aired. There was nothing better than sitting down with a couple of slices of pepperoni pizza from Ribbets at Auchenflower and a four litre cask of lambrusco.

After watching the show with others it was obvious who the star of the show was - Homer. His unbridled rampaging Id combined with his laziness and his lack of concern for others represented the worst aspects of 'the ugly American' but there was something about him that was sweet and childlike too. In spite of early criticism the show received from detractors, The Simpsons, although dysfunctional, proved to be a pretty solid family unit that loved each other and were more easy to relate to than families on shows like Growing Pains and Family Ties which were so formulaic and saccharine. President George Bush Senior famously said that Americans should be 'more like The Waltons and less like the Simpsons'. He would go on to be lampooned in the show as a Mr Wilson-type character that moves in over the road from Bart's 'Dennis the Menace.'

Simpson-speak became an instant part of our vernacular. This, combined with quotes from 70s Australian television shows, sporting commentators and archaic dad-speak made conversations between me and my friends almost indecipherable to the outsider for the best part of a decade (I think I've recovered to some degree now). But that was the thing - if you could drop a Simpsons quote into a conversation and get a response then you knew the person you were talking to was in a group that was as important and exclusive as The Stonecutters. On one occasion this didn't work in a friends' favour. I remember the look of disappointment on the face of his girlfriend who was not familiar with the show when she realised all the witty remarks that my friend was spouting were all lifted from The Simpsons. The show travelled so much comedic terrain that there was no subject the show didn't touch. Even South Park acknowledged this in the episode 'The Simpsons Already Did It'.

To my mind there are three Simpsons eras. Early episodes focussed on the dynamic of the family when the show looked and sounded more like a deranged Peanuts cartoon. When writers ran out of these family scenarios the show shifted into being about social satire and popular culture. Now the Simpsons' universe is so large that they seem to be able to sustain storylines from their own rich past. This makes it strange when watching new episodes because any guest stars seem to be shoehorned in. The show no longer seems to be a part of this world.

Another way to divide the series up would be to consider episodes to be Phil Hartman episodes or post Phil Hartman. I remember being genuinely shocked and saddened when Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998 as he seemed such a well adjusted guy and was effortlessly funny. He most notably played attorney Lionel Hutz and washed up actor Troy McLure in The Simpsons and left a gaping hole in the series when he passed away. To their credit, The Simpsons' writers did not replace Hartman with another voice actor but his loss is still felt. Hartman's performance in the musical version of 'Planet of the Apes' is still one of the series highlights and a reminder of when songs in The Simpsons were worthwhile. The 'Songs in the Key of Springfield' album is pretty great but the tunes went downhill after that for some reason. If you're a Hartman fan I also recommend his performance in the role of Captain Carl in Pee Wee Herman live.

Like any Simpsons fan I have my favourite Simpsons moments. I like it when the show gets a little bit surreal and characters act against-type and unexpectedly. Although not particularly funny, one of my favourite clips is when Marge is on the front lawn of the house with sisters Patty and Selma. They have been fighting with Homer. Marge tries to placate her sisters by explaining that Homer is 'a complicated man'. Seconds later Homer sticks his head out of an upstairs window, smashes a plate over his head and exclaims 'No I'm not!'

If I had to pick a low point of the series it would have to be the episode 'That 90s Show' which came out in 2008. The show reimagines the Simpsons' timeline so that Homer and Marge are college-age in the 1990s. Besides some pretty lame references to Nirvana and shows like Melrose Place the biggest deal breaker is the fact that they could have been a bit more imaginative and true to The Simpsons timeline by at least making it a dream sequence. Does this mean that Marge never picked Homer up after a humiliating high school prom or that they never unknowingly met at summer camp when they were children? Even the episode where Principal Skinner was found to be an imposter named Armin Tamzarian was reset at the end when they made Springfielders swear they would never mention Skinner's real identity again 'under pain of torture'.

I suppose this episode made me tune out of the show for a while but I started watching it again. Luckily the writers seem to have learned from the mistake of messing with the timeline. There are still talented people working on the show and over the years Conan O'Brien has featured among the writing staff and Brad Bird has been one of the notable directors that has gone on to do feature films such as The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It's undoubtedly a great pool of talent and amazing to think it has lasted this long. When I watch it now it is kind of like watching a modern Rolling Stones concert. Sure, it's not their heyday anymore but I'm still interested in what they're up to and something that has had such a profound impact on popular culture deserves a lifetime pass in my book.

So if a nuclear bomb suddenly lands on me one day and I have a split second left to live, I won't be like Comic Book Guy and declare that I've 'wasted my life' - on the contrary - I've spent a large portion of it watching The Simpsons!