Friday, 25 May 2012

Remembering the Village Twin

Growing up in Brisbane in the 70s and 80s I got used to seeing iconic landmarks getting routinely bulldozed to appease private interests, despite any amount of public outcry. It continues to this day, with the most recent inclusion on the list being the Hoyts Regent cinema in the Queen Street mall.

I live in Melbourne now, but I was in Brisbane a few months ago and happened to walk past another iconic Brisbane building that is boarded up and forlorn - New Farm's Village Twin Cinema. This cinema in its heyday will always be what I think of when I think of an ideal viewing experience.

With decreasing box office sales, increasingly elaborate home cinemas and the explosion of online piracy, the laws of commerce probably don't favour a cinema with only two screens, no cup holders and a less than state-of-the-art audio system. The Village twin made up for any failings in these areas by a wealth of unique design charm, as well as screens which were big enough to give an epic feel to the most humble of films. It was also the first place where I saw '2001: A Space Odyssey'.

I was about six or seven years old when Star Wars first came out in 1977. Like any kid of my generation it was a revelation and the beginning of the golden age of the blockbuster. I originally saw it with my family and my lasting recollection of this first viewing was literally jumping out of my seat in the trash-compactor scene when the walls start to converge on our hapless heroes. I was holding a box of Jaffas in my hand and a fair amount of them flew out of the box and rolled down the aisle. I had become a cinema cliche!

I saw it several times after that and on at least one occasion I was lent out to one of my dad's friends because she didn't want to go and see a 'kids' film' by herself. I didn't mind - I loved Star Wars and to my shame identified with Luke Skywalker more than Han Solo. Now that I'm an adult I want to be Han Solo - who wouldn't? - stupid kid!

My dad must have noticed my interest in sci-fi and made the incredible leap of logic to think that a seven year-old Star Wars fan might enjoy a screening of '2001: A Space Odyssey' at the good-old Village Twin.

The simple fairy tale whimsy of Star Wars was replaced in 2001 with a deep, disjointed, metaphysical journey. Lightning-fast action sequences were replaced by ponderous snail-paced operatic space ballets and an indecipherable psychedelic third act light show. It was the first time I remember looking over at my father and thinking 'you are a strange human being'. Despite my initial misgivings (or perhaps because of them) '2001: A Space Odyssey' has gone on to be my undisputed favourite film.

I think the reason I eventually embraced this film had to do with my dad thinking I was mature enough to understand it, but a lot of it had to do with the atmosphere in The Village Twin cinema. The ceiling in one of the two rooms had these strange, white, conical fixtures jutting out which gave the impression of being inside a starship. They were topped off by flat black circles which looked like speakers (which they were certainly not) and if you stared into them they gave a feeling of infinity outside of the confines of the cinema. This, combined with an early 1970's array of rainbow-coloured down-lights was a perfect visual accompaniment to '2001'. The other cinema had a similar 1970s aesthetic but featured square panels and a purple lighting scheme ( I liked both cinemas but always secretly hoped for the '2001' room).

Now that I'm a parent I figure that children probably grow up faster than when I was a kid, so when my daughter turned three I decided it was time to show her '2001: A Space Odyssey' which I now own as part of my 'Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Cinema' box set collection. She was surprisingly attentive and seemed to  understand a lot of what was going on. The only thing she seemed to be afraid of was at the end where there is a close-up of a blinking eye which changes colour. Apparently, a monkey beating his enemy to death with the sun-bleached bones of a fellow tribesmen doesn't warrant any need for concern from this new generation.

My Daughter's surprisingly astute critique of '2001: A Space Odyssey' is as follows:

"It was pretty good but a bit scary. There was a baby and a big eye"

I wonder if '2001' will go on to be my daughter's favourite film?

What will she remember about it?

Now that I think about it I probably didn't even see 2001 at the Village Twin. It just seems like the place I should have seen it. My daughter Clementine will probably mis-remember seeing it at the iMax cinema in Melbourne (in 3D even!) instead of in the lounge room at home. The one thing she will remember (which is open to debate) is that her dad is 'a strange human being'.

My job is done.

Long live The Village Twin cinema.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Inside the Golden Days of Pinball

I've always felt I have something in common with Dionne Warwick - we both don't know what to do with ourselves. I probably found myself at my greatest loose-end in the late 1980s straight after high school. I didn't get in to the course I wanted to do at university, which resulted in all my ambitions for my future deflating from conquering the film and literary world, to making sure I was at home every weekday afternoon at around 4pm so I could watch Count Duckula. After a couple of months of worried looks from my parents, I managed to summon enough initiative to go for a job at the public service (the interview was in the morning, so I'd have plenty of time to make it home for Count Duckula).

To my surprise I actually got a job with the Queensland State Government in what was then known as The Department of Housing. To this day I'm not exactly sure what it is I did there, but I know it involved colouring in maps with pencils to indicate properties the department purchased and spending hours doing searches on properties which can now be done over the internet at the click of a button.

Of course, being the precocious little shit that I was, I found this all to be beneath me and I registered my contempt through my wardrobe of ever-lengthening hair and op-shop paisley shirts with extra-wide 1970s ties. My corporate image was completed by a very fetching blue Batman lunchbox. Looking back I should've probably shown some more interest in my own life rather than criticising others for being career public servants and making life decisions like getting married at 19 to the guy down the road, before they'd even had a chance to see the world (I'm 40 now and I still don't quite get that one).

Luckily there were others around my age that also were marking time until something (hopefully) better came along and we used our god-given flex-time entitlements (to the laymen, this is accrued extra time that can be used to to have time off for extra-curricular activities) to spend many a lazy afternoon down the pub drinking. It's a testament to how little interest I had in my job that whenever anyone mentions those Department of Housing days the first thing I think of (besides friends I made back then) is the Party Zone pinball machine:

It was located upstairs at Rosie's Tavern which was just across the road from our place of work. It became a popular game to play at lunchtime. It eventually became an after work activity and at our lowest ebb, we would even duck over at morning and afternoon tea breaks to play.

The thing that I liked about Party Zone was that it was not affiliated with any movie or TV franchise and it was like having a swingin' retro-themed outer-space party every time you played. I haven't played it for years but I remember you could choose the song you that played in the background and it had a Super-Sonic-Robotic-Comic feature that told an inaudible joke followed by canned laughter. It was groovy, man! 

In all the time we played, I don't think any of us ever improved at the game. There were other distractions at Rosie's - like having to drink 12 pints of VB to win a five-dollar VB t-shirt (you didn't have to do it in the one session - but we did anyway)  and of course there were office politics to discuss.

After several years with The Department, Indications that it was time to move on began to present themselves to me. Possibly the earliest of these was Party Zone being replaced by other machines; most notably Dr Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the one that almost filled the hole in my heart left by Party Zone - The Creature from the Black Lagoon. My drinking buddies started making plans for the future as well and it saddened me to imagine myself playing alone in the corner.

The biggest impulse to leave happened when the section I worked in was taken over by a particularly bland middle-management type, who would often bore me senseless with endless talk of investment opportunities and planning for my future. I probably should've listened to him, but I would've been more interested in his opinion of what The Super-Sonic-Robotic-Comic might be saying and if it was actually funny. Also, he seemed to have long, tense discussions with his wife on the phone (almost certainly concerning money and their investments) and it occurred to me that if I stayed any longer then I might end up like him. I had been at The Department for five long years - it was time to quit and go overseas.

On my last day at work, as a mark of respect, I wore my specially-purchased tuxedo t-shirt. I told my section-head that I didn't want any sort of presentation and instead invited my friends down to Rosie's to play pinball for the last time. When we arrived back at work I discovered they'd gone through with a presentation anyway - without me! I had burned my bridges spectacularly. If I had exited the building playing my boss' head like a bongo-drum I don't think I could have made a worse impression.

After travelling around England and Europe for several months I returned to Australia jobless and penniless, but ultimately I still feel I did the right thing. I've had better jobs and worse jobs since but at least a new generation of public servants are not pointing and talking under their breath about the middle aged guy in the corner at Rosie's playing pinball by himself! 

I still have my tuxedo t-shirt! When I found out my wife was pregnant I had to buy one for our child. Here is a picture of our daughter wearing it. May she use it more wisely than me!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Marvelous Clouds

I've always loved the band Ween. Their music is what I would describe as 'gleeful'. That's not something you could say about too many bands out there. Lead singer Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) always sounds like he's singing with a smile on his face and although their music has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, I still imagine Freeman and his musical partner Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) sitting as teenagers in their bedrooms coming up with weird sounds on a 4 track recorder and laughing about the possibilities of what they could get away with. That spirit of the band never wavered over their almost thirty year partnership - up until their most recent album La Cucaracha, they were still mashing musical styles, trying out weird effects and shifting gears from offensive and silly to poignant and soulful.

That's why it annoys me when people dismiss Ween as a 'novelty' band. To me there's nothing inauthentic about the band at all. Music is like being at a party. The first instinct I have when I meet new people is to try and be funny, later, if I like someone enough and feel we have common interests then maybe I might share something a bit deeper. If someone doesn't get my sense of humour then there is no way they're going to truly understand me. Humour is the doorway to understanding. People are playful! Music should be playful as well. To me it's more inauthentic to expect people to listen to your 'deep' music straight off the bat if you are unwilling to share any other aspect of yourself. Ween is such a great band because they don't place any musical boundaries on what they can do.

It could be argued that a lot of Ween's music is 'ironic' but I think this is too lazy a description as I have often found myself unexpectedly moved by some of their songs over the years and I think they genuinely have a love for the musical styles they pursue, even if they are lampooning them. That's why it wasn't too much of a surprise to me to hear that Aaron Freeman chose to do an album of cover versions of songs by 60s and 70s troubadour Rod McKuen as his first solo album. McKuen was a popular poet and songwriter at that time but was dismissed by critics as being too schmaltzy, whereas Ween seem to have critical respect but don't really back it up with commercial success. Both artists could claim to be misunderstood. The real surprise of Freeman's album 'Marvelous Clouds' is how much he makes McKuen's songs his own and the directness and sincerity of his delivery.

It's no secret that Freeman has had his share of substance abuse problems over the years and recently (to his credit) he has sought help. In this regard you could consider the album to be a 'recovery' album - it's filled with tasteful arrangements, gentle strings, acoustic guitars, brushed drums and it's all topped off with Freeman's clear vocals with multi-layered harmonies. Opening track 'As I Love My Own' is the most Ween-like song on the album but there are other aspects that also fit in with the Ween sensibility. The second song 'Jean' could be interpreted as a love song to his alter-ego 'Gene Ween' and the Guns 'n' Roses style solo in 'The Beautiful Strangers' is reminiscent of something Freeman's old pal Dean Ween might pull out (I can see his eyes closed, mouth open and nostrils flaring as I listen to it).

Perhaps the biggest eye opener is the spoken-word tune 'Pushing the Clouds Away'. Even I baulked at the age-of-aquarius stream-of-consciousness approach over an almost jazz-like beatnik backing, but the sincerity of Freeman's delivery makes what could be interpreted as fairly cliched lines pondering the nature of clouds and not being able to push them away, into something quite haunting; especially the final line where he desperately but wearily begs "Help Me" followed by a plaintive "Please?"

The song 'Mr Kelly' is also a highlight. A grown man such as myself should not be so easily moved by a song concerning the simple pleasures of playing with your dog on a summer's day, but who doesn't love a dog? Maybe that is what Freeman is trying to reconnect with - a sense of innocence. I know when I was young I used music to try and define myself and in a way push people away, but when I got older I tried to use music as a way to reconnect. It's not an easy thing to do when people don't seem to have time to listen anymore.

I remember a few years ago drunkenly putting on Billy Joel's song 'It's Still Rock and Roll to Me' and dancing around a friend's loungeroom. Sure, I said I was being ironic, but ultimately I was genuinely enjoying myself. I've reached the point now where a good time is a good time and I don't want to have to explain myself or prove anything to anyone. I like Aaron Freeman's album 'Marvelous Clouds'. It may be different from what I'm used to from his Ween output, but it's still rock 'n' roll to me.