Monday, September 05, 2005


The weekend was dominated by a marathon episode of my on-going Festival of Bad Cinema. Not all the films were bad: 'Kung Fu Hustle', for example, was a very enjoyable combination of kung fu movie, special effects extravaganza, gangster caper and Roadrunner cartoon. But most of them were bad, or weird, or both bad and weird, which is always good value.

First up, along with 'Kung Fu Hustle', was the French anime effort 'Immortal', which definitely fell into the Weird catagory. A bizarre and jarring mix of live action and animation, it adopted the classic French animation habit of taking three or four interesting ideas, mashing them together without rhyme or reason, and dressing the resultant mess up in a gorgeously baroque animation style that charms all criticism away. I couldn't really say what the plot was about, but I can say that it featured the Egyptian god Horus (looking fruity in the sort of outfit rarely seen outside Gay Pride parades), a woman with blue hair who may or may not have been an alien, a political prisoner, a police detective who got half his face bitten off by a giant red hammerheaded squid monster (and is still pretty pissed about it) and a general science-fictiony breakdown of reality as we know it. Oh, and there was an evil blue pigeon at the end, too. On the Eiffel Tower. Of course.

The next night, I watched Zack Braff's 'Garden State'. Here is my impression of it:

Talk talk talk quirk talk talk quirk talk quirk talk talk talk quirk talk quirk talk talk quirk talk talk talk talk talk Zach Braff spends $2.5 million film budget addressing unexceptional personal issues talk quirk talk talk talk.

And that's about all I can say about it.

Finally there was 'Sapphire and Steel', a strange low-budget British TV series from 1979 about two elementals who cavort about fixing up the incursions of evil into the space/time continuum.

Well, I say cavort, but there was precious little jollity in the proceedings. The tight budget limited each storyline (dragged out across anywhere between half a dozen and a dozen episodes) to a single set, such as an isolated house or an abandoned railway station. And since they'd spent their twenty pounds building the set, by Jove they were going to use them. When not delivering lines, Sapphire and Steel spent their time striding purposefully between rooms, along corridors, and up and down innumerable staircases, over and over again. Especially the staircases. So many straircases. Rose would have felt right at home.

They were assisted by a token human being or two, who generally spent his or her time blundering about upsetting Sapphire and Steel's delicately contrived efforts to overcome the forces of evil. Frankly, I was surprised that Steel didn't give in to the urge to deck them. I would have. There was a little girl in the first storyline whom I would have cheerfully garroted with piano wire, or at the very least tossed to the evil presence with a hearty cry of "Eat up, old bean! Feast upon the whiny little bitch's soul and I'll give you a double-helping of dessert!"

Part of the fun in watching elderly TV shows is experiencing the world-view that created them, and Sapphire and Steel was no exception. I vaguely recall 1979, and let me tell you, it wasn't all roller-disco and Star Wars merchandising. Sapphire and Steel embody the grim nihilism of the era, the pervading idea that the individual was just about due for a good crushing by the forces of a godless and unfeeling universe.

There was also the insidious idea that newer is better. Sapphire and Steel find their work easiest in new rooms with new furnishings, because they sap the power of the Monsters from Beyond Time. Their problems occur in dusty, decrepit buildings, not in modern airports or shag-carpeted, orange-formica'd apartments. Modern buildings don't have history, and in the Sapphire and Steel universe history causes all sorts of unpleasantness. We'd all be much better off if we tore down our Tudor houses and Art Nouveau railway stations and lived in concrete boxes with plastic furniture, according to them.

In addition, there was the rather dark ending to the second storyline. In order to stop the evil being that was trapping and harvesting scores of unhappy ghosts, Steel offered it a single living person to devour. He was fifty two, you see, and they'd already worked out by spooky supernatural means that he was going to die at the age of fifty seven. As Steel pointed out, he wasn't likely to do anything meaningful in the next five years.

Excuse me? Who says a fifty two year old can't acheive anything meaningful? Did we suddenly segue into 'Logan's Run'? What the hell kind of numbskulled 70s reasoning is that?

Despite its miserly sets, lack of logical cohesion, incredibly annoying peripheral characters and pacing that moved as slowly and erratically as an old lady in a supermarket aisle, it was still an amusing little show to watch. This may be because Sapphire and Steel were both played by clever comic actors. You're most likely to see them now playing Patsy on 'Absolutely Fabulous' and Ducky on 'NCIS', respectively. Sapphire and Steel were dreadfully earnest and serious, but you could tell that the people playing them weren't.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree with your 'newer is better' paragraph. I think you're putting a pre-conceived analysis onto it. Both of the Sapphire and Steel stories are basically ghost stories, with a science-fiction flavour. And nearly all ghost stories have the ghosts inhabiting older places, places with history. So of course newer places with less history will have less ghostly power. But in no other sense was newer shown to be better. I mean, it's not as if they were the technological 'ghostbusters' from the future, with all sorts of modern gadgets to fix the problems.

10:15 PM  

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