Saturday, 14 April 2012

Creating A Timetable

They paid him to drive empty buses. He was the man they called if they were planning a new route. They sent him to a hundred different depots where he would collect a thousand different buses; always different colours, and always with different locations above the windscreens. To him each bus was the same empty giant with pungent smelling seats lined up like teeth at his back.

Three times a day he would drive the bus wherever they told him. At each red dot on his map he would stop and take the exact time. He opened the bus doors and imagined the people clomping up the stairs with heaving shopping bags. He allowed time to sell each of them a ticket. He added up all the stops. The hands of a clock forever revolved in his head. He scribbled digits on dog eared spreadsheets that they gave him each morning.

In the evenings he returned. The men at their desks would click their pens and chew over his data.

This happened once at a bus stop. A woman spoke to him with one foot in the bus doorway. “I’ve been here hours,” she said. “Let me on. What do you mean you’re not scheduled? Let me on.” He calmed the woman. He showed her the spreadsheets. He smoothed things over. Only, when he pulled away he looked at her in his mirror and he thought, I should have offered her a lift. His foot stroked the brake so that the metal frames of the seats chattered behind him, but he kept driving.
At his funeral his grandchildren will remember him as the man with the pencil behind his ear. He was the old man with big ideas and scraps of paper falling from his trouser pockets whenever he sat down. Sometimes he would take one of those scraps of paper and smooth it out on his thigh. This is when he wasn’t telling them stories or showing them his photographs. He would take the scrap of paper and write something on it. Then he would put it away.

This happened once; years after his retirement. His wife saw him returning from the shops with a bag full of post-it notes. She never said anything. He liked to write things down. Later, when she came across the receipt, she slipped it into the bin and never said a word.

At his wake his grandchildren will find their way to his study. They will divide up the magnificent oil paintings he has made for them. The study will smell of pine and tobacco. They will open a desk drawer, expecting to find paint brushes but instead they will find a thousand folded squares of paper. They will open one and see that he has scrawled a series of numbers there. They will spend the next hour digging through the drawer full of numbers and they will wonder why he did this. They will work out that the numbers are times and then they will wonder at the significance of each time. 2:03, 7:36, 8:59, 3:14, 7:00, 12:01, 12:02, 1:48, 6:32. They will ask their grandmother, who will smile at them and never say a word.


The first National Flash Fiction Day is fast approaching! If you don't know about it then educate yourself here

There are events up and down the country to commemorate the day as well as an anthology release. I'm particulaly excited by the anthology as it includes a story by a friend of mine, Emma as well as one by Tania Hershman. I don't know Tania but her story 48 Dogs, which I first read in February has become one of my favourite online flashes. Go ahead, read it - tell me it doesn't break your heart.

I've been writing flash fiction for as long as I've been writing. I remember trying to write a novel at the age of twelve. It had twenty eight chapters but would probably be filed under flash fiction if anyone were to categorise it. I'll have to try and find it somewhere the next time I'm lost in the loft, but I'm sure teh total word count came it at under 1,000.

Anyway - I have a few stories scheduled to appear both in print and online over the next few months. I will alert you all when they are up but until then, here is a little flash fiction for you.

Enjoy 16th May.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Alien Quadrilogy - A few thoughts

On Good Friday I went along to the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square to watch the Alien "Quadrilogy" (a word forever underlined in red when typed because it simply does not exist.) It was a gruelling but ultimately hugely rewarding experience that began at 18.20 and ended at some time close to 04.00. 

Upon exiting the cinema I was thrust into a world of drunken shrieking clubbers and vomiting teenagers. I felt a wide array of emotions. Mostly I was nostalgic for 18.20 - that time, long ago when I had sat down to watch one of the greatest films ever made. How twisted and strange 'Alien' seems when viewed through the kaleidoscope of nonsense that is 'Alien Resurrection.'

Suffice to say I was incapable of thinking clearly about any of the films at that point. They were heaped on top of each other. A huge mess of facehuggers, xenomorphs, marines and androids. It took me the remainder of the Easter weekend to formulate any kind of coherent response to what I had seen. And; however redundant it is in 2012, I am going to share it with you.

The first prequel to 'Alien Versus Predator - Requiem' appeared in 1979, just two years after Star Wars, and it revolutionized science fiction cinema - again. What it lacked in originality in terms of plot (see The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing From Outerspace) it made up for in tone and atmosphere. Ridley Scott had a background in advertising; he knew that atmospherics were important, and he knew that they needed to be instantly apparent. In Alien, these ideologies are perfectly realised in the very opening frames.

Space - vast, dark and covered in an eerie orange hue. The appearance of that iconic lettering is slow and methodical, just as the film will be in building to its infamous midpoint payoff.

Scott nailed the film in the first ten minutes. Forget the exploding chests and the chamber full of eggs, what I enjoy about Alien is the terrific sense of isolation he constructs at the films beginning. Those shots of empty corridors, sleep pods and computers kicking to life in the darkness are just as memorable to me as John Hurt violently giving birth to the Alien intruder.

The Prince Charles showed Alien in 35mm, and it had never looked better. The shadowy corners that Scott would eventually ad to the DVD release were gone at this screening. The film was offered as it was originally intended, and it was a refreshing experience. The lighter format of 35mm left me with the simple ability to see more. Not of the Alien of course - that Xenomorph will always remain largely hidden - but of the crew and the vessel. The silent cushion lined corridors of the Nostromo had never looked more ominous. And that is an observation that translates well to the film in general. Unlike the other offerings during this mammoth evening, Alien commanded total silence. Never mind screaming, in space I couldn't even hear the audience breathe.

Q: How do you cash in on the success of a cult hit?
A: You add stuff. You add lots of stuff.
Didn't like Gremlins? Well maybe we should add NEW YORK. Not sure about BTTF? Hey, what if they went to THE FUTURE? And Terminator? Bah, how about two Terminators? In TRUCKS!

Before all of this though, James Cameron had already set a precedent by creating the 1986 Terror/Action Adventure ‘Aliens.’

‘Aliens’ is Alien+.

Namely it is ‘Alien’ + guns, marines, an obscene amount of testosterone, tanks, more aliens and some of the most truly inspired one-liners of all time. There is only one way I can accurately describe the experience of watching ‘Aliens’ in a cinema full of ‘Aliens’ fans, and that is...interactive. Many cinema goers shouted every line whilst drunkenly cheering on the hopelessly ill prepared marines and feasting xenomorphs alike.

Aliens is the ultimate sequel, and whilst I will always prefer it's predecessor you cannot fault the originality Cameron brought to the project. So many tropes that we will later associate with the director began here, but in 1986 these ‘Cameronisms’ were witty and refreshing. He tells a distressing story here but manages to weave humour and sleek action throughout in a way that doesn't feel contrived like his later efforts.

If I have a gripe with 'Aliens' it is that we have subsequently been spoiled by the directors cut. That cut offers such a definitive experience that the theatrical version feels butchered in comparison. We can all surely agree that ‘Aliens’ simply isn't ‘Aliens’ without an appearance from Red Dwarf's Captain Hollister? Can't we?

Darkness. Unending darkness.

Dear James Cameron,
How DARE you end an Alien film with the slightest glimmer of hope that more than one character may actually survive.
Well, fuck you.
David Fincher

Yes, Fincher kills everyone bar Ripley before the film has started and he retains that sense of abject depression throughout the whole picture. A bald and bereaved Ripley is almost raped whilst a group of extremely dangerous convicts sit about rotting in their cells at the edge of the universe and a doctor recounts a story of multiple deaths by his own hand. Wow – ‘Alien3’ is really a barrel of laughs. Even our trusty friend the Alien falls on hard times here, having to take up residence inside a dog and subsequently becoming rendered in CGI.

Alien3 had a lot of trouble coming to life and subsequently it was unfair of me to blame Fincher for any of these despite what I have said above. At various times throughout its stilted production ‘Alien3’ had about thirty writers. Anybody who was anybody in the world of sci-fi was on board at some point. The lead role was handed to and then snatched away from the excellent Michael Biehn. Weaver wanted out, then in, then out again. Ridley Scott was tied in to direct, but couldn't. And then it was re-written again once before and again after Fincher was tied in to direct. Even once production began rolling, the film was plagued with issues. Fincher has publicly announced that he felt suffocated by the studio, who he considers did not trust him with the picture to the point that after he had finished filming they snatched the film away and reworked it extensively before release. All of this manifests itself in a film that just doesn’t make much sense.

‘Alien3’ feels odd, especially when viewed back to back with the first two. It opened in 1992 to mixed reviews and questionable success, and this was reiterated at the Prince Charles. After ‘Aliens’ was over, many of the audience just left, perfectly content to pay the full ticket price for just the first two offerings.

I'm not a huge fan of Alien3 but it does do one thing very, very well. It does something so well that nobody could ever conceive of breaking the rules it sets. What it does is provide an ending to the Alien saga, and whilst it isn’t perfect, it is definitive. In a hugely symbolic yet perfectly accessible finale 20th Century Fox said goodbye to Ripley and the Xenomorph forever. Oh – wait…..

Alien Resurrection
Here are three of the taglines found on IMDB for ‘Alien Resurrection.’
Pray you die first.
It's already too late.
Beyond salvation.

Yes, yes and yes. Whoever put those together was, if nothing else, insightful. I did want to die. It was far too late (half one-ish) and this film is without a doubt beyond salvation. I am not going to write a review of Alien Resurrection and if that sounds like a cop-out that's fine. 

It is.

The cinema was about a third full at this point; the man to my left that quoted every Bill Paxton line from the second film had long since abandoned ship. My friends and I felt alone, very alone and an inexplicably pissed off Ron Pearlman was all we had for company. During the course of the fourth film I fell asleep and dreamed of a time I went to the cinema to see ‘Alien’ - it was a great dream. Upon waking (just twenty minutes in – sigh) I rolled a cigarette and counted the hairs on a man’s head.

‘Alien Resurrection’ does a lot wrong but perhaps its biggest sin is distancing the audience from their heroine. The three films that preceded it had taken audiences to very different places but we always had a constant. Sometimes bald, sometimes wearing nothing but pants, but always resilient to the Alien menace is Lieutenant Ripley aka ‘The Weaver.’ But in Resurrection Ripley is no longer really Ripley. She is a part human, part Alien clone that it is impossible to engage with. Instead we get Winona Ryder. But wait, she is impossible to engage with as well. Oh, and she isn't human. All is lost.

I hate this film, and I'm sure you can tell. I can't even begin to list the gigantic plot holes or the inexplicably bad decisions made by the characters. I won't even mention the bizarre looking chocolate monster that becomes the films major antagonist in the final reel. I won't mention these things because I was too busy counting the hairs on the back of a man’s head and thinking of a simpler time.

But hey - it's not all bad. Ridley Scott is coming back and the true Alien resurrection can begin. All aboard the ‘Prometheus.’