Friday, 20 November 2015

Don't Stand So Close To Me: The Weirdness of The Police

The Police were the biggest band on the planet in the early eighties and helped propel Sting to pop super stardom when he went solo at the height of their success. But they were were more than just a springboard for Sting to launch his solo career or the band that made white reggae songs about prostitutes.

The Police were a musically innovative and interesting band in their own right, with three proficient and accomplished musicians. The fact they could actually play their instruments is probably why it didn't quite fit when they tried on punk for size in their early days and found it was a bit tight and chafed around the crotch.

They were also very weird. And no one seemed to notice.

These guys, weird? Who would have guessed?

Let's start with the most weird and work our way down because people generally lead with their strongest point and let their argument fade, right? There might be some debate about this but the weirdest Police song is almost certainly the song "Mother" from their last album, Synchronicity.

Some people might suggest it is their song about cannibalism or the one about a blow up doll, but we'll get there since it's pretty clear "Mother" is the clear forerunner. Firstly, the music is a bit out there, vaguely Middle Eastern influences, dissonant repeated guitar and strings, but it is the vocals and lyrics that put it in the real realm of the weird (which would be a good album name, write that down).

The song is sang by its writer and The Police's guitarist, Andy Summers. And by sang, I obviously meant deliriously screams in tune. There is so much paranoia and Oedipal undertones/overtones/all tones in the lyrics that Norman Bates would have loved as his ring tone.

"I just love Sting's bass." - Norman Bates, probably.

I'm not joking about the intense Oedipalness of the lyrics by the way. Perhaps it's to be expected with a song called "Mother" but seriously, take a look:
Well the telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
Telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
The telephone is screaming,
Won't she leave me alone?
The telephone is ringing,
Is that my mother on the phone?
Even though it's his ringtone, Norman Bates still thinks that Andy Summers has some serious mother issues and probably should look into therapy or something to deal. And that's just the first verse.

Also, Summers might want to reexamine his choices of romantic partner when every girl that he goes out with becomes his mother in the end.

"Jesus, Andy! Keep that shit to yourself." - Sting, definitely.

And this was on Syncronicity, The Police's most successful album by like a lot. An album that sold a bajilion copies with some of their most popular songs, like "Every Breath You Take". We'll get to "Every Breath" eventually, but it seemed that even on their most commercially massive album, The Police weren't afraid to get weird. 

Oh, look at that. Both the Police songs I mentioned about cannibalism and blow up dolls were written by Summers. "This article isn't just limited to Summers, is it?" No, alarmed imagined reader but he does get an early starring role since he did pen a number of The Police's more out-there songs.

Let's turn to blow up dolls, shall we? "Be My Girl - Sally" starts relatively normal, a simple pop song with a catchy yet inane chorus of "Won't you be my girl, won't you be my girl, won't you be my, be my, be my girl?" sung by Sting, However, it goes all Lars and the Real Girl on us during Summers spoken word section in the middle of the song.

"Oooh, that's my favourite bit."

It's like an excerpt from some beat poet's tripped out comment on the misogynistic objectification of women or something in the middle of a simplistic love song. The song just should skids to a halt as Summers narrates his tale of loneliness and inflatable girls.

And it's straight up about ordering an inflatable doll from a seedy magazine, I'm not suggesting it subtly hints at it or there is a possibility that I am misreading the lyrics. Here's some of those lyrics by the way,
And then by lucky chance I saw in a special magazine
An ad that was unusual, the like I'd never seen,
"Experience something different with our new imported toy,
She's loving, warm, inflatable and a guarantee of joy"
She came all wrapped in cardboard, all pink and shriveled down
A breath of air was all she needed to make her lose that frown
I took her to the bedroom and pumped her with some life,
And later in a moment that girl became my wife

"For fuck's sake, Andy! I told you to keep that shit to yourself!" - Sting, obviously.

Summers was obviously quite lonely after eating all his "Friends". Wait, didn't I discuss that yet? To be honest, I don't think there's much to say about the song since you get the idea once you read the opening lines,
I likes to eat my friends and make no bones about it
I likes to eat my friends, I couldn't do without it
"Friends" was the B-side to the single "Don't Stand So Close To Me" (b-sides were bonus songs that use to come when you bought a single song on a LP, which was like a CD, only bigger and with grooves in it). And here's where I want to go for the rest of this article.

A number of Police songs tackled unconventional themes with a dark lyrical bend that was obscured by the upbeat or rhythmic tendencies of the music and melodies. "Don't Stand So Close To Me" for example might have a minor key intro and verse but the chorus is so jubilant and bouncy you scarcely notice he's asking a young school girl not to stand so close to his boner.

"I'm trying to grade these papers but this inappropriate teacher-student boner isn't helping." - Sting, I guess.

Yet that was Sting's true gift as a songwriter and lyricist during his days in the force, putting dark lyrics to joyous music or a clever lyrical twist in a dark song. So of course he has a song about teenage suicide. "Can't Stand Losing You" is all about a young man's inability to deal after his girlfriend breaks up with him and sends his LPs back all scratched, and commits due to his heartache.

However, the key song for me is "Every Breath You Take", The Police's most popular song by some margin. Now, originally I hated "Every Breath" and this persisted for years. I thought the lyrics were the sappiest sentiment ever with the whole watching everything thing and the melody seemed overly romantic.

I later thought it was kinda creepy how he's watching everything they do. Seems a little obsessive, almost like a stalker. I then read an interview with Sting how he described that he doesn't understand why people play "Every Breath You Take" at their weddings when it's a song about a stalker and obsession.

I'm just gonna leave this up here...

And it was reading that interview that I first realised there was more to The Police than I had ever given them credit for at that time. There's this undercurrent to their music and lyrics that really distinguishes them from a lot of other bands.

Even when they were at their most commercially successful, usually a time when artists appeal to the lowest common denominator for maximum coverage, The Police were weird. Their most popular song is about stalking someone and either everyone was cool with that or just didn't notice.

Editors note: I didn't even mention that The Police did instrumentals. Like instrumental songs. Without lyrics. Did you know that? I didn't know that until I listened to their full discography. And on those instrumentals, they're... interesting.

Just listen to "Behind My Camel" and I think you'll get what I mean. Vaguely Middle-Eastern vibe again in a spiraling guitar riff with a very repetitive thump-thump-thump bass line, and oh look it was written by Andy Summers. That's whatever the opposite of a surprise is. "Behind My Camel" won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance by the way, just in case you were curious.


The Police Wikipedia page

Outlandos d'Amour Wikipedia page

Zenyatta Mondatta Wikipedia page

Synchronicity (The Police album) Wikipedia page

The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy - A.V. Club

Sting: How I stopped hurting after The Police split - The Daily Mail

Friday, 13 November 2015

Pacific Rim: The Shadow of the Kaiju

Okay, so I know I did a del Toro movie in my last post, and it's pretty obvious that I love his films which some of you may be tired of hearing about, at least in such quick succession. However I think it's better to get these sorts of things out in the open rather than keeping them hidden. That path leads to fanboyism and illicit anime use.

Let's get this out of the way, I loved Pacific Rim. It was like the culmination of every mecha anime and kaiju film in one gloriously loving tribute/homage/ripoff. Essentially, it was a movie that the 12 year old boy who wears my skin as a suit never knew he wanted until he saw it.

I couldn't imagine why.

Just in case it wasn't clear, that is a giant robot slicing a giant monster in half with a giant sword... in space. The awesomeness of that sentence cannot be underestimated, if it could be estimated at all. All I know is that I couldn't barely comprehend how excitably giddy that moment of nerdgasmic splendour was when I first witnessed it.

That's what this film is. Guillermo del Toro's A Series of Awesome Events. Including scenes like, The Badass Beginning and The Exquisite Exposition, not to mention The Fantastic Fight, The Carefully-Crafted Characters, and The Superb Sword.

"This is the story of the four Jaegers: Gipsy Danger, Striker Eureka, Coyote Tango, and Cherno Alpha.
My name is Guillermo del Toro and it is my duty to tell you their tale."

The thing is, hearing me gush about Pacific Rim, and I have barely began to gush yet, you may be under the impression that I think the film is a masterpiece or a perfect film. It's not. Well, it is a masterpiece but a certain type of masterpiece, the type that requires a qualification.

Because Pacific Rim is a dumb film. It really is. There are so many stupid action movie moments or things relating to plot or logic that leave you with a "wait, why?" in your throat and itchy feeling on your head.

Wait, why does a Jaeger need to be piloted by two pilots who have to be neurologically linked? And if each pilot controls one half of the Jaeger howcome both pilots move in tandem to walk or throw a punch which makes no sense if the pilot on the left controls the left arm and the pilot on the right controls the right arm. Also, if they control a half each how does walking work? Does a pilot have to take two steps for the Jaeger to move the leg they control? And on that subject...

The point is, I'm not under disillusion or are wearing any holographic blinders. Pacific Rim is a stupid action movie. This is thing that is true. But holy nuclear fallout is it an amazingly awesome stupid action movie.

Every moment of palm mark on your head stupid is counterbalance by a moment of sheer exuberant awesome (I mentioned the giant robot sword, right? Because holy macaroni cheese and crackers, giant robot sword!).

I think the thing that differentiates Pacific Rim from standard dumb action movie fare is the amount of care and thought that's been put into the film, even if the plot has holes or the science is more flaky than Cadbury Flake.

This care can be seen with the Kaiju, the Kaiju being the giant monsters that are clearly the bastard offspring of Godzilla and Cthulhu. As soon as you think you've got the monster sussed and know what they can do, del Toro adds a twist or a little something that makes them unique. And the most impressive of these is Otachi.

"Oh, hi guys."

When Otachi first appears on the scene with another Kaiju, Leatherback, she initially appears to be a regular category 4 Kaiju like the ones they've seen before but then she uses her tail like a third arm. So you're like, "okay, I get this one's gimmick, she has a tail that can be used as a weapon".

Naturally she proceeds to spit acid from her mouth. Acid which dissolves anything it lands on within seconds.

Okay, that's fine. You reevaluate and note she's the Kaiju with the weapon tail, that also spits metal dissolving acid. Cool. Got it. Gipsy Danger eventually breaks off her tail by using cooling agent to freeze and shatter it while simultaneously ripping out the acid sack in her mouth. Stripped of her downloadable content, you think that's that.

Then she spreads her wings.

"Surprise bitches!"

What could have been uninspired monster designs are instead filled with inventive touches that add character and it is those types of little touches that elevate the film from standard blockbuster fare.

Talking about character, each of the characters have their own arc of some sort and while those arcs might trade in cliche, there was enough thought put to give each character some sense of development which is rarer than you would think.

For example, even though by all rights he shouldn't have any character development aside from being an unnecessary bully character who serves to be dick to the protagonist Raliegh for reasons lost to mankind, the Jaegar pilot Chuck actually ends up having something close to a character arc.

"I cannot believe that an one-note character like you has a legit redemption arc with an actually touching reconciliation scene with your father" - Raleigh 

But it is the three leads that are the most impressive since there is no reason they should be anything more than stereotypical character tropes in a dumb action movies. Superficially, they are stereotypes. Raleigh is the angst ridden protagonist who's the best at what he does but has a tragic backstory, Mako Mori is the female romantic interest, and Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost is the no nonsense square jawed marine authority figure for the young protagonist to butt heads with.

However, that's not how things play out in the film. Let's focus on Raleigh for a moment. As Very Sharp Teeth puts it,
Raleigh was a character that any director but del Toro would have sent down the stereotypical path of “has angst from unspeakable loss, has authority issues, gets into a pissing match with anyone he crosses, has the only female in the movie fall in love with him through sheer manliness”. Thankfully, not so was Raleigh. 
Rather than taking out his dick measuring tape at every confrontation, Raleigh is almost passive throughout the film. Perhaps passive is the wrong word, understated is better. Instead of asserting his masculinity at all points since he's a hot shot but he gets results, goddammit, Raleigh restrains himself. Because he has respect for others.

"While I completely disagree with your decision, I respect you as a person and your experience as my superior officer, so will begrudgingly follow your orders."

To be honest, in a standard blockbuster, Raleigh would have been like Chuck without the unnecessary asshole factor, a braggart and maverick who resists authority. However, the thing that really distinguishes Raleigh from typical action hero character is that he kinda is a supporting character to his love interest.

Now, before I go any further, while others might suggest otherwise, Raleigh is the main character in the film. While Pacific Rim does give a lot of time to Mako Mori's storyline, which isn't given any treatment that would indicate it was a secondary character's story, rather the opposite, Raleigh is still the primary protagonist.

The film is framed by him and he serves the focus for the film since the story, including Mako's, is told by his relation to the narrative. He provides the opening narration and is the character needed to be pulled back into the story for the plot to progress. That said, Pacific Rim is kinda Mako's movie.

"Go on."

There is a lot that's been said about Mako Mori since she is a fantastic character, so I'll try not to reiterate any of that here. Essentially Mako is so badass that they invented a test named after her which can be used as a barometer of how independent a female character's narrative in a film is.

As The Daily Dot states,
In the film, Mako struggles to asserts her independence despite the protectiveness of her stern father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). She is strong, smart, and perhaps most remarkably, her goal of fulfilling her dream of being a Jaeger pilot is a major part of Pacific Rim's storyline.
Recognising her innate awesomeness, Tumblr user chaila proposed the Mako Mori test which is passed if a movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

"That doesn't sound like it would be too hard to pass."

In fact, Raleigh ends up supporting Mako's story, he is the conduit through which she can face her tragic backstory while they are in drift, is unabashedly in awe of her, and continually insists she be his co-pilot.

He also treats her as an equal throughout the film. Probably the real reason that Raleigh serves as support for Mako's story is that his grief/angst following his brother's death is resolved pretty early on. When they drift for the first time, it was his memory that initially got them to fall out of drift but he gets back in pretty quickly since he's already resolved his shit and can deal.

However this triggers Mako's own painful memory and leads into her backstory, which to be honest is more rich than Raleigh's relatively standard "loved one lost in tragic accident". The image of a young Mako walking, red shoe in hand and crying, through a deserted street is a powerful one which gives such weight to her character.

Hey, it's okay. It'll be alright. You're gonna grow up to be a badass.

It also establishes her father-daughter with Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost. Firstly, can we just establish what a ridiculous, yet completely appropriate, name Stacker Pentecost is? It somehow conveys exactly who his character is while sounding like something a preteen boy would come up. Which actually describes the names of the Jaegers too but let's not get distracted.

Oh, Idris Elba is amazing of course. The man is a wonder. He actually is the reason I wanted to rewatch this film (I mean aside from all the giant robot versus giant monster stuff). He brings such an authority to the role that also comes with a sense of responsibility.

Just look at all that authoritative responsibleness going on. 

Guillermo del Toro apparently hired Elba based on his performance in the BBC detective drama Luther, which is a legitimately good show and will get its own review at some point.

In del Toro's own words,
Idris is one of those actors that is capable of embodying humanity, in almost like a Rodin sculpture-type, larger than life, almost like a Russian realism statue, you know, big hands, all the turmoil of humanity in his eyes. I wanted somebody that you could have doubts internally, and very few guys can do that.
And boy, does Elba have those doubts internally. You can just feel the internal struggle behind every decision he makes in the film, what he thinks is right to save to the world and the fear of being wrong, dooming us all.

"I'm just so internally filled with doubt despite my assertive leadership qualities."

So that's about it. I'm sure there's more I could say about the look of the film (which is stunning with a sharp colour palette), the wonderful diversity of the cast, or exploring the film's direct appeal to the 12 year boy inside all of us in a more analytical fashion but I'm good.

I understand that Pacific Rim is not a film for everyone. Some people hate dumb action movies, regardless of quality. I can't say I fully understand that since when a movie is this much fun, I don't mind if it is dumb. Sometimes I suppose it can be hard to let go of one's prejudices in order to accept something different.

I mentioned there was a freaking giant robot sword, right?


Pacific Rim (film) Wikipedia page

Kaiju Wikipedia page

Otachi (Kaiju) - Pacific Rim wiki