Elstree 1976 (2015)

elstree1This kind of Doc should be right up my street; I remember both the summer of 1976 and of course the media hysterics surrounding Star Wars‘ release the following summer (and Winter here in the UK). Sometimes it feels rather like yesterday, and Star Wars still something new and relevant and exciting, but that was 44 years ago- its like looking back from the perspective of 1977 and thinking about films made in 1933. That’s a little like comparing Star Wars to the 1933 King Kong, which makes me feel older than I feel and depresses me. Thinking like that can depress anyone.

Sometimes I think I’ll always be ten or eleven deep inside, like 1976 etc is locked away in there, all those Marvel comics I was reading, or paperbacks like Logans Run and the Making of book about the 1976 King Kong, with Star Wars and Close Encounters and Superman: The Movie  just around the corner…

Alas Elstree 1976 finds it too difficult to really capture the feeling of 1976: I think it should have shown some news footage or home movies, maybe, of that summer and how people dressed and what music we listened to (ABBA, for one thing). Yeah, the soundtrack missed a trick there; it should have played songs from 1976 to emphasis the sense of the ‘now’, the fashions (hideous as they may be now). Capture the moment and how this country was back then. A sense of the place, too, as I really didn’t get any feeling for what Elstree was like that summer.

I did enjoy the reminiscences of some of those involved in the making of the film: maybe it should have been opened up more to talk with some of the craftsmen and technicians as well as those actors. Some of the stories and observations were fine, but it seemed to only briefly actually talk about making Star Wars at Elstree before going off to talk about later careers and movies and convention appearances. Much of that was padding out the running time- as it is, the film could have been half-hour shorter and lose very little. Indeed, had it been edited to 60 minutes it would make an excellent extra on a home release of Star Wars.

Still, at least it offered some perspective away from the stars of the film who usually take all the attention, and I really did appreciate some of the observations, sense of perspective some of them had regards this strange little movie that refuses to go away like most others did.

Elstree 1976 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime

1976, the Batmobile, A Star is Born, Jack Kirby and all that

1976 was a pretty good year. I was ten, buying four-colour Marvel comics voraciously; the American monthly comics (rather than just the UK weekly reprints) which were printed in runs for the UK market, being cover-priced in pence rather than cents (no idea if this meant the comics were/are worthless to collectors). It was the Bicentennial in America, something the comics were full of and which almost felt like a holiday/event for me too. Jack Kirby was drawing Captain America, full of patriotic Stars n’ Stripes and I almost felt more American than British (and of course the four-colour Anerica of the comics was a world away from living on a Council Estate in the Black Country in 1970s Britain).

Jack Kirby being back at Marvel was a big deal over the pond but I didn’t understand why, but I was loving his work on 2001: a Space Odyssey and The Eternals and the Black Panther, fantastic comics that exemplified all that was marvelous about Marvel, especially to a ten year old. It was also the year the film Logans Run came out, a film I would not see for a few years but I read the Marvel comic adaptation, which was really exciting and better than the movie, as it would turn out. Had great art by George Perez as I recall. His name is an indelible part of my childhood reading all those comics he drew for Marvel – I think he also worked on The Avengers comic and several others. Of course 1976 was the year of Howard the Duck running for president.

1976It was a long hot summer that year in the UK; we had a huge drought and terrible water shortages, but for a ten-year old lad it was fantastic, no rain, lots of play. The kids in my street had a fad for go-karts that summer and our parents built us go-karts; invariably deathtraps, really. Batman re-runs were on television that year and the kart my brother and I had was painted black and we called it the Batmobile. My Dad was no engineer and it was a shaking, rattling accident on over-sized pram-wheels just waiting to happen, which was a tad ironic- a lad up the street, Stuart, had a go-kart that was built like a tank, a beast of a wooden kart it looked like it would last forever, but we had an accident in it late one evening racing down a steep alley near our school entrance and he lost some of his teeth (it was the same alley down which I would later break my arm skateboarding, but that was another craze in another year). His go-kart of course was in better shape than he was. If he’d had the crash in our Batmobile it would have been in pieces everywhere, but our Batmobile actually lasted the summer, somehow, and whenever I think about the Adam West show, my thoughts often turn to that rattling Batmobile and I wonder that it didn’t kill or maim me.

So why do I write about 1976? Well, two things really. Partly it’s because I watched the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga film A Star is Born yesterday, which triggered a conversation regards the two earlier film incarnations from 1954 and 1976 neither of which which I’ve seen (I didn’t even realise there was an original 1937 film until I checked). My mother-in-law recalled the 1954 film starring Judy Garland very well, but other than a song I think all I remembered of the 1976 film was a review of the 1976 version commenting on the dire hands of megalomaniac star Barbra Streisand and producer boyfriend Jon Peters ruining it. The new version thankfully isn’t the disaster that 1976 film apparently is, I’ll perhaps post a review soon (A Star is Born perhaps isn’t the usual kind of film I’d watch, but it was Claire’s birthday yesterday…).

marv1But as usual, I digress. The other thing that has me reminiscing about 1976 is that I recently read a fascinating book by Sean Howe, Marvel Comics- The Untold Story, which for an old Marvel kid like me, proved to be a sobering read, confirming all sorts of tales and comments I’d read/heard over the years.  When you’re seven or ten or thirteen, you don’t care about the real-world stories behind the comics, you’re just loving the comics, but it’s pretty shocking in places what went on behind the scenes. It would make for a brilliant movie, but I doubt Marvel Studios would be keen on seeing that in multiplexes- which is a pity, it’s a very human story behind those four-colour daydreams of my childhood.

The crux of the issue is what became known as ‘the Marvel Method’ which I assume infers that those DC comics that I never read were created in some other way. How Marvel did it, was that Stan Lee, usually attributed the title of creator and writer of the comics, assigned plot summaries to artists like Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four) or Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and they would go away to plot and pencil the comic. When this artwork returned, Lee would then write dialogue over their work. Now, when I was kid reading those UK reprints of the 1960s Spider-Man, I always assumed Lee wrote the stories in detail and that Ditko just drew what Lee thought up- but of course this was far from the truth. In penciling the layouts and pages the artist was responsible for the pacing of the narrative and the details of the heroes battles with the bad guys. Indeed, pretty much the whole actual story beyond the rough plot outline from Lee. In the case of the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby got increasingly disheartened by being given what he saw as insufficient credit. In one often cited example, an increasingly sidetracked Lee (remember he was writer/editor of the majority of the Marvel line) gave Kirby the premise “the Fantastic Four fight God” and Kirby came back with the classic saga of Galactus the World Eater and the Silver Surfer, characters who went on to become major figures in the Marvel Universe, in an epic story that still gives me tingles thinking back on it (it’ll be a great movie one day, no doubt).

Like Kirby, Ditko (something of an odd character himself, truth be told) got into an increasingly bitter feud with Lee over his work on the title and left the Amazing Spider-Man comic and Marvel altogether – Ditko’s run on the comic regarded as the classic defining run of the comics history. Lee of course would continue to be considered the creator of Spider Man and the web-slinger would go on to make Marvel a fortune, and millions for the film studio when the later films came out… but not for Ditko.

Kirby had long battles with Lee and Marvel for recognition of his own work in creating stories and characters, and this long-running saga is infamous in the industry. Marvel treated artists as ‘work for hire’ and held that their art was owned by the company- by the late 1960s it became increasingly obvious that the real value of the artwork wasn’t actually in the comics but was in the licensing and merchandising of the content of the comics, revenue that Marvel earned but the artists didn’t. Kirby fought for years to get his artwork back, seeing it used on tee-shirts and toys and other merchandise and himself not earning a dime. Disney later bought Marvel for $4 billion and would go on to make billions of dollars from a line of movies based directly on Jack Kirby’s work of the 1960s.

The thing that struck me most though from reading the book- whatever the details of his creator credentials, it’s clear that Stan Lee saw the future for Marvel’s roster of superheroes, and it resided in Hollywood, and the movies we watch today. He spent years out in LA trying to get studios onboard with making films of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four etc. All of the 1970s, pretty much, and into the 1980s. The studios just didn’t get it. Ironic, now, considering how much the Marvel Studios output is dominating the movie industry (news broke this past weekend that Avengers: Endgame may finally have surpassed Avatar at the global box office and become the biggest film of all time). I suppose that film technology had to catch up with the wild four-colour fantasies of those Marvel artists. But Stan Lee saw it. For years he just couldn’t sell it. He must have felt so vindicated after all those years when they took over the world’s cineplexes.

Sean Howe’s book is a great read and I recommend it to anyone even mildly interested in the real history of Marvel and its creations. For readers of those comics, especially those of the 1960s and 1970s, the book is essential reading.

 

 

1976, the year it all started…

1976. Simpler times, especially if you were a kid. Batman was being re-run on the telly. I was reading Marvel Comics like crazy. Starsky and Hutch on Saturday nights on BBC. There was a drought that long hot summer. And there was that damned scary shark…

When all is said and done, I write film reviews on this blog, and you read them, because we love movies. I was wondering the other day about just when it all started for me. For most of us it’s an easy thing to state when we fell in love with movies, we know the moment well. Its usually a key moment when we ‘click’ with a certain movie, when it makes an impact on us on an emotional level. ‘Emotional’ because that’s the real kicker with any movie, at least for me- you can rationalise, on an intellectual level, the quality of a film, but where any film makes its real impact is surely on an emotional level; how it moves you, that’s where any movie really leaves its mark on you. Its why an undisputed classic like Citizen Kane may not be your favourite film- Kane is a great film easily admired but it may not have touched you in quite the same way as an intellectually inferior movie like a Ghostbusters or ET or Great Escape or Ben Hur did. Favourite movies are not always great movies, but they are often the reasons why we love movies.

JAWS1For me, it started with Jaws. Those of you who moan about waiting three months for a home release and are accustomed to simultaneous (or near as damn it) world theatrical releases might be alarmed at the Cinematic Dark Ages of the previous millennium when cinemagoers had to wait months just for films to cross the pond from America into our cinemas. American summer releases were often winter releases over here. So it was with Jaws, not arriving until 1976 here in the UK (It think it was actually Boxing Day 1975 for London, but it would take some months for it to eventually move out into the rest of the country… things were so slow back then!). So 1976 was when all this movie nonsense started for me. I was ten years old.

Of course, I’d seen many films as a kid but this was something else. My Aunt Lydia (now no longer with us, sadly) and her boyfriend (later husband/uncle) took me along on a Saturday afternoon to see the film. By this time the film was a massive phenomenon, merchandise was everywhere (I recall I was reading the paperback around the time when I saw the film) and it already clearly had a huge cultural impact- the delayed release over here actually only prolonged and intensified this. That delay -and films running at cinemas for a much longer period back then- has made me think. Nowadays films come and go in hardly any time at all, so we don’t seem to get such a scale of media saturation now. FIlms seemed to stick around longer back then, funnily enough, and home video releases now seem to have made films more disposable. I was in a supermarket the other day and quite recent films were already in a bargain bin of DVDs, which quite alarmed me. Jaws was a huge cultural event, and even some years later when it had its first tv premiere, I remember it still being a huge media event, featuring on the cover of the TV TImes. Films seemed a Bigger Deal back in the day. In my life, I think the only other film with a similar cultural impact as Jaws would be Star Wars a few years later (well, 1977 in America, 1978 over here).

I’ll never forget that Saturday afternoon. Indeed, to this day I cannot watch Jaws divorced from those memories, those feelings that screening engendered in me- everytime I’m pulled back to that cinema experience. Its funny how sophisticated audiences are now, everyone seems to laugh at the rubber shark, but it was never like that for me or indeed most audiences at the time. For us that shark was real. Of course, the film scared me shitless. But it wasn’t gore or anything graphic, it was more the anticipation, the fear of the unseen, the threat in those watery dark depths. I think the sophistication of audiences now… well I think they’ve lost something. Everything is so literal now. Thanks to cgi there’s no need to tease or hint, everything can be visualised up on the screen and from a storytelling standpoint and audience experience I think something has been lost. Sure it’s great to see such huge impossible things on screen these days but does it really now have to be so… complete?

The genius of Jaws is in its editing, and what is unseen. Most of this wasn’t at all intended, it was rather a triumph against adversity. The shark didn’t work, and many of the shots Spielberg wanted couldn’t be done, even with the shoot extending from some 55 days to 159 days. The shoot was a nightmare and Spielberg worried his career was already over. But all the disasters and technical problems that resulted in the production being forced into working around a non-functioning fake shark proved to be the making of the film. John Williams turned in an incredible score that provided all the tension that the fake shark couldn’t- you didn’t need to see the shark; you could hear its threat just in the music; it’s Pure Cinema, something much more effective than a contemporary authentic-looking cgi shark might ever be. Indeed Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best films simply because it has to be held back by its technical limitations; Jaws is Speilberg in Hitchcockian mode and he’s all the better for it. He can’t fall back on Douglas Trumbull or ILM excess to carry the picture. Consider the difference between Jaws and the excess of 1941. Needless to say, Jaws is my favourite Spielberg film- maybe not his best film, I appreciate that his later films have their merits- but certainly my favourite. When the film got released in cinemas a few years ago (2012 was it?) I naturally made sure to see it on the big screen again.

kk1It was such an intense experience back on that Saturday afternoon in 1976. Is it any wonder that it triggered an interest in that magical artform that has continued to this day? It was surely no accident that later that year I bought a paperback copy of Logan’s Run with the films gorgeous artwork catching my eye, or a paperback book about the making of that year’s remake of King Kong. The latter would prove to make a particular impression on me, as it would open my eyes to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened in order to get those films made. The following year I’d start buying magazines like Starburst which regularly featured making-of articles and interviews with directors and actors. But 1976 is when it all started. And of course, a little film titled Star Wars was just around the corner…