My friends’ (not Friends) wedding

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I don’t watch much TV, mainly because I don’t have much TV to watch. My area isn’t cabled and the building I live in is listed (Grade 1, and leaning slightly), so no satellite dishes allowed. My internet is intermittent at best (and leached), so I don’t have streaming services, just Freeview. I don’t get out much, and I didn’t have to go far last night to end up at a wedding…

Sheldon proposes

If I had multi-channel TV or unlimited streaming, I’d probably lose my life. Any quest for all knowledge is never going to be completed in this life, and there isn’t time to watch even a small part of current TV and film studios’ output. I have a large film library (only about one third watched), and I’m selective in my TV consumption, because most of all, I like to write.

Because I watch so few shows, I become somewhat obsessive over those that I do, always able to ace a round on the BBC’s Pointless when one of my shows comes up. Among many genres, I’m a fan of US comedy, but like all of my viewing, I’m selective. I could boss any quiz about Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, That 70s Show, and The Big Bang Theory.

Some might think I’d like Friends, but no. The only intelligent character in that show (Ross Geller) was always mocked for his intellect, or his words cut short by those who didn’t understand him: His friends; his ignorant friends. Big Bang is the opposite.

Last night I watched the long-awaited nuptials of two people I feel very close to, because I’ve studied them for so long, and because the characters are so well-observed that I have much in common with them. This was the wedding of Sheldon Cooper and Amy Farrah Fowler.

Jim Parsons is a person I admire greatly, not just for his acting. I like to find out about the people I enjoy on screen, and to watch what else they’ve done. In Parsons’ case, he’s worth checking out in a small role he played in Zach Braff’s Garden State (also Johnny Galecki (Leonard Hofstadter) in Andrew Niccol’s In Time, and Kevin Sussman (Stuart Bloom) in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading).

Mayim Bialik (Amy Farrah Fowler) is an author and neuroscientist, as well as an actor. She shares a birthday with my son, and played a young Bette Midler (as CC Bloom) in Garry Marshall’s Beaches, aged 11. But I digress.

Big Bang is a show beloved of geeks, because it’s about us, the misfits. Last night’s wedding episode wasn’t just the marriage of two good friends, but a nerd’s fantasy. It’s a show that’s good at paying tributes, and there were many nods in the wedding episode.

TBBT WeddingFox News

Amy’s parents were played by Kathy Burke, who seemed to carry parts of her various characters from American Horror Story, and Teller, the silent half of Penn and Teller. It was a little or well-known fact – depending on the circles you keep – that Teller isn’t in fact mute, and many more people knew that after the show.

Before the wedding, Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg, who can also be seen in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man), finds a lost dog, which it turns out belongs to Mark Hamill, and who offers a chance to digress briefly into another geek world: That of StarWars.

Gary FisherHelloGiggles

Gary Fisher (Carrie Fisher’s dog) was already a legend after he shat on the floor at a StarWars convention (above), and he had a special relationship with Mark Hamill’s dog, Millie. Since then (and as featured in last night’s Big Bang Theory), Mark Hamill now has a dog called Bark (Hamill). Mark Hamill was then asked to officiate at the wedding, a role already booked for Wil Wheaton.

The Big Bang Theory is probably the best (if only) place for a friendly clash of two mutually inclusive franchises, StarWars and Star Trek. Wesley Crusher and Luke Skywalker together on screen was something even sci-fi nerds probably thought they’d never see, and the on-screen chemistry said they were right at home.

People like me don’t get invited to weddings (we can’t stand them anyway), but if we had to go to one, it would be one like Sheldon and Amy’s, where usually uncomfortable people felt at ease, in a usually uncomfortable environment.

There was a scene which didn’t make the final cut, in which Sheldon and Amy open a gift from Stephen Hawking. He made several appearances, this being the poignant last reference from the sentinel who knows the Big Bang better than most: a pocket watch (so beloved of Sheldon) and the inscription: “Sheldon, I’m so glad you finally married Amy. It’s about time. Ha, ha, ha. Love, Stephen.”

We all know it’s a fantasy (Jim Parsons is already married to his husband), but even geeks and nerds can emerge from their shells sometimes and enjoy themselves. We just need each other in our virtual lives.

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These are a few of my favourite films (and the number 42)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | CINEMA

Cannibal Holocaust
A still from Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980): The “Daddy” of the original “Video Nasties” banned under the 1984 Video Recordings Act (Picture courtesy of Grindhouse Database.)

This week I undertook one of the little personal projects I’ve been planning for a while: I catalogued my DVD collection. It’s extensive, not so much in quantity as eclecticism. Originally my Savage Cinema was intended as a repository for films generally considered by horror aficionados to be the most disturbing ever made; and it was the beginning of me rebuilding the collection I once had before my breakdown. A lot of that collection was lost during the three years I spent being lost, but some of it was retained. Now, the collection has grown to 669 titles from many genres.

Still called The Savage Cinema, in recognition of its roots, my films nonetheless range from U certificates to 18; 16 on some, where an imported version was the longest available cut, and where 16 is the highest age rating in the country of origin; and some are unrated, exempt from classification, or just unclassified. I always seek the most intact, uncensored prints of the higher classifications, because what I seek is to be affected by a film, in the way the director originally intended. As such, the replay equipment below my TV is quite a stack of boxes: I can play all regions of DVDs and Bluray, and I have an NTSC player. I also have USB ports and a VHS player, for the odd title which never made it to DVD uncut.

The collection is constantly growing and evolving, but as it stands, it’s home to the “Top 100 most disturbing films of all time”, as well as classics, cult and rare films. Old and new; The good, the bad, and the downright hideous. My Savage Cinema database is on IMDb and it’s public. It can be viewed in alphabetical, release date, or rating order: Either IMDb ratings or my own.

After listing all 669 titles, I went through them, rating those which I remember well, and placing those I remember less well on a watch list for later rating. So it’s an incomplete list but using just the films I’ve rated so far, I was able to extrapolate my personal top films of all time; something I would be hard pressed to do if placed on the spot. Some of my ratings vary quite wildly from the IMDb one, but these things are subjective, surely? And that’s when a slightly strange thing happened: The number 42 cropped up again.

Individual IMDb ratings are whole numbers, so on a scale of 0-10. There are quite a few sub-5.0 rated titles in my collection, because I do like a good bad film, or a mega monster mash B-movie. Then there are the top-rated, and for me, a rating of 7.0 denotes a good film; 8.0, a really good film; and 9.0, a fucking blinder. A film can be one of the latter for many reasons; some my own, which is why some titles may be unique to my own, personal favourite films list. They’re personal favourites for their ability to affect a viewer in different ways. Once I’d given ratings to the titles, it turned out there were 21 which scored 9.0, in no particular order:

The Woman in Black (1989 TV movie)
Gregory’s Girl (1980)
The Fourth Kind (2009)
Helvetica (2007 documentary)
Alien (1979)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Léon (1994)
Blade Runner (1982)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Legend (2015)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Green Mile (1999)
Irreversible (2002)
Serenity (2005)
(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Cloverfield (2008)
Contact (1997)
Ghost (1990)
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Like all Top-anything lists, mine will be divisive and controversial, but those were the 21 titles out of 669 in my collection, which I felt worthy of a personal rating of 9.0. If I then wanted to produce some sort of Top 100, I’d look to the titles I rated 8.0 next. If I add those to my 9.0 ratings, I have a Top 84 to compliment my Top 21. And of course, 21 is a factor of 42, and 84 a multiple. 42 crops up all the time in my life, perhaps just proving that something will be there if you look hard enough for it.

My catalogue being public means that occasional visitors to my studio can have a browse through the shelves before they arrive, which saves me expending too much thought. It’s also an easier reference tool for me than my shelves. People do visit me, just to watch some of these films they’ve never heard of. Friday Film Club and Midnight Matinees are regular events here. And it’s another look through the keyhole into the world that’s me and my portable personal planet. I rarely go out, so films are my main entertainment media. Like watching my DVDs, having my life online is something I find somehow comforting.

Now showing: Begotten (Unrated)

SAVAGE CINEMA

begotten

My writing is fuelled by many things, including some of the freelance work I do and my extensive collection of films. As a freelancer, I’m currently off-grid, working on a piece which has required some research on the Dark Web: It’s a fascinating and dangerous place, and it’s given me some ideas for future fiction. The Savage Cinema is my personal collection of movies: It now includes all of the “50 most disturbing films of all time“.

There are some very powerful and affecting films in my collection: Not just horror movies but documentaries and art house productions, and Begotten is one such film. I’m screening it here partly as a demonstration of what’s out there, if you look beyond the mainstream and into the darker fringes. But also, it’s a good insight into my mind, because how you may feel after watching it is very much like how I feel a lot of the time. While not a movie as such (there is no dialogue, just a menacing soundtrack), Begotten is truly disturbing; Not necessarily immediately but it will stay in the mind long after viewing. As such, it is an affecting film.

I admire E. Elias Merhige (the Director), because he uses film to create the same feeling I strive to in some of my darker stories: Discomfort and unease. This 72-minute art film opens with a person referred to as God disembowelling himself, so that’s nice. Next, Mother Earth rises from God’s body and impregnates herself with his semen (shaving was apparently out of fashion in 1990, when this was made). Then she’s raped by a group of wanderers who’ve already attacked her offspring – the Son of Earth – with what looks like an umbilical cord. It just gets weirder after that.

So when I’m asked where I get some of my ideas from for stories like COGS (in the anthology, out next month), I refer to titles which most people have never heard of. Most of my ideas are just born of a warped mind but that is sometimes fed with the work of others’ imaginations.

The films I study (and I do; I don’t just watch a film) are a stage removed from the kinds of horror I’d consume from a video rental store as a teenager. My collection is not so much top shelf, nor under the counter, but perhaps in a back room. Most are relatively unknown titles but the kind of fringe theatre I watch is made by directors passionate about their art. A slightly mainstream example is Irréversible, by Gaspar Noé: One of the most brilliant pieces of cinema I have ever watched, for its sheer, raw power. I’m not a gore hound and I don’t knock one out to these films. My enjoyment – for want of a better word – is in being personally and emotionally affected by a work. 

Of course, as a writer I’m somewhat limited, being as I am, sans pictures and sounds. That said, the most powerful medium is that of human imagination. So with my stories, I’ll write in such a way that I believe my prose will evoke the emotion I require from the reader. A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie has moved many readers to tears, as has Echo Beach to a lesser extent. Cyrus Song made people smile. COGS repulsed readers, and The Perpetuity of Memory made at least one physically shudder. All but the girl and her friends will be in my collected tales volume.

I hope my stories remain in the memory, like Merhige’s film.

The Savage Cinema presents Begotten:

Now, that was nice wasn’t it? But as I said, the feeling it invokes is not dissimilar to how my mental illnesses make me feel on bad days. It’s difficult to describe with words alone but add some sound and pictures and you’re in my brain. And that was just 72 minutes, if anyone made it all the way.

It’s morbid curiosity which draws us to watch things like this: Part apprehension, but driven by that human craving of fear. It’s that thirst which I seek to satisfy with my writing.

And so, Cardboard Sky, the 25th and final story in my collection is nearly finished. I’m pretty confident it’ll be an affecting tale. It’s part influenced by my digging around on the dark web, partly by some other freelance work, but mostly from my imagination. So it should stick in the mind.