Queasy Ryder Back With A Bang in Highly Conventional Stranger Things

With the second series of Stranger Things ready to launch on Netflix, it’s time for a peep into the first series again and see how this early 80s knockoff became a cult hit – and gave Winona Ryder a new lease of life.

Some would say too much life.

The star of Heathers, Edward Scissorhands and Reality Bites is so wound up in this eight-part series – as a mother looking for her missing son (and who wouldn’t be?) – that she nearly derails the whole enterprise, screaming and shouting, wild-eyed and wonderful, traumatised and demonic. A throw momma from the train clone. A girl interrupted. Beetlejuice in a strawberry field.

But this is perhaps the reason, Stranger Things works in a curious sort of way. It’s a highly-strung sci-fi which, right from the cracking opening titles, bursts into a faded, elegant charm as we enter a world of elusive characters, bickering kids, unreliable adults and an extraorinarily goonish Matthew Modine.

It’s as if the creators – the Duffer Brothers – decided they were just going to pedal hard and fast narrative’s neon lights and let the characterisation chips fall where they may.

And they succeeded – because engagement is the first and only requirement for drama. The rest is hot air. A further, canny decision, to concentrate – in the main – on the kids’ lives, loves and hang-ups, rather than the adults, gives it an other-wordly, unsettling innocence that it otherwise may not have had.

But one thing it isn’t is strange. Unsettling, yes, but not strange. It’s actually a highly conventional early 80s tribute piece, with nods to the likes of Poltergiest, ET, video nasties and other assorted goodies from that delightly dark period, and this gives it the ‘sense’ that it’s unusual, different and groundbreaking.

It isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it cuts hard on entertainment.

It’s actually the reverse as pace, narrative drive, tension and action are all maintained more or less throughout the eight episodes.

Even if characterisation, depth and subtlety are left somewhat at the door of perception – giving a whole exercise an unrelenting forward momentum which may leave you breathless but also baffled.

So Stranger Things is nothing of the sort. But Winona certainly is. But she’s still good too – because she fits perfectly into something that is so desperate to make an impact that it throws the kitchen sink at a genre aching for a revival.

It’s a sort of love-letter to the Spielberg’s, the Tobe Hooper’s, and even, the Sam Raimi’s.

And, weirdly, Pink Floyd (okay, I made that up).

But a few more (flying) saucers full of secrets rather than At Em Heart Mother wouldn’t miss.

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Lindsay Anderson’s Disunited Kingdom – A School, a Hospital and a Lucky Man

Wasn’t it ever thus? Most of us in Britain moan about the state of the two former things while a lucky man nabs the spoils to leave he rest us of us gasping and gawping for the economic scraps in a supposed land of plenty.

In 2017’s summer of discontent, we have a female prime minister and there isn’t much luck around. You may choose to describe the situation in stronger terms but the point Lindsay Anderson makes in his Mick Travis trilogy – with a vigorous, unquenchable Malcolm McDowell in the lead – was that the country’s system is broken and needs an overhaul.

In the nicest social satirical terms, of course.

In If, McDowell makes one of the greatest cinematic introductions ever: hat, long coat, face veil – and from here on in, you know the director means business and he proves it by ending the film in a brutal, iconic scene when the pupils turn their guns on their masters.

It’s a film that captured the spirit of its times because of its searing indictment of our public school system – but I still prefer Anderson’s next odyssey, even though it’s generally seen as inferior because of its overblown narrative and epic running time.

O Lucky Man is a freewheeling masterpiece, a glorious, raging mosaic that says everything but gives nothing to the viewer in terms of a linear story arc or a set of characters we can genuinely trust or follow.

It could be seen as a musical (with Alan Price continually popping up with his laconic lyricism) or it could be seen be seen as a companion piece to Pilgrim’s Progress or Kafka’s America – with its tale of one man’s journey’s wanderings becoming strangely intoxicating and illuminated at every turn.

And then there’s the scathing, bitterly farcical Britannia Hospital. An early 80s time bandit that boots you up the backside, gives the Royals a good kicking and has protesters being whacked by brutal coppers as God Save The Queen plays in the background. Oh, and there’s Leonard Rossiter in the lead – one of Britain’s finest comic actors – so what’s not to like?

A lot, according to critics, who savaged its presumed lack of patriotism during the Falklands War and beyond. Anderson never truly recovered from this mauling, although he did go to Hollywood to make the sweet, underrated Whales of August.

But ultimately, it comes back to Britain – and with Lindsay Anderson it always does. He felt we could do better – and more often than not – he was right.

As he proved with a searing adaptation of David Storey’s This Sporting Life, which perhaps in the period with If, was his honeymoon period in terms of praise, adulation and admiration.

But he preferred scorn. And with the Mick Travis trilogy, the running time is dripping with it.

And we’re the better for it because he tells a deeper truth about our islands.

Scorn is right up there with wit, flippancy, humiliation and a few other ingredients that box up our daily narrative, across the airwaves, on the streets and in our bus stations.

We love it – but does it really lead to lasting change? That was the question Anderson was really asking.

Judging by the state of our schools, the hospitals and (perhaps) the next lucky man, probably not…

Jeff and Nusrat – American Grace & the Shimmering Knight of Pakistan

Twenty years after these two icons died – both in 1997 – their music lives on like a fluttering howl of beauty in an otherwise confusing and contested political landscape.

Jeff Buckley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gave us songs and albums of deep longing and yearning which feel stronger today than ever before because of their mesmering melodies, innovative detours and voices so rich and penetrating that a second in their company means submission.

Literally – in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s case. This qawalli master is arguably Pakistan’s greatest cultural export with his intoxicating brand of ‘sufi serenity’ which praises Allah and usually ends up in a swirling mass of ecstacy, thumping tabla rhythms and a stunning convergence of voice and melody that is, frankly, breathtaking.

The likes of Massive Attack, Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook and Gaudi obviously thought the same with their colloborations with the desi dean of devotion offering Western audiences a stunning insight into a music so exuberant that many fans still label him as ‘Elvis of the East’.

And Jeff Buckley certainly did. He regularly recited Nusrat’s songs – even on stage to baffled audiences – and his album Grace, to these ears at least – brims and throbs with qawalli sensibilities, seeping and swarming out senses until we’re enriched with a devastating piece of music that is both timeless and ecstatic.

Buckley drowned at the age of 30 while going for a swim in the Missississipi River. Nusrat died, aged 48, of a heart attack after liver and kidney problems. Both artists still have a colossal following today because they understood that you have to put it all on the line come what may; health problems, family legacies and political strife.

And America and Pakistan – that oddest of couples – do still come alive when we hear their arrangements or those sensuous, hearbreaking voices.

And this is as good time as any to revisit some of that mysterious grace – which ecompasses east, west and everything inbetween.

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The Artist Formerly Known as Prolific – Prince’s Greatest Legacy

This is not an article about Prince’s value as an artist. That’s been established by a rumber of groundbreaking albums and foot-tapping singles that will last deep into the century. No, this is more about the sheer scale of his output, the rate of his melodic musings, his prolificness, his evergreen purpleness, if you will.

Did he release too much material for us to absorb? He didn’t think so because he always believed he had something to say, with original arrangements and heartfelt lyrics. But not everyone agreed. The music execs wanted him to slow down, to release less material, to improve quality control – but what if his creative urges didn’t allow him to do that? It might be an obvious point, but some artists simply have more to say than others – and therefore will always release new material if they believe sufficiently enough in their work.

Here’s the Minnesota magician himself. ‘My music does what it wants to do. They’re not all going to sell, but somebody’ll at least buy one of each.’

Doesn’t sound like a man too bothered about success (although, of course, it’s easy to say that if you’ve already gone stellar). But let’s take a detour to another quote from a legendary musician. Peter Hook from Joy Divison/New Order.

‘The way I’ve always been is: if there’s anyone there at all I’ll do the gig. I’ve had none at Oldham Tower and 125,000 at Glastonbury.’

So another multi-selling musician who will play even if there’s only one person interested in their work. And there are many other examples.

The point I’m trying to illustrate is that without this attitude you might not get noticed in the first place. You have to believe in your work because that one person at the gig or album might make the difference in terms of word of mouth or further sales. And then being prolific, only increases the exposure. The one piece of ‘art’ may be good – but only a body of work will truly bring a fanbase,

This is also relevant to novels and, to a lesser extent, film. Why do some people take 10 years to write a novel? Because it’s hard? No, because they have less ideas than the prolific novelist, who is already thinking of their next book while writing the current one. Harsh, but true.

So if Prince released so much material that it was coming out of his ears, it’s fine by me. He had lots to say, had ideas to burn and wanted to share them with the world.

And if only some of it was good, so what? He had his glorious purple patch and we should be thankful that at least some of it stuck in our heads.

Even if it was a fraction of his overall, prolific output.

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Roald Dahl’s bump on the head – by George it’s Marvellous Medicine!

Righty-o so we’ve had all the anniversary tributes to the great man: a 100 years since he came into the world and all that; documentaries, books, TV shows and all sorts of other celebrations that would probably make one of the greatest storytellers of all time retreat into his Great Missenden hut and tell everyone to disappear so he could get on with his next tale.

The output, of course, is extraordinary. From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Tales of the Unexpected, from Matilda to You Only Live Twice and from Esio Trot to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it’s like asking a publisher for their ideal prototype for the ‘perfect, versatile writer’ and the answer being ‘Dahl’s a done deal, why bother? If you can sell as many books as he has, then come back to me’. Quite.

But I want to take the writer’s famous mischief and come up with a rascally, utterly scoundrel-like suggestion of my own: what if that bang on the head he recieved after his RAF plane crashed in the desert in 1940 did alter his ‘wiring’ so much that it made him into the great writer he subsequently became?

Is that a stretch? Here’s Dahl, himself, speaking on BBC radio. ‘I started writing soon after that. Maybe the bump on the head helped. People change by bumps on the head. A husband had been blind all his life and she [his wife] hit his head with a saucepan and he suddenly saw again.’

Okay, some of it may be tongue in cheek – but he really did believe that his ‘creative’ life began after this terrible accident which gave his whole life a before and after narrative. Before, he was a ‘square young chap with Shell company’ and after, he became such a prolific writer with incredible range and imagination that he devoured genres from horror to comedy to children’s books with such ridiculous zeal it was barely believable.

Of course, medical opinion (in general) scoffs at these ideas. Perhaps most punters and readers do too. Most people probably think the ‘accident’ had nothing to do with Dahl’s greatness. He was just outrageously talented so why not leave it that?

The problem is writers have a difficulty with leaving it at that. Their heads swirl daily with external narratives but also mythical personal tales which are sometimes even more difficult to keep a lid on.

And sometimes these ‘lids’ are blown clean off to create a different soul to the personality that preceded it.

In own experience, I’ve suffered many ‘bumps on the head’, perhaps hundreds due the brutal epilepsy I suffered as a teenager. Pavements, school desks and playgrounds have all had the benefit of my dozy grey matter. There was a before and after narrative there too. Not a single creative thought in my head (or even a thought of picking up a book) prior to this, but an uncquenchable to zeal to write novels and many other things after these traumatic accidents. Coincidence? Maybe, but you can’t dismiss the idea that a new front opens up in the brain after such a tsunami of violence to something so sacred.

Roald Dahl thought the same so if I’m the only one who believes his ‘bump on the head’ theory then I’m in good company.

Talent is nothing without fate and luck.

It sometimes need the strangest medicine to jolt it into actiion.

http://www.nasserhashmi.com