Viewing Habits: British Pathé

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I am prone to falling into the YouTube trap of looking for a specific video and then clicking on related videos of interest. Thankfully, my interests are innocent enough that I only spend hours watching old educational films about how to use the telephone and psychedelic infomercials about decorative refrigerator panels. While doing some “research” on Expo ’67, YouTube suggested a newsreel clip that introduced me to my new favourite hobby: watching clips from 20th century newsreels from British Pathé.

I could regale you with the history of Pathé and walk you through all the variations of newsreels and “cinemagazines,” but I’m short on time and Wikipedia could probably give you a better overview. This is merely an excuse to post a bunch of links to my favourite reels and to introduce you to the bright and jovial narration work of Bob Danvers-Walker. If, after watching several newsreels featuring his work, you do not begin to narrate your own life in his style, you simply haven’t watched enough.

The British Pathé site is full of film clips dating back to the early 1920s—although those won’t feature Danvers-Walker—and photo galleries. If you’ve got a hankering to look at a bunch of photos of Queen Elizabeth donning silly hats, British Pathé’s got you covered. In my explorations, I’ve stuck to the whimsical slice-of-life stories like provocative hat fashions in the 1950s, underwater dinner parties, and showgirl bowling. These are the kinds of stories that now only grace the pages of the free neighbourhood weekly paper or kitschy blogs. From science and technology to travel to sport and leisure, there’s something for everyone…well, everyone who’s interested in the ways of the 20th century.

We need a modern day Pathé to produce gentle newsreels for the cinema to temper the garish, in-your-face adverts that precede today’s new releases. Wouldn’t you prefer an imitation Bob Danvers-Walker cheerfully narrating a day-in-the-life of GrumpyCat or an artisan knot store to another mobile phone commercial?

Viewing Habits: David Mitchell’s Soapbox

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Tumblr has exposed me to many things of which I might otherwise remain ignorant. I’m aware of many of the more obscure memes. I know now that I prefer Batman to Superman, Star Trek to Star Wars, and impossibly fluffy puppies to fuzzy baby bats. Tumblr is also responsible for reawakening my passion for British comedy and getting me hooked on panel shows. Tumblr turned me onto David Mitchell.

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After hundreds of reblogs of Peep Show/Mark Corrigan/David Mitchell GIF sets popped up on my Tumblr dash, finally someone shared a link to David Mitchell’s Soapbox rant. I think the first one I watched was about cultural references.

David Mitchell’s Soapbox is an internet exclusive series and widely available internationally, which is good news for burgeoning Mitchell fans who want to watch things legally and haven’t gotten around to ordering Peep Show DVDs and a Region 2 DVD player. Since its launch in 2009, Soapbox has run four series with grand total of 87 episodes. Each episode features Mitchell in his Ranting Shirt (he wears the same red shirt throughout the series, no doubt chosen for minimal green screen interference) deftly expounding, for roughly three-to-five minutes, on the irritations of the day. Written by Mitchell and John Finnemore and fitted with detailed post-production digital graphics, this is much more than your casual video blog.

As with any series, the rants are hit-or-miss. Not all the arguments are convincing and some topics you may find aren’t relevant to your experiences. But for a whole lot more, you may find yourself nodding in agreement and saying, “Yes, I agree with you, obscure-on-this-side-of-the-planet British comedian! I think these same thinks!” And then you’ll share the link on your social networking platform of choice. You’ll proclaim that David Mitchell is your spirit animal.

With each episode concentrated on one primary rant, it’s very easy to locate one pertinent to your own rage. You can watch, commiserate, laugh and breathe through your own frustration, and share. Personally, I find this GIF to be suitable for all occasions:

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We have the privilege of living in a time of great laziness. We’ve become deferential to the changes of technology and society and the demands they make of us. “Oh, this remote has buttons I don’t understand. Well, okay.” or “Doctor Who and Downton Abbey are being shown only in 3D now? I’m not keen on wearing special equipment for idle entertainment, but alright, fine.” It’s nice to have a voice of my generation willing to call out the injustices, idiocies, and irritations of modern society. I suspect Mitchell will tire of his posh curmudgeon character and being asked to rant on command. Rage is a lot of work, it’s tiring to maintain a consistent level of anger, and trying to balance is out with a couple of giggles adds to the strain. Making a few pithy observations on a panel show must be easier in comparison. Not that I begrudge Mr. Mitchell his panel pithiness. There’s value to be found in that as well (or so I’ll tell myself in my third straight hour of streaming repeats of QI).

Now I leave you to investigate Soapbox on your own. The powers behind the series have released it in several platforms. You can stream it on YouTube or Blip, download the series as a video podcast, or download the iPhad (iPhone/iPod/iPad) app, or stream it from the Guardian website. The Guardian site also hosts Mitchell’s regular comment articles.

Popped Culture: Beach Party

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I’m one of those nostalgists suffering from Born-too-Late-ness. I missed out on so many seemingly great experiences of the mid-20th century—diners, train travel, and the drive-in cinema. Gone are the days when you could sneak your buddies and a four-course meal in your trunk to the drive-in and have a grand evening out. By the time my day rolled around, the local drive-in was abandoned (but possibly haunted by dead teenage motorcyclists) and the idea of just riding in my boyfriend’s trunk for funsies didn’t have the same appeal.

Fortunately, living the Future means that I can at least watch the drive-in movies from the comfort of my own driveway (which is haunted by raccoon motorcyclists). Go get your anthropomorphic popcorn, ’cause we’re gonna watch a bunch of beach party flicks!

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For me, the beach party movies are a guilty pleasure, but let’s not fool ourselves. These are not good movies. These are low-budget, bubblegum, frothy make-out flicks. It’s possible that my own parents rounded a couple of bases during Beach Party. My mother probably got mad at her beau for making a crude comment about Annette’s bosoms during How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. And everyone knew, no matter how much of the middle you missed, you could always tell your parents that Frankie and Annette wound up together at the end. An American International picture is not rocket science. Maybe social science. Definitely Mystery Science (Theater 3000).

The series begins with Beach Party, when a bearded anthropologist “secretly studying the mating habits of Southern California teenagers” gets mixed up in all the “teen” antics. Naturally, hilarity ensues. We’re introduced to the perpetually on again-off again Frankie and Dee Dee (Annette), their surfing pals, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, and the villainous Eric von Zipper and his Ratz pack. We’re also introduced to the running gag of the Himalayan Mind Suspension technique, wherein Eric von Zipper inadvertently paralyzes himself by pressing his forefinger to his skull. And Les Baxter provides the musical score for all the smooching scenes and surfing montages.

In 1964, AIP released Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pajama Party. Muscle Beach Party focuses on a rivalry between the surfers and a gang of bodybuilders. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by an Italian countess. Don Rickles lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, bodybuilders walk around in capes and mankinis, and everything works out in the end.

Then there’s Bikini Beach. Oh, Bikini Beach. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by a British pop star “Potato Bug” (Avalon in a dual role). The surfers are also into drag racing, some stuffy millionaire wants to turn the beach into a retirement community. Don Rickles (as a new character) lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, Eric von Zipper and his gang get into a scuffle, and—after a lengthy car chase and a bunch of art slinging—everything works out in the end. Wait, did I mention the monkey?

Pajama Party departs from the standard beach party formula by replacing Frankie with a Martian called Go Go (played by Tommy Kirk). Annette plays Connie, neglected girlfriend of Big Lunk (Deadhead in the previous films). Buster Keaton plays an Indian, Martian Don Rickles lobs a few Martian insults, Eric von Zipper gets a sidecar for his motorcycle, Elsa Lanchester offers advice…there’s subplots, swimming pools, lingerie and longjohns, and everything works out in the end. I guess. If you’re running a marathon of these flicks, Pajama Party is the one you miss most of because of bathroom and snack breaks.

With Beach Blanket Bingo we’re back on track. Frankie and Dee Dee blah blah. Deadhead (now Bonehead) falls for a mermaid, Don Rickles insults everybody, the surfers take up skydiving, Dee Dee argues for gender equality in daredevil stunts, Eric von Zipper falls for (and kidnaps) the visiting singing sensation, Paul Lynde is a smarmy publicity agent, and—after yet another massive brawl between the surfers and the bikers‚—everything works out. It’s getting tougher to pass these kids off as kids. Can’t adults be allowed to blow off everything for a weekend and go surfing with a hundred other adults? Is there a meetup group for that?

We saw how Annette fared without Frankie in Pajama Party. How does Frankie hold up without Annette in Ski Party? Without an established relationship to muck up, Frankie’s left to engage in wackiest of all schemes to land the girl. In Ski Party, Frankie and Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman are a couple of love-starved college guys. The guys join the school’s ski club and tag along on their skiing trip. But wait! These boys don’t know how to ski! Of course the only solution is to cross dress as British exchange students and join the ladies on the bunny slopes! Cue the manipulation, hilarious misunderstandings and co-ed pillow fights. Lesley Gore sings on a bus and James Brown shows up at the ski resort when his bus runs out of gas or something. Eventually everyone winds up at a beach house and everything works out.

How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is the last beach party movie featuring Frankie and Annette as our heroes. Frankie’s off in the tropics, under the thin guise of naval reserve duty. He’s frolicking with exotic island babes but gets concerned that Dee Dee might get cozy with some other fella (and withhold sex from that guy). Naturally, the solution is to have a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) conjure up a vapid bikini chick to distract the boys from Dee Dee. Dwayne Hickman tackles the role of Frankie’s rival, while all the other guys (otherwise known as Frankie’s pals in all the other movies) stay away from the fully-clothed-for-the-entire-picture Dee Dee. Mickey Rooney calls everyone chicky-baby, Uncle Leo and Dobie Gillis get into a fist fight, Eric von Zipper tries to change his image, a motorcycle race is full of hijinks, everyone sings a bunch of forgettable songs, Frankie returns, and it’s happily ever after for everyone except Dobie Gillis.

The trouble with the beach party films is that none of them are particularly memorable. You can walk away with the basic formula, but the details vanish. These movies weren’t built for careful repeated viewings. The AIP flicks were quick cash grabs aimed at teens looking for something to do on a Saturday night. A beach party movie is good for casual, passive viewing, requiring minimal investment but also offering minimal reward (especially if your date is a real Dee Dee). Since the days of drive-ins are well behind us, the most we can demand of an AIP production is light entertainment during a bout of the flu.

If you’re tuning in a beach party movie to see an accurate depiction of teen life in the 1960s, you’re out of luck. These things were written by middle-aged men with little, if any, insight into the average teenage mind. They steer clear of any political or social upheaval and unrest. Everyone’s just out to have a good time. The only concerns are whether Dee Dee will ever get Frankie to settle down and marry her and whether Frankie will ever convince Dee Dee to just put out already. Those questions are answered in the 1987 nostalgia trip Back to the Beach, which features Frankie and Annette and ignores most of AIP beach party canon.

TCM-worthy fun fact: Eric von Zipper was played by Harvey Lembeck, father of Helaine Lembeck who played Sweathogs foe Judy Borden on Welcome Back, Kotter. One of the stars of Welcome Back, Kotter was, as we know, superstar John Travolta, who went on to play Danny Zuko, another leader of a motorcycle gang, the T-Birds, in the 1978 musical Grease.

American International continued to produce films marketed to teen viewers well into the 1970s. They put out a number of monster horror movies, a series of movies based on the stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman, spy spoofs, car racing sagas, kung fu, and blaxploitation films.

Viewing Habits: HGTV

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Confession: I spend a lot of time watching HGTV. As long as I have cable, my non-scripted go-to is always HGTV. I’m finding it tougher to defend this particular viewing habit as the programming focuses on unattainable locations for impossible to please people. The shift from modest home decoration to extreme home renovation makes it difficult to pretend my house will ever achieve its potential.

I’ve always been a sucker for project shows. I could sit for hours with a bag of Cheetos and marathon of Bob Ross. My favourite after school program was Furniture To Go. My favourite segments on the Home show were the craft projects, although wicker baskets can only capture so much of my imagination. I wasn’t so hot for Bob Vila or This Old House.

When I first started watching HGTV in the 1990s (or “home and gardening television” as it was so quaintly known), it was mostly Carol Duvall’s craft projects and a couple doing little home projects like replacing a light fixture or putting up/removing wallpaper. How many cabinet knobs could be replaced before this channel would get cancelled? In those days, it was all mom jeans and sweater vests and floral stencils.

Then came Trading Spaces and the housing bubble and house flipping and extreme renovations. Now everyone wants to remove whole walls. It’s all quick cuts and heightened drama, stainless steel and granite. Carol Duvall is a relic of the past, destined to languish in the 4am timeslot on HGTV8.

HGTV was a fine way to pass time when it offered tips and ideas for improving one’s own domicile. It was dedicated to showing people how to best utilize small spaces and freshen up one’s decor. We satisfied a little voyeuristic craving by peeping into other people’s homes and filled our heads with attainable fantasies.

Now HGTV presents a slew of programs showcasing potential homeowners with inflated senses of entitlement and unrealistic expectations. What began as a string of shows giving homeowners a sense of real estate realities and hints for house hunting evolved into formulaic drivel that only tangentially reflect the current real estate climate. The featured homeowners regularly regurgitate things about closets and counter tops and “open concept” spaces that are “perfect for entertaining.”

The standard procedure for these home-based programs goes like this:
a) person(s) dissatisfied with living conditions
b) person(s) look to change living conditions, enlists assistance from professional
c) tensions arise, drama ensues
d) neutral narrator provides running summations of situation
e) time runs out
f) living condition altered, person(s) appeased with end result

If you’ve never bought a house and hope that a television show can help sort out the confusion, you are in for trouble. House shopping shows offer little in the way of helpful tips to apply in reality. Potential homeowners provide a budget and a list of unreasonable demands, neither of which can be compromised. The realtor presents three homes that are over budget and off the mark. Buyers are pressured to pick one and justify their purchase decision, oftentimes claiming their selection was perfect. And in 95% of all cases, the end selection was clearly not perfect. You, Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner have obviously settled. We can see you’ve settled. You could’ve retained your standards and walked away. Or admitted to the cameras that you’ve settled. But that’s not the satisfying ending. Audiences expect happy endings. The unlikely couple marries, the homeowner buys a house, the rag tag team of misfits wins the big game—all results of a satisfying narrative arc. You watch a show about buying a house, you expect to see someone buy a house.

Two years ago, we started seeing stories revealing the truth behind shows like House Hunters. The featured homeowners had already long made their purchase by the time they were chosen to film and went touring other houses that weren’t under consideration. Sometimes we’re just taking peeks around the homeowners’ friends’ houses. Which takes 80% of the fun out of watching the program. All the bickering and shoving spouses into closets and humming and hawing over which location is best and what can be done within the budget becomes a pack of pointless lies.

I don’t know why I continuing watching this channel. I’m not in the market for a new home. The internet keeps me up to date on the latest in wallpaper removal techniques and cabinet knob innovations. I’ve come to accept that none of the doors close properly in my apartment because there’s twenty layers of paint on the doors and the frames. I’m not going to paint the fireplace to “brighten things up.” We’re nearly 10 years into the whole stainless steel appliance fad, so I imagine popularity will soon wane and we’ll be conditioned to expect transparent appliances. At least we’d finally put the whole refrigerator light debate to rest.

(I would’ve included some ancient clips of HGTV but really couldn’t be bothered to do that much research for the sake of nostalgia. I do have limits. Those Mitchell and Webb sketches were pretty well spot-on. Your time would be better spent watching their clips on YouTube all day, since Netflix inexplicably removed That Mitchell and Webb Look again.)

Viewing Habits: Submarine

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Oliver Tate fancies himself a hero. He wants to save a girl from being bullied, to save his parents’ crumbling marriage, and to win over the girl he likes. Oliver Tate doesn’t play sports, he isn’t an overachieving academic, and he hasn’t taken up drugs. Oliver Tate is actually a passionate teenage boy with an active imagination and a propensity for affectations. Where was this boy when I was growing up?

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Oliver is the lead in Submarine, a quiet coming-of-age film that encapsulates the typical teen experience. If you ran Harold and Maude, The Breakfast Club, Rushmore, and The Adventures of Pete and Pete through a blender, you might come up with something similar to Submarine.

This movie seems like it would be a straightforward tale of misfits in love and learning from their love but inevitably drifting apart because one of them wants to be normal and find normal love. Despite his goal to be “the best boyfriend in the world,” Oliver does not allow himself to disappear entirely into his romantic relationship. Instead he becomes preoccupied with his parents’ romantic relationship (the dimmer switch, an indication of romance, has not been dimmed for seven months) and takes on the mission to save their marriage. His plans for wooing Jordana and keeping his parents together are often ill-fated and he suffers the consequences.

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Submarine is full of charms and quirks. It’s set in that quaint time (late 1980s-mid 1990s) when we still used typewriters, listened to audio cassettes, and looked things up in books. Oliver’s parents are quirky and neurotic. Oliver and his love interest Jordana Bevan run around and do charmingly quirky things like run around in whimsical sunglasses and set fire to things and sit together in an abandoned bathtub in a field. Through Oliver’s constant narration, he shares the fantasies and anxieties of an overactive teenage imagination. He reveals his fears of getting older, turning into his parents, and not having memorable life experiences.

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The visual style of the movie borrows inspiration from the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry. You may forgive the freeze frames and deliberate typography once you get an eyeful of Swansea’s scenic views and the Welsh coastline.

What’s refreshing about Submarine is it’s approach to teen angst. Director Richard Ayoade (best known as The IT Crowd‘s Maurice Moss) presents an authentic account of kids fumbling through adolescence, trying out different interests, looking for ways to fit in and stand out, and making mistakes all the while. I’ve just started reading the novel by Joe Dunthorne from which the film was adapted. Ayoade seems to stay true to the characters and the tone in his screenplay adaptation, although the book is clearly set in 1997 and Oliver creates more situations in order to get his parents’ attention. I like how both the book and the movie capture the doughy doe-eyed innocence of the early teen years. Yes, Oliver does attempt to be sophisticated and clever, but he never comes across as slick or arrogant like a Ferris Bueller or Zack Morris.

Submarine is a gentle comedy that may arouse nostalgia for your own adolescence or simply inspire you to read the dictionary and listen to Serge Gainsbourg.

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