(UN)POPULAR CULTURE

The home of writer & author A. J. BLACK

Welcome to September! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on the blog but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black. This edition covers both July and August collectively.

Let’s start this month with TV…

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Greetings everyone.

While this may sound morbid, I often wonder about death. Sometimes we forget how omnipresent death actually is in our lives, even when we’re not directly experiencing loss. We often know people who are, or have. We see death in much of the media we consume, the TV and movies we watch. Some of the music we listen to concerns death, as do many of the books and stories we read.

As we live life, death is everywhere.

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A brand new, spin-off show to The X-Cast: An X-Files Podcast, The Time Is Now has been in the making for over two years and delves weekly into each episode of Chris Carter’s 1990’s esoteric horror series Millennium, with myself & other fans and podcasters discussing the series, alongside interviews with cast and crew and other special events.

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Forty years since it first revolutionised both science-fiction and horror cinema, what is left to discover about Ridley Scott’s Alien?

Memory: The Origins of Alien gamely attempts to celebrate the anniversary of this seminal picture by digging deep into the genesis behind the creatives responsible. Less so Scott, whose directorial vision and process in developing Alien—the film that put him on the map at the end of the 1970’s after success with The Duellists—but more angled on the life and work of initial writer Dan O’Bannon, unique visual artist H. R. Giger, and heavily on their inspirations. Alexandre O. Phillippe’s documentary leans into the driving forces that underpin Alien conceptually, it’s origins deep within myth and cultural subtext, plus the many touch stones from earlier science-fiction and horror which became a collaborative brew that led to the film we know and love.

In truth, many books and documentarians have doubtless captured much of what Phillippe’s film brings together in Memory over the years, but he at least attempts to fuse together traditional documentarian stylistics (talking heads to camera, intercut footage etc…) with a few artful flourishes; the film begins with a surprisingly protracted sequence set at the Temple of Apollo ruins on the island of Delphi in Greece as Phillippe depicts the old Furies of myth, terrifying aged women who almost seem plucked from some great Shakespearean stage tragedy. It’s an unusual way to begin but a striking and different one, even if it exposes a level of pretentiousness that sadly lingers a little too often across Memory.

For all Phillippe is consolidating and combining information and detail from multiple texts, Memory does at least fascinate on its perspective when it approaches Alien.

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Hosted by author Duncan Barrett, Primitive Culture is a Star Trek history and culture podcast we co-created in 2017 on the Trek FM networking, looking at the 50+ year old franchise through the lens of our world today.

In this episode, Duncan and I discuss the role of the unreliable narrator and objective and subjective truth through Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon and how it inspired Star Trek episodes including The Next Generation‘s A Matter of Perspective, Deep Space Nine‘s Rules of Engagement, and Voyager‘s Living Witness, plus other episodes in the franchise.

This was a topic that came together fairly quickly (or was it?) and I really enjoyed comparing Rashomon–a brilliant film–to Star Trek. We dug into some really interesting corners with this one.

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Used Cars epitomises both the end of a depressed, cynical 1970’s for America and the birth of a gaudy, loud, colourful 1980’s.

The used car salesman is one of the almost cliched examples of textbook hucksterism in the Western world, we are almost programmed to distrust the line of fast-talking, buddy buddy technique exuded here by Kurt Russell’s salesman Rudy Russo. Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale rely on that textual assumption on the audience’s part to sell Used Cars, which pits Rudy’s aspirational salesman and his ageing, low-fi boss Luke against their rival, over the road, slick car sales operation led by Luke’s loud and nasty twin brother, Roy L. Fuchs (both parts being played by veteran character actor Jack Warden). It’s a traditional high concept comedic set up, with the audience designed to root for Rudy’s crooked underdog as he tries to stick it to an even more crooked Man.

Used Cars, in that respect, works as a piece both then and indeed now. We are not short of salesmanship and crooked hucksterism in our modern age, and Rudy’s aspirations to run for state Senate and combine his penchant for selling dodgy cars with a political bent feel particularly acute given the White House is currently home to the biggest con man in modern history. Released during the Carter Administration, the short period of a lesser-known President who inherited the shock of Nixon’s disgrace and a subsequent economic downturn, Used Cars has one eye on the glitzy rhetoric and showmanship of the coming Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberal approach mixed with a halcyon yearning for a simpler, greater America, ushered in an era in which the Rudy Russo’s of the world would profit while millions still suffer the consequences today.

While a comedy of its time, and one which has lost some punch over time, Used Cars still makes sense, when it could have ended up lost to the ages.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is a film about the power of narrative, hence why much of the action takes place on a key night in 1968.

Just after Halloween, always a night popular with horror films as a setting, in 1968 saw election night of the next President of the United States, a night in which Richard Nixon finally was elevated to the position of Commander-in-Chief. While Andre Ovredal’s adaptation of the children’s book series by Alvin Schwartz is primarily concerned with the terrifying events swirling around bookish teenager Stella (Zoe Colletti) and her friends as they are haunted by the murderous stories of a tormented spirit, the story undulates with the ominous spectre of Nixon’s election looming over small-town America, the kind of latent 1950’s hangover, Midwestern town that wouldn’t go amiss in the world of Stephen King.

Schwartz’s original book takes place at the tail end of the 1960’s, a decade in which the counter-cultural revolution swept its way across the Western world, particularly the United States, though it seems to have passed Mill Valley, Pennsylvania by. Stella is haunted by her mother’s abandonment, perhaps to explore the big city world offered by the promise of the 60’s. Her friend Auggie (Gabriel Rush) is a middle-aged man in a young guy’s body, while mysterious stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) turns out to be a draft dodger – avoiding the senseless Vietnam conflict that killed his brother. These are not teenagers rushing headlong into a heady 60’s of abandonment, if anything they are anxious and rooted by their circumstances. This makes them far more contemporary and relatable than their period setting suggests.

Nixon’s re-election is a sign, given the US is now experiencing its most divisive and controversial President since ‘Tricky Dicky’, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has one eye on our current problem of confused, false narratives.

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