“Script ahoy” with Admiral Nelson

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About half a century ago, in the dim and dusty land known as my childhood, there was a TV show called “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. It was one of a stable of shows made by Irwin Allen – a man whose ambitions would outgrow children’s TV eventually and flourish in disaster movies. Some unkind people use the word “disaster” on a broader canvas in an Irwin Allen context, but that’s beyond the scope of these comments.

 

TV in those days was a meat-grinder that destroyed writers and actors in equal measure as a result of a punishing production schedule. It wasn’t uncommon for an American series to have anything from 25 to 30 forty-eight minute episodes in a season. In effect, anyone involved in making one of these shows was producing about half a film in no more than six days, week in, week out, for 25 to 30 episodes. It’s a tribute to human endurance that anyone survived.

 

I, along with most of my friends at school, liked Allen’s shows to varying degrees. Most of us had a favourite (I certainly did). What impressed us most were the major props and special effects (especially the work of the great Howard Lydecker), and the music. Some of the industry giants produced music for TV in those days. In addition, many of the people on the production side who worked on first feature movies (in this case at 20th Century Fox), also contributed to television. There’s much more of a divide today, probably due to expense.

 

Even as children, we knew Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had barking mad conventions and clichés about it that got madder with each season. This was a especially the case by season three, while season four was riddled with them and little else. We didn’t care because a lot of the clichés and conventions were very funny. I suppose you had to be there to understand. It’s only by re-visiting the show decades later that I’ve discovered just how unintentionally funny it all was.

 

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Admiral Nelson & Chief Sharkey

 

I watched a third season episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea recently, and how the memories came tumbling back. The basic plot synopsis for a season 3 Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode is as follows:

 

“Some mad stuff happens; sparks fly everywhere; the actors fall from one side of the set to the other; the sub hits the same bit of rock on its way to the ocean floor it hit last week on its way to the same bit of ocean floor; somebody says “Damage Control….report!”; the Flying sub crashes; the reactor’s dampening rods are pulled and it’s about to go critical; there’s a werewolf loose on the sub; the Admiral knocks together another gimmicky piece of tech in the lab; fires start everywhere, but it’s OK because they have CO2 fire extinguishers that somehow repair all damage to equipment. Everyone laughs at the end. Running time – 48 minutes.”

 

In evidence:

 

The basic premise of the episode I watched is fairly plausible. The submarine Seaview (a nuclear powered research sub the show was based around) and its crew had been given the task of transporting a 3000 year-old mummy back to its place of origin. The mummy had been taken by an American archaeologist many years previously, and the US administration felt returning a national treasure like that to a country in danger of being destabilised by general unrest in the region would help to calm things down. So far, so good.

 

Captain Crane

Captain Crane

The plot starts to show signs of unraveling almost from the opening scene as the two principal characters of the show – Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane – take the Flying sub (an unobtrusive bright canary yellow manta-ray shaped jet-powered sub that can fly, as the name implies) on an “incognito” mission to Manhattan in order to collect the mummy. To be fair, they make their final approach to Manhattan submerged, so I’ll let that go. Despite the physical dimensions of the sarcophagus for the mummy being bigger than any of the hatches into the Flying sub, Nelson and Crane manage to heave it on board. On this evidence, if they’d been in the Laurel and Hardy film where they’re trying to get a piano up an enormous flight of steps, Nelson and Crane would have managed it one go, though it wouldn’t have been as funny as Stan and Ollie’s version. Anyway, this is an Irwin Allen show, so physical dimensions aren’t gospel. They can be changed or ignored according to the whimsical needs of the scripts. TV was more carefree then. In any event, no sooner has the mummy been stowed on the floor of the Flying Sub, than the classic “Voyage” plot event of “stuff happens” begins to happen. To kick off, Crane feels faint and eventually passes out. While Nelson’s back is turned, a rope securing the sarcophagus snaps, and it cracks open to reveal a groping, bandaged hand reaching out to a crescendo of dramatic music. There might be many reasons why a 3000 year-old mummy would choose that particular moment to come back to life, but this time my best guess is it had something to do with providing a mini-climax just before the main titles. Once the titles were out of the way, the hand withdrew and the sarcophagus shut. Nelson missed it of course. He was too busy making sure all the cosmetic blinkey lights were working in the Flying Sub.

 

 

When they reach Seaview the mummy is dumped in a nondescript store room already holding a pile of jetsam in it that looks like it was found on a beach during someone’s shore leave. As is standard procedure, a mute guard is stationed outside of the (inevitably) unlocked store room door. Almost immediately the lid of the sarcophagus pops open again, and this time the mummy gets out to see how the world has changed in 3000 years. The guard is drawn to investigate because of the noise. There’s an unwritten doctrine among guards on the Seaview that whenever they spot something threatening, they do not make a run for it and sound the alarm (the first rule of Fright Club is nobody runs in Fright Club). Instead they stand rooted to the spot, gaping at whatever it is until it’s within arm’s reach of them. Then – too late of course – they begin fumbling about trying to draw a gun. By that time the “monster” is already throwing them about like a dog with a rag.

 

 

As the episode wears on, it becomes clear the mummy has psychic powers that enable it to posses Crane. Instead of using this talent to take control of the missile silos and fire off everything with Fu-Manchu delight, all the mummy does is keep trying to make Seaview late through minor acts of sabotage. I kept thinking to myself that a few things might infuriate me sufficiently to bring me back to life 3000 years after my death, but being taken home punctually isn’t one of them. As the clock ticks away the final minutes remaining in the episode, Nelson comes up with one of his famous “get some fantasy-stuff cables and put all the reactor power through them” solutions. The mummy is sent back to its maker (I don’t mean Fox’s props dept.) in a nuclear-powered variant on the electric chair. Right at the end there’s a golden moment where someone asks Nelson why he thinks the mummy came back to life after 3000 years and did what it did. Nelson gives a coy smile and says “Maybe it’s best that we never know.” Well, it’s certainly best for the script writer, because evidently he didn’t know – or care, or give it any thought. This episode was just a great excuse to have a 3000 year-old mummy running amok without even a semi-plausible reason for it.

 

A word about the actors:

 

It’s easy to make fun of shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but there’s a sort of majesty to its long-suffering regular cast – and I’m not being flippant or facetious. Week after week the regular cast of “Voyage” turned in performances that verged on the heroic in view of some of the genuinely lunatic scripts they were landed with. There’s a professionalism and subtlety to some of their work that went way beyond what would normally have been expected from a children’s TV show, and they should be honoured for it. They certainly brightened my childhood, and I’m grateful to them. Tragically, the same can’t be said of a lot of the writers.

 

Photographic art prints and holiday snaps

With soCape-central-emblemme degree of regularity when I covered formal events in the days before moving completely into photographic art prints, I could count on someone sidling up to me in a quiet moment and asking “What’s the most professional camera to use?” It’s one of the easiest questions to answer because there is no such thing as a professional camera; it’s the photographer who has the professionalism. All a camera has is specification, but that specification lies dormant until a skilled hand releases it. The hand that can release high specification (which is what most people confuse with “professional”) can release any specification and still deliver a professional result. The whole notion of a “professional camera” is an amateur’s fetish. It’s made most commonly by a particular type of amateur who thinks that hanging a badge around his or her neck will make them into a pro. It won’t – it just makes them tits with badges. I saw this in practice once when I’d dropped into a camera shop to run off a few quick prints from a memory stick. As I was doing this, someone else was in the process of struggling out of the shop with a huge collection of new high-end photographic kit. As the shop door closed behind him, one of the sales assistants turned to another and said “He hasn’t got a clue. He’s going to use it like a zoom compact.”

 

The simplest and most unsophisticated camera can deliver a “professional” result in the right hands, while the most sophisticated and expensive piece of gear is a piece of junk in the hands of an idiot (see above). David Bailey illustrated this nicely in one of his early TV interviews in the 1960s when he was asked to take a picture with a Hasselblad and a Kodak Instamatic; two cameras from opposite ends of the evolutionary scale at that time. The result – a simple composition of a model and what I take to be Bailey against a plain white background – was artistically pleasing in both prints.

Capture

The only variance was in the detail and resolution of each image;  in other words its technical specification. Not surprisingly, the detail in the Hasselblad image was far superior. What was striking, however, was that technical superiority did not become obvious until the image from each camera had been enlarged to poster size. When propped up for a TV camera as approximately 10 x 8 inch enlargements, it was hard to tell the images apart. The great lesson at the heart of this is that a badge won’t make your pictures any better artistically whether you’re making them as exhibition prints or holiday snapshots. You as the photographer are responsible for that. The equipment can’t and won’t do it for you.

It’s Art Jim, but not as we know it.

The ego airbag

 

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I had a fleeting involvement with the art world a year or so ago. It was driven in part by what I think of as the emperor complex. When enough people flounce around you scattering petals and telling you that you’re magnificent, eventually you come to believe it at least a bit. Whenever we get too much uncritical praise there’s a tendency for an ego airbag to go off in our faces in much the same way (though for different reasons) a real one does in a collision. The problem is the ego airbag cushions us from reality. Because of a torrent of praise and an airbag in my face, I thought I might be an artist for a while. Unfortunately, my art experiment was doomed from eight o’clock, day   one.

 

History: How I got here from there

 

From the first time I used a camera at age thirteen, I was impatient with the restrictions of conventional click-and-it’s-done photography. It wasn’t long before this impatience evolved into action via my second camera, a Polaroid Swinger II. Polaroids, for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember them, were like a steam-powered forerunner of digital photography. The prints were developed on the spot, typically in a minute for monochrome work. I read once that Polaroids were a great way of getting bad photos really fast, but the inadequacies of some aspects of Polaroid prints were part of the trade-off for the immediacy of them. Horses for courses.

 

I began to experiment quite a bit with the recording process of light on film, and later with exposure during printing. When digital photography became a mature and viable option it was a liberation for me in the way it opened up the scope of what could be done. All of the things I wanted to do with film were infinitely more achievable with digital technology. I’ve never had a particle of regret in moving over to it completely. One spin-off was images of mine coming out of this process began, in the eyes of some, to take on the appearance of artwork. It wasn’t long before I had a Barber’s Shop Quartet of encouraging voices telling me I should establish a presence in the art world (the voices were real, by the way – not just in my head in case you were wondering). Foolishly, I was inclined to think this good counsel. What idiots men are. The problem with the art world is it’s completely insular. It works on the old Hollywood studio principle toward actors; don’t call us – we’ll call you.

 

The flight to nowhere

 

For about nine months I attended art gallery previews. These are events where people interested in art gather together to form a critical mass in which alcohol is consumed in aviation fuel quantities at a gallery’s expense. It must be a bit like running an airline where stationary aircraft burn off all their fuel in a hangar without going anywhere.

 

 

Some guests at these events really do attend to enjoy the artwork. Others see it as a free watering hole on the way to an evening’s cheerful oblivion. You can spot them easily. They stand rigidly upright with the exaggerated frozen poise only a genuine drunk has. They make occasional abrupt gestures, or just stare at someone intently with a frightening semi-grin. When they laugh it sounds like someone starting up a chain-saw. Even if there is a fair degree of background noise, this laugh tends to start heads turning.

 

As time wore on I grew frustrated with previews. This was not the fault of the art world. I came to an understanding that I was too left-brain (reason and logic) for the art world, and the art world was considerably too right brain (feelings and emotions) for me. On that basis I thought the best thing from then on was for us to worship each-other from afar.

 

The square peg meets the round hole

 

In a way my downfall was predictable. I attended art events with a typically left-brain mindset. Instead of going there to enjoy the art (and the alcohol), I went there to gather data about what it was the art world wanted. My theory was if I attended enough of these events, and if my liver stood up to the punishment, I’d start seeing some common threads running through them all. From there it would just be a logical process of configuring my work to align more closely with what the art world wanted. Unfortunately, I’d missed the point completely. Art is – as I understand it now – more to do with feelings and emotions. Besides that, the art world isn’t interested in outsiders like me. My reason and logic wasn’t relevant. The result was, over time, a frustration-driven contempt started creeping into my discussions on the art world. In particular I highlighted the work of a woman who had put up some pictures on her art website of wooden pallets she’d wrapped in cling-film. In the pictures she was standing next to them looking as if wrapping them up had been an accomplishment. What I’d missed – and I can freely admit that now – is there was at least a chance she wasn’t the fraud I said she was, but someone who had simply seen something in the fusion of those two things that made them seem greater than the sum of their parts. It was just something I couldn’t see, and still can’t. I was more like that rascal recently who deliberately put a pair of glasses on the floor by a wall in an art gallery, and a baseball cap in the corner. He then stood back to smirk as visitors crouched down to ohhhh and ahhh over what they thought were important pieces of art. While it’s true there are artists who can see things left-brainers like me can’t see, the art world should be brave enough to acknowledge there are a certain number of the “emperor’s new clothes” brigade in their ranks, hidden among the genuine artists and art lovers.

 

Insight and understanding

 

I had a light-bulb moment of insight about myself towards the end of my nine month exercise. I’d been describing to a patient listener in detailed and increasingly hoarse and florid terms, my many and varied frustrations with the art community. He sat quietly, nodding at appropriate moments like a knowing parent, and allowed me to finish before commenting. At the end of my piece he said “You know….I think the problem you’re having with the art world is you’re coming at it from the standpoint of a craftsman.” If you’ve even been in a pitch-black room and groped about for a light switch, you’ll appreciate how it felt when I was told this. It was as if for the first time in nine months I’d found the switch and popped the light on. I could see clearly for the first time in ages. Abruptly, my world made sense again. He was right. Now the notes various artists had written about themselves that had made my eyes roll upwards, didn’t seem as pretentious and absurd as they once had (though I’ll add the rider here again about “the emperor’s new clothes” brigade). Their take on what was going on was just completely at odds with mine. It was then I came to an understanding that art is a feelings and emotions thing. What I do is not – it’s an intellectual thing. It’s much more about problem solving and craft than emotions, though I’ll accept one of the things which defines us as a species is the pleasure we get from various forms of problem solving. That pleasure is an emotion. For me though, the process is primarily an intellectual one of arriving at a concept; stretching the boundaries of it; solving problems along the way towards producing a practical image; and finally pushing out something that is as near complete as I can make it without spending the rest of my life on it. I don’t have any sentimentality about the work, however. There’s no hidden meaning in the result. It’s an image, and you either like it or you don’t. It won’t give anyone insight into my childhood or feelings about my place in the universe. What I do is more akin to someone who hand-builds a yacht. Creating it takes time, skill, and effort, but when it’s done, any journeys the new owners go on in it are up to them. I have no influence on the destination.

 

The viewer is always right

 

This was illustrated vividly to me at an exhibition of my images some years ago. A guest aged about sixteen pulled me aside and asked specifically about one of the images to see if he had understood it “correctly”. It was this one:

 

 

He described to me the story this image had provoked in his mind. For him it represented a proud, virtuous man who had watched his values and beliefs discarded by his children and society in general, until he was left as a mechanistic rusting irrelevance; abandoned and forgotten. When he’d finished I was properly humbled. Although I hadn’t seen any of that in the image while creating it, this was a moment of profound insight into what people can see when they use an image to go off on a journey of their own. Ultimately, the viewer is always right.

Wacky Races and the Tyranny of Certainty

Up from The Cape: 2nd June 2016

 

TCape-central-emblemhe placing of things into categories is an ancient Greek innovation. Even “celebs”, who you might hope would defy categorization and be dropped into one large bucket with a lid on it, are actually ranked from A list to Z list as if somehow it mattered. Categories matter when someone is buying fuses or cheese, but they don’t matter when you’re buying celebs. I suppose there is an exception to that if you want one to cut the ribbon at the opening of a new supermarket, but that’s about it. It’s baffling to me how there can possibly be twenty six categories of celebrity. Plainly that’s just ignorance on my part. If you don’t follow the game, how can you expect to make intelligent comment on it? This is one of those subjects I really should keep my mouth shut about, and so I will.

 

Well meaning people often offer writers what they hope is useful advice when they say “write what you know about.” This may be something that, on the whole, is honoured in the breach of it. People who write journals (like this one) are especially susceptible. I’m frequently accused of being unkind and intolerant towards bloggers, but I can’t help it. I come from an era when standards of verification were applied to people before they were allowed to publish opinions, unless it was via a cheap and cheerful (and often messy) publishing mechanism run from their john-bull-no-6bedrooms called a mimeograph. This technology was one generation on from something called a “John Bull Printing Outfit” – a product beloved of small British children who enjoyed stamping the same unevenly spaced words repeatedly all over a blank sheet of paper; a table top; hands; or anything else that would retain the ink. This technology itself was only one step removed from cave drawings. We’ve come from cave drawings to blogging in only three mutations. In some respects that’s amazing. It’s even more amazing that in some cases the same standards apply.

 

Verification was one of the faults flagged up in the days when information searching on the internet was a growing industry. More traditional online database producers (SDC and the like) had existed for quite some time, but they were all rooted in the same principles of verification as the publishing industry. The information had to pass through a series of checks and filters before being punted out for consumers. The internet had none of this. It was the great leveler in that 100% true information could be found on the internet shelf right next to 100% trash. Often there was no quick way of telling them apart. Unless consumers had some expertise to apply filters and checks of their own, whether or not they came away with good information or fantasy had become a lucky dip. With the internet it became possible to access work by people with academic discipline and scientific method along with the work of the barking mad, and honking nobodies with gas-filled egos and private agendas (glances nervously into the mirror at this juncture). I’m tempted to call this the era of “Wacky Races” where facts were on the run just ahead of a massive dust-cloud of ignorance and opinions of convenience (often the same thing).

 

This is not to say it’s been all bad. One of the great things about the internet age has been the loss of reverence for dogma when it’s in print. Science in particular likes to think of itself as reasoned and dispassionate in the way it considers new ideas. Reality is at odds with this. Science is a weather-vane that turns in the direction of the prevailing wind as often as people do. Scientists are people. Scientific opinion is not only channeled towards prevailing wisdom, ruining the career of anyone who stands in opposition, but also research. We decide what it is we want and expect to discover, and then work in that direction. It’s interesting how often new breakthroughs come about as a result of random accidents. In pursuit of one idea we stumble upon another. Science has been a religion. It has its own priesthood and dogmas. Oppose it at your peril if you’re part of the scientific clergy.

 

Alfred_Wegener
Alfred Wegener

It took decades for mainstream science to accept continental drift as a fact. Until the invention of the magnetometer, which then was then applied to oceanographic surveys and revealed the truth about continental drift, it was a theory that was ridiculed. Alfred Wegener, the man who advanced an idea of continental drift in 1912 (based in part on work by earlier scientists) was pilloried by the scientific establishment for half a century. Then, abruptly (or almost abruptly in galactic terms) he was proved right. The world that science had sworn existed up until that point was revealed to be bogus. All the clever people had been wrong. At that juncture, science did what it always does; adapt and survive. Now continental drift is part of the new set of certainties, at least until the next shift of paradigm. This leads me tidily to something I call:

 

The Tyranny of Certainty

 

U.N.C.L.E agents
U.N.C.L.E agents

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I learned an important lesson in life when I was seven years old. This was also the age at which I became an U.N.C.L.E. agent (you have to be a certain age to know what that means), though I don’t think the two events were connected. I was out with my father and we had the most trivial of disagreements over the date of an appointment he had to see a doctor. I “knew” it was on a particular date, so when (for reasons I’ve long since forgotten) he mentioned it was on another date, I looked it him with the predictable arrogance and certainty of a seven-year-old. I corrected him loudly and scornfully. I couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid as not to know the date of his own appointment. How superior I was.

 

Luckily, my father had no disposition towards beatings. He was an amiable man with very clear ideas about how men should conduct themselves properly as men. Instead of hanging me by my ankles from a lamp post and leaving me there twisting in the breeze until I’d improved my attitude, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an handful of coins. In those days, coins were worth a lot more than they are now. He held them out in front of me and said “Would you be willing to bet all this – knowing you don’t have it and would have to find it if you’re wrong – that you’re right?” I was gaping at his hand and reaching for the money before he’d even finished speaking, blurting out “Yes yes yes” repeatedly like a verbal Gatling gun. In my mind I was already spending it. My father put the money away, then reached inside his coat again and drew out a letter. He opened it and pointed to the date of his appointment. It was as if we had crossed over into another reality. The date on the letter was wrong. I (being right in all things at age seven), knew what the “right” date was. Here was a piece of evidence that was corrupting the fabric of the universe. I actually felt a surge of anger that this idiot letter was conspiring to thwart me out of money that was rightfully mine. I’d already decided what I was going to spend it on, so it was too late to turn back. How dare this letter get in my way.

 

In the new reality we’d just fallen into, my father was right and I was wrong. I couldn’t account for it. I looked at the date again and again, but it didn’t change. I had been so sure of my facts I would, literally, have staked my life on being right and not felt the slightest unease or anxiety. This was my first encounter with “the tyranny of certainty”. It would not be my last. My only comfort is, it’s a very long bus and anyone reading this has bought a ticket on it more than once.