Monday, August 1, 2011

You'll find Smith Rock just ten or so miles North of Redmond and a couple of miles East of Terrebonne in Central Oregon. It's a spectacular great knuckled fist of rock plunging up from a shallow and cratar like river valley. Photographed by the great Ansel Adams, and later providing the backdrop for the John Wayne film Rooster Cogburn, Smith Rock is a mottled yellow and red scrub covered wonder. For this series of photographs I arrived early at a bleary eyed seven-in-the-morning, having been given a lift in by my gracious host Joel Nunez. Visibility was down to a few dozen feet in the dense fog. My heart sank. So much for the early morning golden hour light.

Still, happily I love hiking, so I bid farewell to Joel and set off for Misery Ridge, a snaking, steep sloped path that offered the fastest and most dramatic route to the top. As the sun rose the rocks began to glow in the diffuse light. It was a splendid site, and rather alien - as if William Shatner was about to lurch into view, shirt ripped, fighting clumsily with some rubbery lizard man.

Around half way up the sun began to burn away the cloud layer, and by the time I reached the top and looked back down I was greeted with the sight of the thick fog and cloud receding to reveal the river bed below. This shot (second from top) netted me a page in Seattle Metropolitan, which was nice.

Turning to the West towards the small town of Terrebonne, a blanket of cloud lay half covering the land below. To me it looked like a vast wall of water. I continued shooting, scarcely able to believe my luck. My humble D40x with kit lens was getting good results, and was well worth the added weight of lugging. A little further on I found two base jumpers atop a vast pillar of rock called Monkey Face. A drop of a dozens of metres - but a mere width of a few feet - seperated me from them, and I relayed instructions between them when they were seperated by solid rock and unable to hear each other. They were waiting for the cloud to clear below, as being able to see the ground is a useful indicator in base jumping. I stuck around for an hour waiting with them, so I could get the shot of them leaping. But I was impatient, and thirsty, and decided to descend down to the valley and beyond into town for a beer and burger. Later I met them at the railside diner. They'd survived the jump.

If you're in the area Smith Rock is a must see and to date my visit there has been the most profitable day's shooting I've ever had. I wish I could easily return, but the irritating fact of an ocean seperates me from it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Dry State

It's late fall here in Central Oregon and I'm beginning to realise why they call it 'high desert prairie' out here. My lips are parched and cracked from the lack of moisture. On my first night here I drank seven pints of water in one hour, my throat utterly parched. You can feel it when you step outside, the air is dry and heavily loaded with the scent of pine and juniper. It smells like a carpenter's shop out here. The high desert plain stretches out in a giant rain shadow from the Cascade mountains. Everything is the colour of ash and sand and faded khaki. Only the Ponderosa Pine stands out with its dark green needles, and that specimen only really flourishes when one hits the mountains. Out here it is sagebrush and cheatgrass, hard bristly grass anchored to a sterile soil. Despite the tourist brochures, the high desert plain is far from lush.

But it does have a remote, spartan appeal. Like any other landscape it comes alive at sunrise and sunset and at night there's a great echoing mystery in the ink black void that begins at the back of the strip mall parking lot and recedes into the who-knows-where. So far I have been confined to the two towns of Redmond and Bend, barely venturing forth into the great yonder where wagons rattled the Oregon trail. I'm looking forward to the exploration. The furthest I have gone is on a short walk through a Redmond suburb and over a highway junction, towards a small bridged canyon. I had it in mind to walk downtown, but the lack of pavements and my fear of the roaring juggernauts stymied me. Halloween is almost here, and in the houses I passed plastic illuminated pumpkins dotted the fences and super-sized examples of the real thing leered out at me from the verandas and porches. Nearly every house has some sort of Halloween decoration outside it, no matter how modest. The houses in Redmond are of the wooden box construction, some no more than little shacks, some the size of small manor houses. All operate on the same simple principles of construction however - breeze-block and wood. They're warm enough inside, no matter how cold it gets out there, but they seem to weather fast. Some of the older examples of the small shack begin to warp and peel - income or motivation clearly insufficient for repairs. The windows are dark and dusty, shutters begin to fall away. Their disrepair has an awful, bleak grandeur and you can see how quickly failed towns are swallowed up by the desert, leaving their tourist-baiting ghostly shells in their wake.

Downtown in Bend things are different. Affluent and optimistic, the buildings may be box-like but this time they are built of stone and have fine flourishes of the art deco and Frank Lloyd Wright. Many of them are surprisingly attractive with a no-nonsense charm. Maple trees and birch line the streets and dot Drake Park, their leaves turning orange and lemon and slushing the sidewalks in the October fall. In Drake Park, on the banks of the Deschutes River, the green of the grass and the verdant foliage help you to forget about the vast desert prairie beyond. It's a little ecosystem twinned with the lusher, wetter climbs that are found West of the Cascades, the greater part of Oregon that is known as 'the rainy state'. Kids tirelessly kick through the leaves as their mothers sling out their DSLR's and enact surprisingly exacting photo-shoots. Another surprise was in seeing a herd of high-school students jog past me in tracksuits and shorts, grimly pushing the pain barrier in the chill air.

Perhaps they're in training for the day their air-conditioned four-wheel drive breaks down somewhere out there in the great desert, and they need to move fast.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Arguably the Most Beautiful Piece of Music Ever - 'Laurens Walking'

Possibly the most beautiful piece of music ever written isn't by Mozart, or Debussy, or Vaughan Williams - though on certain days I could argue Williams - it is instead by the modern film score composer Angelo Badalamenti. You won't hear his name mentioned in many blogs, probably because everybody always forgets how you spell it. Anyway the piece of music in question is called 'Laurens Walking' and features in the film 'The Straight Story'. Now the film is about a man called Alvin who wants to go visit his estranged dying brother and make peace with him, as they have not spoken for many years following a devastating fight. Unfortunately Alvin can no longer drive a car and is of such fine old stock that he refuses a lift, correctly gauging that it is something he has to do alone.

However there is no law against Alvin riding a lawn-mower. And that's what he does - all the way over the many hundreds of miles to his brother. It's a a very simple film both tender and warm. And somewhat surprisingly it comes from David Lynch. And yes, it does all make perfect sense.

Anyway, Badalamenti composed a fine score for the film utilising his usual manner of synths teamed up with simple but haunting instrumentation. Quite unusual is the third piece in question on the original soundtrack, which is in the manner of a fine old country waltz. Kicking off with a simple guitar arpeggio that runs through the whole song, a warm keening violin joins in providing a wending, winding refrain that may wander but always gives the impression of a straight journey. A plucked cello provides the steady sound of feet determined yet in no particular hurry. The song is matched by simple, unfussy but breathtaking visuals by Lynch that swoop over endless cornfields and long, straight roads leading off to the horizon, and by shots of Alvin on his lawnmower waving to incredulous passers-by.

I'll quit holding out on you. Here's the piece in question:

Simply beautiful. Perfect stuff to listen to on a Sunday walk with the warm, golden light filtering through the trees and all that. Sometimes I literally play this song four or five times in a row, its that good. I wish Badalamenti did some more pieces in a similar style. If anyone else out there knows of any pieces of music that sound like this - or hell, any sort of music at all that even approaches this level of awesome beauty, please let me know.

Later, y'all.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Fly me to the Moon... doo da daa da da da daah...

To my distress I've been meeting people out there who liked the new Transformers movie. In fact, when I went to see it I heard people laughing at the wretched 'comedy' on screen, and speaking favourably of the relentlessly tedious action. Putting aside the sheer hideous sleaziness, the misogyny and racism and the emotional bankruptcy of the film - how the fuck can people find this to be anything other than two and half hours of pompous gibberish dialogue, lobotomised comedy filler, nonsensical shouting and staggering general boredom and disgust engendered by unfeasibly annoying robots dueling with paper-thin characters in a non-stop macho, territorial, verbal, pissing contest?

It's awful. I kind of enjoyed the silly, fast and screwball first one, but this shows nothing but contempt and - I hate to say it - but I'm pretty pissed off at the message it must be giving the kids. So why do so many people declare a fondness for it, with the maddening words "It's just an action movie, Pete..."

And then I feel compelled to kill them.

Just had to get that out of my system on this blog, otherwise it'd be festering within me. But seriously, if you liked that film, punch yourself hard in the face please.

Thankfully we have a couple of fun looking summer movies on their way. The first of which is the new Potter movie, which looks pretty good. Or at least the trailer does. I like the idea that we'll get to see Death Eater attacks on the muggles and the entire thing looks pretty epic. Just hope the troubled production and all the delays work in its favour in the end.

The other film is Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It's an old-skool sci-fi head-scratcher and features Sam Rockwell as a solitary miner counting the days, weeks and months of a lonely shift on the moon seperated from humanity. His only company on this lunar mining facility is a conversational computer with the voice of Kevin Spacey, working that happily pre-psychosis Hal 9000 vibe. He's due to be relieved from his profitable but lonely hell in a few weeks. And then, something happens. Check the trailer out for a notion of what:

Pretty cool, huh? The film was shot for an astonishing five million dollars, and looks ten times that. It's had nothing but rave press so far, and the accomplished direction by David Bowie's son recalls that seminal 70's sci-fi flick Silent Running, only without Joan Baez warbling all over the soundtrack, thank God. I'm hugely looking forward to this Twilight Zoney adventure, and though I loved the action packed Star Trek reboot, I'd dearly love Hollywood to get back to these idea-driven sci-fi films, instead of the toys & comic-book optioning franchise path they're ploughing right now. (Hah! Fat chance!)

God speed, Moon.

What's that? Can't wait to see Sam Rockwell walking around in moon-pants in his squalid student-flat style Moon base? Want to hype yourself up with more Moon related movies? Worried about the voices asking rhetorical questions that Pete's hearing in his head? Then distract yourselves with the following quality movies!

The Right Stuff

All about America's first astronauts, and the driven, unruly test pilots who became them. Based on the Tom Wolfe book this film is fast and funny, epic and beautiful and features actors whom you'll be constantly pointing at shouting, "Crikey! It's him! Whatshisname!" Featuring Fred Ward, Jeff Goldblum, Smithers/Skinner/Lovejoy bloke from The Simpsons, Lance Henrikson, Ed Harris... basically everybody.

Here be the trailer:

For further Fred Ward awesomeness, don't forget Tremors, by the way. Y'know, the one with the big worms underground that can feel you moving and munch on hapless Arizonians. Kevin Bacon also stars in this one too, to my mind, his best film.

In the Shadow of the Moon

Catch the big gorgeous trailer here:

A little light on details, but this is an enthralling and visually stunning race-to-the-moon documentary. Oh, and finally - to all those who say that the landings were filmed in a studio - the actual landings would have had better production values. Also, go join the gaggle of Michael Bay fans punching themselves in the face.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Picnicface - They're Real, apparently.

Picnicface are left to right: (Standing/sitting on car/elevated) Kyle Dooley, Brian Eldon Macquarrie, Cheryl Hann, Mark Little, Evany Rosen - (Sitting/crouched) Bill Wood, Scott Vrooman and Andy 'Flaming Swan' Bush.

Certain of you with any sort of awareness on the net may have come across an amusing You Tube video called 'Powerthirst', and indeed its sequel, Powerthirst: Redominator. It's a highly amusing spoof of those energy drink adverts beloved of the States and features barking exhortations like, "Now comes with Preposterous amounts of Testosterone: PREPOSTERONE." Funny stuff, and naturally it started a craze with a wearying number of god-awful copycat efforts, and even worse, redubbed shite.

After all this one would be forgiven to throw bricks at the people who made the sketch, a Canadian comedy troupe called 'Picnicface'. But you'd be wrong, and even if you made the attempt I'd hurl my body betwixt them and the mob like some mayoral bodyguard.

Possibly shouting, "Noooo." But quietly, because they might be in the middle of a novel and highly witty new routine.

Because, wow - Picniface are really good! I mean, really. They shame Mitchell & Webb's sporadically amusing effort, and piss all over that ghastly Corden & Horne abomination. How can unpaid low budget comedy be so good? Because you can't throw money at scriptwriting, you fools. You've either got it, or you haven't. Picnicface trade in a rare thing, genuinely novel sketch material. Most sketch groups parody existing films or television shows and occassionally established books. Star Wars, Sherlock Holmes, James-bloody-Bond. Whilst this can be sporadically entertaining (a recent Mitchell & Webb effort contained some laughs with Bond gambling in the mode of village fayre fruit cake weight guessing) it is - let's face it - pretty lazy. It's a mined out vein whose gags rarely even attain the riffing of a decent pub conversation. Picnicface come up with new ideas, character based ideas that so far have eluded any pattern. Witness 'Hey Africa!' - a Sesame Street style educational skit torpedoed by a deranged professorial host. Or the thing of beauty that is 'Changeroom Redux', a surreal sunny David Lynch meets Christian fable. Then there's the epic 'Realzone', a perfect introduction to the group that is endlessly quotable, and graced with original music that is both parodic and yet surprisingly funky. These are ideas that would never occur to the TV hacks, and would be dismissed by less confident comedians lacking the imagination to pull them off.

This happens more often than you'd expect.

I love you Picnicface. They're not perfect, by any means. The two women of the group seem to be struggling when fronting material - they're great performers, but lack a distinctive voice and crucially gags, see the reasonable informative but not inspiring 'Women in Comedy', or the 'Diaries of Dopey', an idea that doesn't quite click and goes on a bit too long. To say they're surplus is wrong though, and I suspect they've some damn good material in the live shows from their joint-writer presence in other sketches - if there's one frustrating thing about Picnicface it's the drip-feed release speed of sketches. Their priority is their live shows.

The stars of Picnicface appear to be Andrew Bush, who directs and produces the sketches and usually plays the straight man (though his timing is impecable - check his 'Lawyers' sketch), Kyle Dooley who brings a lot of physical comedy to the team and has the enthusiastic/brooding psycho thing down pat and Mark Little, arguably the star of the show. I'm pretty certain Mark will be headed to either even greater things, or more troublingly super-star entrapment in laboured comedy vehicles ala every other once great comedian such as Ferrell and Stiller. I'm betting on the former though. Mark Little, of distinctive face, squint and voice surges through the sketch material effortlessly playing a variety of roles, usually antagonistic. He seems to have this strange hybrid character of jock-nerd and is the go-to guy for old-man eccentrics or fucked-up child abusers. That's enough hyphens. He also is pretty passionate about comedy, in interviews he dismisses a good chunk of the sketches they produce as inferior and disposable, and argues pretty hard for an even tighter quality control. He's even gloriously arrogant enough to attack US indie-comedy's sacred cows, citing Mike Judge's (to my mind highly amusing and thoughtful) comedy 'Idiocracy' as having only one decent joke. I certainly hope the scrawny bastard's on a mission, because I can't think of many other upcoming comedians making me laugh, and there's certainly fuck all British ones.

In summary, if you're so disillusioned with sketch comedy that you can't be fussed to click on their videos and check them out, I can not do otherwise than nod with sympathy and yet grit my teeth in frustration. And then bundle you in a burlap bag, drive you to a remote location and force you to enjoy in a remote internet-cave. But Picnicface ARE worth your time, I'm not arguing that they're God-like saviours of comedy who are sweeping YouTube in a messianic march of laughs, but they ARE fucking good. And you should watch.

Three of the Best:

Realzone - My personal favourite.

Powerthirst - the sketch that started it all.

Growing Boy - ace concept this.

You can find more Picnicface sketches on Youtube here - - also check for 'Lawyers' under the usergroup 'Collegehumour', which has other good amateur stuff, like work by Flight of the Conchords Kristen Schaal, sharing a sketch called 'Fact Checkers' with God-like Bill Murray.

Picnicface also have a presence on Will Ferrell's rather splendid 'Funny or Die' website, which is a place where users upload their own sketch videos, other users give the thumbs up or down and champions are lauded and inferiors banished. Indeed, such is Picnicface's talent that Ferrell endorsed them, and indeed invited them to a meet. Nice chap, that Ferrell, check out his landlord videos. On no account visit the British Funny or Die section however, as it appears to be tragically dominated by mainstream TV British sketch artists recylcing their material, such as bloody David Walliams and Matt Lucas. Their mediocrity compared to such inspired amateur efforts like 'David Blaine's Street Magic' speaks volumes.

And finally Picnicface have their own website, Duh.

So please, please, please give Picnicface a chance. I leave you with their official logo/coat of arms, one that signifies excellence in my book:

He's Back. And This Time He's... Back.

Hey kids!

Yes, I'm back. Despite crippling indolence and as-of-yet no internet in my new flat, I am writing things on line for people to read with their eyes again. This isn't going to be a big post, and it's not going to cover the big gap between St Patrick's Day and this balmy July 3rd, though I can assure you that it involved ghost towns in Nevada, navigating ten foot snow drifts around the beautiful Lake Tahoe and moving house from one part of Cardiff to another, slightly nicer part of Cardiff.

In fact, I love my new house. It's wonderful. It's all light and airy and big and art deco and it makes me feel hideously smug as I sit down with a cup of tea in the garden listening to ABC's Lexicon of Love come warbling through the open windows. This is a good thing as two major things got me down quite heavily recently...

One was the revelation that the job post I'd be training myself up for, that of a scale 3 senior music library assistant, that the big-wigs of the council had promised us, has been snatched away to be replaced by - argh - temps. As such the career ladder, as stubby and rickerty as it was in this public sector job, has now disintergrated in my hands leaving me with a foolish and innocently hurt expression on my face and splinters of helpless woe in my palms. Or something. The only balm is the fact that our new manager is brilliant.

The second was Transformers 2. It is arguably the worst film I've ever seen. I'm thinking about posting my 2,500 word review on this blog, but for the fact that I'm not sure if I fancy most of this site being taken up with angry swearing. It is obnoxious and terrible, and if you think otherwise, you're an idiot, frankly.

But I don't want to end on a sour note, so I will add that pesto is brilliant, and combined with spaghetti and cheese makes a fast, nourishing, cheap dish. And that you should all go listen to Vashti Bunyan, she's rather good and her delicate vocals match this summery weather quite nicely.

Oh, and I've been asked if I want to help two bright-young-thing colleagues in making a newsletter for the library. Hmm, wonder if I can print my Transformers review in it...?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Saint Patrick's Day - the Day of Days

Todd and Mark share a moment in O'Keane's

A couple of days later and fully recovered, I feel able to report on a grand St Patrick's Day adventure. I wore a green shirt, Todd and Mark feeling somewhat more Irish than myself, wore kilts. It's a curious thing, but in America they seem to celebrate St Pat's day more than ourselves in England and Wales. I'm unsure as to how many Irish made it to Oregon on the trail, but promotions abound in shops and diners and restaurants, special menus knocked up and the barrels of Guinness rolled out. We hit Bend for about two o'clock and grabbed some lunch in McMinnamens, who I'm happy to say did better for themselves than last time. The Irish stew was aromatic, rich and tasty, though they forgot Todd's bread, damn them. Moved on to another bar for a shot of Jameson's each. This came with a radioactive looking glass of dyed green water. Then onto the greatest pub of all time. Amusingly, this bar was a minimalist dive purely and solely dedicated to getting hammered.

This is a little place called O'Keane's after the long dead owner, Hugh O'Keane. It's sort of a small brick and oak barn with a big front door consisting of two Hobbit hole style giant wooden semi-circular slabs to pull on. Inside there is a big stove pulsing out heat, a bar with the taps set into the rear wall and a huge array of spirits. Along one side of the pub are cosy oak booths, along the other tables. The beer garden looks nothing special - slightly garden centre in fact - but is very spacious, which is handy as they have a little gazebo affair with Irish belly-dancers (yes, I know) and drummers and fiddlers.

This place was so awesome that we stayed here for most of the day, drinking fine stouts and ales. The food being served was good fare, though I forgot to eat, and the queue to the bar so big it wove its way out of the barn, and out into the beer garden. For all that everyone was having a great time, and there was no jostling or idiocy.

There was also - some of you will be happy to hear - lots of smoking. For once I didn't mind, it fitted the snug little place so well. The only shock I had was when I over-generously bought three big shots of Laphroaig for Todd, Mark and myself. Though their shots are a little more generous than ours, I was still traumatised when the bill came to $30. Mental note, quality single malt scotch bought over 4,000 miles away from the source may be a little pricier than that bought a mere 400 miles away back in the UK.

"It's the kilt, chicks dig the kilt."

In this cosy, heavenly environment we took plenty of time to talk complete bollocks to each other, be it about zombies, the Falklands war, pasties or children's TV shows. (They never got Ulysesses 31, I weep for them.) I was really reluctant to leave, but leave we must, as we went to a late night bar. I got carded, once again, and we drank guinness until half one in the morning when we got a lift back home. Amber was the generous soul who transported us, and the fates smiled upon her for doing so, for when she returned to the bar with Lyryn and Joel for some slot machine gambling, she won about $700. Yikers!

Things I observed:

Despite Draconian carding measures I was happy to see some clearly underage drinkers slipped through the net somehow.

They didn't play any Pogues, for shame. In fact, for all it was an Irish night, aside from the fine live traditional folk music at O'Keane's, nowhere played any Irish at all. Apart from some U2, and like they count, right? For double shame.

Americans have never heard of the word 'muntered', I have updated them.

They're well stocked up on Irish stouts, red beers and spirits to make it a true St Patrick's Day. The only difference was the lack of fighting traditional to the night. Hurrah!

Allegedly I am a lot louder, and a lot more 'British' when drunk, according to my American hosts. I am also more opinionated, more emphatic and more arm-wavy. Lies, I'm sure.

Final score - eight pints, one bottle of Guinness, three shots. Apparently.