Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future

Highlander at 30

There can be… Many futures…

The original Highlander film has reached its 30 year milestone on the road to immortality!

Despite its obsession with The Rules, it’s been three decades of contradictory, legacy-obsessed complication. To celebrate the anniversary, Jokerside looks at the lesser seen and most fascinating part of the franchise’s convoluted saga. Not the past Highlands of Scotland, or the presents New York of The Gathering, but the unmistakably dark future awaiting humanity no matter who wins The Prize

IF THERE’S ONE THING ABOUT BEING IMMORTAL, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A LOT OF THE FUTURE. JUST AS LONG AS YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD. But if there’s another thing, it’s that the complicated franchise that sprung from 1986’s Highlander is all about avoiding that future. On one hand, each Immortal is trapped in The Game, the ultimate Darwinian whittling process that reduces their number in one-one-one sword combat according to The Rules. Down until the last Immortal standing, the One has blocked every other immortal from seeing that future by default. And their reward is The Prize.

But for a franchise every bit about time as very old men (usually) decapitating each other, it’s the future that casts the most ominous shadow. Yes, even compared to the desperate times of the past, present and Kurgan. As it’s all about time, it’s hardly a surprise that Highlander has struggled with internal consistency from its beginning.

Crucial to the mix is that past of course. Everything’s built on it, and that’s especially pulled out in the rolling soap of the 1990s series that followed that other younger MacLeod, Duncan. Letting grudges and loss scar every immortal, with a wry poetic justice ready to play out in the present, that’s crucial ingredient. That contemporary time has moved since the 1986 of the original film. Onto the presumed 1994 of the third film or the rolling final decade of the 20th century during the television series and first spin-off film. But it remains a small window considering the incidents that built to it. The present is the audience’s window into a hidden world of course. It amounts to fascinating scraps that for all their faux complexity never rise above the simple concept of an archaic fight to the death unravelling in the shadows. It’s the interactions with mortals and skewered police procedurals that make for the intrigue around it. Mortals remain crucial to the plot, but seldom seem affected by the outcome…

Because then there’s the future.

A little bit of asking around the fans, slightly familiar and couldn’t care less of Highlander doesn’t feedback ‘The future’ as a big patch in Highlander’s broad tartan. But for Jokerside that’s the most fascinating part. And typically, there’s more than one aspect of it in the saga’s different continuities. There’s a future post-Immortals where the final player has claimed The Prize, but also alternate futures where immortals are still awaiting The Gathering.

What’s intriguing is that either way, it never pans out too well.  For any of us.

The Threat of the Future

Of course, while Immortals may have long lives of various lengths, packed with memories and presumably great brain power to store it, but most Immortal existences are focussed on surviving to the future. An interesting side effect of knowing far more about the past than any mortal.

Highlander (1986)

Madison Square Garden, 1986. The posturing, melodrama and frankly confounding rules of a wrestling bout in the great arena is just a cover. In the car park below a shout of “MacLeod” pulls us into The Game. The challenger soon dispatched, and with that kill we’re at a step closer to the end of The Gathering.

In 1986’s Highlander Connor MacLeod has been lodged in New York for a considerable time, the pre-destined place of The Gathering. Later in the film MacLeod’s mentor Ramirez eloquently describes it as “An irresistible pull towards a far away land. To fight for The Prize.”

In that first film the last handful of Immortals have assembled for a finite Gathering, despite some ambiguity in what the friendly Kastagir says to MacLeod halfway through. Those Immortals have been whittled down to a handful come the start of the film after centuries of undercover warfare. MacLeod’s opening kill is a scrappy affair which the Highlander finishes with a decapitating strike so strong he embeds his sword in a concrete pillar. When he does he doesn’t utter a word. The first utterance of that famous line falls to his nemesis, The Kurgan.

 “There can be only one”

Of course, that first film makes a classic franchise mistake. Not only does it start in the very final days of The Game, even worse it links the hero’s victory right back to his origin. It’s the same mistake bigger and better received films have made. 1989’s Batman is a prime example. There, slotting the Joker back into the Batman’s creation just as the Dark Knight later aids the Joker’s emergence may look great on paper, but villain takes the twisted superhero’s motivation with him at the end. That was something the DC franchise struggled to move on from… Highlander gave up pretty much instantly. Read more…

Marvel: “Go to Hell Castle” – The Punisher on Film

Punisher on Film

The Punisher’s back, skull, firearms and singular purpose complete and with its longest ride yet. Could the small screen at last give one of Marvel’s most adapted, and still most difficult character’s a break?

DAREDEVIL SERIES 2 HAS JUST UNLEASHED AN ALL NEW PUNISHER ON THE MASSES, THIS TIME FINDING A WAY FOR FRANK CASTLE TO BREAK INTO THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE AS HE DEBUTS IN SMALL SCREEN LIVE ACTION. That Netflix contained Hell’s Kitchen, so far shaped by the first closed seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, looks perfect for him. And in taking on the patch patrolled by the often more brutal Man without Fear, it looks like his anti-hero/villain status will have just the bridge he needs.

A square peg. With a skull on it

The Punisher is and has always been a difficult fit for the Marvel Universe, but typically, that’s exactly where the huge appeal the character springs from, continuing to attract creators no matter the Marvel imprint or scale of crossover event.

The Punisher doesn’t just have the potential to bring death and extreme violence into the comic book universe, darker and blunter than the various homicidal villains and amoral antiheroes in that huge universe, but also a complete lack of redemption. As countless films remind us, this is not vengeance or revenge as much as various storylines have found ways to drag up the tragic past that broke policeman Frank Castle. This is punishment. And as soon as the Punisher was born from that broken shell, as soon as the skull shirt was put on and the wicked punished, all hope of redemption was off the table. There sits on his shoulders the weight of many deaths, no matter how avenging or moral they seem. Rumour has it that’s a key part of him entering Daredevil’s universe…

Still, that’s a remit that makes the Punisher all the more difficult to slot into a film. You have all manner of three act and tragic precursors to drag this difficult slant into the mundane. One of the nearest comparators in comic books, with a career shaped by tragedy is of course Batman. But the Dark Knight quickly became a metaphor within his fictional city, and creators have had great fun playing with the idea of escalation that chucks increasing layers of the grotesque at him. The Punisher’s encountered his fair share of grotesques, but in the hard reality of his America, the two shadowy figures are entirely separated by the use of fatal force.

Issues. With a skull on them

Still, as with the Dark Knight, Punisher stories and particularly adaptations find it difficult to stop reminding us about Castle’s stark tragedy, albeit only one of the three film adaptations so far have wandered onto that difficult canvas of trying to solve it.

Batman represents the loss of childhood innocence. He was steered into a life where he sought to protect following a savage murder that he could not have stopped as a child. In comic book lore, Frank Castle was an adult, a highly experienced soldier who failed to protect his wife and two children. He was forged in the heart of Manhattan, in Central Park. While both may lurk in dark hideouts, unlike Batman Castle doesn’t have an incredible array of technology that can mimic and counter his grotesques. His brand of justice requires huge firepower, ultra-violence death and action. He employs every tool of the villain to make that happen. And many, many of his victims are minor mafia attached criminals.

Spider-Man may have jumped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe just in time to take up a valuable role in Marvel’s tent-pole film of 2017, Civil War, but there’s no chance the Punisher will. Frank Castle first appeared in the pages of a 1974 Spider-Man comic and wold go on to play a considerable role in Mark Millar’s original Civil War comic event. However, once again, the irreconcilable, utterly irredeemable qualities of what’s left of Frank Castle mean that even in moments of extreme Marvel crisis he’s no easy fit with the rest of the Marvel elite.

Peak Punisher. With a skull on it

There are three films starring Marvel’s awkward antihero to look at, but it would be impossible to ignore the work of the Punisher’s definitive contributor on the page. Above everybody else is Garth Ennis. As ever a writer who prefers to steer clear of superheroes, but unfortunately writes them brilliantly.

His ongoing series cancelled in the mid-90s, Castle spent some time clinging onto in mini-series before Garth Ennis’ 12-part run at the beginning of the 21st century returned his popularity. The Punisher’s look was pared down (farewell those Mickey Mouse gloves) and soon Ennis had moved across to the adult MAX imprint, legendarily given an unlimited run on the character; one that produced heavy, realistic and wonderfully dark tales for 66 issues. That series would continue tackling modern world events, having established a universe where Vietnam-veteran Punisher had been active for 30 years and taken over 2,000 lives, until the character’s own death. Other comic series would drag Castle into superhuman scraps, mutant meltdowns and even transform him into the undead like of FrankenCastle during the publisher’s Dark Reign event.

There’s nothing like a good antihero, and he’s one of the psychologically damaged originals. So it’s no surprise that aside from his devastating runs on animated series and his huge homecoming on Netflix, he’s fronted three feature length films. But none of these have sustained a franchise, each picking up a different actor for a different portrayal of Castle. Perhaps the prolonged serial story of the new Daredevil adaptation will finally be able to piece together a compelling persona for one of the most damaged Marvel has to offer. Read more…

David Bowie: Enter the Duke – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

Having looked at the film that spawned him, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jokerside sneaks a look at David Bowie’s last great character, the Thin White Duke who was anchored in the extraordinary 1976 album Station to Station.

IN 1975 THE THIN WHITE DUKE WALKED FROM NEW MEXICO INTO THE CHEROKEE RECORDING STUDIO IN LOS ANGELES, DRAGGING DAVID BOWIE WITH HIM. The Duke would prove to be Bowie’s last great ‘character’ creation, a personality immersed in a concept album, but one of such magnitude it was no doubt part of the reason the artist retreated from major persona changes ass the 1980s drew near.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the album carried by that dapper, fascistic, enigma Jokerside looked at The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not only Bowie’s first major film role, but the glint of hope that broke through the drug-addled malaise that had brought him to the door of the dark and arcane, giving him just enough strength to assemble one of his greatest records; a 38 minute biography of struggle and a call for change.

In 1975, Bowie had talked of personal cost of assuming the Ziggy persona, not his first alter-ego but the first that could sustain a globe-straddling phenomenon. Bowie had in part become Ziggy, a character defined by excess and in that assumed position Ziggy had entered the United States. As a pre-fabricated star on the scale of Elton John, it was a constant performance. Within months Ziggy had morphed into Aladdin Sane, he of the more familiar lightning bolt make-up, popularly thought of as Ziggy on Tour. The album that followed lacked the concept cohesion of The Rise and Fall but was breathtakingly expansive, already foreshadowing the disco glam of Diamond Dogs and the plastic soul that would follow in 1975’s Young Americans. 1975 was also the year, on the back of Diamond Dogs, before the release of Young Americans Bowie also declared rock n’ roll a “toothless old woman”. Well, he steered clear of rock for a good few months.

America

“In this age of grand illusion”

But what a difference a couple of years made. Aladdin Sane showed how quickly the America that Bowie couldn’t take to had almost instantly informed his writing, recorded in bursts between legs of Bowie’s first American tour. At the tail-end of ‘75, having been consumed by and a consumer of New York and Los Angeles, Station to Station would both compounded his American adventure and set him on a path back to Europe. The album that emerged in January 1976 wasn’t just a break but also a cathartic expression of Bowie’s persona and measured record of his transition from the soul infused and drug ravaged Young Americans period through to the Europe that would foster his ground-breaking Berlin trilogy. The worst, the best, the necessary change.

And to carry that change, a new persona developed from the wake of filming Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. One of the most involved, impenetrable and controversial of his career. So, just who was the Thin White Duke?

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

The Thin White Duke

“Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…”

In context, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton outstayed his welcome following the wrap of The Man Who Fell to Earth in late summer 1975. Mostly tellingly, in Bowie’s fractured mind. It wasn’t just the “side effects of the cocaine” but part of a long slide that had seen Bowie vacate New York, sink deep into ancient philosophies in Los Angeles and subsist almost entirely on dairy products. Much of this period is difficult to tie down to fact, between Cameron Crowe’s infamous interviews and countless recollections from friends, Angie Bowie and the singer himself; an unreliable witness at the time, and particularly when he had an interviewer to play up to. Relocating to New Mexico to film The Man Who Fell to Earth was a form of “purification”. It was a glance back from the brink that consequently Bowie took to the recording studio for the first time in nine months to express as much the legacy of his recent interests as the alien that stayed within him. Despite the break and the subsequent work that would appear, Bowie’s last notable studio session (he had some failed dabbling with Iggy Pop in the interim) had been to record Across the Universe and Fame with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. And although Bowie would refer to the latter as “a nasty little song” it certainly laid some groundwork for Station to Station.

So a steep task and fractured mind confronted Bowie, and the character of the Thin White Duke developed in response. It wasn’t Newton totally, that passive outsider, unable to resist. The Duke was less passive, more snarling, more insightful and self-analysing. The Thin White Duke has been variously described as aristocratic, Aryan and zombie. Many sporadic TV appearances throughout 1975 show a frosty, cold, wry and occasionally disorientated Bowie. One highlight is the wonderfully terse satellite link interview with Russell Harty – glossing over, chiding and ribbing in equal measure. He’s mostly articulate when not pausing, a dead-eyed stare levelled to the middle distance. There were controversial comments made during the period, including those connected to fascism, but later strongly dismissed by Bowie.

And unlike many other of his other personas, a lot of confusion arises from Bowie’s considerable backtracking after the event. It’s certain that the Thin White Duke ran throughout 1976, anchored around the recording and quick release of Station to Station. And it’s certain that this is the persona Bowie remembered least about. A fascinating transitory character, often overshadowed by the recordings either side, there was a root of the Duke’s soul-searching in Young Americans and a significant hangover in the influential Low, a record that also still unmistakably carried the profile of Thomas Jerome Newton on its punning cover as the Duke faded from view. Read more…

David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

On the 40th anniversary of Station to Station, Jokerside prepares to stare into the abyss of Bowie’s difficult and ever-rewarding 1976 album with a dart-like glance at the Thin White Duke persona that spun from the cracked actor’s first major film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth

THIS WEEKEND MARKS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF STATION TO STATION’S RELEASE, JUST UNDER TWO WEEKS SINCE DAVID BOWIE LEFT THE PLANET.  Left, that is, after an incredible career. The extent of Bowie’s output post-death, the legacy of a meticulously detailed artist, will take many years if not eternity to unravel. Bowie’s swansong album Blackstar appears to pose riddle and mystery unseen since his peak of persona swapping in the 1970s. Come the 1980s his interest in persona had abated although he retained the power to innovate and reinvent. Surely a good reason for that shift from a period that had produced in rapid succession Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dog’s Halloween Jack and others through the early 1970s fell at the feet of his last major character. The all-pervasive horror of the persona that dominated 1976. The Thin White Duke, who would become synonymous with what Bowie later called “the darkest days of my life”

Station to Station emerged barely a year after the Year of the Diamond Dog, a furious tour of his dystopian bridge between glam and disco soul between June 1974 and… Well, by the end of 1974 it had morphed into the Philly Dogs tour and then side-stepped into soul alongside his new LP Young Americans. That lurch to the unexpected and commercial laid out the immediate and ongoing importance of America Bowie’s his life. The Young Americans sessions were completed in two stints, one a drug fuelled and productive run that producer Tony Visconti was happy to pick up and return to the UK to mix. Bowie though would return to the studio in early 1975 for two last minute additions that not only broke Bowie and Visconti’s relationship for two albums but also diluted Young American’s soul and made it his most overtly Beatles album – or specifically Lennon, with one of Bowie’s better if melodramatic covers as he took on the cosmically simplistic Across the Universe before the simplistically catchy album closer Fame found him in duet with the former Beatle.

Escape to LA

“I lifted you up once”

He wouldn’t return to the studio to any meaningful degree for nine months – a length of time that was extraordinary during Bowie’s most prolific period. But things were afoot. In the mid-1970s three years of relentless touring and the sacking of his long-term manager Tony DeFries left a smacked out Bowie staring the need for relocation in the face while holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles. New York had closed in on him, although its dying throes had not only pushed him and Lennon onto tape but thrown up a meeting with director Nicolas Roeg who was narrowing the cast for his film of Walter Tevis’ short novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Well, it was a meeting that somehow materialised after Bowie arrived eight hours late then, assuming Roeg wouldn’t have waited, busied himself with other things until he returned home in the early hours to find the director sat at his kitchen table.

Cracked

“My life is not secret… But it is private”

“I’ve always been aware of how dubious a position it is to stay in [Los Angeles] for any length of time” said Bowie in the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary, a year before his first major film role opened the city up to him. Sporadic visits from his ever valuable assistant Coco Schwab and ever more estranged wife Angie found them both concerned for his health, although this dark portion of his life remains smattered with only sparing facts. Angie later recalled the frantic phone call from her husband, shouting that he had been kidnapped by wizards and witches and recalls him requesting an exorcism. None of that is proven, but it’s clear that during his slide into drug addled paranoia Bowie had drifted towards the dark arts in the heat of LA. ‘Paranoid delusion’ is a phrase that pops up again and again but there was certainly a great deal of peculiar behaviour in a pattern that no one could break. Except it seems, The Man who Fell to Earth. The “Spaced out space man”.

The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

“Leave my mind alone”

Spells, incantations and late nights spent drawing pentangles by candlelight, while moving between buildings that cast different slants on ancient philosophies from Egyptian mythology to Kabbalah – philosophies that Bowie later described as “misleading in life”. It takes something to get out of that. Fortunately, once Roeg and Bowie finally got to meet, their rapport was instant. Read more…

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