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Media Mayhem in England

Simon Warner

Those latterday Citizen Kanes -- continue to believe that a policy of chop and change, axe and launch, re-think, re-design and rally, is the best means to hold our attention.

Impish, sparky and innovative. The British print media, in all its shades and varieties, is nothing if not resilient. As the internet and computer games, mobile phones, and dozens upon dozens of digital TV channels draw young consumers away from words on the page, newspapers and magazines still hustle and bustle to find fresh ways of keeping readers engaged and advertisers on board.

The turn of the year has done nothing to alter the view that even as tabloids and broadsheets and the hundreds of glossy magazines that eye us from the news-stands broadly falter, publishers and editors — those latterday Citizen Kanes — continue to believe that a policy of chop and change, axe and launch, re-think, re-design and rally, is the best means to hold our attention.

Now, as someone who writes primarily for the web, there is a small irony here. I may be one of the shrinking few who loves the virtual fix of the electronic network but still cannot resist the lure of a perfect-bound, rock mag: one I can devour at my leisure, relish in my sitting room or on a plane, read on bus or a train, and store on the shelves of my study, providing instantly retrievable information and pages that change even more quickly than my broadband connection permits.

So the newspaper magnates and magazine giants must live on the prayer that there are enough freaks like me around that want to wallow in this marvellous, truly multimedia moment. For us the computer screen is not a substitute for the hard copy versions of the word, but merely an appealing complement.

At present, we Brits are witnessing the usual string of ups and downs, high hopes and belly flops, as The Independent — a serious newspaper which claims to have no political party allegiances but certainly enjoys declining sales — attempts to present its earnest visions in a new, slimmed down tabloid format. Meanwhile, the two major UK magazine houses go head-to-head in a bold bid to win male readers, and the pop culture press sees one of its number die a premature death, another commit voluntary suicide and still another cry "help!"

Tabloid is a highly charged word in circles over here: it doesn't always mean "bad", as The Mirror has been trying to prove for decades, but it does suggest that a paper of that smaller frame is likely to trivialise, at best, deliberately distort, at worst, the news agenda. Naturally, the stigma attached to the tag has, so far, prompted the upmarket players, the so-called quality nationals — The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph — to avoid dirtying themselves. But "The Indie", as it supporters chummily dub it, has taken the tabloid test and seen its circulation revive.

Rupert Murdoch, never a man to miss a trick, is set, we understand, to follow suit and give his Times a try-out in the reduced format imminently, so the old division between broadsheet and tabloid may be about to evaporate on the wings of economic expediency. Such a strategy may also challenge the rise of the free Metro, now standard consumption for most rail commuters.

Meanwhile, Emap and IPC, the two leading magazine houses in the UK, are on the verge of a cut-throat contest; unveiling a new sub-genre of magazine in direct competition. The move arises out of two successful kinds of publication in recent times: the lads' monthlies and the celebrity weeklies. By marrying the two notions, these great rivals believe they can squeeze further life and extra revenue out of an extra competitive sector. Thus, just as male-directed titles like Loaded and FHM have sold well since the early 1990s, and essentially women-aimed titles like Hello and Heat have bucked the circulations trends and held firm, a weekly hybrid of those two concepts has now been forged. IPC has just taken the wraps off its version, entitledNuts while Emap soon unveils its particular vision, called Zoo Weekly, in a daring bid to clinch a new generation of loyal readers.

Nuts has hit the racks first, a classic spoiler operation. Zoo Weekly has, it seems, been much longer in the gestation but will come slightly later than its retaliatory doppelganger, which appears, on the face of it, to be IPC's hastily compiled counter-strike. But will either the usual formulas — cars, under-clad women, and sports — be appealing enough to prompt men to break habits of a lifetime and buy a highly ephemeral glossy every week rather than a lads' mag every four weeks? A lot is hanging on the hope that they will.

Meanwhile, one of the liveliest and most volatile publishing areas — that which concentrates on rock music and street style — is experiencing a whole sequence of traumas as the chimes of 2004 fade in our memory. Bang, much-hailed as a new indie rock rag last spring, hit the buffers just before Christmas after only 10 issues while X-Ray, an offshoot of London's independent music station Xfm, is appealing for fresh investment to save its skin, just a year after going monthly.

Rather less predictably, the deeply irreverent Sleazenation, a guttersnipe version of style bible The Face has, with some élan, trumpeted its own demise with the New Year edition eight years after its launch. But this RIP issue is a sleight of hand; not an obituary so much as a preamble to a feisty renaissance.

Sleazenation will re-emerge in slightly new clothes next time and with the abbreviated title "Sleaze". This is a smart, promotional gambit by a smaller operation. When the market is so over-crowded it's hard to keep your product's profile above the publication parapet without such a creative piece of lateral thinking.

So, with a surprise tabloid tussle looming, a lads' weekly punch-up on the horizon and very mixed results from the world of rock'n'roll, what are the prospects for prosperity for British editors in 2004? Well, rather like their cousins in the record industry that are reeling from crashing incomes and ascending downloads, newspapers and magazines must fear the potency of the internet challenge, too. Yet if the print world is bloodied it appears virtually unbowed. Fuelled by a mixture of dynamic self-belief and possibly myopic optimism, it stumbles from setback to recovery almost quarter by quarter.

But I have some predictions: The Independent may not survive its own tabloid experiment, but The Times and others will ultimately benefit from its radical blueprint. Lads' weeklies will not hit the spot because the menu of babes, balls and Boxsters will be too stodgy even for the most dedicated bloke. And the rock sector will continue to be as adventurous and as foolhardy as it's generally been over the last two decades.

Websites of interest
The Guardian
The Telegraph
The Independent
The Times
Sleaze Nation
Zoo Weekly


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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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