Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Land of Gorch (TV)

image (1975-76)
Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Alice Tweedy, Fran Brill
Full history and transcripts.
Muppet Wiki Entry

Jim Henson was a genius, creating the Muppets and turning them into a worldwide phenomenon. Though they had appeared on TV shows from Ed Sullivan to The Jimmy Dean Show,* they made their mark when the started appearing on the kid's show, Sesame Street. So, when NBC started a new late night sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, they asked Henson to create characters for it.

Given a late night time slot, Henson evidently decided to break away from the blandness of Sesame Street** to create something more in line with a late-night, adult audience.  The result was The Land of Gorch.

This was a series of short sketches that aired during SNL's first season.  Gorch was an alien planet with a desolate landscape, ruled over by King Ploobis (Henson) and his wife Pueta (Alice Tweedy). Ploobis was something of a womanizer, lusting after the maidservant Vazh (Fran Brill). His lackey was Scred (Jerry Nelson), who had a thing for Queen Pueta. The group also worshiped their god, the Might Favog (Frank Oz), a stone statue that came to life wanting various sacrifices.

These were Muppets for adults, and I remember being fascinated when I first saw the sketches. It was quite the undertaking:  our local NBC affiliate didn't show SNL, preferring to run old Sherlock Holmes movies. Instead, I had to pick up the signal from a station 90 miles away.  It was weak, and the images snowy (and I only had a black and white set), but the sight of Muppets having sex in the bushes was something to behold.

Yes, this was a long way from Sesame Street.

The skits were generally good, and it took a few of them until the show reached its stride. As time went on, it began to focus more on Scred, who got most of the funny lines and who managed to be both funny and sweet. The most famous bit was his duet with Lily Tomlin.


This was one of the few of the Gorch sketches that made it into reruns; they were usually the first things cut for syndication. This works well, but most people seeing it have no idea of Scred's backstory.

The sketches raised controversy among the SNL staff.  Half loved it (Chevy Chase, who substituted for them once when the performers couldn't make it, and Gilda Radner); half hated it (Writer and original Not Ready for Prime Time Player*** Michael O'Donoghue famously snapped, "I don't write for felt").

In addition, the Muppets had other things going on. Henson went to the UK to start The Muppet Show and didn't return for the next season. The rest of the puppeteers went with him. There was only one final skit -- set in the Muppe Morgue -- with Lily Tomlin, who obviously loved the characters.

So the denizens of Gorch were shown no more.  Not even Scred, who could have been spun off and used elsewhere, showed up anywhere after the sketches were canceled.

Fans have been wanting a DVD of the Gorch episodes, but it's clear that NBC isn't interested. You'll have to make do with the Tough Pigs transcripts (which doesn't capture such things as the sound of the Mighty Favog's voice, which was hilarious) until them. It's a real shame that this aspect of Jim Henson's career has been lost.

*Yes, the guy who sells sausages.  Before getting into the meat business, he was a successful country singer.

**Bland because it was designed as an educational show for children. While the Muppets could be interesting on the show, they had to fit it into educational lessons (which, I hasten to add, they did quite well).

***From the first show.  But O'Donoghue's comedy is extremely violent (as he said in a sketch, "just random acts of meaningless violence") and after a few months he went behind the scenes.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Klaatu (music)

Web Page on the Group
Official web page
My Space Page

There's an old saying in show business:  "There is no such thing as bad publicity."  But it doesn't always hold true. You can ask the members for Brinsley Schwartz, for instance.*

Klaatu was victim of ill-conceived publicity, and paid a hefty price for it.

Klaatu The group (named, of course, after the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still) released its first album in 1976.  With its spacy cover and songs, it looked like a throwback to the psychedelic era, and the fact that the musicians were not listed added a bit of mystery.

Too much mystery. Steve Smith, an writer for The Providence Journal wrote an article asking "Could Klaatu be the Beatles?"

The songs, especially their single "Sub Rosa Subway," were Beatlesque enough to give the rumor traction.  The Beatles didn't comment, nor did the record company.  It worked to get the album onto the charts.

But, though the question was asked, most people who heard the songs figured out the answer was "no" (I remember listening and knowing at once it wasn't the Beatles).  When the actual musicians were revealed --  Canadian musicians Terry Draper, John Woloshuk, and Dee Long -- the backlash set in.  Album sales dropped off as people felt the group was just making the claim to hype their sales (even though the claim sprung up independently).  Later albums never went anywhere.

But there was some good stuff on the album.  "Sub Rosa Subway" is a fine little song, and their "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" was later covered by the Carpenters and made the charts. There album isn't perfect, but, if not for the publicity, the group may have had a moderately successful career. As it is, they have a core of fans, but are otherwise forgotten.

*A British group featuring Nick Lowe. Their record company planned a big splash, flying a group of British music critics to a special show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The flight was a disaster -- almost literally.  The plane developed engine trouble and barely made it to New York.  The critics were drunk (from free drinks on the plane) and nasty when they arrived and it didn't help that the group had visa troubles and couldn't rehearse until they went on stage.  They were trashed in the press and their album sunk.

Friday, April 25, 2008

October Sky

image (1999)
Directed by
Joe Johnston
Written by Lewis Colick, from the book Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper,  Laura Dern, Chris Owen, William Lee Scott,  Chad Lindberg
IMDB Entry
Watch the entire movie at Hulu.com

Some directors get typecast.  They make films of similar natures with similar subjects. Sometimes this is good, when you're Alfred Hitchcock or John Ford. Sometimes it is not. But what's especially interesting is when a director breaks out of the mold and makes a totally uncharacteristic film.

Joe Johnston is a case in point.  He's best known for action adventure films like The Rocketeer, Hildago, or Jurassic Park III and children's films like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Pagemaster, and Jumanji. But the one film that is not like the others is ultimately his best:  October Sky.

Homer Hickam (played Jake Gyllenhaal in the film) was a coal miner's son living in West Virginia in 1957, who was inspired by the Russian Sputnik launch to become involved in making his own rockets and eventually ended up working at NASA. His memoir, Rocket Boys, was adapted into the film. Hickam wanted to keep the title, but was overruled (possibly because it sounded like a sequel to Johnston's flop, The Rocketeer) and the title was changed to October Sky, referring to Sputnik's October launch. It's also an anagram of Rocket Boys.

In the film, Homer gathers together a group of friends who start launching small rockets. It becomes more than just a game as the groups experiments and learns how to make increasingly sophisticated models taking off.  With the help of a teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), they get together to enter the science fair and try to win scholarships.  But Hickam's father (Chris Cooper), a coal miner, is hostile to the entire endeavor.

It's not a film with a lot of conflict, of course, and it's pretty clear how it will end up.  But the characterizations are all first-rate and you can see how the idea of rockets was so exciting. These are real people, and Homer sees the rockets as a way out of the mines, while his father sees no reason for his son to leave.

It's a quiet film, with little action and no laugh out loud humor (though the reaction to one of their stray rockets is pretty funny), but with a feeling for the time and place that is unmatched. If you want to see how Sputnik changed America, this is one place to see it.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (Comic)

By Silas (Winsor McCay)
Wikipedia Article

Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend probably is less funny than any humorous comic strip in history.  And that's why it's one of the greatest of all time.

Winsor McCay is one of the giants of newspaper comics, his reputation secure by Little Nemo in Slumberland, the adventures of a young boy in the land of dreams.  Each episode, he would find wonders in the dream world, only to wake up in the last panel.  The dreams often continued for weeks, taking up where he woke up the week before, filled with sumptuous imagery and striking use of color.  It's a landmark of comic book history.

But Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend is nearly as good, and is definitely overshadowed by Nemo.  It was a dry run for the other strip: each week, someone would have weird and terrible nightmares due to eating a rarebit.*

The strip -- a full page -- was funny, of course.  People (there were no recurring characters) would dream absurd dreams, only to wake up in the end. Their reactions and the reactions of the people in the dream were comically overstated:  An alligator handbag becomes a real alligator, a minister starts drinking rum by the barrel (without putting in a glass first), a hair restorer works a little too well, a man is chased by a talking moose.  A small problem in the first panel becomes a major disaster in the last one.

But what really makes the strip rise above is the nature of the dreams. McCay seems to have been working through his own nightmares and fears.  And, on second reading, you can see them:  fear of death, fear of public speaking, fear of falling, fear of sex, fear of being caught in adultery, fear of moving to Brooklyn (just wanted to see if you were reading -- it is a funny strip since it's the most understated one).  In many ways, McCay was a precursor to Freud (I don't know if Freud knew of McCay, but in his Wit and the Relation to the Unconscious, Freud reprinted a German comic that was pretty much a panel-by-panel ripoff of one of the Rarebit fiend strips**).

Not what you want at your funeral

The strip only ran a short time.  Once McCay exorcized his demons, he moved on to eventually create the wonderland of Slumberland. But the strip he left behind is a fascinating and funny look into human fear.

*More properly known as Welsh rabbit, it's usually a cheese sauce with beer and various spices, served over bread or toast..  The name was a joke, alluding to the fact that the Welsh couldn't get real rabbit. At some point, someone who had no sense of humor decided it couldn't be rabbit, since it had no rabbit and decided the word was really just a corruption of "rarebit," though that construction was never really explained or even logical.

**In McCay's version, a man grew so overheated that his perspiration caused a flood; in the German version, a man's urination does exactly the same thing.  What this says about the character of German humor, I leave for the student to derive.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Roald Dahl (author)

Yes, I know Roald Dahl is an extremely successful author of young adult books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and Matilda. That Roald Dahl is hardly forgotten.

But I'm taking about a different Roald Dahl. Or rather a different incarnation that seems to have been forgotten and, for my money, is even better.

Dahl also wrote stories for adults. They are often classified as mysteries (and he ended up winning three Edgar Awards), but they really are hard to classify. I first discovered him when a college roommate of mine said that Dahl was the best writer out there. I picked up a collection, and, at first, didn't quite get him.  Then it clicked and I realized just how great he was.

What makes his stories really stand out are his endings.

Dahl was the master of the twist ending.  He would play upon your expectations and then pull the rug out from under you in the last paragraph, doing it so deftly that you never saw it coming. He also regularly did something that few authors have ever managed at all: the anticlimax ending. It's a twist that makes the entire story seem anticlimactic, yet, in Dahl's hands, it's extremely satisfying.

Some of my favorites include:

  • "Lamb to the Slaughter." This is his most famous story, about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, and then has to dispose of the weapon.  It was dramatized on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (and actually directed by Hitchcock, who liked Dahl so much the he directed four episodes adapted from Dahl's stories). When I mention the name of the author, people are surprised.
  • "The Man From the South." A man wagers his lighter can work ten times in a row.  If it does, he gets a car.  If not . . .
  • "Poison." A man living in India wakes up to find a deadly poisonous snake on his chest.
  • "Taste." A man wagers he can identify a wine down to the exact village, simply by tasting it.
  • "Dip in the Pool." Another man wagers (a  lot of Dahl stories involved betting) on how far the steamship he is on will travel. When he discovers he may lose everything in the bet, he comes up with a solution.
  • Not exactly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory "The Great Switcheroo." A man devises a way to sleep with his best friend's wife, while his friend sleeps with his. The twist here is hilarious.
  • "Bitch." Yet another man develops an aphrodisiac perfume, and sets up a plot to embarrass the President. This has one of the best final lines in all of literature. It also causes problems for Roald Dahl web pages, since they can't discuss it in front of the children.

Dahl's output was relatively meager -- 51 stories -- and fewer and fewer as his success as a children's author grew. The end of anthology series on TV also helped speed his stories becoming obscure (he hosted Tales of the Unexpected in 1979, a show originally devoted to dramatizing his stories, but it was primarily successful in the UK), as did the fact he didn't have any success as a novelist (his one adult novel, My Uncle Oswald, is pretty much an expansion of Bitch, but isn't all that good -- if your forte is twist endings, then a novel is not going to let you do what you do best).

Nearly all of Dahl's short fiction has been collected in his Collected Stories. It's a fine place to discover on of the best adult fiction writers of the 20th century.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol

(1972)(TV movie)
Directed by
George McCowan
Written by Stanley R. Greenberg
Starring Martin Landau, Jane Alexander, Brock Peters, Martin Sheen, Pat O'Brien, Forrest Tucker

In the 60s and 70s, most made for TV movies were crappy.  This was before the miniseries, and the networks, desperate for content and seeing how well theatrical movies did for them, started making their own. But without the budget and talent. Every once in awhile, someone thing might reach the level of not half bad (e.g., The Questor Tapes), but most had a long way to go to reach mediocre (e.g., Genesis II, Planet Earth).

It may be faint praise to say that Welcome Home, Johnny Bristol was one of the best, but it was a pretty good movie on its own merits.

Johnny Bristol (Martin Landau) was a released Vietnam war POW, who had managed to stay sane by remembering his life before the war in his home town of Charles, Vermont.  When released, he heads home.

Only there is no Charles, Vermont. Bristol has reason to believe that the government has done something to hide the town and all records of its existence.  Of course, they portray him as a psycho Vietnam vet, but he refuses to accept their story and goes to find the truth. Anne Palmer (Jane Alexander) is a nurse who begins to believe he may be on to something.

The story was one of the first to focus on returning Vietnam veterans. And while it seems to fit in with the "crazy Vietnam vet" cliche, it transcends this by Martin Landau's fine performance. His Bristol is like Fox Muldur, who knows the truth is out there, but is frustrated in his attempts to find it.  Landau was best known for this point as being Rollin Hand from the original Mission: Impossible (as a guest star in each episode due to contract considerations), and this was one of his first roles after that.

It also had some things to say about the difficulties transitioning to life after Vietnam.  I've seen it compared to The Best Years of Our Lives in that respect (though I can't be sure the person who called it such ever actually saw Johnny Bristol).  The story is ultimately about Bristol's readjustment and the mystery of Charles, Vermont, though solved in the end, it less important than Bristol's learning to cope with life after being a POW.

CBS aired the show in January of 1972.  Like most TV movies, it got very little notice and was quickly forgotten (I couldn't find an image of it on the Internet).  There may be DVDs, but they're scarce, too.

Few made for TV movies reached this level, so it's a shame that it's so hard to find. If you can see it, by all means give it a shot.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Directed by
Stephen Frears Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench
Written by Martin Sherman, from an idea from David and Kathy Rose
Starring Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Guest

You'd think a movie about female nudity might be able to do OK at the box office (then again, with Showgirls, possibly not). Mrs. Henderson Presents is a charming little comedy drama about how nude women came to be on the British stage in 1937, and true story about how a the little theater that dared to do it became an British institution.

Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is widowed at the age of 70s and wonders what she can do with her life. Eventually, she discovers a decrepit old theater and decides that this would be far more interesting than embroideries and fundraising, so she buys it and hires Vivian* Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to manage the theater. They form a testy relationship with Henderson asking the impossible and Van Damm trying to stick with the possible.

The Windmill Theater struggles along until Mrs. Henderson comes up with a new idea:  why not include "tableaus" of famous paintings.  Famous paintings of nudes, where women played the part of the women in the painting.

Van Damm thinks it's a ridiculous idea. There was a censor, the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), whose job it is to make sure the theater remains decent.  Mrs. Henderson meets with him and, in a very funny scene, comes to an agreement.  Since the paintings are on public display, the tableaus can be displayed -- but only if the women in them never move.

And so the theater begins to succeed, though not without troubles along the way.  There are constant fights with the Lord Chamberlain over how the woman can appear. It comes close, but Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm always find ways to keep things going.

A less risque tableu

I don't have to say that Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are excellent; neither is capable of even a mediocre performance.  Dench's Henderson is a woman who knows what she wants, and who can find an answer to anything, and she handles it with great wit and depth. The scene where she reveals why she was so intent on showing the tableaus is quite touching.

Hoskins is bristly and irritated by Henderson's requests, but does show a nice respect for his boss.  And Christopher Guest is as funny as he's ever been as the Lord Chamberlain, a man so repressed he cannot discuss the issues at hand with Mrs. Henderson.

Stephen Frears has made a bunch of movies that were great but forgotten; I'll be talking about a few of those soon.  He was hired on after the movie was cast, but did a fine job here.

And there really was a Windmill Theater. The tableaus were only a small portion of each show, which was designed like a vaudeville show, with a series of acts all through the day (it ran all day), but they were what made the show popular (including with US GIs in London during World War II).

The movie didn't do particularly well in the box office, but got a couple of Oscar nominations. After that, it vanished away. But pick up the DVD and prepare to be entertained.

*Often a male name in the UK, as my hero Vivian Stanshall attests.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Cordwainer Smith (author)

Wikpedia Entry

In 1950, in an obscure and soon-to-be-almost-forgotten magazine called Fantasy Book, a story appeared with the memorable title "Scanners Live in Vain":

Martel was angry.  He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stumped across the room by judgment, not sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci's face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg was broken. It was not.

This was intriguing stuff back in 1950 (it's still pretty intriguing now) and word of the story got out, talking about a bright new talent in science fiction going by the odd name of Cordwainer Smith. People wondered what his next story would be.

They kept wondering. Fantasy Book folded, and no other magazine seemed to get any stories from Smith. "Scanners" was anthologized and readers looked avidly for more work, but there was none. It was assumed that the name was a pseudonym (who would name their child "Cordwainer" (an archaic word meaning "shoemaker")?), but whose?

Five years later, H.L. Gold, the legendary editor of Galaxy, managed to track down Smith and persuade him to write more.  The second story by Smith, "The Game of Rat and Dragon," was even better than the first.

A major new short story writer had arrived. And since science fiction in the 50s (and beyond) was pretty much a short story medium, it meant a major SF writer was discovered.

Paul Linebarge/Cordwainer Smith Smith's real name was Paul Linebarger.  He was a political scientist who taught at Johns Hopkins and an expert on Far Eastern affairs (he was a close friend of Chaing Kai-shek and had Sun Yat-sen as a godfather) and psychological warfare. Some accounts indicated he devised a way for Chinese soldiers to chant "honor," "duty," and "humanity" and the phrases would sound like "I surrender" in English, allowing them to give up while saving face (I checked an online Chinese dictionary, and found that "duty" and "humanity" do come out as "zi-ren-dao," which does sound pretty close to "surrender")

But he wanted to be a writer, too, and submitted many failed stories until Fantasy Book (which is only known at all because of him) took him on -- and never actually paid him for it.

Smith's stories were generally set in a particular future history, called the Instrumentality of Mankind. There were connections, and a real historic timeline. The world was filled with baroque wonders. The most notable were the underpeople, people created from animal stock and who faced strong prejudices there was stroon, the santaclara drug, which conferred immortality, and which made its producers on the planet Norstrilia (or Old North Australia) very rich indeed.

Smith was a master at portraying a strange, decadent society, and often used Chinese methods of storytelling in his work.  He was the master of weird and evocative names and titles, with characters like C'Mell, Dolores Oh, Prince Lovaduck, Lord Jestocost, and many others. Even the story titles are strange and exciting:

  • The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal (I love the story, though some of its assumptions are highly offensive today).
  • Golden the Ship Was -- Oh! Oh! Oh!
  • Mother Hittons Litul Kittons (click on link to read)
  • The Ballad of Lost C'Mell
  • A Planet Called Shayol

Smith's only science fiction novel was Norstrilia, but was made up of two shorter works joined together (he wrote a couple of other in other genres under other pen names). He seemed to have preferred the short story format, and back in the 50s and 60s, that was enough to make a name for yourself.

Alas, Smith died in 1966, with just over ten years of productive work. He never won any SF awards and his work was primarily in magazines and anthologies. Since fewer readers read short stories, they don't see him all that often. Most of his works are in print. If you like weird and wonderful science fiction, the name Cordwainer Smith should be part of your vocabulary.