Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I Walked With a Zombie

image (1943)
Directed by
Jacques Tourneur
Written by Inez Wallace (story), Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray (screenplay), and Charlotte Bronte
Starring James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Darby Jones
IMDB Entry

Zombies are the big horror movie stars of the day, supplanting vampires for everyone except readers of Twilight.  It's spilled over into books, with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies becoming a big best seller.  But if the idea of mixing zombies and literature in an old one in film, starting with one of the first zombie movies ever made, I Walked with a Zombie.

The film was one of the early Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s.  Lewton brought on a new concept in horror:  one where the monster was understated and the violence portrayed obliquely, so that the viewer's imagination took over. After the success of his Cat People, Lewton bought an article by Inez Wallace called "I Walked With a Zombie" in order to turn it into a film.

But the story wasn't what Lewton wanted, so he had his writers Curt Siodmak* and Ardel Wray try something else:  he handed them a copy of Jane Eyre and told them to use that as a basis.

In the film, Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) goes to work as a nurse on a the island of Saint Sebastian in the Caribbean, in order to care for Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) the wife of planter Paul Holland (Tom Conway).  Jessica is in some sort of trance.  Her doctor calls it the result of a tropical fever, but the maid Alma (Teresa Harris) hints at the dark doings of voodoo.

Yes, this is the original idea of a zombie -- not just the living dead, but rather a corpse brought to life due to magic rituals.  Betsy dismisses the idea -- agreeing with Paul's mother (Edith Barrett) that there's no such thing.  But when modern methods fail, she begins to think about using voodoo to help cure Jessica.

Betsy and Jessica meet M. Carre-four

The film is better than its description. It's long on mood and atmosphere and hints at the supernatural while leaving the question open. The most striking sequence is when Betsy decides to take Jessica to a voodoo ceremony in the hope it might help.  The journey is a trip through a creepy sugar cane forest, meeting M. Carre-four (the imposing Darby Jones) and getting caught up in a voodoo ceremony, which leads to a surprising twist.

The story, of course, is much like Jane Eyre, with Betsy falling in love with Paul and Jessica as Rochester's wife.  While it is certainly not a scene-for-scene remake of the book, the idea of taking the story from literature gives the movie something more than just the encounters with voodoo.

Director Tourneur is great at slowly building tension and is smart enough to treat all the voodoo trappings with utmost seriousness, and even with respect.  He also keeps up a lot of ambiguity as to whether voodoo was really supernatural and whether it really had anything to do with the events of the film.

One of the more interesting aspects is the film's treatment of the Black characters in the film.  In a time when African-Americans were only portrayed as stereotypes, the movie shows them a real people.  Maybe they believe in voodoo, but they are portrayed with some real depth and humanity and without any of behavior that makes portrayals of Black cringeworthy.

Tourneur made several other horror films with Lewton, and later with The Night of the Demon. I Walked with a Zombie is a classic of the genre, and probably the place to begin to see how zombies originated.

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*Best known for the science fiction classic Donovan's Brain.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bored of the Rings (book)

(1969)
By Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard of the Harvard Lampoon
Wikipedia Entry

imageBack when I was around 14 and a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, I picked up an interesting book in the library: The Fellowship of the Ring.  It was something was seemed right down my alley, yet I only got a quarter of the way through when I lost interest* and returned it.

A few years later, my friends were talking about Lord of the Rings and insisting I read it.  I was reluctant.  Then they started talking about Bored of the Rings. 

That I wanted to read.  But they insisted I read the trilogy first.  I reluctantly picked up The Hobbit, which I found I liked a lot. But Fellowship was still tough going for me.  Eventually, I found the answer:  I purchased a copy of Bored of the Rings and kept it in the original paper bag, stapled together, until I finished reading the entire trilogy.  Then, I tore into the bag and began to read.

It made slogging through the trilogy worthwhile.

Bored of the Rings was written by two Harvard undergraduates, Henry Beard and Doug Kenney.  They later became founders of what was the most influential humor magazine of its time:  the National Lampoon.**  Bored of the Rings was pretty much a test run for that.

The book was a wicked parody of the trilogy, sort of like Mad Magazine only with a much greater eye for the ridiculous.  The character names, for instance, were all based upon trademarks:  Frito, Spam, Pepsi, Moxie, Goodgulf, etc.  There was inspired doggerel,*** silly jokes, bawdy humor and a general parody not only of the book, but of heroic novels in general.  Think of Monty Python before they were known in the US.

The book became a minor classic and, of course, its authors went on to revolutionize American humor.

And it did get me to read Lord of the Rings.

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*During the Tom Bombadil section. It was the first book I ever started reading and didn't finish.

**People may know of it due to movies like Animal House and Vacation, but the magazine was much more important that.

*** Like the prediction, "Five nine is your eight and 180's your weight/You'll cash in your chips around page 88."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sugarland Express

Sugarland Express (1974)
Directed by
Stephen Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg (story) and Hal Barwood (story and screenplay) & Matthew Robbins (story and screenplay)
Starring Goldie Hawn, Ben Johnson, Michael Sachs, William Atherton.
IMDB Entry

Steven Spielberg became a superstar director with Jaws. Fans of his career, of course, remember he got started directing a sequence of the original Night Gallery TV movie, and the TV movie Duel.  Oddly enough, however, his first film seems to get short shrift. The Sugarland Express was not a blockbuster, and was far less action-oriented that the films where Spielberg made his reputation, but it ranks among the best first films by any director.** Yet somehow it gets overlooked when considering his films.

The story begins with Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn), who visits her husband Clovis (William Atherton) in a halfway house.  Clovis is about to be released from prison in a few weeks.  So Lou Jean breaks him out.  They overpower rookie cop Maxwell Slide, steal his patrol car and, with Slide as their hostage, head toward Sugar Land.** 

The escape as inexplicable and as it is inept, but the trio drive, followed by Captain Harlan Tanner (Ben Johnson) and police from every town they pass through on the way.

We learn the reason for all this early on.  Lou Jean's baby had been in a foster home and they were preparing to adopt him.  Lou Jean will do anything to stop this.  The result is a long low-speed chase.  Indeed, the lasting image of the film is watching the police car carrying them driving across the Texas landscape, following by an ever-growing parade of cop cars waiting for a chance to stop Lou Jean.  She becomes something of a folk hero -- a woman fighting for her child -- and a celebrity.

Chaos on the road

This is one of Goldie Hawn's best roles (she thinks so).  She manages to wring a lot out of the role, being both charming and also more serious in purpose than in many of her films.  Ben Johnson is also quite good as a man who is trying to find a peaceful solution to a situation that is spiraling out of control.

The film did respectably at the box office*** but was quickly forgotten. Why?  Most likely because of Jaws.  The film put Spielberg on the map and identified him as a maker of blockbuster films.  He followed that up with Close Encounters and -- after the flop of 1941 -- the Indiana Jones films.  People expected big films with plenty of action from him, and the small, more character-driven story of Sugarland Express just didn't appeal.  By the time Speilberg started making more serious films, it had already been forgotten.

Nowadays, when people think of Spielberg, they think of his blockbuster, and of the more serious films**** that have helped him earn Hollywood respect. The Sugarland Express, though, is among his best work and showcases some fine performances that shouldn't be missed.

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*Some others: Preston Sturges's The Great McGinty, Mel Brooks's The Producers, Peter Bogdonovich's Targets, Kevin Smith's Clerks, and, of course, Citizen Kane.  It's interesting that in all the films, the director was also credited with the writing.

**A real town in Texas.  The movie calls it Sugarland, but the town is two words.

***Bolstered by the fact that it had two recent Oscar winners in Hawn and Johnson.

****Though he has tried a couple of "smaller" films (for Spielberg) lately in Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Anyone for Tennyson (TV)

(1976-78)
Produced by
Nebraska Public Television
Starring Cynthia Herman, Jill Tanner, George Backman and Paul Hecht.
Wikipedia Entry

Back in the mid-70s on our local public TV station, Sunday night was Monty Python night.  The show was broadcast every week at 10:30.  That mean, of course, that you couldn't watch the typical one-hour show broadcast in that slot.  So, without cable, you were pretty much committed to watching PBS.

That's how I discovered Anyone for Tennyson.

The show was based on an idea that only PBS would come up with:  live poetry readings. Each show had a theme, and a group of actors would give a dramatic reading of various poems that fit the theme, often in locations with a connection to it (e.g., Mystic Seaport for poems of the Sea; Gettysburg for Civil War poems, Stratfor-on-Avon for Shakespeare's verse).

I was hooked.  The actor/readers did more than just recite the words; they brought the poetry to life, not only expressing the words, but acting out the emotions of the poems.

Various guest stars would appear to join in, people like Vincent Price, Ruby Dee, Will Geer, Darren McGavin, and LeVar Burton.  They had as much fun with their poems as the regular cast.

The show ran for three seasons and 50 shows.  Some are available on DVD, but I'd love to see the entire run.  It was a delight for anyone who loves poetry and language.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

To Be or Not to Be

To be or not to be (1983)
Directed by
Alan Johnson
Written by Ronnie Graham and Thomas Meehan, based upon the 1942 screenplay by Edwin Justus Meyer, with story by Ernst Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel,
Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, Jose Ferrer, Ronnie Graham, Jack Riley
IMDB Entry

The original To Be or Not to Be is something of a minor film classic now, but when it came out in 1942, it didn't do too well. It was Carole Lombarde's last film before her death in a plane crash and its star, Jack Benny, did not catch on in the films and, as a comedian, he joked about how bad his films were. In addition, director Ernst Lubitsch's idea for having a comedy of manners about Hitler in the middle of a war was considered in bad taste, and in worse taste once people discovered what Hitler was like.  But, over the years, the film's reputation grew.  It is a certainly a fine movie, with the touch of a director who believed that, if Hitler had bad manners, it meant he was capable of all sorts of monstrosities.

So when there was news that Alan Johnson, best known as an Emmy-winning choreographer, was directing a remake in 1982, it probably was considered by many to be the worst possible idea.  Why remake a minor classic?  And it's one thing to treat Hitler in a comedy of manners during the war, when we didn't know exactly what was going on in Germany, and quite another to do a light comedy like this now that we did know.

Enter Mel Brooks.

Brooks, of course, is known as a funnyman*. But Brooks had a serious side, even if it didn't show up in his films.  Back in the early 80s, he set up Brooksfilms to do not only comedies, but some serious efforts such as The Elephant Man, Frances, and the remake of The Fly. So Brooks, who clearly had no problems poking fun at Hitler,** agreed to finance and star in the film.  Even better, his wife, Anne Bancroft -- known for serious roles -- agreed to costar.

The film's opening sequence sets the scene nicely, with Frederick and Anna Bronski (Brooks and Bancroft) doing a duet on stage of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Bronski is a legend in his own mind, a two-bit actor and producer who thinks he's the world's greatest actor. Anna, meanwhile, is busy having an affair with a handsome pilot Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson) at the same time Bronski is onstage as Hitler, doing a satire on the dictator.

It all changes the next day, as Hitler invade Poland. Bronski works to smuggle out a Polish scientist as well as some local Jews and gays.***

The movie is funny as Bronski uses his Hitler impression to fool the Nazis**** and make the plan work. But there's also a serious subtext; this is more than just jokes.  Lives are at stake and the horror of what the Nazis want to do is a constant thought in the back of our heads.

Brooks is at his best as Bronsky. Johnson manages to keep him from mugging and overacting more than necessary, making it one of his best comic performances.  Bancroft is obviously having fun in his role, and the cast is filled with highly skilled comic actors who bring the whole thing off.*****

Alas, director Alan Johnson's career did not continue to direct.  He work with Brooks and still continued choreography, winning another two Emmies, but despite this promising beginning, he only directed one more film, Solarbabies. Worse, when people do remember this film, they think that Brooks directed.

I think in many ways To Be or Not to Be is Brooks's best role, and shows that maybe he might have been a much funnier screen personality if he let other people direct him.

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*I find that Brooks never was as good or important to comedy as his contemporary Woody Allen, and he ultimately fell behind the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker combine, which took Brook's method and turbocharged it.  The only fully satisfying comedy of his was Young Frankenstein (though Blazing Saddles and Silent Movie come close).

**Especially in springtime.

***This is one of Hollywood's first portrayals of homosexuals being part of those sent to the camps.

****It seems clear that Brooks's philosophy on Nazism is simple:  they were fools and if we treat them like fools, people will laugh them away. It may be a better way to discredit them than to constantly say how bad they are; in fiction and elsewhere, one great way to create sympathy is to have people badmouth someone.

***** Of special note is Ronnie Graham, who helped write the screenplay, and also appears in the cast as  the theater manager.  Graham had a long list of writing and guest starring roles (especially in the TV version of M*A*S*H), but is best known to those of a certain age as Mr. Dirt in a commercial for Mobil gasoline.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Slither

image (1973)
Directed by
Howard Zieff
Written by W.D. Richter
Starring  James Caan, Peter Boyle, Sally Kellerman, Louse Lasser, Alan Garfield, Richard B. Shull
IMDB Entry

I've mentioned elsewhere that I'm a fan of director Howard Zieff. Nearly forgotten today, and with a movie career that was much too short, Zieff came on the scene with a love for quirky characters and situations. He first made his mark doing commercials -- both TV and print -- and started a trend to use unusual-looking people instead of the perfect hair and teeth models advertising has used previously.*

Slither was his first film. It's the story of ex-con David Kanipsia, who is having trouble adjusting to life on the outside.  He meets with his ex-cellmate Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull), who is shot while David watches.  Dying, he tells David of $300,000 that he had embezzled with his partner Barry Fenaka* (Peter Boyle) that's David's for the taking.  David then runs into Kitty Kopetzke (Sally Kellerman), who offers him a lift, with a short stop to rob a diner. They find Fenaka and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser), and then head off in Fenaka's RV to find Vincent J. Palmer (Alan Garfield), who has the money for safekeeping.  But soon they are followed by three sinister black RVs, whose intentions are unclear.

The plot is convoluted, but ultimately unimportant.  What makes the film work are series of oddball setpieces -- in a bingo hall, at a vegetable stand, a sales pitch for RVs -- all of which are funny in a low-key way.

The cast is made up of some charming actors.  Caan, fresh from his breakthrough role in The Godfather, gives a fine performance as an absurdist version of Hitchcock's "running man" heroes.  Kellerman puts in her best performance next to M*A*S*H, and, of course Boyle, Lasser, Garfield, and Shull are always delightful to see on the screen.  There's also a fine cast of supporting actors.  Like in his commercials, Zieff loved to film an interesting face, and he fills the movie with them.

The film did well enough to give Zieff a solid start to his career. *** He followed it with the delightful Hearts of the West as well as movies like House Calls, The Main Event, Private Benjaman, and My Girl.  Sadly, he had to retire from filmmaking after doing My Girl 2 in 1994 after developing Parkinson's Disease.  He died in January of 2009.

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*His best-known commercial of the time was the brilliant "Spicy meatball" Alka Seltzer commercial as well as their "No Matter What Shape You're Stomach's In," which spawned a hit single.

**The IMDB has "Barry Fenaka," but the original New York Times revies lists it as "Henry Fenaka."  You make the call.

***There was even a short-lived TV show.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

He Walked by Night

(1948)
Directed by
Alfred Werker, Anthony Mann (uncredited)
Written by Crane Wilber (story), Crane Wilbur and John C. Higgins (screenplay), and Harry Essex (additional dialog)
Starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Whit Bissell, James Cardwell, Jack Webb
IMDB Entry

The question every science fiction writer gets from time to time is "Where do you get your ideas?" It's sometimes nice to see something that makes it clear where a creator got his ideas, and that is one of the great things about He Walked by Night.

Jack Webb shows off his lab equipmentThe film was part of the group of postwar semidocumentary police procedurals* -- a short-lived trend in films that tried to portray a realistic view of police work. It's the story of a sociopath (Richard Basehart) who kills a Los Angeles cop and the attempt to track him down.  The killer is clever and careful, leaving no evidence.  Sgt. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) was a friend of the murdered policeman, and vows to find his killer.  The investigation is run by Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) with help with forensics expert Lee (Jack Webb).  After many dead ends, plus some scenes showing the basic police work, the police slowly find small clues that lead to them finding the killer.

The acting is underplayed, letting the story carry the movie.  Indeed, the characters (other than Brennan mentioning he knew the murdered cop) are give no backstory; it's all unimportant to the main work of finding the killer.  Basehart, though, great as the killer -- cool, collected, and ready for anything.  Whit Bissell is also good as Paul Reeves, the one person who has met the suspect.

The direction keeps the plot moving.  Alfred Werker was credited, but some -- and maybe most -- of the film was directed by Antho0ny Mann, who had earlier directed T-Men, another film in the semidocumentary genre.

But what is especially interesting is the beginning of the film.  It sets the scene in Los Angeles by showing sights of the city, and indicates that the story is true -- and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

If that phrase doesn't ring a bell, you're probably too young to remember Dragnet.

Dragnet was in the same vein, taking actual cases from the Los Angeles police department, changing the names, and showing the ins and out of police work.  And, of course, the producer and star of Dragnet was Jack Webb -- who had a role in this film.

It's clear that this is what Webb used as his template.  Supposedly, someone on the set suggested he do a radio show (and later a TV show) based on LAPD cases.  Dragnet began in the same way as the movie, saying the story is true, the names have been changed, and then talking about life in Los Angeles.**  In addition, the word "Dragnet" appears several times in the film, describing the LA police rounding up the usual suspects after the cop is killed.  I suspect Webb (whose performance is more Gil Grissom than Joe Friday) used the film as a template.

The cast, of course, is filled with names who were busy actors once TV came along.  Not only Webb, but Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) starred in TV series, while Roy Roberts, Scott Brady, and Whit Bissell were very busy TV guest stars.

The film has lapsed into the public domain, so it's easy to find.  It's worth a look, not just because it's a pretty good thriller, but because of it's long-term influence on the genre.  It's in the public domain, so you can find it at Archive.org.

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*The film is often classed as film noir, but, other than lighting, it has no real noir elements.  Noir tends to focus on a man trapped into murder (usually due to a two-timing woman).  We identify with the person who is either framed or tricked into it.  He Walks by Night does not identify with the killer, and there are no female characters.  Anthony Mann's earlier T-Men -- also a semidocumentary -- is a better model.

**A basic Dragnet opening would go something like this:  "This is the city.  Los Angeles, California.  I work here.  I carry a badge."  Of, though, Friday would go on about some of the great things about LA, segueing into that introduction.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Papa John Creach (music)

(1971)
All Music Guide

image Papa John Creach was an very unlikely rock star and his path to success was unusual, to say the least.

Creach was born in 1917, making him a bit old when rock came into being. And he really wasn't a blues musician, though he did play blues, too.  He played on an instrument -- violin -- that one hardly associates with either genre* and, indeed, one gets the impression he played in bars and ballrooms in the 40s and 50s.  He probably would have stayed that way if drummer Joey Covington hadn't stumbled upon him working.  Covington was a friend (and soon to be drummer) of the Jefferson Airplane, and he soon introduced them to the band.  Creach started playing with Hot Tuna** and soon with the Airplane themselves.  He was an immediate crowd favorite.

Back in 1971, the Airplane, like many big name groups of the time, had their own record label (Grunt)*** and decided to feature Creach on an album.

The record featured a lot of San Francisco's top musicians, members of the Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, and the ubiquitous Tower of Power horn section.****  Clearly, people just enjoyed playing with Creach, and it's clear he enjoyed the music more than anyone.

The songs are a mix of the old ("St. Louis Blues" and lovely versions of "Over the Rainbow" and "Danny Boy"), songs composed by his friends (Joey Covington wrote "The Janitor Drove a Cadillac"), and some of Papa John's own compositions.  It's charming, filled with blues, jazz, standards, rock, and all sorts of musical styles.

The album was the peak of his solo career, but he kept working with all the various incarnations of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship**** and Hot Tuna.

Papa John died in 1994, after a long life of spreading joy through music.

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*Though violins in rock don't get the respect they deserve, especially with musicians like Richard Greene (Seatrain), Don "Sugarcane" Harris (The Mothers, after making a name for himself as a guitarist and singer in the 50s) and David LaFlamme (It's a Beautiful Day)

**A side project by Airplane guitarist and bassist Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady.

***It started with Frank Sinatra with Reprise, but others who had labels at the time were the Beatles (Apple, of course), The Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones), The Moody Blues (Threshold), Rare Earth (Rare Earth), Frank Zappa (two labels -- Bizarre Records and Straight Records; later he ran Barking Pumpkin Records), Led Zeppelin (Swan Song) and the Grateful Dead (Grateful Dead).  Producers like Lou Adler (Ode and Ode 70) and Neil Bogart (Casablanca) also had boutique labels, though they were more involved in developing talent for them.  Except for the Grateful Dead, all were distributed by established record companies.

****Whenever you wanted horns on your record, you hired Tower of Power.

*****Though he had left by the time they recorded "We Built This City." 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

John Barth (author)

John Barth (1930- )
John Barth Information Center

The Sot-Weed Factor may be my favorite book of all time. And John Barth is one of my favorite authors.

Barth is usually classed as an academic writer, and his work is clearly filled with intellectual ideas and words like "postmodernism" are bandied about.  But he also has a very wicked (and bawdy) sense of humor.  His books are a lot of fun to read, with plenty to reward even the casual reader.

Barth grew up in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a factor that is part of all of his works. His first novel, The Floating OperaI (1957), is about Todd Andrews, a lawyer who is contemplating suicide.  The story goes off on weird and wonderful directions, with weird characters, bizarre lawsuits, and many other wonders.  It is an amazing beginning, though still shows he hadn't found his way.

Next came The End of the Road (1958),* the story of Jacob Horner, who is paralyzed by indecision after having an affair with his best friend's wife and is working through the incident with his psychiatrist. Horner is a shell of a man, yet it makes sense that the woman has the affair with him.

The Sot-Weed Factor But Barth really hit is stride with The Sot-Weed Factor (1960)**. It is a long, sprawling, bawdy, hilarious historical novel set in colonial Maryland, about Ebenezer Cooke, a third rate poet (and virgin) in London (that is, he'd be one if he ever wrote any poetry) who gets himself named poet laureate of Maryland and who travels to his plantations there to take charge. Followed by his former tutor Henry Burlingame III (a man who is never what he seems), and guided by his unconsummated love of prostitute Joan Toast. Cooke's tale is filled with adventures and digressions, including the search for a secret diary of Captain John Smith, which provides the McGuffin for the plot.  Maryland is filled with memorable characters.

One amazing thing about the book is that there really was an Ebenezer Cooke who did indeed write a poem called "The Sot-Weed Factor."***  One of the major plot points is the search for the secret of the sacred eggplant, something so bizarre that it seemed to confirm to me how wild Barth's imagination could be -- until I discovered it was based on an actual text.

Giles Goat-Boy (1966) came next, the story of a hero -- carefully following the Joseph Campbell template long before Star Wars.  It's something of a fantasy, set at a university that is an allegory for the world.  But again, it's funny and bawdy.

By now, Barth was at his peak.  Both books were both critical and popular successes, and he followed them up with an excellent short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse(1968).  Barth was beginning to write more metafiction where the story commented on the story and storytelling, but never stopped being entertaining.  The title story is one of the great mainstream short stories of the 20th century, about a boy who gets lost in a carnival funhouse and tries to escape by imagining a story called "Lost in the Funhouse" where he escaped.**** "Frame Tale" is perhaps the longest story every written -- or the shortest.

Chimera (1972), his next book, are three linked novellas, again concentrating on what a story is and what makes a hero. It portrays the Greek heroes Perseus and Bellerophon looking back on their deeds and revisiting themIt won Barth a National Book Award.

Barth was riding high, but his next novel, LETTERS (1979)a tour de force of storytelling and structure.

Subtitled, "An Old Time Epistolary Novel by Seven Fanciful Drolls & Dreamers Each of which Imagines himself actual," the book consists of letters written by characters from Barth's earlier novels, as well as though written by a new character, Germaine Pitt, and Barth himself to the characters. If you take the first letter of each of the letters, it spells out, "An Old Time Epistolary Novel, etc."  If you put the dates of the letters on a calendar and turn the months sideways, it spells out "LETTERS." The letters are presented by character; thus you will occasionally read a reply before you read the letter that engendered it. I can't imagine how Barth managed to keep this all straight, but he did a terrific job of it.

Like the characters in Chimera, Barth revisits his triumphs and comments on storytelling and the novel in the late 20th century. Like all of Barth, it is filled with great characters and wild storytelling.

But, for some reason, it was a critical flop.  More than that, it seemed to turn Barth from the front rank of literary novelists.  He was never taken as seriously from that point on, and I can't imagine why (though I suppose that if you haven't read his earlier books, it may be difficult to follow).

Barth continued with the more traditional Sabbatical: A Romance (1982) and The Tidewater Tales (1987), both of which covered similar ground.  He went into full-fledged fantasy with The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), a retelling of the Sinbad tale.*****

I haven't read his later stuff except for Coming Soon!!! A Narrative, a novel about how the novel was becoming outdated in the 21st century.

The critical disappointment with LETTERS turned Barth from a popular writer to a niche writer.  It also retroactively affected his earlier novels.  All have remained in print in one form or another, but few people go back to them to read for pleasure.

This is a mistake.  At the very least, read The Sot-Weed Factor and prepare to be amazed at a true writing genius.

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*The only one of his novels to be made into a movie (and probably the only one that could be made into a movie) starring Stacy Keach and James Earl Jones.

**The cover of the first edition (shown here) was created by the great Edward Gorey.

**Which roughly translates into "The Tobacco Wholesaler" in modern English.

***It's also filled with good advice for the beginning writer.

****Barth always was on the edge of fantasy; Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera, and LETTERS all had fantastic elements scattered throughout.  Barth also had the lovely quote, "Science fiction writers are not like you or me.  They have more fun,"  the fun being science fiction conventions.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Z

image (1969)
Directed by
Costa-Gavras
Written by  Jorge Semprún from a novel by Vasilis Vasilikos 
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Irene Papas, Jacques Perrin.
IMDB Entry 

Costa-Gavras* was one of the most political of all directors. He managed to combine a very strong point of view -- liberal but with a strong mistrust of communism -- into some very successful political films.  Z was one of his biggest and better-known films.

The subject matter was highly political when it came out.  Costa-Gavras was born in Greece, and in 1969, the country was ruled by a repressive right-wing military dictatorship. Indeed, the film is based upon actual events of the time -- with a disguise so thin that no one in Greece would fail to see through it.

In the film, we see an unnamed country where a Deputy of their legislature (Yves Montand) wants to give a speed on nuclear disarmament.  But the right-wing forces don't want it and suddenly obstacles appear.  He is forced to go to another venue when the original one mysteriously becomes unavailable.  And as he walks across the street after his speech, a small truck somehow manages to get through the police cordon and the Deputy is hit.  He dies soon afterward.

The authorities say it was a hit-and-run driver, but the hospital** reports that the injuries aren't consistent.  An uproar occurs, and the government is forced to investigate.  An Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is named.  He, at first, starts examining the evidence objectively, and slowly reveals evidence of a political cover-up.

The movie plays as a taut thriller as the Examining Magistrate digs at the evidence.***  Trintignant is terrific as a man who is only interested in the truth -- no matter where it leads.  Jacques Perrin is also memorable as the photojournalist who pushes the investigation.

But the story does not have an entirely happy ending; dictatorships don't take lightly having their members being arrested. The final credits give a list of things that were currently banned in Greece:  the Peace Movement, the Beatles, Aeschylus, Mark Twain, and many others, including the letter "Z," which referred to the assassination, meaning, "He is alive."

The film was a major hit of the time, winning a bunch of awards including an Oscar for Best Foreign Film (and a nomination for Best Picture).  Costa-Gavras went on to other political films like The Confession and Missing.

Nowadays, the movie is still shown in film classes, and in trivia contests (tied for shortest title ever with M and the shortest title to be nominated for an Oscar). But since it's not in English, audiences are not familiar with it.  Perhaps they think it's too political to be entertaining, but they couldn't be more wrong.

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*He didn't generally use his first name professionally.  Or, rather, Costa-Gavras was his nickname with a hyphen in it.

**In a telling scene, right after the Deputy his hit, an ambulance appears out of nowhere and tries to take him to a hospital across town, but they are forced to take him to one that is nearer -- and better.

***Though by today's standards, the dictatorship is pretty unsophisticated in its plotting.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Magic Land of Allakazam (TV)

(1960-1964)
Starring
Mark Wilson, Nani Darnell, Bev Bergeron
IMDB Page
Mark Wilson's Webpage

Allakazam I've always loved magic. If a magician is performing, I want to watch. I know enough about the art to occasionally figure out a trick, but even that doesn't make it less enjoyable.  It's the showmanship and the surprise that really grabs me.

And it started with The Magic World of Allakazam."

 

The show was broadcast on Saturday morning when I was a kid. It was conceived by and starred Mark Wilson, who, though in his 30s at the time, had been performing magic professionally for 15 years. 

There was some belief that magic wouldn't work on TV, especially on videotape, since everyone would think things were edited. Wilson had a simple solution:  make as few cuts as possible to make it appear as though you were watching it live.  He also insisted on a live audience to further show that things were not fixed in the production.  With these precepts in mind, he created The Magic World of Allakazam. 

Wilson's illusions were not groundbreaking.  They were versions of traditional magic tricks*, done in a simple and straightforward style. Wilson would dress up the magic with scenarios revolving around Allakazam. His wife Nani Darnell was his assistant, and Bev Bergeron played Rebo the clown**, who added some straight slapstick to the mix.

The show was and an instant hit and a staple of Saturday morning TV for several years, first on CBS and later on ABC before going into syndication.  It showed that magic could work as televised entertainment.

Wilson went on to create several other, less well known shows, most notably, a series of Magic Circus specials.  He continus to be a popularizer of magic and has written several books on the subject.  It looks like he's branched out to DVDs, including videos of Allakazam.

I think that most television TV magicians own Wilson a debt.

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*Insert Arrested Development reference.

**A character name later used on Babylon 5.  Creator J. Michael Straczynski would have been about the right age to be watching The Magic World of AllakazamI when it was on.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

image(Vynález zkázy*)(1958)

Directed by Karel Zeman
Written by Frantisek Hrubín and Karel Zeman; dialog by Milan Vácha; based on the writing of Jules Verne
Starring  Lubor Tokos, Arnost Navrátil, Miroslav Holub, Frantisek Slégr, Václav Kyzlink,
IMDB Entry

For me, movies are about plot and character.  But, occasionally, there is a movie that stands out in terms of style and visual imagination. Days of Heaven, with its beautiful cinematography, stands out, as does Medium Cool, with its cinema verite mixture of story and actual events.  And though I don't care much for the film, it's clear that the visuals in The Matrix were groundbreaking.

But few films have ever topped The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

The film was created by Czech director Karel Zeman.  Zeman had a fascinating idea:  make a movie from the works of Jules Verne, but in the style of the illustrations of the time. The result is an amazing combination of live action and animation, with sets that are often drawings, filled with details and crosshatching.  It's all done in a crisp black and white cinematography that makes it seem like line drawings come to life.

 

 

The story is high adventure about a mad scientist who lives in a volcano and who is developing a super bomb. It's just the type of film that would stick in the mind of young boy, and, though I haven't seen it for 50 years until I started writing up this blog entry, some of the images in the film are as memorable to me as though I had seen them yesterday.

The film's style, of course, is what would not be labeled steampunk. Steampunk owes a lot to Verne and H.G. Welles, and, of course, the illustrations of the time. While I have no way of knowing, I do note that the authors who first developed the steampunk movement were all about my age.  I wonder if this movie somehow influenced them.

Zeman was already a major talent in Czech cinema, and, after the success of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, he made several other Verne adaptations.  Alas, they seem to have been a casualty of the Cold War and didn't make it to the US in wide release**.  He does seem to be worthy of rediscovery.  A visual imagination like his should not be forgotten.

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*Literal translation:  A Deadly Weapon
**Perhaps Fabulous World didn't do well enough to warrant it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Diva

Diva poster (1981)
Directed by
  Jean-Jacques Beineix
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix and Jean Van Hamme
Based on the novel by Delacorta

Starring
Frédéric Andréi, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Richard Bohringer
IMDB Entry
Official Website

Diva has it all -- comedy, romance, thrills, great chase scenes, wonderful characters and much more. If it had been filmed in Hollywood, it would have been remembered for the classic it is.  But it was filmed in France, in French, and is known to a far-too-small number of people.

It was the feature debut of director/writer Jean-Jacques Beineix. Beineix had come up through the ranks:  he was an assistant director for ten years* before getting his chance to direct -- and hitting a home run.

The story is simple and direct.  Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a Parisian messenger, who travels the city on his scooter delivering packages.  He's also an opera fan, especially of the American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). Well, more than a fan -- he falls in love with his voice and does the one thing the singer has forbidden:  recorded her in concert.

But he is spotted by two Hong Kong tape pirates, who think they can make a mint with a live recording.  He also draws the attention of a prostitution ring -- with members in high places -- when the tape is mistaken and switched for one that will blow their crimes wide open.

And the chase begins.  The movie contains some of the best chase scenes in film, especially when Jules rides his scooter through the escalators of the Paris Metro.

Andréi is charming as Jules, but also memorable is Fernandez in a difficult part.**

The movie got good reviews when it opened, but, of course, did so-so business in the US (subtitled films usually do).  It was a big hit in France and Europe, though.  Beineix has been working in the French film industry since then, but without any big splashes that crossed the ocean.  Andréi has had some roles in French films and has moved into directing, while Fernandez returned to opera, where she's had a solid career on stage.

The film was revived in 2007 to find new audiences, but I fear those were probably too small for people to see just how wonderful this film was.

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*Including time working on The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis's epic unreleased disaster.

**Including casting.  The story required a world-class opera singer who was fluent in both English and French.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Only Yesterday (Book)

by Frederick Lewis Allen (1931)

image "Beyond the limited scope of his political experience, he was 'almost unbelievably ill-informed'.... His mind was vague and fuzzy.  Its quality was revealed in the clogged style of his public addresses, in his choice of turgid and maladroit language . . . . It was revealed even more clearly in his helplessness when confronted by questions of policy to which mere good nature could not find an answer."

If I told you the above paragraph was written about a president, you'd probably know which one. But the words were written in 1931, and spoke about Warren G. Harding.  This is one of the many delights of Frederick Lewis Allen's classic social history, Only Yesterday.

The book was something new when it came out: a social history of a very recent time period (1919-1929, published in 1931). Histories previously had tended toward writing about big events of many years before. This one covered events that were well-known to much of its readers, and managed to become a best seller.

Allen was not a trained historian, but rather an editor for Harper's Magazine who wrote as an amateur.* The writing is clear and easy to read, with a gentle mocking tone that is very entertaining.

Allen didn't just write about big events; he touched on ephemeral items and fads. The chapters of the books are not strictly chronological, but rather thematic, and several chapters begin by going back to 1919 to trace a particular thread.  The politics are there, of course -- Allen's talk of the Teapot Dome scandal is very entertaining -- but he also talks about things like the Great Red Scare (long before McCarthy), the Florida Land Rush, the Scopes Trial, the flapper phenomenon, and the Hall-Mills trial.** He also nicely documents the rise of radio and mass media, and the Great Bull Market and Stock Market Crash.

His section on the Crash is just great writing.  It puts you into the shoes of an investor on Black Thursday -- the first day of the crash -- demonstrating how uncertainty led to fear. How it was impossible for an investor to know what the price of a stock was.  And how you'd realize that the prices you saw were an hour and a half late -- and things had continued to drop!  How you'd hear people in a brokerage trying to sell stock at prices far below what the ticker was saying. Allen makes the panic real, and turns the book from a history lesson into a novel.

The book was a major success and still remains in print. Allen followed it up with Since Yesterday, another successful history covering the 1930s. These are among the most entertaining history books written, and one of the best ways to get the flavor of the roaring twenties.

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*There was enough interest in the field those days for several other authors to make a name for themselves writing history despite being from outside academia.

**Probably surpassed only by the O.J. Simpson case in sensationalism. The Pig Woman testifying from a hospital bed in the middle of the courtroom is an unforgettable image.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Space Rangers (TV)

(1993)
Created by
Pen Desham
Starring Jeff Kaake, Jack McGee, Marjorie Monaghan, Danny Quinn, Gottfried John, Linda Hunt, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Clint Howard
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a TV show has everything going against it. Comparisons to another show.  A network with little commitment to it, and which insists on showing the episodes out of order.  Attempts to be different that aren't accepted by the conservative viewing audience.  And a show like that always fails.

So Space Rangers failed.  But it deserved much better.

CBS has never been a hotbed of science fiction.  Oh, there was The Twilight Zone and The New Twilight Zone, but they were more fantasy than science fiction. In general, though, they stayed away from the genre, especially something that's out-and-out space opera.  But evidently something was in the air in January of 1993.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was coming on the air, and Babylon Five was in development.*  So producer Pen Desham created Space Rangers and got CBS to air it.

Space Rangers The show's premise was also similar:  it follows the adventures of a space police force stationed on the space station Fort Hope.  The crew was led by Captain John Boone (Keff Kaake).  Jojo (Marjorie Monaghan) was his pilot, Zylyn (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) was the token alien, and Mimmer (Clint Howard) was the resident geek. They were led by Commander Chennault** (Linda Hunt) and were sent out on various missions to protect the station and rescue others.

Desham tried to do things a little differently.  There were no ray guns.  Instead, the Space Rangers fired real guns with bullets.  This raised scorn from a lot of sci-fi fans -- the bullets might pierce the hull -- but it really wasn't impossible if they were designed not to.***  He also had the pilot's chair set up so JoJo lay prone on it.  The Rangers were portrayed in a blue-collar world, where they expected hazard pay for risking their lives.

Now the show was no Babylon 5.  And it also hurt it that it premiered the same week as Deep Space 9.  Trekkers heaped scorn on it, mostly because it wasn't Star Trek.  I remember one heated debate that complained that in the first episode, JoJo banged her fist against a piece of malfunctioning equipment to get it to work.  Trekkers derided the show, saying this was impossible and a sign that the writers didn't know science fiction. Until I pointed out that in the Deep Space 9 premiere, Sisko banged his fist against a piece of malfunctioning equipment to get it to work. 

The show as pure space opera, and handled in a bravura manner.  Whereas DS9 took  a season or so to hit its stride, Space Rangers hit it from day run, a mix of action and adventure that was a lot of fun to watch.

Alas, CBS ran the shows in a really messed up order.  Episode three was first, then two, then one, then four, then it was canceled. This wasn't an arc heavy show like Babylon 5, so it wasn't a disaster, but it did confuse some people.***

The cast list is interesting.  The name that pops out is Linda Hunt, who had won an Oscar in The Year of Living Dangerously.  She always was a superb actress, and seemed to be enjoying herself as the station commander.

I liked Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's Zylyn. He looked alien enough and was a violent warrior (and cannibal) with strange blinked out eyes.  Majorie Monaghan was also a standout as the tough-as-nails pilot. There's also Clint Howard, Ron's younger brother. Clint usually plays bit roles; this was one of his few regular roles in a TV show.

After the show, the actors moved on, none becoming major names.  Interestingly, both Tagawa and Monaghan appeared in Babylon 5. Producer Desham was back in TV a few years later with the revival of The Outer Limits that was pretty good and the second revival of The Twilight Zone, which wasn't.

Space Rangers wasn't great SF, but had a lot going for it, a fun, likeable puppy of a TV series that had too many strikes to overcome.

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*There was a lot of speculation that Deep Space 9 was created primarily to block Babylon 5 from the air. The show had some strong superficial similarities -- set in a space station -- and J. Michael Straczynsky had pitched the idea to Paramount.  It seems likely to me that DS9 had taken some of B5's elements when they were creating the series.

**A reference to  Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers squadron in World War II.

*** I also was amused at the fact that this implied people thought the only way to do good science fiction was to make sure it had ray guns.

***Actually, I liked one element of this:  instead of starting with an episode that fills in all the backstory, they jumped right into the action and worried about the background later.  I think SF shows should do this more often (it also worked nicely for Firefly).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hey, Landlord (TV)

(1966-67)
Created by
: Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall
Starring Will Hutchins, Sandy Baron, Pamela Rogers, Michael Constantine, Miko Miyama, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Kathryn Minner
IMDB Entry

hey landlord Some TV shows seem to really vanish. They don't have a long enough run to go into syndication, and they never got any particular notice. Even in the Internet age, you can find only sketchy information. And in the case of Hey, Landlord, that's a shame.

The show was the first one produced by Garry Marshall.  He and another ex-Dick Van Dyck Show  writer, Jerry Belson, branched off to develop it for NBC.

The premise was certainly a good one.  Ohioan Woody Banner (Will Hutchens) inherits a New York brownstone and goes to live there. He shares his own apartment with aspiring comedian Chuck Hookstratten (Sandy Baron), and has to deal with the foibles of the tenants.  These include photographer Jack Ellenhorn (Michael Constantine), aspiring model Timothy Morgan (Pamela Rogers) and her roommate Kyoko Mitsui (Miko Miyama), plus Mrs. Henderson (Ann Morgan Guilbert), and Mrs. Tecker (Katryn Minner).

Woody was the fish out of water, unused to the quicker pace of the Big Apple, while Chuck tried to guide him away from the worst of the pitfalls.  Jack was always morose about life and of course, Tim (real name Teresa) was there as a potential love interest.

The show succeeded on the charm of Will Hutchens.  Hutchens was attempting something of a comeback: he had been the star of the ABC TV series Sugarfoot for several years and was switching to comedy.* But my favorite was Sandy Baron.  First of all, it was great to see someone on TV named "Chuck." And Baron was a very funny guy -- a standup Borscht Belt comedian moving into sitcoms.

Michael Constantine was also terrific as the morose Jack Ellenhorn.  If you remember him from Room 222, his role in this show was very similar, though far less watered down.  And, of course, Ann Morgan Guilbert was already a TV legend from The Dick Van Dyck Show, and continued on a long TV career.

The show was also a beginning for comedy writer James L. Brooks.

Despite good writing, a great cast, and a theoretically good time slot (between Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza), Hey Landlord couldn't compete against The FBI and Ed Sullivan. It ran against the second half of both shows and thus depended on its viewers to come from the Disney audience, which probably was too young to be interested.  I'd guess that Disney viewers would catch the second half of Sullivan instead of sticking with Hey Landlord.  In any case, it only ran one season.

Hutchens tried again a couple of years later with Blondie, which also flopped, then did various guest shots before dropping out of acting. Baron was never given a chance to display his talents on TV, so returned to standup and also appeared as one of the comedians in Broadway Danny Rose and is the one narrating the movie.  And the producers and writers for the show went on to create many more TV successes.

But despite some great talent, Hey Landlord has been forgotten.

 

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**Not that Sugarfoot was a serious western.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bottle Shock

 (2008)
Directed by
Randall Miller
Screenplay by Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz & Miller; story by Savin, Schwartz, Miller, and Lannette Pabon
Starring  Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Rachel Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Eliza Dushku, Bradley Whitford, Miguel Sandoval, and Mary Pat Gleason*
IMDB Entry

You can't go very far wrong with a nice underdog story, and whereas the plot is most common with sports movies, sometimes, there's a different twist on it.  One result was Bottle Shock.

Alan Rickman takes a sip. It's based (loosely) on a true story, the famous "Judgment of Paris" in 1976.  Well, famous in wine circles -- it was the first time an American wine beat French wine in a tasting. The story focuses on Steven Spurrier** (Alan Rickman) a British sommelier and owner of a Paris wine shop, who needs some publicity to get people into his store. He concocts the idea of a blind testing of Napa Valley wines versus the best France has to offer and flies out to California to find candidates.

Meanwhile, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is working diligently to make great wine and wishing his son Bo (Chris Pine) took a more serious interest in the business.  Bo is more interesting in good times and pot, but starts to take more interest when Sam (Rachel Taylor) shows up at the vineyard as an intern.

Spurrier shows up looking for wine.  Barrett isn't interested, put off by Spurrier's superior attitude.  He's also a man at the end of his rope, for though he's been working at it, he is still working on making the wine to meet his standards.

This isn't a film with surprises; you know from the start how the contest will end up.  What makes it work are the characters and also the trials and tribulations everyone goes through to get the judgment.

The cast seemed to enjoy their roles.  No one does a superior sneer better than Rickman, and Pullman has a nice earnestness that makes you want him to succeed. Chris Pine shows the same devil-may-care attitude that got him cast as James T. Kirk in the Star Trek remake.

Some of the other bigger names -- Dushku, Whitford, and Farina -- are really nothing more than just cameos, lending their names to help out the projects.  They handle their scenes well, but the main story is in the hands of lesser-known actors.

The film did fairly modest business, probably on the art film circuit. But it's an entertaining (if not inspiring) little movie with nice characters and a lot of heart.

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*Just a bit part, but Middleman fans will recognize her as Ida.
**No, not that Steven Spurrier, sports fans.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Raymond Scott (music)

(1908-1994)
Official Website

Raymond Scott You probably don't know his name, but you certainly know his music. His most famous piece, Powerhouse, is one of the most familiar pieces of film music ever (especially the second section). 

Scott was something of a pioneer. He came to prominence when jazz was king and he got a job working for the CBS radio house band. There, he formed his own jazz group, the Raymond Scott Quintette** and began following his one idiosyncratic path.  Scott worked with his musicians to compose his music, but once they came up with something he liked, they were supposed to stick with it (a practice jazz purists, who favored improvisation, did not like).  He also pissed off traditionalists by the whimsical names he chose for his music:  " Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner," "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House."***

Scott was a restless soul and rarely stayed with the same type of music for long periods.  The Quintette only existed from 1936-1939, whereupon he moved on to other forms of music. And, in 1942, he made the decision that made his music ubiquitous:  he sold it all to Carl Stalling at Warner Brothers for use in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

Stalling made the most of the purchase. Scott's music was used in over 100 Warner Brothers cartoons, including many classics. "Powerhouse" became the theme for whenever some sort of factory machine was shown, but many others appeared in the background.  Scott, if known, is often referred to as "the man who made music for cartoons," but that was never his intention.  It was not even a sidelight to his career, just a side effect.

As time moved on, Raymond Scott moved on, too.  He did a Broadway score, TV show music, and popular jazz.  But his main interest after the 40s was in electronic music.  He was a pioneer of the form, a man who influenced and taught many others.  Just about all electronic musicians in the 50s and 60s paid a visit to Scott's labs to learn of his innovative ways of creating music.

Scott faded out from the industry in the 70s, becoming an obscure, forgotten figure (even though Powerhouse has become part of the popular culture).  But he's a name that fans of music and cartoons should cherish.

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*And for the same reason.

**Which started out with six members.

***This , of course, has disadvantages. It's hard to remember the names of his songs. And since they were instrumental, that makes it even harder.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Osama

Osama (2003)
Written and Directed by
Siddiq Barmak
Starring Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar, Khwaja Nader
IMDB Entry

I've always had a liking for foreign films*. They often have a different point of view than US films, and I am especially interested when I start discovering films from a country that is just joining the world cinema stage.

So, when I heard about Osama, the first film from post-Taliban Afghanistan to make it to the US, I knew I wanted to check it out.  And I wasn't disappointed.

Of course, given the time frame of the film, it should be obvious that it would be about life under the Taliban. We know in the West about some of their abuses, but this brings to light things that we probably never considered.  Under the Taliban, not only were women forbidden to hold jobs, but they could not go out of their houses without a husband or male escort.

This hits a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari) and her mother (Zubaida Sahar) hard.  The mother is fired from her job in a hospital. Worse, because her husband and father have been killed in fighting, they are not allowed to leave their house.  Given the rules, they would have stayed "virtuous" -- and starved to death.

Desperate, they form a plan.  The girl is to disguise herself as a boy and get a job.  It works for awhile, but she is caught up in a sweep to recruit boys as soldiers and ends up in a training camp, where she is given the nickname Osama**.  She befriends Espandi (Arif Herati) a boy in the camp and is also singled out for her zeal by one of the teachers (Khwaja Nader).

Marina Golbahari as Osama The actors in the film are uniformly excellent. They were not professionals, but were found in Kabul.  Marina Golbahari is heartbreakingly good in the title role, and Kwaja Nader is a type of movie villain rarely seen:  a gentle monster.  He seems so sweet as he also shows the dark side of religious fanaticism.

The final scene is one of the saddest in the history of film***.  Out of context, it means nothing, but as you see the entire film, you understand exactly what it means and are horrified.

The film did well enough**** and won awards all over the world, including a Golden Globe.  Director Barmak remains working in the Afghan film industry.  Golbahari has made several other films since then. Calling her a major Afghan film star may be faint praise, but it fits her.

There isn't a cheerful film and has no happy ending. But sometimes tragedy must be told, too.

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*I'm not one to dogmatically state foreign films are always better than US films, but I do recognize that if a foreign language film gets to the US, it is among the best that country has to offer.  Bad foreign films never make it to America, which is why it seems like so many are critical faves.

**Given the circumstances, how could it not be?  The director did want to have a more hopeful ending, but decided that wouldn't be right.

***Yes, named after that Osama

****It was shot for less than $50,000, which helped.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kate and Allie (TV)

Kate and Allie (1984-89)
Created by
Sherry Cobean
Starring  Susan St. James, Jane Curtin, Frederick Kohler, Ari Meyers, Allison Smith
IMDB Entry

It's rare that a relatively recent TV show that was both a critical and ratings success could be considered forgotten, but that's exactly what happened to Kate and Allie.

The show's premise certainly didn't stand out all that much.  In it, Allie Lowell (Jane Curtin) and her two kids, Emma (Ari Meyers) and Chip (Frederick Kohler), move to New York to share an apartment with Allie's childhood friend Kate McArdle (Susan St. James) and her daughter Jenny (Allison Smith)decide to share an apartment after the two of them divorce.  Kate was a stay-at-home mother who needed to learn how to be more independent, while Allie had a job and had trouble trying to be taken seriously in the workplace.

Though the premise seems routine now, it was still unusual to have to independent women characters in a sitcom. But what made the show work was the quality of the writing and the scripts. In a fairly low-key way, they dealt with many social issues -- not only the role of women in society, but other issues like homelessness and what makes a family.

The latter was the basis for the episode I remember the best, where Kate and Allie were threatened with a big rate increase because they weren't a family. They pretended to be a lesbian couple,* claiming that to be a family, too, which backfired when they discovered their landladies were a lesbian couple.  But instead of letting hijinks ensue, Kate and Allie told that this was only a ploy, and that they were a family nonetheless.

The show was successful not because of the social issues, but because it was very funny. It wasn't the usual sitcom putdown comedy, but often contained conversations that revealed the characters while making you laugh. It reached the top ten in its first season and kept in the top 20 through most of its run.

Alas, the show jumped the shark at the end of its next to last season. Throughout the run, Allie was learning to be stronger and more independent, and in the final episode, she remarried.  She was going to be more of an equal than how she was in her first marriage, but the entire premise of the series was betrayed.  The final season did poorly in the ratings and the show was canceled.

Despite winning several Emmys for Jane Curtin, the show seems to have vanished off the map.  Maybe it shows that the concerns of the 80s have become a bit dated, but the show is certainly still funny after all these years.

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*Reports have it that CBS was concerned that people might jump to this conclusion.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I'll Fly Away (TV)

(1991-1994, 1994)
Created by
Joshua Brand and John Falsey
Starring Sam Waterston, Regina Taylor, Jeremy London, Ashlee Levitch, John Aaron Bennett, Kathryn Harrold, Peter Simmons
IMDB Entry

Television shows are rarely about history.  They are set in the present and not in any identifiable historical period.* But in some cases, someone will try, and I'll Fly Away succeeded admirably.

Cast of I'll Fly Away The title come from an old hymn and the show was set in the South in the late 1950s/early 1960s and dealt with the emergence of the Civil Rights movement.* It concentrates on Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston), a widower raising three children, teenaged Nathan (Jeremy London), preteen Francie (Ashlee Bedford), and young John Morgan (John Aaron Bennett). Bedford hires a black housekeeper Lily Harper (Regina Taylor).  She is a servant in a highly segregated society, and we -- and eventually Bedford -- discovers the problems of being in that position.

The show stayed away from the melodramatic.  Sure, the Klan was mentioned, but wasn't usually part of the story. What was shown was the subtle racism of the society, and how Bedford -- a decent man who accepted racial inequality because it was all he knew -- began to see how wrong it was.  Lily, too, slowly became more and more aware that there were things she could do other than accept the status quo.

The actors were all uniformly first rate.  Waterston is the best known, of course, but this was the one show that allowed him to show just how good he was.***  But Regina Taylor is striking as Lily.  She played the role with quiet intensity and dignity, rarely raising her voice but giving the impression she was seething underneath. 

Jeremy London was good as the teenage Nathan, and John Aaron Bennett was totally charming as the innocent youngster.

The show never actually named the state in which it was set, though I got the impression they meant Georgia. Brand and Falsey have said that the idea came from To Kill a Mockingbird, and there are certain similarities in Forrest Bedford and Atticus Finch.  I especially liked some of the character names.  Forrest and Nathan Bedford are obviously named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry officer and known as one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.**** Likewise, John Morgan was another Confederate cavalry officer.

The show ran for two seasons on NBC to acclaim (including Golden Globe and Emmy wins) and so-so ratings before being canceled.

It should have ended there.  But, like Homicide: Life on the Street, the producers managed to get the cast together***** for a two-hour special on PBS. Entitled I'll Fly Away: Then and Now, it tied up loose ends and showed Lily Harper in the present.

Sam Waterston and Jeremy London went on to become solid TV performers, Waterston on Law and Order and London on Party of Five and Ashlee Levich has worked regularly in TV.  Regina Taylor also has found a niche in TV as Molly Blaine in The Unit.  Brand and Falsey were involved deeply in Northern Exposure.

 

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*The TV western bears no resemblance to the actual old West -- if it even existed.

**Certainly a subject for drama that's been under utilized.

***I saw him on Broadway in Lunch Hour with Gilda Radner, and he showed a fine knack for comedy, too.

**** Bedford Forrest is usually listed as a vehement racist, but the evidence is unclear.  It is based on two things.  One was the battle at Ft. Pillow in the Civil War, where his troops massacred black soldiers who had surrendered. But accounts seem to indicate he never ordered the massacre and tried vainly to stop it.  The second is the Klan. His name was indeed listed, but they may have just used his name, possibly without permission, and there's no evidence he actively took part. Finally, there was clear evidence that he had no problems with equal rights for blacks; he was the first white speaker at The Independent Order of Pole-Bearers Association, precursor to the NAACP, where, in 1875) he spoke quite movingly about equal rights for Blacks and shocked white society by giving a Black woman a kiss on the cheek.

*****Except for Jeremy London, who had other commitments.  Luckily, he had a spare:  his twin brother, Jason. Oddly enough, Jason was originally offered the part, but had to bow out due to other commitments, giving Jeremy the chance for the role.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Julius Sumner Miller (TV) (aka "Professor Wonderful")

Professor Wonderful (1962-1980s)
Wikipedia Page

Early TV took its role as an educational medium seriously, and that included science education.  And the king of kid's science programming in the US was Don Herbert ("Mr. Wizard"). 

I never was a fan of Mr. Wizard. Oh, the show was educational enough and Herbert was a successful and earnest popularizer of science.  But Mr. Wizard was the MisterRogers of science -- nice, somewhat bland, and like your science teacher in school*.

Julius Sumner Miller, on the other hand, was a mad scientist.

Miller was born in Massachusetts and got his physics degree in 1933 and started teaching physics in various colleges until settling down at El Camino Junior College in California.  Students packed his lectures, and it somehow got the attention of producers at Disney, who marketed him as "Professor Wonderful" and had him do segments on The Mickey Mouse Club and elsewhere.

Sumner Miller was a hit. With his wild hair and staccato way of blurting out his presentation in short, sharp phrases, and his boundless enthusiasm, he was perfect for television. He would go through his presentations of basic science, pretty much live:  you got the feeling he was improvising wildly to give the demonstrations he wanted.

And he did a lot of demonstrations.  Sumner Miller rarely lectured; he'd show -- and ask you questions as he talked, some of which he left to you to find out the answer**.  The experiments were pretty  basic, but always memorable.

From Disney, Sumner Miller branched out.  He appeared on The Steve Allen Show and The Tonight Show, performing science demonstrations that were as much entertainment as education.  He worked on TV networks in Canada and Australia, as well as on PBS in the States, finding ways to show scientific principles divorced from dry lectures and in an immediate and fascinating way that made you want to run out a learn more.

Miller continued his role of popularizing science until his death in 1987.  There is a foundation in his name that works to get more students to learn about science, but since most of his work was in black and white, and he rarely had a show to his own,*** his demonstrations are hard to find (though there are some Youtube videos).  His importance in popularizing science is incalculable.

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*I grew to like MisterRogers and respect Mr. Wizard, but as a kid, I'd change the channel whenever I saw them.

**I'm still trying to puzzle out this one:  you have a metal plate with a pin hole drilled in it.  You heat the plate.  The metal expands, of course.  Does the pin hole get bigger, smaller, or stay the same size?

***In the US.  He did have success with Why Is It So? in Australia.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Yellow Submarine (music)

(1969)
The Beatles.

It seems unlikely that there is anything by the Beatles that can truly be labeled "forgotten." They are one of the most popular musical groups of the 20th Century and their work is still being repackaged today.  Yet there are several songs of theirs that are not known to the casual fan, or even to more serious Beatles lovers. And they're collected on the album Yellow Submarine.

This is not an album that is well-known in the Beatles' discography*.  There are several reasons for this. First, it's the soundtrack album for the movie -- a great animated film, of course, but from watching it most people might think the album was entirely made up of well-known Beatles songs.  And even if you look at the album, you discover that half of it is George Martin's background music for the movie, plus "Yellow Submarine" and "All You Need is Love," songs that are easily found in many other places.  There are really only four new songs on the album, and the only one that actually made it fully into the film was McCartney's "All Together Now," a catchy but slight tune sung at the end.  Most listeners would pass it by.

Yet the songs are respectable parts of the Beatles' output.  In addition to "All Together Now," they are:

  • "Hey Bulldog" -- a John Lennon composition with a growling vocal and heavy piano beat.  A sequence was filmed for the movie, but cut:

 

  • "Only a Northern Song" -- George Harrison's complaint about being the third-best songwriter in the group. Nothern Songs was Lennon and McCartney's publishing company and Harrison was a little peeved that they got money from his songs.  I also find it saying basically that people were reading too much into the Beatles songs -- they're only songs. "Only a Northern Song" was actually written for Sgt. Pepper, but cut in favor of "Within You Without You," which I don't care for much.

 

  • "It's All Too Much" -- another Harrison tune. This did make it into the movie toward the end, but in a truncated version of about two and a half minutes. The album version is over six minutes long.**  It's an unusual song, filled with feedback and organ.

 

At the time the album came out, I was not a fan of Harrison's songs, but I found the two here were the first that I really liked. 

The album sold, of course, and there have been CD reissues (of course). But only the most die-hard Beatles fans have copies. It's a shame, since the new songs on this are more than respectable members of the Beatles' canon.

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*The All Music Guide calls it "inessential."

** There evidently was an eight-minute version.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Defending Your Life

Defending Your Life (1991)
Written and Directed by
Albert Brooks
Starring Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn
IMDB Entry

I first became aware of Albert Brooks when I was in college and his album, Comedy Minus One, showed up at our radio station.  The first side was a very funny standup routine, but the title track (the entire second side)*was inspired:  a comedy routine, only Brooks was the straight man and you were the comic.  The dialog was included, so you could make a fool of yourself reading it and having Brooks respond (with a laugh track).  I knew I wanted to see more of him.

Brooks has been called "literally a comedian's comedian," since his father, Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein.**  After trying his hand at standup, I next heard of him as a writer and maker of short films in the first season of Saturday Night Live.  In 1979, he made the film Real Life, possibly the first proto mockumentary.***  He made two other films in the 80s (Modern Romance and Lost in America), to good critical notices and mediocre box office.

Defending Your Life was his fourth feature and his best. Daniel Miller (Brooks) is a self-centered yuppie who is killed by crashing his brand new BMW into a bus. He wakes up in Judgment City, where the lives of the newly dead are judged before sending them to their permanent home -- and how you are judged determines where you go.  While there, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), someone who lived an exemplary life and clearly will be moving on to a higher existence.  Miller's chances are not very good, and he may be doomed to go back to Earth to be reborn and try to get it right.

Brooks is fine, though this is a typical role for him. Streep is excellent in a difficult role. She is able to be Mary Poppins perfect without being cloying. People remember her in her serious roles, but it's often overlooked that she's a very talented comic actress.  Rip Torn gives his usual strong performance as Bob Diamond, Miller's representative at the tribunal, who tries his best despite his doubts.

The film is filled with clever touches.  Judgment City is like a cheesy resort (though there is a hierarchy -- Julia's hotel is better than Miller's more touristy version). People ride around on trams that were originally used for the Universal Studio tours. 

What makes this film Brooks's best is its message, which is that we need to face our fears and learn from our mistakes.  Miller -- like many of Brooks's characters -- is neurotic and tentative in everything he does, and he has to learn to leave that behavior behind.  The ending is extremely satisfying and really says a lot about how to live life.

The movie did well enough at the box office to give Brooks other chances to make films.  He followed it up with Mother, about a science fiction writer who was blocked due to issues with his mother (played very nicely by Debbie Reynolds) and The Muse, about a filmmaker who was having trouble writing his next film until visited by an actual muse (played by Sharon Stone).  Neither was a big success and Brooks continued with acting and especially voice acting, where he became an voice star as Marlin, who spent an entire movie Finding Nemo.

It would be nice is Brooks returned to writing and directing again (his last attempt, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim Word, was a flop), but he has a good list of quirky and neurotic comedies, along with the excellence of Defending Your Life.

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*Back when records had two sides, children.

**Yes, Brook's real name is "Albert Einstein."  He tells the story that he once asked his father about it, and his father said he never heard of the other Einstein, though Brooks has also commented that his father was probably joking. Brooks is also brother to "Super Dave" Osborne.

***Zelig came out in 1983, This is Spinal Tap in 1984. The main difference was that Real Life was scripted, while the standard mockumentary is ad-libbed.