Thursday, April 29, 2010

Titus (TV)

Created by
Christopher Titus, Jack Kenny, Brian Hargrove
Starring Christopher Titus, Stacy Keach, Cynthia Watros, Zach Ward, and David Shatraw.
IMDB Entry

In the 1990s, probably due to the influence of Seinfeld, the TV networks started scouring the standup clubs to create vehicles for sitcoms. So you had things like Everyone Loves Raymond, Home Improvement, and King of Queens. These all showed a warts-and-all family life where there were problems and frustrations and wacky quirks. Toward the end of this, though, stand-up comic Christopher Titus had his own sort of show.  The main difference:  the family was psychotic (sometimes literally).

Titus had grown up in a wildly dysfunctional family:  an alcoholic, selfish father, a mentally disturbed mother, and run-ins with drugs and drinking. After nearly killing himself by falling into a bonfire, he managed to turn his life around and turned to comedy.  After the success of a one-man show, Fox gave him a time slot for his autobiographical comedy, Titus.

Cast of TitusIn it, Titus was dealing with his alcoholic and selfish father, Ken (Stacy Keach), his not very bright brother, Dave (Zach Ward*), his nice guy friend, Tommy (David Shatraw), and his girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros), who kept him sane.

The show had its own regular structure.  It would start out with Titus addressing the camera about the theme for the episode (shot in black and white and referred to as the neutral space).  There would be quick cuts to scenes from his past to illustrate his point, then the story for the episode would unfold (usually on a single set), cutting back to to the neutral space from time to time, with more inset scenes.  The show would end in the neutral space, usually ending with the same line that started it.

The Titus family was by far the most dysfunctional one** on TV and the reason was Ken Titus.  He had less compassion than a brick wall and was completely insensitive to the feelings of others -- other than trying to make them as miserable as possible. At the same time, he was very successful as a ladies' man, even if he had trouble dealing with a relationship once it went past dating (as his five marriages attest). Stacy Keach had a field day portraying the nastiest father ever to appear on TV. 

The show had a very dark edge.  The themes were not the usual fodder for comedy -- alcoholism, schizophrenia, heart attacks, AIDS, death, abuse (both emotional and physical***) -- without being gross or tasteless.

Christopher Titus is, of course, great in the role; it was his life, after all. Zach Ward is fun as his doofus, pot-smoking bother, who lives with Ken.  And Cynthia Watros deserves praise for taking the role as the sane one faced with the madness (though she has some baggage of her own).

The show was a critical and ratings success in a limited run in 2001, so was brought back.  But as time went on, there was tension between Titus and Fox about how much he was pushing the envelope. Toward the end, Fox offered some story suggestions that Titus didn't like. When he turned them down, they stopped promoting the show, its ratings dropped, and it was canceled.

Great comedy always surprises, and you couldn't get better surprises than Titus.  It's a shame it went off the air.


*Who previously had gained film immortality by playing Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story. 

**It was so closely based upon Titus's own family that Fox insisted that he get them all to sign releases promising not to sue. They all did -- but Ken Titus insisted on getting a new truck in return.

***Not by Ken.  For all his failings, he didn't hit his kids unless they challenged him to a fight.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Blind Voices (book)

 by Tom Reamy

imageTom Reamy could have been one of the great writers in the science fiction genre.  The only thing that stopped him was his heart.

Reamy grew up in Texas, and by the 1950s had become one of the big names in science fiction fandom.  You have to understand that a fan back then didn't just mean you read everything and had favorite books.  It also meant you were involved in writing SF 'zines* and running conventions.  He organized the first SF convention in the state and worked on Worldcon bid committees.

But he also was interested in writing.  He helped set up the Turkey City Writers Workshop,** one of the most successful writing groups in the genre.

Finally, in the early 70s, Reamy decided he was ready to break in as an author.  And did he break in.  One of his first stories, "Twilla," was nominated for a Hugo Award. The next year, his story "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" also got a nomination, and won the Nebula Award.  In 1976, he won the John F. Campbell Award for best new writer. 

Obviously, he looked like he had a great future.  But, on November 4, 1977, Reamy was found dead of a heart attack.  He had been working on a story when he died.

There was one last treat for his fans, though.  Reamy had completed a novel, Blind Voices. It was published the next year.

 Blind Voices is set in Kansas in the 1920s.  Haverstock's Traveling Curiosus and Wondershow comes into town, promising more than just the usual circus performers.  Three young women -- Francine, Rose, and Evelyn -- are attracted to the show and its denizens -- a centaur, and man who's only a foot tall, and Angel, the Boy Who Can Fly.

It is a story of wonders, with a subtext of sexual awakening in a time when sex was still a taboo subject.

The story immediately drew comparisons to Ray Bradbury and and Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao for its lyricism and setting.  Critics agreed it showed all the signs of a major talent, even if some things were a bit rough.*** It was nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo, losing both to Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake.

Of course, despite his success, there would be no more Tom Reamy stories.  His short stories were collected in San Diego Lightfoot Sue and Other Stories in 1979.****

With his slim output, Reamy is easy to miss.  But Blind Voices is a book that shouldn't be overlooked.


*In those days, created on a mimeograph or hectograph and mailed out to others.  Reamy got two Hugo nominations for his fanzine Trumpet.

**Which, years later, created the Turkey City Lexicon, a must for anyone seriously interested in writing SF.

***It seems to me that Reamy's death prevented some minor edits, notably not fixing the fact that one of the character's fates is left unresolved.

****One final story was sold to Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions (before that became a punchline) and is still unpublished.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Eliott Murphy Aquashow (music)

Wikipedia Entry
Eliott Murphy Homepage

In the early 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III would joke about belonging to the New Bob Dylan Club -- people who had been anointed with that title. In addition to him, they were Bruce Springsteen, John Prine, and Elliott Murphy.

Springsteen you've probably heard of. Wainwright has had a long career as both a singer/songwriter and actor.*  Prine has had a long, but someone low-key career,** partly because he was too much a country songwriter to gain popularity.  It's possible that the average music fan has heard of all three, given eclectic enough tastes.

As for Elliott Murphy . . . .

Murphy grew up in the New York City area, as part of a family in show business.  His father, Elliott, Sr., made his name at the New York Word's Fair of 1939, where he ran the Aquashow, a water-themed attraction featuring swimmers and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Young Elliott took up the guitar very early and was soon playing in bands in New York and in Europe.  In 1971, he recorded his debut album Aquashow.

The album was a tour de force of good songs and sophisticated lyrics.  Featuring Murphy guitar and harmonica.  It was an immediate critical success.  Rolling Stone reviewed it with Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, calling the two of them "The Best New Dylan since 1968).***

So what happened?  Sales.  Springsteen ended up on the cover of Time, and Wainwright had a minor hit with "Dead Skunk" and Prine had several albums breaking into the top 200.  Aquashow did not. It also got far less FM airplay. In addition, Murphy, though a good singer, did not have the distinctive voice that Wainwright, Prince, and Springsteen had.

Murphy has continued to record regularly, but never had a chart success and, as FM radio died out, there was no outlet for his music.  He was popular in Europe, though, and moved there full time in 1989.

Murphy's songwriting and music is well regarded by musicians, and he does have a strong following.  And really, there was little chance he'd reach the levels of popularity of Dylan and Springsteen. But to those who remember the hype, he seems to be the odd man out.


*His best-known part was in the TV show Undeclared, though he appeared in and wrote the music for Knocked Up.  He also was supposed to be a regular in the TV version of MASH (he was announced as such, but seems to only have appeared in one or two episodes). Of course, to you younger folk, he's the father of Rufus Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche.

**Including having his song "Illegal Smile" being used for a theme song for a TV series The Texas Wheelers.  Why a song about smoking marijuana was considered for the theme song for a lighthearted family comedy (starring a very young Mark Hamill and Gary Busey) is something that just cannot be explained.

***I think that they mean the best new Dylanesqe album since then, but it really doesn't mater.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Murder at the Baskervilles

Murder at the Baskervilles (1937)
Directed by
Thomas Bentley
Adapted by A. Fowler Mear from the story by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding, John Turnbull, Lawrence Grossmith.
IMDB Entry
Watch Online

I've always been a fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Holmes is more than the greatest of all detectives; he's the embodiment of pure intellect whose ability to solve complicated puzzles had made him one of the best-known names in literature.*  And there have been hundreds of films featuring the character.**
Not many of them are any good.  And, up until the Jeremy Brett BBC series, even fewer were faithful.***
You expect that.  So when I picked up Murder at the Baskervilles in a DVD boxed set, I assumed it was going to play fast and loose with the canon. The Baskervilles only appeared with their hound, so I figured this would be made up out of the whole cloth.
And the start of the time made me think I was right.  It showed Moriarty**** (Lyn Harding) plotting to kills Holmes (Arthur Wontne) and luring him to the Baskerville estate.
Once Holmes and Watson (Ian Fleming*****) reach the estate, I suddenly noticed a change.  The name "Silver Blaze" is mentioned, and the film turned into a very faithful adaptation of one of the best Holmes stories, "The Adventure of Silver Blaze."§
The middle third of the film follows the story almost scene by scene and does it pretty well. Then, in the final section, Moriarty shows up to plot against Holmes.
Arthur Wontner When the film was made, Arthur Wontner had already made four other films as Holmes and was considered (in England, at least) as the premier actor in the part.  Conan Doyle thought he looked exactly the way he imagined Holmes to be, and he did bear a strong resemblance to the illustrations for the stories. He played Holmes just as the books indicated:  smart, with little patience for social graces, but with the usual sly humor.
A British production, the film took a couple of years to be shown in the US and was retitled to take advantage of the fame of the Basil Rathbone Hound of the Baskervilles (it is technically a sequel). But Rathbone had become the "definitive" Holmes§§ and Wontner was forgotten. The film -- which probably wasn't a big hit -- was forgotten and passed into the public domain.
The good thing is that you can watch it online.  If you're a Holmes buff, I'd recommend it (or, at least the middle section) to see how a story can be brought to life successfully.
*Harlan Ellison once wrote that there are four literary characters that are know throughout the world, even in countries where English is not spoken:  Holmes, Tarzan, Superman, and Mickey Mouse.
**The IMDB lists 224, including TV shows.
***Not that being unfaithful to the material is necessarily bad.  The recent Robert Downy, Jr., Sherlock Holmes, put faithfulness in a blender and redid things as they saw fit (geography, too, -- they managed to travel from the House of Parliament to Tower Bridge through secret tunnels in about 30 seconds, when the two landmarks are two miles apart).  But it's a very entertaining film.
****Moriarty always shows up in Holmes films, probably one reason they so often leave the canon behind.  Despite being Holmes's archenemy, he only appears in one story, "The Adventure of the Final Problem," mostly because Doyle needed an archenemy who might be a real threat to him.  He's mentioned in "The Adventure of the Empty House" -- a necessity, for Holmes has to explain how he didn't die -- and not again.  It similar to Irene Adler, who only appeared in the first Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," but who always shows up as a love interest.
*****No, not the guy who created James Bond.
§ Best known for the exchange:
Gregory (detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
The film was also released in the UK under the title Silver Blaze
§§ For a while.  Now it's more likely to be Jeremy Brett.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Amazing Grace

Directed by
Michael Apted
Written by Stephen Knight
Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell, Youssou N'Dour.

Michael Apted is overlooked when discussing top directors, yet anyone who was involved in things like the Seven Up series*, Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, The World is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist, and Enigma.  All were intelligent films noted for good acting and an eye for understated drama.  And in 2006, he decided to spotlight an important but generally unknown historical hero:  William Wilberforce.

The name means nothing to Americans, and probably not much to those in the UK.** But he was important not only in British history, but also in American history.  He worked to ban the slave trade, and Amazing Grace is his story.Wilburforce addresses Parliament

The film shows Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a member of Parliament and friend of the Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch) taking on the issue of the slave trade, angering those who made a great deal of money trafficking in humans.  With the support of his wife Barbara (Romola Garai), and inspired by John Newton (Albert Finney), the writer of the hymn that gives the movie its name, he manages to fight his way to ban the trade though mobilizing public opinion and some clever political wheeling and dealing. 

The story is more than just a history lesson.  It draws you in, mostly because the details of the fight are not well known. Sure, we know that the slave trade is bad now, but it's hard to remember that there were many who were willing to defend it, and who were dead set against any change.

Though the movie deals with a serious subject, it is not solemn about it. There a nice thread of humor throughout and the scene showing how they law was first passed is satisfyingly funny. Overall, it is one of the best and most entertaining film about a historical subject since Glory.

The movie did respectably at the box office, but didn't seem to stick in people's minds and was ignored at Oscar time.  But the subject seems to have struck a chord in religious groups, since Wilberforce's feelings on the issue were formed from the hymn and its author. 

Apted continues to direct (he's finishing up on the third Narnia film right now), but this is one of his best films.


*A series of films that interviews the same group of people as they go through life every seven years.  So far, it's included Seven Up, Seven Plus Seven (14 Up), 21, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, and 49 Up.

**I suspect he's mentioned somewhere in English History classes, but probably no more than a footnote.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Heywood Hale Broun (TV)


You don't expect erudition from a TV sportcaster. Their jobs are to describe the action and add interesting and relevant anecdotes and analysis to the pictures on the screen.  That is, unless the sportscaster was Heywood Hale Broun.

Broun was the son of legendary newspaperman Haywood Broun, who made a reputation as a drama critic and general columnist for various New York newspapers in the 20s and 30s* and was a member of the legendary Algonquin Round Table.  His mother was Ruth Hale, a journalist and early feminist.  Haywood Hale son was educated in private schools and graduated from Swarthmore College, before following in his father's footsteps and getting a job as a sportwriter. His newspapers, PM and The New York Star failed, so he went into acting, appearing in a long series of Broadway flops** and in bit parts on TV, soap operas, and a few movies***.  Finally, in 1965, Broun was hired by CBS to be a sports commentator.

There was probably no one who looked less like a sportscaster.  With his handlebar moustache and penchant for wearing loud multicolor sportcoats, Broun was quite a figure.  CBS used him for local sports commentary, as well as national comments on the World Series. He was best known for his coverage of horse racing.  For years when CBS covered a race, Woody was there.  Here's him as he does the pre-race show for the 1973 Belmont Stakes (won by Secretariat):


Any sportscaster who can use the phrase "dearth of winners" is someone who loves the language.

The event I associated with him the most closely was the 1969 World Series.  In the third game, Tommy Agee had one of the greatest single performances in World Series history:  hitting a leadoff home run and making two great catches that saved at least four and possibly five runs.  Since the games were played during the day (and I was in school), I couldn't see it.  But I do remember Broun's commentary that evening, making Agee seem like a sports immortal.

Broun also wrote books.  His Timultuous Merriment was a real favorite of mine.  And sports book that starts out with describing an incident from The Life of Samuel Johnson is not your usual book. Broun saw sports are more than just winning or losing, but a test of character and also a means of fun.

Broun was seen far less at time went on.  Once ABC started broadcasting the Triple Crown races, he lost his biggest stage, though he continued on sports shows, often with footage of him at the original events.  He died in 2001.


*Interestingly, he started out as a sportswriter.

**Only one show lasted longer than a month; his one off-Broadway credit managed to run 36 performances.

***One of the most notable was in The Odd Couple, where he plays a sportswriter who tells Oscar that he as missed seeing the Mets perform a triple play.