Sunday, July 26, 2009

Raymond Scott (music)

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.


*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 (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.


*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.


*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.



*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.


*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)

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.


*The All Music Guide calls it "inessential."

** There evidently was an eight-minute version.