Sunday, March 31, 2019
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay, from a novel by Edmund Naughton
Starring Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois, William Devane, John Schuck, Shelly Duvall, Keith Carradine, Michael Murphy, Antony Holland, Hugh Millais
I’ve talked before about my admiration for director Robert Altman, one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century. Altman had a specific style, most notably by his use of overlapping dialogue where you felt your were overhearing random conversations. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is one more of his masterpieces, and bleak and uncompromising western.
It set in the town of Presbyterian Church in 1902, a mini
ng town in the Pacific Northwest, where McCabe (Warren Beatty) shows up. McCabe is a gambler and a hustler, with the reputation of being a quick gun, and decides that he’s going to set himself up running a bordello. But it’s clearly not something he knows what to do, so Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) – an experienced prostitute – cuts herself in and becomes his partner.
With her help, the whorehouse becomes a success, so much so that the mining company takes notice and tries to buy him out. But McCabe makes the mistake of trying to squeeze them too much and the company decides to go to strongarm tactics.
This is not a cheery movie in any respect. It’s tragedy, in that McCabe falls victim to his own hubris, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Even the scenes all seem to take place in the rain and darkness.
Beatty is excellent in the role as a man who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, even when it’s obvious he’s in over his head. Julie Christie got an Oscar nomination for her no-nonsense madam, who is certainly attracted to McCabe, but who want to keep their love life as strictly business. Altman’s first two successes did not have big name stars (though many became big names because of him), but he wanted Beatty and Christie in the movie because he wanted the audience to understand that the characters they played were larger than life.
Altman was already developing his stock company of actors, and several showed up from his previous film Brewster McCloud, notably Rene Auberjonois, as the slimy saloonkeeper Sheehan.
But the revelation was Hugh Millais, playing a man who came to Presbyterian Church “to hunt bear.” This was his first role, and he makes a memorable impression, a figure of hulking danger who reduces McCabe to a whining child with a few short words.
Like most Altman movies, this did poorly in the box office, and the downbeat message and ugly view of the American west was too far from what people had expected, but is very influential today.*
*The soundtrack was mostly ambient sounds, but with songs by Leonard Cohen
Saturday, March 23, 2019
Created by Ralph Smart
Starring Patrick McGoohan
The idea of a TV show about a secret agent was still new in 1960 when Ralph Smart decided to base a series on it. The result, Danger Man, had a long reach in popular culture.
It was the story of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), an American secret agent who was affiliated with an organization that was strongly hinted at as being NATO. Drake was sent to crisis points, going from one mission to another with an ironic sense of humor and using his wits to get out of trouble.
The show made McGoohan a star. Drake was resourceful, witty, and smart enough to come up with ways to thwart even the cleverest of villains. He in some ways defined the secret agent in the 60s* – but also was quite different. He didn’t use a gun, and was had no time for seducing women.
The show was often shot on location, adding verisimilitude to the proceedings.
McGoohan became a star playing the role, but not in the US. Though US networks were still open to running UK shows, and CBS did broadcast it as a summer replacement, it was barely a blip on US TV. The show stopped production after two years.
It would have been the end of it, but James Bond happened and suddenly spies were big. Ralph Smart retooled the show, stretching it from a half-hour to an hour, Drake became English, and the title was changed to Secret Agent. It was soon picked up by CBS, and, helped by a memorable theme song, because a success in the US, running three seasons before McGoohan tied of the role.**
McGoohan then created his own piece of TV history – The Prisoner, about a secret agent who resigned his job. Though McGoohan denied any connection, people tended to think of the show as an extension of Secret Agent. There are many connections and coincidences that make it a viable theory, however.***
Due to the fact that it’s a half hour show shot in black and white, Danger Man has had only spotty reruns. The first season is currently on Shoutfactorytv.com, so you can give it a look there.
*He was considered for the role of James Bond in Doctor No, though it was doubtful he would have taken it.
**It was replaced by Mission: Impossible.
***Most interesting is the fact that Danger Man shot an episode in the Hotel Portmeirion in Wales, the location for The Prisoner. Also, one episode of Danger Man was titled “The Prisoner,” though that referred to someone else.
Sunday, March 10, 2019
One artifact of the music business is the contractual obligation album, where an artist has to produce music for a record company after leaving it. If the breakup was ugly, the musician doesn’t want to have the record company making money from him, so they have to deal with it. The most infamous case was Van Morrison, who improvised 31 ridiculously short (and deliberately awful) songs in one day at the studio.*
The Four Seasons were caught in the same bind when their original label, Vee-Jay stopped paying royalties. After a lawsuit, they moved on, but Vee-Jay wanted a final album. The result was The Four Seasons Live on Stage.
Despite its name, it is not a live album. It’s recorded entirely in a studio with live audience reactions added – applause, cheering, and everything. There even was banter between songs, to appreciative reactions. It’s actually pretty well done in that respect.
The rest, however, is not what fans would have expected. It contained none of their hits, and was not in their signature sound. Most of it are reworkings of classic 50s lounge songs, probably the type of songs they performed when they were starting out. The titles show this: “Blues in the Night,” “Just in Time,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed in Business are the best known these days.
If you’re expecting the Four Seasons, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you listen not expecting them, the album is quite good. The Jersey Boys don’t give the songs short shrift and give enthusiastic performances and actually sell not only the songs but the pretend concert. It’s very Sinatra influenced and has a jazzy vibe that is unusual for the group.
The album done, the group was free to move to Phillips Records.** Vee-Jay released and almost immediately folded, so it got very poor distribution and was quickly forgotten.
Still, it’s an interesting curiosity.
Note: If you listen to it on Spotify, beware. The tracks are mislabeled. The three-song medley on Track Six is spread across tracks 6-8 and the titles of track 9-11 are really two songs behind their titles – and the final two songs are omitted.
*I’ve written about John Sebastian’s issue with his record company before
**Vee-Jan introduced the Beatles in the US, but couldn’t handle the demand and started shorting all their artists. And if you can’t make money selling records by the Beatles and the Four Seasons, you’re probably not going to survive.
Sunday, March 3, 2019
(A version of this originally appeared in Tangentonline.com)
Science fiction started out as a male abode; the names of early SF writers shows this clearly. While there were women writing in the genre from early on, the numbers were swamped by male names. Over time, this changed.
Mildred Clingerman started publishing in 1952 with “Minister Without Portfolio,” in Fantasy and Science Fiction and appeared there three times that year alone. She quickly became a regular contributor to F&SF and was often chosen to appear in their years Best of … anthology. She was clearly one of the top women writing SF in the era.
Quite a few of her works were anthologized. Not counting single-author anthologies, it looks like 14 of her 19 stories were collected in books. That’s an amazing percentage.
So how do the stories hold up? Actually fairly well. Some of the social conventions are dated -- the women generally don't work outside the home -- and the stories stick to the assumptions of their time. But the characters are richly drawn, even in the lightest of tales, and the stories run the gamut from science fiction to fantasy to horror. It's a different, quieter voice of science fiction, subtly played and strong on character instead of plot. In many ways they’re a precursor to modern SF.
Particularly memorable stories were the subtle but horrifying "The Gay Deceiver," the ironic "Letters from Laura," and the combination of the two in "Stickney and the Critic."
It's easy to see why the stories were so well received at the time. And how she was an important voice in SF short fiction.