Saturday, July 31, 2004

Eugene Roche

Eugene Roche, a wonderful character actor who enlivened so many TV shows in guest roles, has died at age 75. Mark Evanier has a good post about him. My favorite of Roche's many guest appearances was probably his role in three episodes of Night Court as Christine's father. He was also one of the actors considered for the role of Mr. Carlson on WKRP in Cincinnati (it was between him and Gordon Jump, and Jump got it).

We Are All "Authenticists" Now

I was in a record store the other day, and saw a mid-price reissue of a recording of Handel's Acis and Galatea. The recording was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, with his period-instrument orchestra the English Baroque Soloists, and it was originally released around 1979. A 25th anniversary reissue of an HIP (the internet acronym for Historically Informed Performance) recording. It doesn't seem like so long ago that writers in music magazines were still talking about HIP as some new fad; indeed, only a few years ago, the violinist/conductor/complainer Pinchas Zuckerman got some play in the Canadian newspapers for a tirade about how HIP musicians are mostly frauds who couldn't get into "real" orchestras. But at this point, HIP has been around for so long that it's hard to argue that people are going into it out of desperation; young musicians grow up listening to HIP performances and recordings; they're trained to play baroque music using HIP techniques, if not necessarily HIP instruments. HIP is so old now that it's no longer a departure from the conventional style; it is the conventional style. Conductor Rene Jacobs points this out in his liner notes for his excellent recording of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro:

Potential detractors of period instruments in Mozart, who might opine that a lived-in interpretation must belong to our own period and not some past era, ought to realise that their argument can, ironically, be used to contradict them: one now hears more and more performances of eighteenth-century music on "old" instruments, and fewer and fewer on "modern" ones. The result is that it is above all the "neo-Classical" performances which are truly of our time, while the "neo-Romantic" approach is beginning to belong to the past.

It is of course possible to do a performance of Bach or Handel or Haydn in a "neo-Romantic" style -- large orchestra, slow tempi, Romantic-style phrasing -- but it no longer seems to come naturally; doing a big, Romantic "Messiah" is a conscious choice that requires as much re-thinking and as many conscious choices as a small-scale, fleet "Messiah" used to do. Playing a Mozart "andante" at a relatively fast clip is the common practice today; playing "andante" very slowly, as Furtwangler and other Romantic conductors used to, is an act of historical reconstruction. Because the HIP style has become so prevalent, it no longer seems to be particularly "historical"; it's just the style of our era.

Of course, HIP never was entirely "historical," despite the claims of some HIP artists who liked to sell their records by claiming that they were providing "authentic" Bach or Handel or Beethoven. While HIP is based on historical research -- reconstruction of old instruments, more careful attention to what tempo markings meant in a particular time, using vibrato sparingly -- the end result is a late 20th century style of performance that would probably sound pretty foreign to Bach or Beethoven if they came back today; the clipped phrasing may have some historical basis but it also sounds (as some have commented) influenced by the neo-Classical music of Stravinsky, and other attempts at creating modern music out of older stylistic elements. And of course, the best interpetations are dictated by the artist's own ideas about the music, not the ideas he's picked up from some 18th-century treatise; the result is that the best HIP artists will often do things that would not have been done in the 18th century but which sound right for the music. The most boring HIP performances and recordings are the ones that do counter-intuitive, anti-musical things for the sake of spurious "authenticity," like those Beethoven symphony recordings that never modify the tempo at all on the mistaken belief that respecting Beethoven's metronome markings means never departing from them for an instant; but these aren't the performances that are likely to get reissued 25 years down the road.

Ultimately, the reason HIP is a "modern" style is that it was created not to make music sound old, but to make it sound new. The granddaddy of HIP, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, was a cellist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for many years. In the '50s, he started to wonder why Vivaldi was considered such an important composer in his time, when his music always sounded so boring when the Symphony played him and was given to music students as an example of "easy" music. So he started doing research into the way music was played in Vivaldi's time, and essentially realized that if you used the instruments of the period, and certain playing and phrasing techniques that had been lost, the music wouldn't sound boring; it would sound fresh, inventive, and interesting, the way it must have sounded to 18th-century audiences. So he started his own orchestra, the Concentus Musicus Wien, devoted to playing old music on old instruments with old playing techniques -- but with all the "old" stuff used for the purpose of making 18th-century music sound fresh and new.

Bond Addendum

The Bond movies were also a product of a time when the British film industry was being called upon to do things that American movies could no longer do. The Bonds were financed by an American company, United Artists, and were made in large part for the American market. But they were British-made movies, and they offered all the elements that had once been common in American adventure movies: lavish set design, exciting action sequences and editing, a sense of high-quality craftsmanship in all departments. The '60s were mostly a terrible time for American movies, creatively (in case anyone thinks I'm a nostalgia-monger, let me say right now that I think American movies are much, much better today than they were in the '60s), and with the breakup of the studio system, American movies no longer led the world in terms of technical polish and professionalism. This left a void to be filled by European movies; it's no coincidence that the dark age of American movies coincided with a boom in the quality and popularity of French, Italian and English movies.

And it was the British film industry, more than any other, that became the world leader when it came to craftsmanship. The best studio technicians were in England; the best special effects were being produced in England; English movie studios were cheaper to work and build in, and attracted many American filmmakers to cross the sea and make their movies at Pinewood or Elstree studios. Think of Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, 2001; English or English-made movies all, and all better-produced than what an American studio could have done at the time. The Bond movies were the first indication that England was where the action was, literally and figuratively, in the movie industry. The American movie industry rebounded, of course, and the England's new Golden Age didn't outlast the '60s. By the '70s, the Bond movies were no longer leading the world's movies, as they had in the '60s when the French, Italians and Americans were all imitating them; instead, the producers were trying desperately to ape the new trends in American movies, going for camp (Diamonds are Forever), blaxploitation (Live and Let Die) and sci-fi (Moonraker).

Bond, James... Ah, To Hell With It

I'm sure you've all heard, and become kind of sick of hearing about, the rumor that Pierce Brosnan might not be playing James Bond any more. Whenever a change in Bonds is made, the real question is, will this be a chance for the series to go in a new direction?

The Brosnan movies revived the Bond franchise -- even though few would argue that any of them were all that good -- partly because Brosnan was a good choice, but partly because the producers overhauled the style of the films, making them faster, louder, with more rapid cutting and crazy camera movements; more like a typical American action movie. The Bond movies of the '70s and '80s all had a more sedate camera style, no matter who was the director, and depended less on action and more on production design (that's why the most financially successful films, like Spy Who Loved Me, tended to be the ones designed by Ken Adam, the British cinema's grand master of elaborate set design). By the '80s, when the budgets were no longer big enough to allow for sufficiently lavish design, the films looked cheap and clunky, like the action movies that the Cannon Group was making in its British studio. The Bruckheimerization of the franchise was necessary in order to save it. The question is, what's next?

Most likely the series will go to trying to ape the Jason Bourne movies, though it shouldn't (not that there's anything wrong with the Bourne movies, but Bond is supposed to be about a guy working within the system, loyal to the government, whereas American spy movies tend to be about one man who bucks the system). Others, like Quentin Tarantino, have suggested being more faithful to Ian Fleming, proposing that Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, should be filmed "straight." While there's no question that the series would have been better off sticking to Fleming's stories -- it's no coincidence that the '60s movies, which are mostly actually based on the books, hold up better than the '70s and '80s movies, which have mostly original stories created for the screen -- the movie audience would not accept a Bond movie that's too close to Fleming, because the style of the movies is so different. For one thing, the movies are funny, whereas Fleming had no sense of humor; he created the most ridiculous plots and wrote about them as if he believed they could actually happen. The writers of the movies couldn't ignore the ridiculousness, so they added jokes to signal to the audience that they weren't expected to take it seriously. (Fleming, when he met the head writer of the Bond movies, Richard Maibaum, said only: "Your movies are much funnier than my books." Being Fleming, he apparently didn't realize that that was what they were going for.) I'd be all for going back and remaking Diamonds or Forever or Moonraker with the stories Fleming wrote, but it probably wouldn't be successful, box-office-wise.

Maybe the most effective thing would be to take a cue from the nostalgia/parody movies -- Austin Powers, Anchorman -- and do a Bond movie as a full-scale '60s nostalgia piece. Set it during the '60s, make the Red Chinese the villains (it can't be the Russians because in the movies Bond was never fighting the Russians; it was always either SPECTRE, the Chinese, or both), build huge, elaborate sets in the style of Ken Adam (or just get Ken Adam), use bright, splashy colors, have all the women's voices dubbed by the same actress, and so on. It wouldn't be a parody, like Austin Powers,; it would just be a tribute, the way Far From Heaven is a tribute to Douglas Sirk or Down With Love is a tribute to Satan, er, I mean Ross Hunter. In other words, stop trying to pretend that Bond is a contemporary character and just bring it back to its roots as a product of the '60s Swinging London cinema. Won't happen, but it would be fun.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Obscure Musicals: WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?

This show, which opened on Broadway in 1964 and ran over 500 performances (but lost money), already has an excellent background article available online. Read this article, part of the terrific What Makes Sammy Run? website, devoted to all the incarnations of Budd Schulberg's on-the-make, hustling anti-hero. The article tells most of what needs to be told about this show; I just want to mention a few other things.

First, What Makes Sammy Run? was one of several shows that followed in the wake of the success of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. With the smash success and Pulizer Prize victory of a musical comedy about an amoral schemer clawing his way to the top, other producers thought it was time to adapt various older stories about, well, amoral schemers clawing their way to the top. David Merrick produced I Can Get it For You Wholesale, adapted by Jerome Weidman from his own novel; this was a fine show (which I'll write about some other time) mostly remembered today for introducing Barbra Streisand. And producer Joe Cates unveiled What Makes Sammy Run? adapted by Budd Schulberg from his own novel (he co-wrote the script with his brother Stuart). The problem with these shows, as compared to How to Succeed, is that that show was a cartoon, a spoof; Wholesale and Sammy were adapted from more serious stories and dealt with characters who really hurt other people in their rise to the top. Lehman Engel, the conductor for What Makes Sammy Run, wrote about how unpleasant it was to follow Sammy's adventures for an entire evening:

Sammy Glick goes after everything with hammer and tongs, and the sight we see is neither pretty, unexpected, nor entertaining, and nothing is added to whet our interest along the way. He is an unstoppable steamroller. Then, too, What Makes Sammy Run? is thin for the stage... There was no attempt made to remedy this by creation of a real subplot, and so we were stuck for a full evening with people we didn't care about and a far too familiar situation.

I think that's about right; and I don't usually agree with Engel's evaluations of shows (but that's another story). Schulberg's novel is very effective and Sammy is a character who continues to fascinate and infuriate people -- but the story of the novel doesn't have all that much to it; it's basically Sammy knocking down one person after another to get to the top, until he finally meets one person (Laurette, the boss's daughter) who knocks him down, and he gets his comeuppance but good. There's not an evening's worth of story in there, nor in Schulberg's observations about Hollywood, which were sort of worn out by 1964. And one of the themes of the novel -- that Sammy's rise to power is a metaphor for the rise of fascism -- is inexplicably retained in the musical (Al explicitly compares Sammy to Hitler, and Sammy even-handedly replies that Hitler stole from his playbook); if it was slightly offensive in 1941 to compare a Hollywood con artist to Hitler, in 1964 it's not so much offensive as boring and silly.

There might have been more of a story if Schulberg could have turned the good guy, Al Manheim, into a sufficiently interesting character, a guy we could cheer for while recoiling from Sammy; but Al is even more of a nothing in the show than in the book; like many observer-narrators in novels (think Nick in The Great Gatsby) he seems pointless when the story is adapted to a medium that doesn't require a narrator. Speaking of which, you can see signs of the amount of hasty rewriting the show underwent in the fact that Al starts out narrating the show, as he did the book, only to drop the device partway through the first act (the show briefly returns to this device at the beginning of act 2, then drops it again).

The choice for Sammy Glick was Steve Lawrence. Yes, of Steve and Eydie infamy. But whatever you think of their wholesome lounge-lizard act, you've got to admit that both were and are extremely talented entertainers. In fact they were exactly the kind of performers for whom, in Broadway days gone by many stage and film musicals would have been written. But this was the '60s, and the age of the star vehicle was already nearly over; Lawrence would only do one more musical after Sammy -- Golden Rainbow, co-starring with Eydie Gorme. It was his effectiveness as a performer that kept Sammy running for as long as it did.

The rest of the cast was equally good: Robert Alda (the original Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls) as Al Manheim; Sally Ann Howes as Kit, the designated love interest, and Bernice Massi as Laurette; she was generally agreed to be the best thing in the show, apart from Lawrence (in part because the bitchy Laurette gets most of the best lines in the script).

The website states that Ervin Drake's score "contained some of the best theatre music of the period," which is overstating things rather a lot. Drake was a pretty good pop songwriter, one of the last of the successful non-rock pop songwriters. His most famous credit is the Frank Sinatra song "It Was a Very Good Year." His score for Sammy definitely sounds like the work of a pop writer making his first try at theatre writing. The songs are all integrated into the action and appropriate for the characters, but the sound is not that of the period in which the show is set, nor of '60s Broadway, but of early-'60s, Vegas, TV-special pop music. "A Room Without Windows," which became a hit for Lawrence, is a generic pop song about Getting Away From It All, dressed up in an orchestral arrangement that features all the standard lounge-act sounds, including a flute obbligato to pep up the second refrain. "The Friendliest Thing," which Laurette sings while seducing Sammy and which has become the show's most enduringly popular song, is a great example of the easygoing, wholesomely sleazy ballad, ambling along to a melody built almost entirely out of a single phrase. These songs are good, but they don't sound like theatre pieces; they sound like specialty spots.

"My Home Town," Lawrence's other hit song, is a nice example of how a pop song can work in and out of context; out of context, it's just a charming song about how the singer feels at home in a city he's just moved to; in context, it features Sammy turning on the charm (to impress a character he will use and eventually destroy) while obliquely making the point that Hollywood is the true "home town" for creeps like Sammy. This is good theatre songwriting, one of the last essays in the great Broadway tradition of fusing theatre and pop into one; so is the final song, which all the critics called attention to, "Some Days Everything Goes Wrong," where Sammy proclaims his determination to keep on running; so is the duet for Sammy and Laurette, "You're No Good," a sort of Satanic bossa nova. Alda also got a good ballad, "Maybe Some Other Time."

But mixed in with the good stuff are too many duds. Some of these may have arisen from the necessity to write for Steve Lawrence's specialties; "Lights! Camera! Platitude!" is an overlong and lame and not even very accurate sendup of Hollywood cliches, but it gave Lawrence (and Howes and Alda) a chance to do some clowning around. But there are other songs that fit in with the plot and the proposed dark tone of the show, and are just bad. Someone once selected "You Help Me" as the worst lyric in Broadway history; it isn't, but it's definitely stupid, an attempt to write a Cole Porter list song without caring whether the list makes any sense (this is sung by Al, sarcastically responding to Sammy's statement that he was trying to "help"):

You help me
Just like Oedipus helped Rex.
You help me
Just like Oscar Wilde helped sex.
Like a snake helps baby birds back to her nest,
Like it helps to find a gun when you're depressed,
Like it helps a girl to flunk her rabbit test,
Like gifts that tick,
Like arsenic,
Like that -- (gestures as if cutting his throat)
That's how you help me.

Uh... yeah. All of Kit's solos are pretty dull too, with equally clumsy lyrics ("I'm your only raison d'etre / To love and honor, et cet'ra"). With only half a good score and only half a story, it's no wonder that Abe Burrows, called in to direct (and punch up the book) felt a need to distract the audience with jokes and staging tricks -- one of the good songs, "I Feel Humble," climaxes with the entire stage being plunged into darkness, followed by a spotlight picking out Sammy, who completes the number. Without Burrows, and Lawrence, I don't think this show would have run a few months, let alone a year.

Drake wrote one other show, Her First Roman, a disastrous musical adaptation of Caesar and Cleopatra (proving yet again that adapting Shaw into a musical can work once and only once). The score was another mixture of the good and awful, but the good stuff wasn't as good as in Sammy. The cast album of Sammy was recorded by Columbia, but Lawrence owns the rights; unfortunately, he somehow lost the stereo tapes, with the result that his website offers the cast album only in mono. If you can find a used stereo LP for a decent price, it's worth a listen, for the good parts.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Sempre Libretto

Am re-reading The Tenth Muse: A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto by Patrick J. Smith. (That should be "I am re-reading," but somehow I always think I sound more like a busy, hard-workin' diarist when I leave out a few pronouns.) As far as I know it's the only book ever written about the art of the opera libretto, and it's a good one. The primary point of the book is that opera composers don't do it all alone; librettists are artists too, doing a difficult job with varying degrees of success. Many fine writers made bad opera librettists; Smith illustrates this by pointing out some poor librettos written by the likes of Victor Hugo. And the best librettists have their own unique styles, just as composers do.

This emphasis on the libretto as a separate entity with its own literary style perhaps leads Smith to underrate the importance of the nuts-and-bolts craft of libretto writing -- structure, pace, suitability of the words for music -- and to underrate librettists who didn't have any particular style but were able craftsmen. One example would be Lorenzo Da Ponte, a decent poet and bon vivant who wrote three superb librettos for Mozart, Le Nozze Di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte; they are quite a bit better than his work for other composers, leading to the reasonable conclusion that Mozart demanded, and got, more out of Da Ponte than other composers could. Still, it wasn't Mozart writing the words. Similarly, Verdi browbeat and bullied his most frequent librettist, Francisco Piave, until he had just the texts he wanted; but the fact that Piave wasn't the most distinguished of writers doesn't take away from the fact that, acting on Verdi's demands, he came up with some really excellent librettos (libretti?) like Rigoletto and Traviata. These are librettos that capture the essential qualities of the plays they're based on while condensing the plots; they make sure that the arias and duets arise logically from the situation instead of feeling stuck in; they give a general and strong impression of who each character is and what he or she wants, so the composer can build on that in his music.

This isn't in itself the stuff of great art, but it is difficult to do well. And it has to be done well, because an important rule of opera is that almost no opera succeeds with a bad libretto. The librettos that are often cited as bad are really anything but. Il Trovatore has a somewhat insane plot, it's true, but it is based on a then-popular stage play which had the same plot. In other words, the reason Trovatore's plot strikes some of us as ridiculous is not that Salvatore Cammarano's libretto is badly written (it is, in fact, very well written, cleverly structured and with some good lyrics) but that it uses a type of plot that has gone out of fashion; the original plays are no longer performed, but the operas remain.

To see the importance of a good librettist, look what happened to some of the great opera composers after they lost their best librettists. Puccini's three biggest hits, Boheme, Tosca and Butterfly, were all written by the team of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. (They weren't really a team: Illica was a fine dramatist but a lousy poet, and Giacosa was an excellent poet without much dramatic sense, so Puccini's publisher put them together: Illica created the structure and wrote a sort of prose version of the libretto, and Giacosa turned the outline into rhymed verse.) Giacosa died after that, Illica concentrated on other projects, and Puccini's next opera, The Girl of the Golden West, was hobbled by a pointless and rambling libretto with some geniunely stupid lines ("Whiskey per tutti!").

One more thing: I think that Smith perhaps overrates Wagner, whom he calls the greatest librettist ever. Wagner was certainly a talented writer, one of the few great composers who was also a first-rate librettist (Berlioz was another). His librettos dealt with complicated issues that few librettists had ever dared to tackle; the monologue for Wotan in Die Walkure is a rumination on fate, morality and power where most opera librettists would just write a few lines about what a bad day the character is having. But by writing such long, rambling passages in his librettos, Wagner started the bad practice of over-writing in librettos, a practice that helps to explain why so many 20th-century opera librettos have been so bad. Traditionally, opera librettos had a lot of words in recitative but short, simple words for arias. By the 19th century, even the recitatives were short and concise (Verdi in particular insisted on this). The point was to have simple words expressive of one particular thought or emotion, that the composer could then expand upon. These words, by the French librettists Meilhac and Halevy, don't look like much:

Toreador, en garde,
Et songe en combattant
Qu'un oeil noir te regarde
Et que l'amour t'attend.

But when Bizet sets it to music in Carmen, repeating a lot of words in order to make them fit his tune, it works. Wagner didn't like to repeat words, though, and he didn't like to have the characters express one emotion at a time; the point of the leitmotif system he developed was to follow the changing moods and feelings of the characters, and that in turn meant they had to have more words, with more changes of mood. It worked for Wagner, because the words were of a piece with the kind of music he was writing. But a lot of post-Wagner librettists adopted his verbosity even if it wasn't necessarily appropriate to the kind of music the composer would be writing. The libretto for Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron, which Schoenberg wrote himself, strikes me as having this problem; many of the monologues and choruses are very wordy and go on longer than they need to make their point -- not a great match with twelve-tone music, whose raison d'etre is to be more concise and less repetitive than traditional music. (The best and least wordy parts of the libretto are the parts for Moses; Schoenberg couldn't fall into the temptation to write too many words for him, because Moses is supposed to be someone who can't and doesn't say much.)

The last point I'll make is that the best librettists are the ones who are the best at tailoring their work to the composer's strengths (at least where the libretto is written for a particular composer; many librettos were written first and then shopped around, and even set by more than one composer; Metastasio's librettos in the 18th century were set by dozens of composers). A good poet can be a bad librettist because the poet may be concerned with writing words that sound good on their own, without regard to whether they will sound good when sung. A good playwright can be a bad librettist because the structure he creates may provide insufficient space for arias, duets, or other moments where the composer can do what he does best. That's why, even though composers do it all, the success of a librettist is ultimately judged by how well he allows the composer to do. One of the most famous librettists of all time, Arrigo Boito, was a poet and a playwright and a composer in his own right, and given to over-verbosity; his librettos teem with archaic words and obscure, pretentious allusions that must annoy the average Italian audience. But when writing librettos for other people, he made sure to build the libretto around the composer's strengths, rather than making it a showcase for his own strengths. His libretto for Verdi's Otello carefully finds room for Verdi to do all his specialties -- a storm scene, a drinking song, a love duet, a huge ensemble scene -- while making all these things seem dramatically inevitable. That's why it's Verdi's Otello, not Boito's; but Boito's achievement lies partly in creating a libretto that allows the composer to do his best work.

They Didn't Know What They Were Doing

I rented and watched a TV show I'd heard a lot about but hadn't seen, Sledge Hammer! a parody of gung-ho Dirty Harry-style cop movies. I must say I'm underwhelmed. The episodes I watched started with funny ideas -- Sledge Hammer goes undercover to solve the murder of Elvis impersonators; Sledge's sensible partner Dori gets hit on the head and winds up acting like him -- but executes them in a dull way, with every other joke involving a) A lame one-liner or b) A gag about Sledge shooting something. The creator, Alan Spencer, a friend of Andy Kaufman, comes off on the commentary tracks as an amusing guy but a typical kind of comedy writer who thinks he's much more cutting-edge than he really is; constantly patting himself on the back for not writing the standard family sitcom while not noticing that what he's written is an even more standardized cop-show parody. The inspiration, as Spencer acknowledges, was Get Smart! but while I'm not the biggest Get Smart fan, it had two things that Sledge Hammer didn't: a wider range of storylines, and a faster pace; silly jokes and vaudeville-style routines ar funnier when delivered at Don Adams' fast clip.

The inspiration for Sledge Hammer! that the creator doesn't acknowledge, at least in the commentaries I heard, is Hunter, a then-current cop show. Sledge Hammer! used the same credits font as Hunter, and the same idea of pairing a Dirty Harry-type cop with a hot female partner. Hunter was pretty rancid, but to be honest, I recall it being funnier than Sledge Hammer when it wanted to be (there was a Hunter episode that parodied Murder She Wrote that was pretty funny). Which is the problem with spoof shows; it's not just that the stuff they're spoofing is already unintentionally funny, but that the originals can be intentionally funny. My problem with Get Smart!, for example, always will be that the James Bond movies had better intentional jokes (the old lady with the machine gun in Goldfinger, for instance). And Sledge Hammer! is pretty much the same way.

Mike Reiss, a Sledge Hammer! writer who went on to become a showrunner on The Simpsons, summed up the problem that Sledge had in finding an audience:

We were trying to do kind of a sophisticated like Police Squad show and our fans were all 8-year-olds. We would get fan mail like in crayon and stuff and kids really loved the show and they didn't exactly know it was a comedy.

Edit: I am reliably informed that Alan Spencer, Sledge Hammer's creator and a pioneer of the "smug is better" school of comedy writing, wrote the pilot script in 1979, and therefore the show was not conceived as a spoof of Hunter (the male-female teaming spoofs the Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer, which was ripped off by Hunter). We at Something Old, Nothing New apologize for our un-rigorous fact-checking, not to mention our lack of reverence for one of those annoying sitcom-for-people-who-hate sitcoms.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Things That Suck: The Worst of ARCHIE Comics

I recently picked up a few old ARCHIE comics (I got the bunch of them for about five bucks; I'm not insane enough to pay used-comics-store prices for this kind of thing), as part of my devotion to reminding myself just how many bad comics I used to read as a little kid. ("Richie Rich" comics are actually much worse, but I don't have any and wouldn't even pay as much as five bucks for them.) Archie Comics produced a wide variety of terrible comics in addition to the stuff they did well. And I do think they did some stuff well. They had at least three first-rate talents on their staff: artist-writer Bob Bolling, who did the early, wonderful "Little Archie" comics (his were the ones with Mad Doctor Doom and Chester, not the crappy ones where they were just doing rehashed versions of the regular Archie characters), artist Samm Schwartz, and writer Frank Doyle (any time you come across an Archie story that is witty, filled with wordplay and doesn't talk down to kids, it's probably a Frank Doyle). And a lot of their other stuff was at least inoffensively bland. But the bad Archie stuff is really bad. I just thought I'd run down a list of some of the really bad ones, to remind you all of the stories that ruined the Archie Double Digests for you as kids.

- "Archie at Riverdale High" was a series of comics that placed the Archie characters in serious situations dealing with real-life problems. Remember your consternation, as a kid reading an Archie digest, in coming across a story where Archie is all serious and heroic and preachy? That's where they came from. Sample story: Pop Tate's Chok'lit Shoppe is about to be demolished to make room for a new building. Archie and the Gang protest this negative development, while Pop Tate is so heartbroken that he barricades himself inside his store. The standoff is resolved when it turns out that Mr. Lodge owns the company that was going to tear down the store, except he didn't know it. The end.

- "Josie and the Pussycats" is, I guess, Archie's most famous non-Archie product (that or Sabrina). When Josie started out, it was actually good. It started, basically, as a female version of ARCHIE, with similar characters and situations but with a red-headed girl, Josie, at the center of it all. The writing was mostly by Frank Doyle, and it showed. But I guess it wasn't terribly successful. Instead of ending it, though, Archie Comics re-vamped it by tossing out a few characters (remember Pepper?) and tossing in in every element that was working for them in some other comic. They'd just had a success with The Archies, so Josie became the leader of a rock group. It was the late '60s and fashions had changed, so they flooded it in bright colors and wackier, nay, trippier plots. Some of you may recall that Alexandra briefly was a witch (she wasn't in the TV series) because Sabrina the Teenage Witch was popular at the time. The Pussycats comics I looked at, except for a couple of stories that appear to be by Frank Doyle, are just awful -- crappy dialogue, plots that don't make sense; so shoddily put together that some words in the speech balloons are unintentionally mispelled. But they testify to what's kept Archie Comics successful for so long: an absolute willingness to do anything to keep up with changes in kids' tastes.

Other Archie comics that come to mind as being deeply, deeply evil:
- "That Wilkin Boy." A klutzy teenage boy, somewhat reminiscent of Archie, loves the girl next door. She loves him. Her father is a gigantic weightlifter with Popeye-style arms. He doesn't like the klutzy teenage boy. But his schemes to keep them apart go hilariously awry and she winds up playing an unidentified instrument in said klutzy teenage boy's rock group. Oh, and there's a tall character with shades who looks like a cross between Reggie Mantle and Lurch, and who is referred to as "Teddy Tambourine." Plus one story deals with racism and the Japanese internment camps from WWII. I'm not sure who the target audience of this comic was, except maybe people who really hate weightlifters.

- "Li'l Jinx." See, Dennis was a Menace, so we have a girl of the same rough age and hair color, clearly ripped off from Dennis, who's a Jinx. Except Dennis at least had a first name. And is there not something a little creepy about a father who calls his daughter nothing but "Li'l Jinx?" No wonder she turned to substance abuse when she grew up. (Archie Comics also had a male ripoff of Dennis the Menace, the astonishingly differently-titled "Pat the Brat," but it didn't last long.) Sample story: Li'l Jinx has an invisible Martian friend who prevents her father from spanking her by shooting pain-rays at his hand.

- "Chilling Tales in Sorcery as Told By Sabrina." Sabrina plays the Cryptkeeper, except without the puns. Or the twist endings. Or the entertainment. Sample story, narrated by Sabrina: "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." a little boy accuses everyone of being a vampire, but he's just kidding. So when his uncle turns out to be a vampire, it's too late to tell because no one will believe him. The end.

There are a few other Archie-free Archie comics that I can remember encountering, including "Wilbur," which I won't discuss because I can't remember a thing about it; "Super Duck," which I won't discuss because I hated it even as a little kid, and "Cosmo the Merry Martian," which doesn't fit in here because it was actually kind of good.

And let's not forget the many comics that were introduced to take advantage of some fad or another. Superhero comics? Here's "Archie as Pureheart the Powerful." Spy stories are in? Here's "Archie as the Man From R.I.V.E.R.D.A.L.E." Is "The Monkees" a hit on TV? Then Archie will do some "The Archies" stories with Archie and his friends doing wacky Monkees-style surrealism. (Except, again, those were actually pretty funny.) Again, that's the endearing thing about Archie Comics, that they are at once stuck in a never-never land of squeaky-clean teenagerhood, and yet they also strive, better than most comics, to keep up with the times.

Sunday, July 25, 2004


Sorry for the sparseness of posts recently. While getting myself on track blog-wise, here's a new article on why extended copyrights stifle creativity by, among other things, curtailing the ability of artists to draw on a common pool of stories. The subject is sort of close to my heart because I wrote an extended essay in law school arguing the same thing, though, as with many essays written for school, I'm not sure whether I really believe it or if I just picked that argument because it made for a good essay. I think it could go either way. The danger of what happens when you don't have strict copyright, and when anyone can just adapt a story by someone else, was summed up by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, in a chapter where Nicholas meets a man who makes his living by writing stage adaptations of novels:

'Shakespeare dramatised stories which had previously appeared in print, it is true,' observed Nicholas.

'Meaning Bill, sir?' said the literary gentleman. 'So he did. Bill was an adapter, certainly, so he was--and very well he adapted too-- considering.'

'I was about to say,' rejoined Nicholas, 'that Shakespeare derived some of his plots from old tales and legends in general circulation; but it seems to me, that some of the gentlemen of your craft, at the present day, have shot very far beyond him--'

'You're quite right, sir,' interrupted the literary gentleman, leaning back in his chair and exercising his toothpick. 'Human intellect, sir, has progressed since his time, is progressing, will progress.'

'Shot beyond him, I mean,' resumed Nicholas, 'in quite another respect, for, whereas he brought within the magic circle of his genius, traditions peculiarly adapted for his purpose, and turned familiar things into constellations which should enlighten the world for ages, you drag within the magic circle of your dulness, subjects not at all adapted to the purposes of the stage, and debase as he exalted. For instance, you take the uncompleted books of living authors, fresh from their hands, wet from the press, cut, hack, and carve them to the powers and capacities of your actors, and the capability of your theatres, finish unfinished works, hastily and crudely vamp up ideas not yet worked out by their original projector, but which have doubtless cost him many thoughtful days and sleepless nights; by a comparison of incidents and dialogue, down to the very last word he may have written a fortnight before, do your utmost to anticipate his plot--all this without his permission, and against his will; and then, to crown the whole proceeding, publish in some mean pamphlet, an unmeaning farrago of garbled extracts from his work, to which your name as author, with the honourable distinction annexed, of having perpetrated a hundred other outrages of the same description. Now, show me the distinction between such pilfering as this, and picking a man's pocket in the street: unless, indeed, it be, that the legislature has a regard for pocket-handkerchiefs, and leaves men's brains, except when they are knocked out by violence, to take care of themselves.'

'Men must live, sir,' said the literary gentleman, shrugging his shoulders.

'That would be an equally fair plea in both cases,' replied Nicholas; 'but if you put it upon that ground, I have nothing more to say, than, that if I were a writer of books, and you a thirsty dramatist, I would rather pay your tavern score for six months, large as it might be, than have a niche in the Temple of Fame with you for the humblest corner of my pedestal, through six hundred generations.'

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Confused? You Won't Be...

In a previous post I mentioned that the second season of Soap is now on DVD. This set, unlike the first, includes an extra: a new twenty-minute featurette where creator Susan Harris and producers Paul Witt and Tony Thomas (the three formed the "Witt Thomas Harris" partnership and went on to do The Golden Girls) talk about the show. Not very enlightening, frankly, but it's there.

In talking about the origins of the show, they of course avoid mentioning the obvious inspiration: Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a parody of soap operas that had gone directly to syndication when none of the networks wanted it; Mary Hartman was a hit in syndication, and ABC clearly wanted something like it but not too much like it. It would be unfair to call Soap a copy of Mary Hartman, though. That show was bascially a soap opera that happened to be funny. It was shot like soap opera, ran every day. Soap was a prime-time sitcom, shot with a studio audience. It was not so much a satire of soap operas as a sitcom that happened to use soap-opera plots and soap-opera serialization. The point, as Witt, Thomas and Harris acknowledge, was not so much to parody soap operas as to expand the range of stories available to a sitcom, by freeing it from the need to create self-contained half-hour stories.

So Soap is basically a conventional sitcom with traditional sitcom characters -- the ditzy rich woman, the wisecracking servant -- except that the situations these characters get into are bizarre and the stories don't resolve themselves by the end of the episode. That's why the characters are constantly talking about how weird their lives are: no episode is complete without a character offering some observation on how odd this family is or what strange things are going on. To a soap opera character, these situations are horrible but not strange. But Soap is not about soap opera characters; it's about sitcom characters who find themselves stuck in a soap-opera world. That's what makes the show work.

Susan Harris wrote every episode in the first season; in the second season, she continued to write every episode but finally took on a writing partner, Stu Silver. The fact that the show was not staff-written, that all the scripts are basically in Susan Harris's voice, is a weakness and a strength. The weakness is that Harris keeps going back to the same bag of tricks; there are so many scenes with women sitting around talking about how they like sex (this would of course be the basis for Golden Girls too), so many ditz jokes for the Katherine Helmond character, so many designated Heartfelt Moments. The good thing is that the show doesn't have the over-polished, lifeless feel of sitcom scripts written by committee, where the punchlines fall heavily every thirty seconds and the comedy rhythm is tiresomely predictable. The Soap scenes often go on longer than you'd expect from a sitcom conversation; they go off on tangents unrelated to the plot if Harris feels like talking about something (sex, mostly); they get laughs from jokes that aren't exactly normal sitcom jokes. That feeling of being written in one voice, one idiosyncratic voice, is an advantage to the sitcom with a small writing staff, as opposed to a sitcom with twenty writers and no writing style of its own.


With the release of a newer, louder version of The Manchurian Candidate, many people are noting that the original dark joke -- that the Communists are using an anti-Communist politician as their tool -- has been replaced with a more conventional villain: a multinational corporation that wants to install the first completely corporate-owned, corporate-controlled President. Paul Krugman, though apparently not totally familiar with the original movie, wonders why the remake didn't instead feature "Islamic fanatics, who install as their puppet president a demagogue who poses as the nation's defender against terrorist evildoers." I've seen that suggestion elsewhere, and it seems to me that that would be the most logical equivalent of Richard Condon's original joke, that those who speak the loudest against America's enemies are in fact unwitting puppets of America's enemies.

The reason they wouldn't do it this way, of course, is that Islamic terrorists really aren't acceptable villains in Hollywood movies now; more than that, there are hardly any acceptable villains any more, because Hollywood doesn't want to offend anybody. So the real reason the villain in the new Manchurian Candidate is a big corporation is that that's the only kind of villain that Hollywood isn't afraid to use. And the reason for that, I think, is that Hollywood movies are made by multinational corporations. They don't really care if they're portrayed as villains (and since, as the movie The Corporation reminds us in tiresome detail, a corporation is a separate entity from the people who work for it, the people within a corporation may in fact agree with the portrayal). What they care about is not offending anybody, and that includes anybody in the world, because they want to market their products all over the world. So a corporation's preferred villain is an entity that nobody likes and whose negative portrayal will offend nobody: the corporation itself.

It isn't new that movies would shy away from controversial choices of villain. The James Bond movies dropped Ian Fleming's SMERSH (a top-secret Russian spy organization that was even more evil than the KGB) preferring to use Fleming's generic evil organization, SPECTRE, so as not to get accused of playing Cold War politics. And when Tex Avery was making an anti-Hitler propaganda cartoon, "Blitz Wolf," his producer, Fred Quimby, asked him not to go so hard on Hitler: "After all, Tex, we don't know who's going to win the war." Movies have almost always been corporate products to some extent and the selection of villains is usually made to avoid giving offense to any demographic that the movie might appeal to.

But it does seem that recently, the use of the corporation as the stock villain has become more and more of a cliche. Not that I think big corporations are warm and cuddly, but there are other potential villains out there. I'm not talking about political "balance" here -- I don't think there's any need for that -- but just about variety; who wants to see the same evil-corporation plot 10,000 times? The corporate-centric ways are particularly problematic in movies with a political bent, because it reduces politics to the most simplistic view possible, namely that all political problems are the result of machinations by evil corporations. If you look at the politics of the original Manchurian Candidate, you see that the movie acknowledges all kinds of problems and all kinds of villains: Communism, anti-Communist demagoguery, the American political system. The new Manchurian Candidate will tell us that all the problems come from "rich people funding bad science." Because that's the only villain that's acceptable to rich people funding bad movies.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Carolyn Leigh

Among the many books that I may have to try to write myself because no one else is going to, the one I think is most needed is a biography of the song lyricist Carolyn Leigh (1926-1983). I even have a title: "You Ain't No Eagle Scout," a line from one of her best songs. Leigh was, in my opinion, the most talented lyricist of her generation, which is saying a lot when you consider that her generation included Sheldon Harnick (born 1924) or Stephen Sondheim (born 1930). But I think Leigh's work is special. Normally I divide lyricists into two types: the over-rhymers and the under-rhymers. The "over-rhymers" are the ones who use go for complex rhyme schemes and trick rhymes, fool around with word meanings and obscure references, lyricists whose cleverness is always apparent. Lyricists who usually (not always!) fall into this category include Sondheim, Larry Hart, Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter. The "under-rhymers" tend to place more of an emphasis on making their lyrics sound deceptively simple and natural, without calling attention to their cleverness. Oscar Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and, more recently, Fred Ebb are examples of lyricists who tend to try to keep it simple.

Now, these categories are incredibly reductive and don't apply at all to a lot of great songwriters. But I bring them up as a preface to saying that Leigh sort of combined the two categories. She was one of the greatest rhymers of all time, with exceptional mastery of trick rhymes, internal rhymes, multiple rhymes ("You can go to extremes/With impossible schemes/You can laugh when your dreams/Fall apart at the seams"). But her lyrics also sound simple even as they dazzle with their rhyming virtuosity; she used such clear, direct language that her lyrics sound conversational -- brilliantly rhymed conversation. She said once that a lyricist should have "an intuitive feeling for language to be sung, rather than read like poetry," and her best songs, like all the best lyrics, don't work as well on the page as they do when sung. But here are some examples of her work:

So love is a hoax,
A glittering string
Of little white lies,
But these are the jokes,
And what if they bring
The tears to your eyes?
Well, love often shows
A funny return,
The brighter it glows,
The longer you burn,
And Lord only knows
Love has little concern
For the fools of the road.
But that's how it goes,
You live and you learn
The rules of the road.
(from "The Rules of the Road")

From now on
I promise to behave,
I'll pack my gear and disappear from view.
From now on
I'll huddle in a cave,
But if in case ya miss the face that used to pester you,

Just give a little whistle, ring a little bell,
Crook your little finger, honey, give a little yell,
I'll leap over fences,
I'll even leave my senses
And I'll take, for your sake, to the air.
Just give a little whistle,
Say you want me, and I'll be there.
(from "Give a Little Whistle," Wildcat

I've got your number,
I know you inside out,
You ain't no Eagle Scout,
You're all at sea.
Oh yes, you brag a lot,
Wave your own flag a lot,
But you're unsure a lot,
You're a lot
Like me.
Oh, I've got your number
And what you're looking for,
And what you're looking for
Just suits me fine.
We'll break those rules a lot,
We'll be damn fools a lot,
But then, why should we not,
How could we not
When I've got your number
And I've got the glow you've got,
I've got your number
And, baby, you know you've got

Leigh started out working as a copyist and secretary who, in her own description, "couldn't take dictation." When she was 25 years old a music publisher gave her a contract, and at age 28 she had her first huge hit, "Young at Heart." Most of her hits were written in the late '50s and early '60s with composer Cy Coleman. They wrote two Broadway shows, both of which promised to be big but weren't: Wildcat with Lucille Ball (who introduced "Hey, Look Me Over") and Little Me with Sid Caesar. But they were primarily pop songwriters, writing for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and, especially, Tony Bennett.

Leigh was apparently a difficult person to work with. When Cy Feuer, the co-director of the Broadway show Little Me, decided to cut one of the songs, she (so the story goes) went outside, came back into the theatre with a cop, and tried to have Feuer arrested. Here's a quote from the newsgroup, a post from someone who knew Leigh:

She was a classy lady, a funny and articulate lady, and came out with expressions I never heard from anyone else. A huge talent, she was also a perfectionist, a breathtakingly heavy smoker, and could be a little unyielding. She and Coleman did some heavy-duty fighting. Still, they did great work together.

Why she and Coleman broke up isn't completely clear -- that's what a biography would have to reveal -- but it seems like what happened was that people wanted to work with Coleman but not the brilliant but "difficult" Leigh. So Sweet Charity, a 1966 hit musical, reunited most of the key people from Little Me, director-choreographer Bob Fosse, writer Neil Simon, and composer Cy Coleman. But Fosse didn't want to work with Leigh again, so the lyricist was Dorothy Fields, a superb lyricist with forty years of experience. Coleman wrote a few more songs with Leigh; they contributed two new songs to a 1982 revival of Little Me. But they never were a team again, and Leigh never found a satisfying new partnership.

Her only Broadway show after Little Me was How Now, Dow Jones, a strange and kind of unpleasant musical comedy about a woman whose boyfriend tells her he won't marry her until the Dow Jones average hits a certain level, so she issues a fake report about the Dow Jones average. Hilarity ensues. The unfunny book was by Max Shulman (Dobie Gillis) with an uncredited rewrite from Neil Simon; the dull music was by Elmer Bernstein, a fine film composer who didn't have the knack for writing show tunes. Leigh's lyrics, though not her best work, were the best thing about the show, but she had come up with the idea for the show (a tiny credit read "story by Carolyn Leigh") and she sort of got blamed for its failure.

She wrote some songs for TV productions; wrote (with Morton Gould) a bicentennial tribute to the American worker; signed to do a bizarre project called "Flyers" (something about world peace, I think) that was to have starred Tommy Tune but didn't get produced. At the time of her death from a heart attack, she was working on an adaptation of the movie "Smile" with composer Marvin Hamlisch; it was left uncomplete, and Hamlisch wound up writing a new score with another lyricist who died too young, Howard Ashman.

Leigh never really recovered from the loss of Coleman, but I think, too, that she didn't recover from the death of the popular song market she wrote for. Unlike her contemporaries, she wasn't primarily a theatre lyricist; she started in pop and was always best at writing in her own unique voice, rather than the voice of a character in a show. Once the pop market was completely lost to rock n' roll and variants thereof, there wasn't much for her to do.

Here's a quote from Leigh, on lyric writing, that suggests an intelligent, skilled and talented person, but not perhaps a particularly nice one:

The English language has fallen into sad disrepair. But it's still true that "home" and "alone" don't rhyme, "time" and "mine" don't rhyme. And "friend" and "again" rhyme only in the area bounded by Nashville and God knows what.

Bits of trivia about Leigh:

- Around 1980, she briefly appeared as a cabaret artist, performing her own songs at Mike's Pub in New York.

- She and Coleman were among the songwriters who were considered by the producers of Gypsy. They wrote several songs to audition for the show; one of them, "Firefly," later became another hit for Tony Bennett, and another, "Be a Performer," wound up in Little Me.

- Probably Leigh's most famous Broadway show is one for which she only wrote half a score: Peter Pan. She and the composer, Mark Charlap, wrote the best songs in the score: "I Won't Grow Up," "I'm Flying," "I Gotta Crow" (with its wonderful internal rhymes: "When I discover the cleverness of a remarkable me..."). But the director, Jerome Robbins, threw out several other songs written by the young team, and brought in the veterans Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write new, not particularly distinguished songs. Leigh never worked with Charlap again, perhaps feeling that he hadn't done enough to stand up to Robbins. One of the best of the cut songs was "When I Went Home," a song where Leigh directly addressed one of the darker themes of Barrie's original play: that Peter's life is essentially incomplete and that abandoning the ties of home and family isn't so great (that's why he wants Wendy around to replace the mother he abandoned). Robbins cut it and replaced it with a gentler song, "Distant Melody," by Styne/Comden/Green. But Leigh's song is more in tune with Barrie, and I think it has been reinstated in some productions:

When I went home, I thought that certainly
Someone would leave the door or window open wide for me,
And surely there would be
A welcome light.
When I went home, I counted so upon
Somebody waiting up to ask me questions on and on
To ask me where I'd gone,
Was I all right?
But the door was barred and the window barred
And I knew with an awful dread
That somebody else, some other boy
Was sleeping in my bed.
When I went home, I found that sad to say
You must expect to be forgotten once you've gone away,
And so I couldn't stay
That lonely night when I went home.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Technology vs. Technique

Volpone, clearly forgetting that everything I say is objectively true, takes issue with my statement that innovation is basically a historical rather than artistic matter:

We can fault Casablanca for its style, as casual viewers. Nature, the ultimate casual viewer, did not care that modern medicine was not available to the Romans. They went on dying of diseases now easily preventable, even the ones with the best medicine of their time. That doesn't mean a study of Rome has nothing to offer us, or that medicine Rome wouldn't have been worth the effort. We can't -- or mustn't -- ignore the fact that Casablanca is a stylistically antiquated film. We can choose to accept that and look for those parts of it that still have merit.

For the record, I don't accept the premise that Casablanca is "stylistically antiquated." In fact, the techniques it uses to tell the story -- the style of cutting, the choice of when to move the camera, the placement of the camera and the use of reaction shots -- remain standard throughout the film and television industry. Shoot a movie or TV show today the way Casablanca was shot and no one will consider you a fogey; heck, movies are shot like this all the time. And of course there are some respects in which Casablanca is more technically sophisticated than most movies being made today. The amount of care taken over the lighting, for example, is miles ahead of most movies now; lighting of Ingrid Bergman's face in close-ups is used not just to make her look good but to mirror changes in emotion and mood. I don't think, say, Spider-Man can match these older films in terms of lighting technique. In other words, if the style of Casablanca seems "antiquated" it's in part because it's better-made than most of today's movies, not worse-made.

The technology available to movies has improved, it's true, but the technique of movies, in my opinion, has not. In a previous post, I wrote about a tremendously long and complicated tracking shot in a number from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). With today's superior technology you could move the camera around even more, and faster; the difficulty of moving the old technicolor camera is somewhat visible in Meet Me in St. Louis, if you care to look for signs of the difficulty. But what does it matter? Most movies today are notable for their over-reliance on cutting (harkening back to the movies of the late '20s or early '30s, before movies like Citizen Kane showed the advantages of long takes) and their avoidance of long takes, an avoidance stemming from various factors including, probably, a lack of rehearsal time. I certainly think that that shot in Meet Me in St. Louis is superior, in filmmaking technique, to anything in, say, Chicago.

I'm also generally skeptical that new visual techniques constitute an advance. Volpone mentions Samurai Jack as an advance over previous television shows, and he's not the only one; the reviewer Charles Solomon at blasts the Batman animated series for not using stylized movement the way Samurai Jack does. But it tends to be the rule that stylization wears less well, over the years, than straightforward-looking stuff. The UPA cartoons of the '50s, which were considered the ne plus ultra in animation art at the time, now look rather dated compared to the straightforward Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons. Some of the things that became popular in the late '60s and early '70s fell out of favor again within a few years, such as the use of the zoom lens. In general, new options in visual storytelling tend to come and go, with the old options, the straightforward stuff, dominating.

And as technology advances, the advantages of pure technology become less and less noticeable, with the result that what we thought was an advanced piece of filmmaking can wind up looking terribly dated. Heaven's Gate (1980) relies on more advanced filmmaking technology than Gone With the Wind (1939), but now that both films are technologically outdated, the superior technique of GWTW makes it look far less dated than Heaven's Gate. This will happen to many of today's films. Heck, it's already happening; the CGI effects in movies made only a few years ago are starting to look laughable. Pretty soon Lord of the Rings will seem like a technological dinosaur and it'll have to be judged on its technique and style alone. I think the verdict will be: it's well-made, but it's not as well-made as Casablanca.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Good Sitcoms, For a Change

Having posted about one of the worst sitcoms ever, I should call attention to the release, today, of season sets of really good sitcoms: season 2 of Soap and season 3 of All in the Family.

Season 3 of All in the Family was one of the best, with most of the episodes written by the three writers who did the most (after Norman Lear, and perhaps even more than him) to make the show what it was: Don Nicholl, Michael Ross and Bernie West. They worked on AITF up until the end of the fifth season, after which they left to do Three's Company. (One of the best episodes of the third season, "The Bunkers and the Swingers," is kind of like a more sophisticated version of Three's Company; Ross and West wrote it.) Some of the best episodes from this season include "Everybody Tells the Truth," where Mike and Archie have equally distorted memories of Archie's encounter with a black repairman's assistant (Archie remembers him as a scary militant, Mike remembers him as an Uncle Tom, and only Edith remembers him as he really was), and "The Battle of the Month," where a PMS-experiencing Gloria snaps at her husband and parents.

Thinking About the Musically Unthinkable

The High Fidelity Silver Anniversary Treasury, which I mentioned in another post, includes many fine essays. The most famous of these, which I just read again, is the February 1958 article by composer Milton Babbitt, a specialist in serial music. He originally called it "The Composer as Specialist," since his argument was that composers of "advanced" music, such as himself, had become specialists akin to advanced mathematicians or physicists. The editor, however, published it under the title "Who Cares if you Listen?" and that phrase, rightly or wrongly, has been associated with Babbitt ever since.

The thing is that the title, while inflammatory, doesn't really misrepresent Babbitt's argument. He is responding to charges that advanced music -- serialism, electronic music -- is unpopular with the general music-going public. The typical argument at the time was that it takes time for the public to catch up with new developments in musical language, and that eventually the "new" music would come to seem accessible, just as Berlioz or Wagner or Debussy did. This argument was getting harder and harder to make by 1958, when serial music had been around for years and still appealed primarily to a smallish group of enthusiasts and specialists, a small niche in what was already a niche audience. So Babbitt's argument was different, and refreshingly straightforward: he doesn't argue that his kind of music will become accessible. He admits that it is inaccessible to the non-specialist, and explains why:

Although in many fundamental respects this music is "new," it often also represents a vast extension of the methods of other musics, derived from a considered and extensive knowledge of their dynamic principles. For, concomitant with the "revolution in music," perhaps even an integral aspect thereof, has been the development of analytical theory, concerned with the systematic formulation of such principles to the end of greater efficiency, economy, and understanding. Compositions so rooted necessarily ask comparable knowledge and experience from the listener. Like all communication, this music presupposes a suitably equipped receptor...

Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated man without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

As one who has never thought that twelve-tone music is opposed to the laws of hearing (though the great Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet wrote a long and unreadable book arguing exactly that), I think Babbitt's argument makes a lot of sense. By this argment, the reason the music of Babbitt or Boulez is difficult for me to understand is not because it violates the laws of music or sound, but because it follows those laws to their logical extremes, testing the limits of music and sound and discovering new harmonies, new sounds, new ways of organizing sound. But at some point, these discoveries become too complicated for the layman to follow. We look for repetition in music: reference points, things to come back to. "Advanced" music seeks to eliminate repetition and redundancy, creating, in Babbitt's words:

This music employs a tonal vocabulary which is more "efficient" than that of the music of the past, or its derivatives. This is not necessarily a virtue in itself, but it does make possible a greatly increased number or pitch simultaneities, successions, and relationships. his increase in efficiency necessarily reduces the "redundancy" of the language, and as a result the intelligible communication of the work demands increased accuracy from the transmitter (the performer) and activity from the receiver (the listener).

Babbitt's solution to the problem, controversial at the time and still pretty controversial, is that advanced music should be treated as a scientific discipline, removed to the universities, where musicians can pursue research and development of new musical ideas and methods. The problem with this idea, I think, is that it ignores the fact that even the "advanced" composer is going to find an audience, if his music is any good. We've heard about sold-out concerts of all-Stockhausen music; we've heard from people who have assimilated Boulez's musical language and think he's one of the great melodists of the 20th century. The fact that a composer does not appeal to the average listener -- namely me -- does not mean that he's not a public entertainer; it just means his public is different from that of Britten or pre-serial Stravinsky. And when you cut a composer off from his role as a public entertainer and make him into a research scientist, you risk having his work wind up as boring as that of the college professor who writes poetry.

That said, I have one other thought. It's often said that advances in music in the 20th century were in reaction to "the breakdown of tonality" or something like that. The reality, however, is that tonality hadn't broken down so far as the public was concerned (and still hasn't). What happened was that the discovery of new harmonies and musical organizing principles -- the musical equivalent of research and development -- had made it difficult for a composer to write tonal music while incorporating these new musical possibilities: you can't write a symphony in C major unless you ignore some of those musical possibilities. My question is, is this a case where the proper response would have been to cover up certain musical discoveries? Would music have been better off if composers had decided to ignore some harmonic possibilities as potentially leading to musical chaos? We often ask whether scientists should ignore discoveries that are potentially evil. I don't think advanced music is evil, but is it permissible for a composer to ignore a new development as being potentially harmful to music?


There's a local station that shows reruns of any sitcom it can find that's "family-friendly," and currently in the rotation is Charles in Charge. Yesterday I watched an episode. Why?

Because I think it's interesting to watch a really bad show, just to see why it's bad. And Charles in Charge may have been the worst sitcom of its era. But just because it's so bad, it's probably the definitive sitcom of the era. Any time you see someone trying to make fun of bad '80s sitcoms, they wind up channelling Charles in Charge. The blueprint of CiC was all over the South Park creators' That's My Bush, which basically took typical CiC characters and situations and applied them to the residents of the White House, thus creating a one-joke flop. Proving that you should never borrow anything from Charles in Charge, even when you're making fun of it. But anyway, here's what goes into a really bad sitcom, from the one episode I saw yesterday (I'd seen the show as a kid, as did almost everybody in or around my generation):

- A really bad theme song that belongs to no apparent genre of music
- A hero played by a guy who was added to Happy Days several years after it had already begun to suck (Scott Baio)
- The hero's dumb buddy, named, appropriately enough, Buddy. Buddy Lembeck, to be accurate. Among people of a certain age, the name "Buddy Lembeck" is kind of a magic incantation inducing laughter, a symbol of the worst in sitcoms, of a character so dumb you can barely tell how he breathes, of a perpetually fishy stare, of bad "jokes" that everyone in the audience can predict about ten minutes in advance. As an experiment, say "Buddy Lembeck" to someone who grew up in the '80s and see if they don't laugh, or at least recoil in horror. It's like saying "Erich Von Zipper" to a child of the '60s.
- Child actors who grew up too fast. This led to inappropriate, unintentional (I hope) suggestions of sexual tension between Charles and the girls of whom he was supposed to be In Charge, and that Lolita vibe may explain the show's popularity among people who love '80s camp.
- Produced directly for syndication and therefore shot as cheaply as possible, with only two sets, both of which look like they are going to fall over at any moment.
- Plots like this one -- at any rate, this was the plot of the episode I saw: Charles is dating two girls at the same time, and trying to keep one from finding out about the other. To his horror, he finds that Buddy Lembeck has volunteered him to be a judge in a beauty contest (conveniently held in the only other standing set, the local diner), and both his girlfriends are entering. Now who's he going to vote for? To make matters worse, both the girls of whom he is In Charge (I never could figure out if he's the nanny, or the bad-haired butler, or what) decide to enter the contest too. The girls, by the way, consist of a blonde airhead and a blonde feminist. The feminist initially wants to enter the beauty contest in order to condemn it when she gets up to speak, but she winds up liking the pretty dress so much that she wants to win as much as anybody. Now Charles has four contestants, all of whom expect him to vote for them. So he does the only ethical thing and votes for the only girl he doesn't know personally. But he learns his lesson when his girlfriends dump him and somebody throws food at him and Buddy signs him up to be the judge in another beauty contest!
- A studio audience that says "OOOOOH!" and "YAAAAYYYY!" when a character so much as sneezes.

Now, if your brain has not yet imploded from the very act of reading about a show like this, I'll conclude with two things:
1) The thing about watching a crappy '80s show is that bad shows were worse back then than any show could get nowadays. Today's bad sitcoms are basically mediocre but have a certain basic professionalism in acting, production values, script structure. A bad '80s sitcom like Charles in Charge or Small Wonder looks like it was created, written and directed by cave trolls. And that unbelievable amateurishness is part of the reason why people remember these terrible shows fondly, while nobody looks back fondly on the bad-but-well-made sitcoms of the '90s.
2) I think there's a good argument to be made that the really bad shows are not just badly-made, but morally repugnant. That is to say, if you look at a truly horrible show, you'll often find that it expects us to like characters who are in fact complete creeps, or that it presents sexist/ageist/ambiguously-incestuous plot developments as if there was nothing wrong going on. Look at the above plot description. Count the number of jerky, creepy, sexist, dumb things in it. And that's just one half-hour, minus commercials. This is what separates the worst from the merely bad in TV World: if good art uplifts us, a grade-F TV show makes us feel like worse human beings just for having watched it.

This is the first in an occasional series on Things That Suck.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Commenting on Commentary Tracks

The Onion A.V. Club has an occasional feature called "Commentary Tracks of the Damned," where they listen to and write about DVD audio commentary tracks on bad movies. The biggest round-ups of these audio postmortems can be found in the articles Commentary Tracks of the Damned and Curse of Commentary Tracks of the Damned.

What can a director say about a terrible movie that bombed? Well, quite a lot, actually. One of the amusing things about these Commentary Tracks of the Damned is how rarely a filmmaker will find real fault with even the worst movies -- occasionally you'll get a director who talks about studio interference or how he'd have preferred to end the film a different way, but even that is sort of rare, and you'll very rarely hear someone criticize his or her own work in a serious way. And there's nothing really wrong with that. You can't expect someone who worked hard on a movie to sit back and point out flaws; when you finish a hard job -- and this applies to any tough job, in the movie business or the real world -- what you tend to feel is pride in having done it, not an inclination to focus on the negatives.

Of course, self-criticism isn't always pleasing to listen to. One of my favorite comedies, Top Secret!, comes with a commentary track where the directors criticize the movie constantly, pointing out the bad structure, the lack of good characters, the jokes that didn't get a laugh. It's interesting and all, but if you like the movie you sort of want to jump into the recording studio and explain to the filmmakers that the flaws don't matter. And it's pretty annoying to hear a director talk about how he would have made the movie differently, when you know he hasn't made a movie this good in 20 years, and his current instincts about how the movie should go are probably all wrong.

Other types of commentary include:

- The commentary where they just describe what's onscreen ("He's walking to the door.. he gets stabbed... he falls down... he's dead"). This happens in both cast/crew commentaries and in those tedious scene-by-scene commentaries by "expert" critics on films where the main participants are dead.

- The "from the vaults" commentary, where an old movie is commented on by someone armed with all kinds of knowledge about the making of the film. I like this kind of commentary because it does what a commentary track is supposed to do, which is fill us in on how the movie was made, how a particular special effect was created, etc. Much more useful than critical commentaries that just tell us how the critic analyzes the film. Roger Ebert's justly-acclaimed commentaries on Citizen Kane and Casablanca are like this; he points out all the special effects in Kane and describes how they were done.

- The "gang" commentary, where people who were involved in the film get together and swap stories and jokes. I'm always a little wary of these, because frankly, movie-industry people aren't all that appealing individually and they are even less so when they get together to enjoy themselves.

100th Anniversary Madness!

This is my 100th post. It seems like only two months ago I started this blog. That's because it was two months ago. And what a two months it has been, not only for me, but for the world. The blogosphere has changed the face of the internet and the media. And by "blogosphere" I of course mean "me." Those skinny fat-cats in the major media, sipping their vodka cappucino martinis and checking the Fox website for the latest news on American Idol -- they laughed at us online blogger-geeks. They shut us out. But now they tremble before us, as blogs re-shape the debate. I don't know what the debate is, but I know that blogs are re-shaping it. After all, it said so in the newspaper.

So, this has been a momentous 100 posts. The 100th post anniversary party will take place at a Bennigan's to be disclosed later. If you can't make it, you can always show up at the upcoming 107th post anniversary seminar, featuring a panel discussion by various bloggers on the subject of "How I single-handedly brought down the local newspaper editor."

Saturday, July 17, 2004

More Van Meegeren Syndrome

David Hurwitz of Classics Today has an entertaining article about how our music-listening lives could be simplified if we just attributed the works of minor composers to "major" composers. This way we could get a listen for the occasional great works created by the Minor Masters, while avoiding the confusion of having to remember so many names:

The Classical Period has always been dominated by Haydn and Mozart, so why do we need to waste time with names like Boccherini, Hoffmeister, Beck, Dittersdorf, Cimarosa, Stamitz, Richter, Vanhal, and even Hummel? Let’s simply adopt the obvious solution: if the music ends in a minor key and uses chromaticism, it must be by Mozart. If it employs monothematic sonata form and has a sense of humor, it’s a lost work of Haydn. All worthy operas and concertos are Mozart’s; string quartets and symphonies are Haydn’s. In a pinch, if some doubt remains regarding attribution, we can always hedge our bets and say “Studio of Haydn.” After all, he had many students and lived a long life. If the music was composed after 1800 but before 1820 it’s by Beethoven unless it’s an opera, in which case it’s by Rossini or (when in German) Weber. After 1820 or so we have a brief window of opportunity to greatly expand Schubert’s output, after which no one except Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Schumann wrote orchestral music that anyone cares about until the mid 19th century. Some eras are inherently tidy.

There's another related point, which is that we are more likely to like a work if it has a particular name attached to it. I know there have been times when I've been listening to the radio, hearing a not-particularly-impressive piece, only to hear at the end that it was written by Bach or Schumann or somebody inherently worthy of capital-R respect. Instantly, I have to fight the urge to pretend I really did like the piece I just heard. This is, of course, a function of not having enough confidence in my own opinions; like a lot of non-musicians, I don't really think enough of my knowledge of music to say with confidence that a piece of music is good or bad, so I look to critical consensus to get me off the hook. (An alternative dodge is to talk about the "structure" of a piece, this being easily analyzed. It's still a dodge because even if a composer has total mastery of the fugue or the sonata form or cyclic development, it says nothing about the quality of his inspiration.)

Of course, it's not only laymen like me who do this; Glenn Gould pointed out that critics tend to judge the quality of a piece of music based mostly on how "advanced" it is, and therefore in what period it was written. He described this as "Van Meegeren Syndrome," after the Dutch forger who got experts to believe that his paintings were by Vermeer, and therefore masterpieces. Applied to music, the syndrome would go like this, Gould says:

Some months ago, in an article in the Saturday Review, I ventured that the delinquency manifest by this sort of evaluation might be demonstrated if one were to imagine the critical response to an improvisation which, through its style and texture, suggested that it might have been composed by Joseph Haydn. (Let's assume it to be brilliantly done and most admirably Haydn-esque.) I suggested that if one were to concoct such a piece, its value would remain at par -- that is to say, at Haydn's value -- only so long as some chicanery were involved in its presentation, enough at least to convince the listener that it was indeed by Haydn. If, however, one were to suggest that although it much resembled Haydn it was, rather, a youthful work of Mendelssohn, its value would decline; and if one chose to attribute it to a succession of authors, each of them closer to the present day, then -- regardless of their talents or historical significance -- the merits of this same little piece would diminish with each new identification. If, on the other hand, one were to suggest that this work of chance, of accident, of the here and now, was not by Haydn but by a master living some generation or two before his time (Vivaldi, perhaps), then this work would become -- on the strength of that daring, that foresight, that futuristic anticipation landmark in musical composition.

And all of this would come to pass for no other reason than that we have never really become equipped to adjudicate music per se. Our sense of history is captive of an analytical method which seeks out isolated moments of stylistic upheaval -- pivot points of idiomatic evolution -- and our value judgments are largely based upon the degree to which we can assure ourselves that a particular artist participated in or, better yet, anticipated the nearest upheaval. Confusing evolution with accomplishment, we become blind to those values not explicit in an analogy with stylistic metamorphosis.

This applies to more than music, of course. How many times have you heard someone -- a critic, whoever -- praise an old movie or book for being "ahead of its time?" Works of art are often praised on the basis of having broken new ground, or introduced new stylistic devices. But does that really speak to how good they were, or just how different they were at the time? I once took a course in silent films with a professor who frankly disliked D.W. Griffith. People often asked him, he said, "But what about Griffith's technique?" To which he would reply that any technical advances of Griffith's were part of history, and had no bearing on the evaluation of the films as films. I didn't agree with him about Griffith (not about Broken Blossoms or Orphans of the Storm anyway) but I thought he had a point in general: innovation is essentially a historical matter, not an artistic matter. Or put another way, if we need to know that something was ahead of its time, then how interested can we be in the work itself?

Friday, July 16, 2004

Obscure Musicals: SUPERMAN

The actor who played Superman on Broadway recently wrote a book, coincidentally entitled Superman on Broadway. I haven't read it, but Jerry Beck recommends it, saying that "this book collects all his memories of the experience, clippings, stills, TV appearences, just everything... plus the story of his showbiz career before the tights and cape - and his subsequent business in home design." Holiday's other Broadway appearances included a supporting role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! produced by the producer-director of Superman, Harold Prince.

Superman was one of those shows that seemed to have everything going for it and still flopped. It had a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; after their moody jazz score for Golden Boy, this score brought back the bright playfulness of Bye Bye Birdie, with songs ranging from mid-'60s pop (one of the songs, "It's Superman," is written in such a way that it can be, and is, sung either as a conventional Broadway ballad or an uptempo song with a vaguely rock/pop beat) to '30s pastiche ("You've Got What I Need," a duet for the villains, is a Cole Porter takeoff that even directly references "You're the Top"). The big hit was "You've Got Possibilities," one of those show tunes that starts quietly and then gradually builds to a loud, belt-heavy climax.

The book, by David Newman and Robert Benton -- the team that would write Bonnie and Clyde for Hollywood the next year -- was a very funny take on the Superman story and comic-book mythology in general. It wasn't a campy parody like Batman, which premiered while Superman was playing on Broadway. It was more of a comic re-examination of Superman: let's see what happens to this character when we put him in '60s New York, among a completely new set of characters (the only other characters retained from the comic book are Lois, Perry and Jimmy), and let him be plagued by '60s self-doubt. That's Superman's biggest problem in this story; when he fails to stop a building from being blown up and the town starts to shun him for his failure, he becomes depressed:

Why must the strongest man in the world
Be the bluest man? Tell me, why?
Don't they know the strongest man can cry?

The villain, Abner Sedgewick (Michael O'Sullivan), now puts his master plan into effect by talking to Superman and, basically, analyzing him the way a pop-culture commentator analyzes a comic book; telling Superman that his persona is just a symbol of his need for love, and that the Superman/savior pose is unacceptably arrogant and kind of fascist ("Who told you we needed a Superman"). Unable to deal with this kind of complexity, Superman collapses, and is only brought out of it by realizing that things really aren't that complicated: there really is evil and it's realy his job to stop it. Superman saves the day, of course. Other adversaries include a Winchell-esque columnist named Max (Jack Cassidy) and a troupe of Chinese acrobats who are upset that no one's impressed with them now that Superman is doing amazing stunts for free.

The show got a rave review in the New York Times, but it only ran for 129 performances. The biggest problem was that, though the show was called "Superman," Superman was really more of a peripheral character. He doesn't get the best songs or the best lines. The biggest star in the cast, Jack Cassidy, played a wisecracking, amoral guy who likes Lois Lane and dislikes Superman; this basically should have been a minor part, but Cassidy was so good, and such a well-known actor on Broadway, that this became practically the central role, and would have been even bigger if a long musical monologue called "Dot Dot Dot" (a parody of Winchell's writing style) hadn't been cut. (Lee Adams recalled that no one knew why the song bombed with tryout audiences. I think it's obvious why it bombed: the audience was impatient to get to Superman stuff, and didn't want to sit through four minutes of irrelevant Winchell-isms.) The best song, "You've Got Possibilities," went not to Patricia Marand's Lois Lane -- who mostly got deliberately square-sounding ballads -- but to Linda Lavin, playing Cassidy's secretary. This meant that in a musical about Superman, much of the focus was on characters who had little to do with the plot and nothing to do with the Superman mythology. I sometimes get the feeling that a more sensible producer/director than Prince would have said "It's called Superman, so Superman has to be the star." But it doesn't seem like anybody said that, and I don't think Superman will ever be a success, despite the fine book and score, because of that problem of focus.

The Original Cast Recording is still available and hugely entertaining, except for a really stupid song called "It's Super Nice." There are also some pictures from the original production. The show is sometimes revived, though not on Broadway; the Encores series was supposed to do a concert version of it, but it was cancelled when September 11 made one of the plot twists (a building being blown up by the villains) distasteful.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Anthony Trollope, Blogger

I'm currently trying to re-read some of the classic novels I could never read while I was an English major. (I read a lot of classic English literature in high school, when it wasn't assigned; but when I got to college, I found that I was so busy reading the assigned stuff in the various courses that there was no time for reading anything else. Which means that, like many literature students, I found there was no time for reading while enrolled in a literature program.) I've re-read most of Dickens' novels, and am now trying to get through a novel I constantly tried and failed to crack: Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

Trollope's a writer I often find more appealing in to talk about than to read. His virtues are easy to recount: his realistic characterizations of both men and women; his ability to convey a sense of what life is really like among small-town clergy or Members of Parliament; his no-nonsense storytelling and prose. He's the anti-Dickens, and in his Autobiography, he made sure everyone knew it:

I do acknowledge that Mrs. Gamp, Micawber, Pecksniff, and others have become household words in every house, as though they were human beings; but to my judgment they are not human beings, nor are any of the characters human which Dickens has portrayed. It has been the peculiarity and the marvel of this man’s power, that he has invested, his puppets with a charm that has enabled him to dispense with human nature... Nor is the pathos of Dickens human. It is stagey and melodramatic... Of Dickens’s style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules—almost as completely as that created by Carlyle. To readers who have taught themselves to regard language, it must therefore be unpleasant.

That's all pretty accurate, but the things that drive Trollope crazy in Dickens' novels are the things that make them such good reading: the exaggerations, the melodrama, the willingness to make up his own rules of grammar and language. Trollope doesn't defy grammar, doesn't deal in stagey farce and melodrama, doesn't turn his characters' dialogue into some kind of surreal parody of the way real people speak. He has a story to tell and he tells it, as simply as possible; when he addresses us directly it's not to confuse us as to how we should read the story (which is what Thackeray's authorial intrusions do) but to reduce ambiguity by telling us how he wants us to read it. If the story is a good one, and The Way We Live Now certainly has one of his better stories, it's entertaining reading. But because of the plainness of his writing style, of his narration and dialogue, there's not a lot there to hold the interest if the story lags, and at Victorian-era length, they often do lag. I think that's why Trollope's novels have been so successfully turned into mini-series; the TV shows may not do justice to the novels, but they're effective because if you separate the story and characters from the prose, with Trollope, you haven't really lost much. Whereas with Dickens, if you lose that distinctively ungrammatical writing, you're left with the outline of standard farce or melodrama, which is why adaptations of Dickens' work often make it seem so... well... unimpressive.

Anyway, to explain the title of this post, I'm thinking of Trollope's famous explanation (again in the Autobiography) of how he managed to write so much while working a full-time job as a surveyor for the Post Office:

By beginning at that hour [5:30 a.m.] I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast. All those I think who have lived as literary men,—working daily as literary labourers,—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours,—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom,—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself,—to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.

A guy working at a full-time job, who writes a certain amount every day before he goes to work? He may have written about fictional people, but then, most of us bloggers are writing about people we don't know (politicians, celebrities). I think A.T. would fit right into the blogging culture.

Finding an equivalent in modern popular culture, I guess you could say that Anthony Trollope is King of the Hill -- realistic, down-to-earth, deceptively simple -- while Dickens is The Simpsons -- wackier, given to flights of fancy and wild exaggeration. It's not a perfect analogy because I like KotH a bit better than The Simpsons, but it'll do. I guess that since William Bulwer Lytton has become a byword for bad writing, he can be the equivalent of Family Guy. That's unfair to WBL, who was actually a good writer, but I just wanted another chance to bash Family Guy.