Thursday, September 30, 2004

She's a Fraud!

Getting sick is a good excuse to watch DVDs, because germs make you light-headed and disoriented, and therefore allows you to watch drug-trip movies in the proper frame of mind, but without the subsequent eating binges. However, I don't have any drug-trip movies on hand, so I had to settle for the 1938 film of Shaw's Pygmalion, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

The movie is half as long as the bloated film version of My Fair Lady and much more entertaining. The only real problem I have with it is the decision to update the setting to the time when the movie was made (so everybody dresses in 1938-type clothes, and "motor-bus" becomes just plain "bus"). I suppose it kept the budget down to be able to use contemporary settings instead of having to create old-fashioned sets and costumes, and I suppose that the updating was supposed to emphasize the timelessness of the story -- but the problem is, the story isn't all that timeless, or at least certain aspects of it feel anachronistic in the London of 1938, as opposed to the London of 25 years earlier.

For example, in 1913 you could accept that Colonel Pickering's well-meaning politeness -- "won't you sit down, Miss Doolittle?" -- is perhaps less of a solution to society's problems than Higgins' ruthlessness and rudeness; Pickering's a nice guy, but treating a flower girl as if she were a duchess just reinforces the class system, whereas Higgins' treating a duchess as if she were a flower girl is the kind of thing that could help break down the class system. Well, the class system still existed in 1938, of course, but in a 1938 context, Pickering's manners seem positively old-fashioned and quaint, not a status quo kind of thing but a nice throwback to a better-mannered age. With England's culture starting to become more ill-mannered, it's no longer clear that Higgins is a rebel; he's just another rude guy in a rude age. And if you tried to update Pygmalion to the England of 2004, Pickering would be the rebel and Higgins, at least in terms of his manners, would be firmly on the side of the status quo.

Another thing about the movie is that it was the basis for My Fair Lady; all the scenes that are in My Fair Lady but not in the play -- the ball scene, the "Rain in Spain" lesson, the ending -- come from the movie. I bring that up because Alan Lerner, in talking about how he adapted Pygmalion into a musical, always used to say that he solved the problem of adaptation by deciding to "show what was merely mentioned in the play"; in most of his interviews, he never mentioned that all these "new" scenes were from the movie version. (In his autobiography, he finally admitted that he had been "following the movie more than the play.") Another unacknowledged movie adaptation is The King and I: Oscar Hammerstein based his script directly on the script of the movie Anna and the King of Siam, yet the writers of that movie didn't get credit anywhere on the program, and most likely didn't get any royalties for the use of their material in the stage show (the Anna movie was owned by Fox, and Hammerstein got to use the material in exchange for Fox getting the movie rights). It seems as though writers like Hammerstein and Lerner didn't want to admit drawing on movie scripts for the musical versions, but I'm not sure why -- maybe they just wanted to get credit for doing such a good job of "opening up" the source material, and that meant not saying too much about the fact that the "opening up" had already been done by someone else.

One more word about the infamous ending of the Pygmalion movie (people often attack My Fair Lady for "tacking on" this ending, not realizing that it's lifted directly from the 1938 movie version). As is generally known, Shaw didn't want a romantic ending for Higgins and Eliza; his most famous statement about this is "I cannot conceive a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle-class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother-fixation, and a flower girl of 18." For the movie version, producer Gabriel Pascal decided to create the romantic ending anyway, or at least a suggestion of possible romance. What I always find clever about the way he did this was that he managed to do it without writing any new dialogue -- and therefore, without violating Shaw's contract that "all dialogue" had to be written by Shaw. The final scene of the movie, and of My Fair Lady, consists entirely of lines from earlier in the play: Eliza's voice on a recording, followed by Eliza repeating one of her earlier lines ("I washed my face and hands before I come, I did"), followed by Higgins repeating one of his earlier lines ("Where the devil are my slippers?"). Voila, a whole new ending, the audience is happy, and the author can't sue.

Things That Sort of Suck: Testify, Archie!

Do you remember those vaguely religious Archie stories in the digests you read as a kid? The ones where Archie would meet an angelic girl who identified herself as "Gabriel," or where Betty ended the story by telling the others that we all need to learn to love and trust each other? Those stories were written and drawn by a cartoonist named Al Hartley, who became a born-again Christian in the late '60s and went to work for Archie comics around the same time -- in part, it seems, because he was no longer willing to draw violent or suggestive comics. He started working religious themes into his stories; when management asked him to cut it out, he did, but somehow got permission to license the Archie characters for an infamous series of Christian comics for the publisher Spire.

I found a link to a PDF Version of one of these comics. It's a pretty big file, so it may take awhile to load. It's a pretty spooky experience, especially because it starts out more or less like a regular Archie story and slowly, gradually, brings in all the religion until we're drowning in a sectarian sea. I never really read Christian comics before -- I have, mercifully enough, never even seen a Jack Chick tract -- and I don't know that I want to read one again. The combination of the drawing style Hartley used in his regular Archie comics (any kid could identify his work, though not his name, because of trademarks like having the characters throw tantrums with puffs of "anger smoke" around them) with that relentlessly happy religious message... well, it's not necessarily badly done, but it's certainly deeply, deeply strange and disturbing.

While I'm posting this under my usual label of "Things That Suck," this isn't really fair; I don't know enough of the Christian-comics world to be able to judge this kind of thing. Besides, it doesn't seem like a hellfire kind of thing, the sort of thing that would make me really nervous; it's more of a happy, upbeat, God-loves-us-all message. Hartley's regular Archie stories were like that; he was always putting in not messages about sin and stuff like that, but just about how we're all supposed to love each other. As a child, reading those stories and not realizing that they were supposed to be promoting Christian messages, I thought they were supposed to be hippie flower-power, universal-love messages. (A function of going to a Jewish school is that you wind up knowing more about hippies than Christians.) Since Hartley became a born-again Christian in the late '60s and started working for Archie about the same time, maybe that interpretation wasn't far off. I've always wanted to research whether the boom in born-again Christianity coincided with the rise of the flower-power movement; the two have more in common, culturally, than is now apparent.

But anyway, though I have to admit that Christian comics make me nervous, they are what they are: comics aimed at a particular audience. Nothing wrong with that, really. After all, when I was a kid I read Mendy and the Golem, and I turned out all right. Oh, wait -- no, I didn't. Well, I blame Mendy and the Golem comics for that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Not Again!

So my Montreal Expos may become Washington Senators. Or, rather, "Washington Senators III: New Nightmare." I can't say I'm particularly sorry, because I haven't really followed the Expos for awhile. And I don't agree with this article that Montreal supported the Expos "loyally" until the 1994 debacle; unimpressive crowds were a staple of Olympic Stadium long before that. (The fact that the stadium kept falling apart didn't help.) It's time for the Expos to leave Montreal; the problem is that this seems like the worst possible move: a city that lost two teams already, a city with another major league team a short drive away, a stadium being built with a gun to the taxpayers' heads... geez. The only good thing about this is that it will allow for an updated revival of Damn Yankees, since the "Washington Senators" stuff will no longer be dated, and the stuff about the Yankees being evil and always winning, well, that never goes out of style.

More Underblogging

I'm fighting a cold (actually, the cold already won the fight, but I'm just too stubborn to accept it), which makes my already light blogging even lighter. I'll have some new stuff fairly soon, though.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

An Honest Politician

I'm hardly going against the grain (choose whichever grain you prefer) by saying that I like Bob and Ray. During election season, one routine that always comes to my mind as one of their best is one called "Corrupt Mayor." Bob and Ray were primarily mass-media parodists -- they made their name by coming onto the radio and making deadpan fun of all the terrible stuff that you'd just heard on the radio that day: the soap operas, the sports programs, and, especially, news programming. Bob and Ray are the forefathers of the routines on shows like The Daily Show, where the correspondents play on our knowledge of the cliches of broadcast journalism, and of the lengths to which reporters and interviewees alike will go to keep from speaking plainly.

Anyway, the "Corrupt Mayor" routine, like many of Bob and Ray's routines, is set up as a mock news interview, with Bob as the interviewer and Ray as the interviewee. It's partly a parody of the typical bland interview where a politician discusses his life, except the politician happens to have led a life of total corruption. But the premise is also something like: what would happen if the people in a news interview really did speak plainly, without "spin" words (or whatever it used to be called before the term "spin" became popular) or denials? Some excerpts:

BOB: The story of this man's trial has been on the front pages of most of our nation's newspapers for several weeks now. He is the corrupt mayor of Skunk Haven, New Jersey, Mr. Ralph "Moody" Thayer. Mayor Thayer... to go back over your checkered career: you were a petty forger, a master swindler, a convicted embezzler --

RAY: Convicted of perjury several times.

BOB: ...Then after you completed your formal education, I believe you developed an interest in financial matters? Lending money?

RAY: Loan sharking. Yes, I did that for several years, until the criminal element in town asked me to run for public office. I took that as a mandate.

BOB: I remember that first election. It still stands as the crookedest in Skunk Haven history.

RAY: Thank you.

BOB: That was only the beginning, and now, through your various administrations, you've managed to riddle each and every department with corruption, from the top all the way through even to the visiting nurse association... Do you think it's easier to be corrupt now than it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago?

RAY: Oh, my, yes! Ten or fifteen years ago it was a disgrace to be corrupt. Now it's a rich, fertile field. I would recommend it to anyone with a devious mind, who is willing to put in long hours without working hard.

The routine was incorporated into Bob and Ray's Broadway show Bob and Ray, the Two and Only, though I would assume they'd done it on radio before that. There was a recording of The Two and Only -- that's where I heard it and most of Bob and Ray's other famous routines, like "Slow Talker" -- but now I notice that it no longer seems to be available from the Bob and Ray website. Oh, well. Here's a good overview of the work of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The MTM Kitten Meows Again

Randy Salas of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a new article reporting that The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the most notorious sales flop in the short history of TV shows on DVD, is finally on track for a season 2 release, though whether it'll have extras -- extensive extras were prepared, but that was before season 1 under-performed -- is another question.

Salas also included a chart of how various classic TV shows have sold on DVD; it turns out that the first season of MTM didn't really sell that badly -- 85,000 copies, which isn't that far out of the usual figure for the first season of an older TV series. The problem, I think, was that Fox had had a big hit with the first season of M*A*S*H, which has now sold 550,000 copies (that's just the first season alone), an extraordinary figure for a show from 1972, bigger than most current shows. I'm not a big M*A*S*H fan, but its continued popularity is extraordinary and impressive, and probably set impossible expectations for other "classics" from Fox. So Fox released Mary Tyler Moore with the copious extras and marketing that they would give to a current show, only to find that it sold at the levels of, well, an old show. Hopefully they've now figured out how to make these releases work, and hopefully this will lead to the rest of Mary Tyler Moore as well as the other series from the MTM library.

Truth be told, though, I'm less fond of Mary Tyler Moore and the other MTM sitcoms than I used to be. In the '70s, MTM became synonymous with the "quality" sitcom, shot on film, dealing with youngish or at least vaguely hip people (even Bob Newhart wore plaid pants, which were apparently supposed to make him look cool to a '70s audience), more sophisticated and less loud and brash and obvious than the videotaped Norman Lear sitcoms. When I was growing up, MTM sitcoms were everywhere in syndication and the Lear stuff was almost nowhere to be seen; I remember one cable station ran All in the Family sometime in the '80s and then pulled it, and everyone I knew seemed to feel that all the yelling and topical references made it seem very dated. But now it seems that All in the Family is much more popular in reruns than The Mary Tyler Moore Show; the Lear sitcoms have sold well on DVD, and more and more sitcom producers talk about All in the Family, not Mary Tyler Moore, as their ideal of a sitcom: politically incorect, bold, loud, tough.

Mary Tyler Moore still holds up for me, at least from the third season onward (once they added several key writers, including David Lloyd and Ed. Weinberger, the overall quality of the writing took a big step forward). But a lot of the MTM shows now seem to drown in their own sophistication; they're so determined to be the thinking person's sitcom that they eschew physical comedy, farce, suggestive humor, and basically everything except a stream of not-terribly-funny one-liners. The early seasons of The Bob Newhart Show strike me as not funny at all (once Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses took over as showrunners, it got funnier), and Rhoda is kind of a trainwreck with or without the pathetic Joe (who vies with Stanley from Golden Girls as Most Emasculated Sitcom Husband).

In my opinion MTM's finest achievement, at least in sitcoms, was WKRP in Cincinnati, a show that sort of fused the MTM style (sophisticated ensemble workplace humor) with the Lear style (videotape, socially-conscious humor). That show will probably never come out on DVD, but because of music issues; in terms of popularity, it's probably ahead of any of the other MTM sitcoms, and -- according to MTM's founder, Grant Tinker -- made more money in syndication than any of them. And yet WKRP, because it wasn't in the "pure" MTM style, was looked down on by others at MTM, starting with Mary Tyler Moore herself, who, asked about WKRP, replied "Let me put it this way: I wouldn't watch it." A huffy TV Guide article from 1978 basically accused MTM of selling out by producing the show, and the charge was more or less repeated in various articles and books on MTM, including one called MTM: Quality Television. But to a large extent the sitcoms that hold up well are not the ones that have the slightly stultifying reputation of "Quality" sitcoms; "Quality," at least as critics apply the term to sitcoms, often comes across as meaning doing without all the lowbrow, vaudevillian, silly stuff that makes sitcoms what they are. That's not true of all MTM shows, but it's certainly true of some of them.

Even The Dick Van Dyke Show, the stylistic father of MTM, has this problem sometimes, with the lesser episodes featuring a string of lukewarm one-liners hung on a slim "realistic" story, the sort of thing that makes you long to change the channel to a dopey but funny show like The Beverly Hillbillies. However, Dick Van Dyke holds up better than most of the MTM shows, in part because of its generous helping of physical comedy; Rhoda or Bob Newhart could have used a few pratfalls to liven up the setup-punchline monotony.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Land of the Brave and Free

While talking about national anthems the other day, I mentioned -- and I know I'm not the only one to point this out -- that several countries have unofficial national anthems that are probably more popular than their official ones. "God Bless America," of course, is where Americans turn when they need a national anthem with actual singable lyrics (none of that "the bombs burting in air" stuff), though Berlin always opposed the idea of its becoming the official anthem. And England's unoffical anthem, "Rule Britannia" by Thomas Arne and James Thomson, is much more rousing and inspiring than "God Save the Queen." The "unofficial" anthems tend to supply something that the official one doesn't have. So "God Bless America" makes up for the obliqueness of "Star-Spangled Banner" (which doesn't actually say anything nice about the country until the last line of the refrain) with direct, simple expression: land that I love, my home sweet home. And though "God Save the Queen/King" was introduced almost at the same time as "Rule Britannia," the latter now almost seems like it's making up for something that the former doesn't have; instead of a solemn prayer for God to bless England, "Rule Britannia" is a joyous celebration of all the blessings England already has, and how much cooler she is than "The nations not so blessed as thee." That's why the official anthems can't and shouldn't be supplanted by the alterna-anthems: the songs compliment each other.

Anyway, I don't know whether other countries have alterna-anthems; France, perhaps, doesn't need one, because La Marseillaise fulfils both jobs of a national anthem: it's a rousing military song and an expression of hope that the country will fulfil its destiny. Also, Casablanca pretty much established it as the coolest national anthem. I've always thought of "The Volga Boatman Song" as Russia's anthem, but I doubt that the Russians would agree.

As for Canada, our current national anthem, like so much else about us, comes off as a bland attempt to evade expressing any kind of cultural identity; both in the original French and in the English translation, it says very little about us except our country's name. At least "God Save the Queen," being a British anthem whose tune is also used by the Americans, sort of says something about English Canada's identity as an Anglo-American hybrid (off-topic, but while I used to think that Canada had lost a lot by denying its English heritage, I've decided that Israel is the country that lost the most on that score: in trying to make itself less English, Israel wound up saddled with a new identity in the eyes of the world, as a de facto American colony). Maybe we need an Irving Berlin to write a song that does something different from our official anthem, but the problem is, I'm not sure exactly what it is that our official anthem actually does.

Thank God I'm Not Hip

Whew! Now that the New York Times Magazine has done an article on blogging, that makes blogging officially unhip. Good news for me. As a determinedly retro person who started a determinedly retro blog, I'd hate to think that I was associated with anything trendy.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Chaps Who Did Taps Aren't Tapping Anymore

So Terry Teachout has a new book about choreographer George Balanchine. I don't know a great deal about ballet -- I'm familiar, say, with Stravinsky's "Apollo" but not the Balanchine dances that go with it -- so I first heard of Balanchine in connection with his Broadway work, choreographing many shows for Rodgers and Hart -- On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, Boys from Syracuse -- and others; I think the last hit show he was associated with was George Abbott and Frank Loesser's Where's Charley? in 1948, after which he concentrated mostly on his ballet work. Balanchine's Rodgers and Hart shows were instrumental in introducing the idea that ballet, as opposed to hoofing or tapping, had a place in Broadway musicals. There had been ballets in musicals before, usually to accommodate a dancing star, like Marilyn Miller; but Balanchine was the first Broadway choreographer to make a specialty of it, as well as the first Broadway choreographer who was prestigious enough to be as important as the dancers, if not more; most Broadway choreographers before Balanchine weren't even billed as choreographers, but as "dance directors," implying someone who just worked out the steps and drilled everyone in how to step together. He was also perhaps the first choreographer to be so important that his work influenced the casting; the role of the angel in Rodgers and Hart's I Married an Angel was originally written as a singing role (they intended it for Jeanette MacDonald, who in fact wound up doing it in a really bad movie version with Nelson Eddy), but wound up as a dancing role for Vera Zorina.

This had its good points and bad points; the Big Ballet soon became a cliche of musicals, and prompted one critic to write "Cripes, what I wouldn't give for a good old hoofing chorus!" But through his Broadway work, Balanchine expanded the scope of what dance could do in a musical, and made it possible to view dance not as a diversion, but as part of the story. And by bringing his own highly distinctive style to the shows he choreographed, Balanchine established the idea that a Broadway musical could have choreography just as distinctive and creative as the ballet, and borrow from "serious" dance without losing its showbiz savvy (On Your Toes even makes this into the basis of the story: a hoofer, played by Ray Bolger, and a ballet dancer, Tamara Geva, pool their talents in a fusion of ballet and showbiz, classical and jazz, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue"). It's Balanchine who paved the way for the Broadway careers of such choreographers such as Agnes De Mille and Jerome Robbins.

One thing I noticed, when typing those names, is that while many choreographers were able to cross over between ballet and Broadway, few of those choreographers did much work in Hollywood. The odd thing about that is that Hollywood musicals aren't less dependent on dance than Broadway musicals; if anything, they're more dependent on dance. The greatest Hollywood musicals tend to be dance-heavy, and the two biggest stars of movie musicals, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, both gave up Broadway stardom for Hollywood. The big Broadway stars, with occasional exceptions (Ray Bolger, Gwen Verdon), were usually singers (Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin) or comedians who could sing better than they could dance (Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers). Yet there aren't many famous movie choreographers; under the influence of Gene Kelly, MGM did a few Big Ballets in the early '50s, but mostly the dancing in movie musicals is an expression of the dancer's personality, rather than the choreographer's; Fred Astaire may have worked out the steps with Hermes Pan, but it's still a Fred Astaire dance, whereas "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is unmistakably Balanchine's dance, not Ray Bolger's -- the proof being that people can, and do, perform "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" without Bolger; you can't do the "Cheek to Cheek" dance without Fred and Ginger.

I suppose I've just answered my own question about why choreography never took off in movie musicals: stage musicals need to have dances that can be performed by someone other than the star, so the choreographer's vision becomes more important; and as shows started to run longer, became still more important (as musicals needed to run longer to make back their money, it became more important to have choreography that could hold up under multiple cast changes). This doesn't apply with movie musicals, where everything happens just once. There was one movie choreographer who became famous -- Busby Berkeley -- but Berkeley had not particular distinction purely as a choreographer; in his Broadway work, he was a pure "dance director," specializing in unison dances with the boys and girls repeating the same step over and over, and he carried that style over into his movie work; he became famous, and deservedly so, for what he did with the camera, not for what the dancers were doing.

Another point in this rambling post: I get the impression that by the '50s, there was a bit of a backlash against "arty" choreography. Maybe 1951, with the double-punch of Gene Kelly's interminable Big Ballet in An American in Paris and Jerome Robbins' very long "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet in the year's big hit musical, The King and I, was the moment when people started thinking that these big dances were eating up too much time. In any case, the '50s brought fewer and fewer ballets in musicals, more old-fashioned showbiz dancing, more choreographers like Bob Fosse who cultivated non-balletic styles, more musicals like My Fair Lady with relatively little dancing (even Robbins, who created the ultimate dance musical with West Side Story, followed it up with Gypsy). The backlash was even written into a couple of movie musicals by old hands who had lived through the dance revolution; Irving Berlin, in a not-particularly-good song for his not-particularly-good movie musical White Christmas, lamented, "Instead of dance, it's choreography," while Cole Porter added some new lines to the movie version of Silk Stockings:

It's not enough today to see a dancer at his ease --
He's got to throw his back out and come sliding on his knees.
He's got to have glorious Russian ballet or Chinese ballet or Hindu ballet or Bali ballet or any ballet
And stereophonic sound.

Finally -- and forgive me for writing such a disorganized post, but chalk it up to post-Yom-Kippur disorientation -- the booklet for the cast album of House of Flowers, a 1954 show (written by Truman Capote, with music by Harold Arlen), has an anecdote about Balanchine, who was originally hired as the choreographer but -- like the director, Peter Brook -- wasn't the right choice for a show about rival Haitian brothels. Geoffrey Holder, one of the lead dancers in the show, recalled that Balanchine's approach was a bit over-formal:

We waited two days for Mr. Balanchine to teach us the mambo. All he had to say was "Mambo!" and we would have done it because we did it every night at the Palladium. But all of Balanchine's ballets are mathematical. So it took him two days to break it down.

Balanchine quit or was fired during tryouts, and was replaced by a younger choreographer, Herbert Ross (who also took over the direction when Brook was fired, making House of Flowers a possible contender for the record of "most distinguished list of creative staff who bombed out and got fired").

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Sound of Silents

Silent movies need music, and there are all kinds of ways to provide it. Sometimes there's a live musician, or, on special occasions, a live orchestra. Sometimes there's a pre-recorded score, with a full orchestra, a small band, an organ, a piano, whatever. Sometimes the score is totally original music; sometimes it's based on familiar music from the public domain. The silent-movie scores I've heard have one thing, and only one thing in common: they suck.

Okay, "suck" is too strong. I just said it to get attention. (I do so need attention.) But honestly, I've never been satisfied with a new score for a silent movie. Even the scores that are professionally done, well-played and don't sound anachronistic -- there are way too many scores that try to provide a postmodern sound for what is the cinema equivalent of the pre-modern era -- don't seem to add anything to the movie, and don't really seem to match the onscreen action. I could never quite figure out why I thought this, or what I thought a good silent movie score should be, until I saw a non-silent movie: Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise. This movie -- one of the greatest film comedies ever made -- is a talkie, made in 1932. But unlike most talkies of the era, which used no background music at all on the mistaken belief that if you have sound you don't need music (some of the early sound horror movies, like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, are severely weakened by their lack of music), Trouble in Paradise makes extensive use of background music, composed by Franke Harling . In an effort to give the movie some of the fluidity that his best silent films had possessed, Lubitsch did many shots and even some entire scenes without any sound, and few if any sound effects; instead he used music to take the place of sound, just as it does in a silent film. Basically, then, the silent scenes in Trouble in Paradise demonstrate what Lubitsch expected music to do in otherwise silent scenes; and by watching and listening to these scenes, we can get an idea of what a great silent-film director would want a composer to do.

In the opening scene of Trouble in Paradise, the first time we hear music on the soundtrack is when Edward Everett Horton is trying to stand up (after having been knocked unconscious). The music isn't melodic; it's just a series of halting repeated phrases that mimic the action: Horton is slowly trying to get up. As he loses his balance and falls to the ground, a chord on the soundrack mimics that action as well.

That's the way it goes through the whole movie: in the scenes with no sound, composer Harling doesn't do what we would now expect a composer to do, which is to set the overall mood of the scene or enhance its emotional impact. What he does is follow the action: the music imitates movements, gestures, even footsteps. When Herbert Marshall runs up and down the stairs (actually, a stunt double is used for these scenes, since Marshall had lost a leg in World War I), there are no sound effects of feet hitting the floor; instead there's a rising musical figure for running up, and a descending figure for running down. In other words, it's the kind of music known as "Mickey-Mousing." You can see why people who compose scores for silent movies don't do this kind of thing, since directly following the action is considered gauche. And it is gauche -- in a scene that already has sound effects to go with those actions. But in a scene without sound effects, "Mickey-Mousing" works: it adds solidity to the actions, adds rhythm to the scene. That's what Lubitsch was looking for in silent scenes, and -- I'm going to assume -- in his silent movies: music that could connect actions to sounds, in the absence of any other sound to do that job.

Now, if you have the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise -- and you should -- compare the new piano score that is used for the Lubitsch silent film included as a bonus, The Merry Jail. It's not a bad score; it's professionally put together and all that. But aside from the fact that it uses the wrong tunes (the film is based on Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, yet the score doesn't use any of Strauss's music; presumably Lubitsch would have expected Die Fledermaus tunes to be played to go with the movie, just as he would have expected Sigmund Romberg's music to be used for his silent version of The Student Prince), it's mostly just a series of melodies, a lot of mood music that sets the general tone of the scene; it almost never follows the action or mimics the characters' movements in that direct, Trouble in Paradise way. It just seeks to follow mood, rather than action; it's "underscore" music. The problem is, in a silent film there's nothing to underscore; the music is the only sound you hear, and it has to do the work that is done by dialogue and sound effects in a talkie.

Without that kind of action-specific music, the images just kind of float there onscreen, because there's nothing to solidify them. In this way, good silent movie music is a lot like traditional cartoon music. Carl Stalling, the composer for Looney Tunes (and, before that, for Disney), started as an organist for silent movies, and he carried that experience over to the vocabulary of cartoon music. Looney Tunes cartoons have sound effects for important actions, like explosions and falling anvils and such. But when it came to less spectacular actions, like walking, sound effects wizard Treg Brown (who worked closely with Stalling) would not put in sound effects for footsteps; instead Stalling's score would follow the characters' footsteps. Before the cartoons went into production, Stalling also set a rhythm for each scene, which the animators could animate to. This is, again, the kind of thing that you need in a silent movie: the music needs to set a strong rhythmic foundation for the scene, and where there are no sound effects, the music must in essence become a "sound effect" in itself, providing musical equivalents of physical actions.

So I say to anyone composing a silent-movie score -- and after all, who isn't? -- forget everything you know about good movie music; those rules are for talkies, movies where the rhythm is carried by sound effects and where you hear words when characters talk. Silent movies are different; your music has to do the work that is normally divided in three (between music, sound effects, and dialogue). Don't just play a tune or set a mood, because all that creates is a feeling that a bunch of people are walking too fast while some tinkly music appears out of nowhere. In a silent movie, the music must be tied to the action. If you're scoring, say, The General, it's not enough to play "Dixie" on the soundtrack; you need to follow Buster Keaton's walk, create music that suggests the roar of the train; when a puff of smoke appears, the music should play a chord to suggest that. In other words, don't be afraid of Mickey-Mousing. Because that's exactly what a silent movie needs.

Quote of the Day

"The spirit killeth, the letter giveth life."
-- T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Galaxy, Use Your Light!

It's simply not true that every TV show has been on DVD -- this will never be true as long as WKRP languishes unreleased -- but we are seeing some releases of shows that I really never thought we'd see again. Case in point: Rhino has just announced My Little Pony: The Complete First Season (already up for pre-order at Amazon).

This is a hard thing to have to confess, but when I was a child, My Little Pony was probably my favorite cartoon. I didn't dare admit this to anyone at school; for a boy to admit to liking My Little Pony was like a girl admitting to watching... well, actually, I don't think even girls admitted to watching My Little Pony. But watch it I did; it was for My Little Pony, which was on every weekday morning at about seven a.m., that I learned to get up early: I'd wake up before anyone else, run downstairs, watch Pony, and then eat breakfast and get ready for school. And who isn't better prepared to get an education after watching a half-hour of the adventures of a bunch of multicolored female mini-horses based on children's toys?

Now, I can't really remember, after all these years, why I liked that show so much. (Maybe I'll have to try to borrow a copy of the DVD set and try to figure out what I liked about it.) I do remember that the stories were serialized over the week; each Pony story would be told in five fifteen-minute segments, so they'd encounter a problem on Monday and solve it by Friday. The rest of the half-hour was taken up by isolated cartoons about a bunch of cutesy glowworms, plus the usual public service announcements (as in, "We can't actually mention drugs, but if we could mention them, we'd be telling you not to take them"). I remember that the ponies lived in their own special community that most humans didn't know about, a la The Smurfs, but they had a few human kids for friends, suburban kids who somehow found their way to the Pony land when they wanted to have a respite from their dreary real-world suburban lives. Every story had at least one original song in it, but perhaps fortunately, I can't remember any of the songs. I remember that the ponies had high, squeaky voices, and that there was a distinction between the regular ponies, who just ran around a lot, and the unicorns, whose horns gave them environmentally-friendly magical powers ("Galaxy" could produce light, "Gusty" could produce wind -- and yeah, I know, most ponies can do that). Finally, the only plot I really remember from the show was the one where all the ponies and their friends were up against an evil and super-powerful villain named "Grogar," who was a giant blue goat with scary horns and glowing red eyes. He threatened to banish them to "the land of darkness -- FOREVER!" but in the end, he failed. Oh, and this was the show that introduced me to the word "rambunctious."

If there was something this show had going for it to keep me watching, it can be summed up in five little letters: M-A-G-I-C. My favorite cartoon shows were not the funny ones, nor the action-packed ones; they were the ones drenched in magic. Little kids, particularly little kids growing up in the suburbs, love magic and magical lands and magical powers, even villans with magical powers. When you're that age, you're learning how the world works, and coming to terms with the fact that there are all sorts of rules you have to follow and things you can't change. What a pleasure it was to turn on the TV just before school, or just before your parents woke up on Saturday, and see a world where those rules don't apply, where you can have magical friends and worlds that nobody else knows about, and where possibilities are unlimited. Even today, I have a soft spot for that kind of thing; that's why my favorite fantasy stories tend to be stories about normal kids in magical situations, not something like Harry Potter which places magical kids in depressingly normal settings like school.

I don't know if you've noticed this too, but among people of my generation I've noticed an increasing tendency to be nostalgic for the morning cartoons of the '80s. I'm torn. I much prefer the cartoons of the early '90s, and, objectively, cartoons like Batman and Animaniacs were infinitely better than almost anything made in the '80s: better animation, better writing, better acting, and not created to sell toys. But the thing about '80s cartoons was that they were truly kids' cartoons, made to appeal to little kids and to deliver what little kids wanted to see. Kids' cartoons got more sophisticated in the '90s, but the price they paid was driving away the kids. Batman and shows like it ran into trouble in the late '90s when advertisers realized that they weren't really all that popular with very small kids. And why should a show like Batman, with its darkness and moral ambiguity, appeal to little kids? That show is for their big brothers or even their parents. My Little Pony was just for them, just like a magical friend that their parents didn't know about.

One more thing: looking back on the '80s cartoons, it's hard to see why parents' groups made such a stink over the existence of cartoon shows based on toys (to the point that this kind of thing was banned, or at least made more difficult). A cartoon show is going to be merchandised one way or the other, so what's the difference whether the toys come before the cartoon, or after? I know it's crass, and I know that it sometimes led to decisions being made on a pure merchandising basis, e.g. Jem was cancelled even though the ratings were good, because the toys weren't selling. But let's face it: action figures and toys were a pretty good basis for a kids' cartoon, because in the '80s, the real imagination in kiddie entertainment went into the creation of toys. The real problem was that all too often, the cartoon didn't live up to the imagination of the toys. He-Man was a great, dark toy concept, where a muscle-bound guy battled genuinely creepy villains for control of the truly scary, trapdoor-filled Castle Grayskull. The cartoon was like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood by comparison. And believe me, little kids don't really like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

A Good Critic =

Alex Ross of the New Yorker has a review of Rene Jacobs' recent recording of Le Nozze Di Figaro. He has very favorable things to say about the recording and about Jacobs as a conductor. This makes him officially a good critic, since I agree with him. If you've got another criterion for good criticism, I'd like to hear it.

Ross also reviews a new CD by the soprano Anna Netrebko, who, with good looks, a fine voice, and a recording contract, appears to be heading for the "Yo-Yo Club," the select circle of classical artists who become celebrities. Ross doesn't think this is necessarily bad for artistry:

critics have already accused her of subjugating her talent to D.G.’s marketing strategies, which, by modern big-media standards, are meek in the extreme. Do a few come-hither poses or would-be MTV videos really diminish a singer’s artistry? Or do they diminish a critic’s ability to judge her on vocal merits alone?

I'm not very familiar with Netrebko's work, but I'd add that the danger for an over-marketed classical artist is that he or she will make choices -- of repertoire, of technique -- based on commercial considerations rather than what's best for his or her as an artist. Luciano Pavarotti is an example of that. Vocally, he was basically a lyric tenor, ideal for Donizetti and early Verdi and La Boheme, but not for the heavier stuff. But in general, it's the heavier parts and arias that are best known to the public and sell the most records, and some have speculated that that was the reason Pavarotti started singing parts that were basically unsuitable for his voice. "Nessun Dorma" became his signature aria, but it's an aria, and a part, that he really shouldn't hve been singing. As Conrad L. Osborne wrote, surveying Pavarotti's media popularity and artistic decline in the late '70s:

How does it happen that a charming and popular lyric tenor, marvelously suited to parts like Edgardo, Alfredo, Faust, and Werther when in peak condition, decides that such roles as Calaf, Canio, Cavaradossi, Manrico, Radames, and Enzo are his Fach at the very time, almost to the hour, that his upper range is losing its juice and open-throatedness? The timing is devilish.

So that's the potential problem with the Yo-Yo club: not publicity in itself, but the choices that may be made in the pursuit of membership in the club.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Nanoo, Nanoo

The complete first season of Mork and Mindy is now available on DVD, and, like several other reviewers, I'm finding it kind of hard to decide whether or not it's a good show. I once corresponded with a Mork writer who said that, in his opinion, the show didn't have any good characters besides Mork: all the characters, even Mindy, were one-dimensional and not all that funny. I think Pam Dawber was a decent straight woman, but I have to agree with him on the whole; I don't think this show ever had a good supporting character. The main supporting characters in the first season are Mindy's dad (Conrad Janis) and grandmother (Elizabeth Kerr): a fussy bald guy who was so under-written that the writers couldn't even decide whether he liked or hated Mork, and the first of many wisecracking-grandma characters in the Garry Marshall oeuvre. Over the years they kept on adding new characters; in the second season, to revamp it -- one of the few times a big hit show has been completely overhauled -- they added new, younger characters and a new set (a "hip" delicatessen). The new characters were so boring that I can't even remember who they were; eventually they brought back the father and grandmother, on the principle that it's better to have dull characters played by experienced actors than dull characters played by young 'uns. (The first season does offer one funny character who appears in several episodes -- Mindy's vain ex-school-chum, played by all-purpose TV blonde Morgan Fairchild; too bad they didn't make her a regular instead of searching around for new characters.) Mork and Mindy just never had the stable of good characters that a good sitcom is supposed to have; it was a one-man show.

But at least in the first season, that one man is pretty darn good. There's no question that, on the basis of his talk-show mugging, his many horrible movies and his self-indulgent standup routines, Robin Williams has elevated himself to the status of Satan. One look at him doing his silly voices and sitting on the host's lap, and I'm changing the channel to something more entertaining, like Antiques Roadshow: Extreme Edition. But this is 1978-79 Williams, when this schtick was still fresh, and he hadn't yet begun pretending that these routines were "improvised" (during the run of Mork there was, I read, some controversy because Williams was trying to claim that he improvised everything, whereas of course most of what he did was in the scripts, and the showrunners, Dale McRaven and Bruce Johnson, weren't happy about his credit-hogging). The writer I talked to, I recall, said that despite the weakness of the supporting characters, Williams was so funny that he made up for all the other problems.

The show is at its best when the stories provide an excuse for Williams to do what he does best; so the most popular episode from the first season, "Mork's Mixed Emotions," creates a plot point -- Mork loses control of his emotions and starts bouncing from one personality to the next -- that takes Williams' talent for bouncing between personalities and integrates it into the story. To see Williams doing his stuff in that episode, or the episode where he disguises himself as an old man, or the satire of feel-good cults ("Mork Goes ERK," guest-starring David Letterman, who has constantly made fun of himself for his performance in this episode -- though really, he's not that bad), is to be reminded of the basics of what makes a good sitcom: find a funny person, give him a decent story, and turn him loose. The show also had a good writing staff; Dale McRaven, the showrunner and uncredited creator of the show -- he wrote the pilot and created the format of the show, but he didn't get credit for creating it because the character of Mork had already appeared on Happy Days -- had written many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, and other writers included David Misch (later a writer on Police Squad and showrunner of Duckman) and April Kelly (creator of Boy Meets World, which is high on the list of "shows that shouldn't be well-written, but are").

Mork isn't exactly a good show; a good sitcom needs more than one good character. But if you can forgive Robin Williams for Patch Adams, the first season of Mork is pretty darn entertaining. No extras on the four-disc set, but the episodes look a lot better than they did when the Comedy Network showed them here in Canada a couple of years ago; Paramount's sitcoms were probably the best-looking of the era, and the remastering generally conveys that.

Lost in Transliteration

One of the better courses I took in college was a Russian literature course -- featuring all the classic Russian literature that isn't of ungodly length. E.g. Crime and Punishment instead of The Brothers Kamarazov. It was a good course, generally well-taught, that offered a chance for English majors to get a change of pace from the predominantly English and American literature you study in other courses (plus Canadian literature, which you're forced to study).

But one thing that concerned me at the time, and still concerns me now, was the question of whether I was really reading these books. It was Russian literature, but of course we were reading it in English translation; that is, we were reading someone's idea of what the Russian phrases mean in English. Even if it's a good translation -- that is, if the translator has done the best possible job of conveying what the author was saying -- obviously it's not the full experience of the work. We know, when we read in our own language, that how the author says something can be as important as what he or she says, and that an author's style is defined by the way he or she uses the language. All of that, of necessity, becomes tough to see when you're reading something in translation. I know the story Dostoyevsky told and I know, more or less, the themes of his story. But what kind of a writer was Dostoyevsky? What was his style? What does it say about him that he used one word instead of another? What effect is created by the way he uses words? All of that is lost on me and will remain so unless I learn Russian, which is increasingly unlikely (maybe if the Soviet Union had taken over the world like they were supposed to, I'd have had some incentive to learn Russian). I've heard it said by people who know Russian that Dostoyevsky was a great novelist but a clumsy prose stylist; I don't know if this is true, but if it is, then the translations I've read are too polished and stylistically assured; they are written in the style of a university guy who knows Russian and English, not of Dostoyevsky.

And that brings up a general problem I have with translators, even good ones: they seem to want to cover up the crudities and flaws of the authors they translate. Some authors use archaic or stilted language, but the translations use colloquial, modern language. I think a rule of thumb for translators is that they should try to at least suggest the style of the author, warts and all. An example I've given before is Wagner's Ring, whose libretto is written in deliberately archaic language, with everybody addressed as "du" and with alliteration in place of rhyme (as in medieval poetry). Most translations of the Ring "cover up" Wagner's choice by using colloquial English; an accurate translation would have the characters address each other as "thee" and "thou," and that would be truer to what Wagner wrote, even if it sounds stilted (the original sounds stilted, so why shouldn't the translation)?

Poetry is, of course, the hardest thing to translate, because poetry depends so heavily on the actual sound of the words. There's just no way that a translator can preserve the sounds of the original, just as there's no way the translator can retain the original rhyme scheme and metre and still be faithful to what the author was trying to say. We read an English translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in that Russian literature course; a good translation, as I recall, but it was attempting a basically impossible task; Onegin has one of the most complicated rhyme schemes of any narrative poem, and just trying to follow it in English is incredibly difficult; that clearly took up all the author's work, to the point that the lines often sacrificed sound and sense (they didn't sound good or make sense on their own, never mind preserving the sound and sense of Pushkin) to the mechanical demands of getting the rhyme and metre right. Since then I've never wanted to read a rhyming translation of a poem; instead, if I don't understand the language, I look for the original poem side-by-side with a prose translation of the poem, the way opera librettos often have the original libretto side-by-side with a non-rhyming, non-metrical translation. I'd get a lot more out of Onegin by looking back and forth between a transliteration of the poem, using the non-Russian alphabet to convey all the rhymes and sounds that Pushkin used, and a literal explanation of what these rhymes and sounds are saying. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of these kind of side-by-side books on the market.

Cultural Appropriation

This Peanuts strip from 1970 gives us Charles Schulz's take on the "You have to have experienced something before you can write about it" notion. Just in case you think it only started when you went to college.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Clark Redfield on Book Reviewing

I keep planning to write something about Elmer Rice's play Dream Girl, and then putting it off. Meanwhile, here are some more quotes from the play's wisecracking and frankly not very likable male lead, Clark Redfield, a book reviewer who -- to the surprise of the heroine, Georgina Allerton -- wants to get out of book reviewing and into the more rewarding field of sportswriting. Here he explains why, when he sells some old review copies to Georgina's used bookstore:

GEORGINA: What have you there?

CLARK: A fine mixed bag. Three whodunits, a couple of epics of the soil, a survey of the natural resources of Bolivia, and a volume called Fun with a Chafing Dish. And here is the prize of the lot: Professor Oglethorpe's two-volume Life of Napoleon, with the pages still uncut.

GEORGINA: You mean you haven't read it.

CLARK: Do I look like a boy who, six years out of college, would wade through eleven hundred pages on Napoleon?

GEORGINA: But I read your review of it in the Globe.

CLARK: I didn't say I didn't review it. I said I didn't read it.

GEORGINA: How could you review it without reading it?

CLARK: Easy. First I quoted liberally from the introduction and quarreled with the author's approach. Next, I leafed quickly through and called attention to three typographical errors. Then I praised the illustrations, grumbled about the footnotes, and intimated that the book added little to what had already been written. Result, a scholarly column and all done in exactly fifty-seven minutes.

GEORGINA: Is that your idea of literary criticism?

CLARK: Look, I'm a working newspaperman and a member of the Newspaper Guild, whose contract guarantees me a minimum wage for a maximum working week. There's nothing in it that requires me to ruin my eyesight and addle my brain in the interest of a Corsican upstart.

GEORGINA: Well, I've often heard that newspapermen are cynical, but I wouldn't have believed that a man who is entrusted with reviewing books could have so little sense of responsibility... If reviewing books is so distasteful to you, why do you do it?

CLARK: Well, you see, I have a periodic rendezvous with my stomach. And I find that reviewing books requires less leg work than covering the police courts. And, not to withhold anything from you, I'm sitting in a very pretty spot for the first opening on the sports page.

GEORGINA (in amazement): You mean you'd rather be a sportswriter than a literary critic?

CLARK: I'm afraid you don't grasp the practical realities of journalism. What you euphemistically call a literary critic is only a miserable penny-a-liner, whereas a sportswriter nestles snugly in the upper brackets.

GEORGINA: I wasn't thinking about the money --

CLARK: Pardon the indelicacy. So you think that writing about books is on a higher level than writing about sports?

GEORGINA: I just think there's no comparison.

CLARK: You're right; there isn't. Any young squirt, fresh out of college, can write book reviews. Just as any beginner in the theater can play Polonius. In fact, the technique is much the same. You put on false whiskers and spout platitudes in a high, squeaky voice. But to go in there and play Hamlet and follow all the sinuous twists and turnings of that tortured soul; or, on the other hand, to analyze the strategy of an intricate football formation or judge a fast ten-round bout on points -- that's something else again. To do that, you really have to know your stuff.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Reagan of Movies

Star Wars is the Ronald Reagan of movies. And no, this isn't about missile defense or anything like that (as a child, when I heard that the U.S. was rocked by arguments over something called "Star Wars," I wondered why a movie had become a political issue). It's about the way something, or someone, can come along and prove that things haven't changed as much as we thought. Reagan's election in 1980 was often viewed, at the time, as a step backwards for America, a watershed moment that created a new right-wing climate and a return to the myths that had been "shattered" by Vietnam. Looking back on the '70s and '80s now, however, it's easier to see that Reagan didn't create a new national mood as much as he confirmed the existence of a conservative national mood; Vietnam syndrome was never as prevalent as was generally thought, and Reagan's election confirmed that a lot of people had never stopped believing in the pre-Vietnam view of the Cold War.

Well, Star Wars is like that too, from a cinema-history point of view. The conventional wisdom, of which we're going to be hearing a lot now that the trilogy is coming out on DVD, is that Star Wars (along with Jaws) brought the new Golden Age of Cinema to a close and ushered in a new, horrible era of blockbusterism. This article pretty much sums up the conventional wisdom: George Lucas betrayed himself and the art of cinema and condemned us all to bland, disposable entertainment. Leaving aside the point that the '70s produced plenty of bland, disposable entertainment before Star Wars (the big hits tended to be stupid disaster movies, exploitation shockers, and non-Deliverance Burt Reynolds movies), a lot of these critiques ignore the obvious question: why did Star Wars become such a phenomenon? -- and the obvious answer: because it was exactly what audiences were looking for at the time. And the reason the success of Star Wars had such an impact is that it demonstrated something about the tastes of the audience, just as the political success of Reagan would demonstrate something about the opinions of the electorate.

By the '70s, because of the collapse of the studio system, the rise of the New American Cinema, and new trends in movie criticism, there was a tendency to believe that the audience had developed a new sophistication and that the old formulas -- of heroes and happy endings -- were no longer needed. Even aging filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock were of this opinion; here's Hitchcock being interviewed by Francois Truffaut in 1972:

TRUFFAUT: Do you think the old rules still apply, namely that an appealing main character and a happy ending are still valid?

HITCHCOCK: No. The public has developed. There's no more need for the final kiss.

Hollywood studios in the '70s tended to make movies that assumed that the audience had developed, and that therefore movies with a gritty look, moral ambiguity and dark endings would be more to the public's taste than old-fashioned stories with happy endings. What Star Wars demonstrated conclusively is that the public hadn't "developed" at all, hadn't lost its taste for good guys and happy endings and old-fashioned studio magic (Lucas made Star Wars in England, which at the time offered far better studio technicians and special effects than America; and part of his stated reason for doing so was to see if he could make a movie with the look of an old studio film, rather than the on-location look of most '70s movies). Give the public a well-made, morally unambiguous adventure with appealing characters, and they'd flock to it just as they had in the past; the problem with the old-fashioned movies of the '60s wasn't that the public didn't want heroes and happy endings, but that those movies were badly made. In other words, I don't think Star Wars changed the public; it pointed up what was always true, but which the studios had forgotten: tastes never change that much, and the idea that "the audience has developed" was a myth. Like Reagan, it didn't change things so much as it revealed how little things had changed.

You could argue that it was Jaws, two years earlier, that ushered in the era of the blockbuster and revealed how little the public had changed, or perhaps it was Rocky, the year before. But Jaws and Rocky both had the gritty look of the typical '70s movie: the former looked like a bigger-budget version of the TV shows its company, Universal, was producing at the same time, while the latter was, like many '70s movies, a story about losers looking for a break, the only difference being that the break actually comes. They weren't a template for future success, and attempts to mimic Jaws didn't do very well, just as attempts to mimic The Godfather didn't do very well. Star Wars, on the other hand, did provide a template for future success, because it set down some rules that studios could follow in looking for a hit: have clear good guys and bad guys, go for an old-fashioned studio look instead of the washed-out look and inaudible dialogue of a Robert Altman movie; try to appeal to younger and older viewers alike. These were, again, not new rules; they were old Hollywood rules whose effectiveness the studios were rediscovering.

Star Wars also provided a model for how the studios could distinguish movies from television. Ever since television took off, the history of cinema is basically the history of how the studios tried to distinguish their products from television shows, how they tried to offer something that television couldn't. In the '50s and '60s, the solution was to have wider screens, longer movies, more lavish production values. That dried up in the late '60s, and the studios turned instead to loading up their movies with stuff that TV couldn't do: gritty realism, realistic violence, shocking language, nudity. By the mid-'70s, that wasn't working so well; television couldn't do nudity or swearing (HBO would come along a few years later to fill that void), but TV dramas were getting grittier and tougher, and it was increasingly hard to tell a Universal movie from a Universal TV show, given that they were shot on the same streets by the same technicians and had the same kind of dialogue and stories. Star Wars, with its English studio technology and its special effects designed to delight rather than horrify, provided the answer of how to make movies different from television: make them better-looking, glossier, and with better special effects than TV shows. Critics bemoan the movies' post-1977 dependence on special effects, and sometimes even I bemoan it, but the reason for it is obvious: to compete with television, movies have to be able to show things that TV cannot. Wondrous and fantastical special effects are just about the only thing left in that department. And Star Wars clued the studios in to the fact that they could make their movies more successful not by making them grittier, but by going in the opposite direction and making them look better. This, I think, set off something of a technical revolution in Hollywood; studio technicians and technology in Hollywood soon shot far ahead of where they had been in the '60s and '70s.

One more thing to note about Star Wars is that even if you consider the '70s a golden age of cinema, it's hard to argue that Star Wars ended it. 1977 was a pretty bad year for movies (and 1975, the year of Jaws, was perhaps even worse). I'm not a big fan of Star Wars -- I think the Indiana Jones movies, especially the first two, are Lucas's best creations -- and yet I would argue that it should have won the Best Picture Academy Award for that year; the winner, Annie Hall, is even more superficial than Star Wars (I'd rather hear about how the Force will be with me than about how it's tough for Woody Allen to sustain a relationship), and the other three nominees were pretty dismal: The Goodbye Girl (a two-hour Neil Simonism), The Turning Point (a ballet bitchfest), and Julia (Lillian Hellman whitewashes her past and Jane Fonda puts it all up there onscreen). It's not saying much, but Star Wars is the cream of that crop. (You can also make an Oscar argument for two movies that weren't nominated, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 3 Women. I'd still pick Star Wars, I think, having no great love for Spielberg in his "New Age religion" mode or Robert Altman trying to mimic a movie, Persona, that I thought was overrated in the first place.) Star Wars didn't burst into a cinema golden age; it burst into an age of slick, bland, New York-centred entertainments that represented the Hollywood studios' idea of sophistication. Whatever risks were being taken in the late '60s and early '70s, it was pretty much over by 1975, a victim of the self-destruction of some New American Cinema filmmakers, and of the simple fact that a lot of the "classic" movies of that era weren't very big with the public. The studios had, in essence, given young filmmakers a lot of freedom because they, the executives, had no idea what the public wanted. When the young filmmakers proved that most of them had no idea either, they started to fade away; all Star Wars did was allow the executives finally to figure out what the public did want. Honestly, though, I'd say that the post-Star Wars blockbusters are far more watchable than most of the big hits of the '70s. I'd rather sit through Raiders of the Lost Ark or Die Hard than through Earthquake or The Poseidon Adventure or Smokey and the Bandit, which was released on the same day as Star Wars. Maybe there's a Reagan analogy there, too: you can say the Reagan years were bad, but does that mean you have to be nostalgic for Nixon or Carter?

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Things That Suck: SMALL WONDER

She's a small wonder,
Pretty and bright with soft curls.
She's a small wonder,
A girl unlike other girls.
She's a miracle, and I grant you,
She'll enchant you at first sight,
She's a small wonder
And she'll make your heart take flight.
She's fantastic, made of plastic,
Microchips here and there,
She's a small wonder,
Brings love and laughter everywhere!

Of all the bad '80s sitcoms, Small Wonder is generally considered to be the holy grail of awfulness, the compendium of everything that was deeply wrong about '80s sitcoms. For those of you who don't remember it, a brief rundown of the premise: Ted Lawson is a scientist for United Robotronics. He comes up with his greatest invention yet: an android, perfectly lifelike and in the shape of a ten year-old girl, named Vicki. (Her robotic name is "Voice Input Child Identicant," which abbreviates to VICI, hence, Vicki.). Vicki is super strong, super fast, super smart, and has various other undefined abilities that can come and go depending on what the episode requires her to do. She also talks in a Robby the Robot-style monotone. To keep his boss at United Robotronics from stealing his brilliant idea before he's perfected it, Ted decides to pass Vicki off as his adopted daughter. Only Ted, his wife Joan, and his son Jamie (that's "m" before "i" Jamie, no relation to my name, okay?) know that Vicki is a robot. Most episodes involve some wacky scheme to keep the boss/nosy neighbors/government agents from finding out about Vicki. Especially the nosy neighbors, who are always trying to peek through the window, a la Gladys Kravitz, and always just miss proving that something weird is going on at the Lawson house. Oh, and Jamie often learns some kind of lesson about something or other. Sample plots:

- A schoolkid tries to sell Vicki some drugs, causing all the characters to get involved in a sting operation and an anti-drug public service message.
- The Lawsons enter Vicki in the "Little Miss Shopping Mall" beauty contest against Harriet, the obnoxiously nosy daughter of the Lawsons' obnoxiously nosy neighbors. (Beauty contests were the plot device in '80s sitcoms, or at least they were number-two behind anti-drug episodes.)
- Ted's father just lost his job to a machine, and he hates all things automated. How can Ted explain to him that his adopted granddaughter is really a machine herself? Will he learn to accept Vicki even though she's a machine?

Small Wonder was created by a veteran TV writer, Howard Leeds (he helped create The Facts of Life and wrote for everything from Barney Miller to Bewitched), and he got other veterans to write for the show, meaning that there were people writing for Small Wonder who had previously written for
M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show,
and All in the Family. I will not attempt to analyze the carryover of their writing styles and comedic philosophies into the carefully-wrought world of Small Wonder. I could. But I won't.

It was one of the first sitcoms produced directly for syndication; none of the networks would pick it up (wonder why?) so the show was instead sold to a "consortium" of broadcasters. (I guess Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the first show to be sold in this way, but that wasn't exactly a sitcom; more of a satirical daily soap opera.) It did well enough that it encouraged other producers to sell their crummy shows directly to syndication, e.g. Al Burton dusting off his failure Charles in Charge and revamping it for syndication.

While I still think Charles in Charge was worse, I wouldn't argue very strongly with anyone who says Small Wonder was worse; after all, a kid coming home from school to watch a crappy syndicated sitcom could at least see Nicole Eggert on Charles in Charge, whereas all Small Wonder had was robotic Vicki and her evil robotic twin, Vanessa.

Finally, courtesy of Nexis, here's an article from Advertising Age, August 18, 1986, on attempts to create marketing tie-ins with Small Wonder:

"Toy store people love to see me coming." Mr. Pattison says. That was especially true early last year when as vp-marketing director, Metromedia Producers Corp., Los Angeles, he was charged with creating a marketing-promotion campaign for Metromedia's new first-run half-hour situation comedy "Small Wonder," which debuted last September. His first stop was the nearest F.A.O. Schwarz toy store.

"The little girl in the show is a robot and it sounded too gimmicky," Mr. Pattison says. "Then while I was in the store, I found a toy robot made in Japan with a tv screen face. It was perfect."

The battery-operated toy played a song and its face lit up with a picture of stars and planets. An idea clicked and, after taking the toy home, Mr. Pattison ripped the robot's head off. He replaced the celestial scene with Metromedia Producers Corp.'s logo and the show's title and put the robot back together. He returned to the store, purchased 500 more robots replaced the outer space scene with the logos, reprogramed the robots to play "Jingle Bells" and sent them on their way to tv station general managers last Christmas.

"We wanted to tweak the potential buyers of the show," Mr. Pattison says. "I thought the robot might give substance to something that wasn't there yet, since the show hadn't been cast. And it gave us a custom premium, which didn't cost that much."

...So for Mr. Pattison, the "Small Wonder" campaign didn't end with the Christmas delivery of robots.

A print campaign for trade magazines followed with a birth announcement that tread, "The Lawsons are proud to announce the birth of a beautiful baby robot," and the ad pictured the girl stepping out of a computer screen.

"The idea was to show hear as a cute girl, but show she's automated without the wires and diodes," Mr. Pattison says. "The other hope was to look Norman Lear-ish. 'Small Wonder' was the first of what is now many first-run situation comedies, and the illustration had to evoke network quality."

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Squirrels to the Nuts

I recently re-watched Cluny Brown, the last completed film by Ernst Lubitsch. Don't look for it, as it's never been released on DVD or even VHS. It's based on a charming novel by Margery Sharp, who is probably best known for writing the source material of The Rescuers. And though I don't remember as much about the novel as I should, I know it's one of the few times Lubitsch ever did a movie that retains some of the dialogue and themes of the source material (his usual practice was to take a play, keep the basic plot and throw out all the original dialogue; even his adaptation of Noel Coward's Design For Living includes exactly one line of Coward's). The novel and the movie are both about a free-spirited English girl who shocks everyone -- upper and lower classes alike -- by her unwillingness to "know her place" and her love of plumbing. Lubitsch delights in playing up the idea of plumbing as a metaphor for sex, and of open "plumbing talk" as a metaphor for sexual frankness, whether it's Cluny's satisfied smile after she's unclogged a drain, or the unwillingness of most of the characters to even admit that drains and pipes exist, or Cluny's description of the joy of hitting a pipe with a wrengh: "I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and bang, bang, bang."

Apart from making Cluny somewhat ditzier than she is in the book -- the novel is essentially Cluny's story, while the movie is told more from the point of view of the lone Continental character, an Eastern European emigre, Belinski, played by Charles Boyer -- Lubitsch and his writers made the comedy broader by playing up the Anglophobic aspect of the story. Made in 1946 but set in 1938, the movie is like a sigh of relief from Hollywood after all those years of having to do stiff-upper-lip movies about our brave English allies. The movie briefly acknowledges that these are the people who will pull themselves together and fight Hitler when the time comes, but most of the time it just tees off on English culture: the class-consciousness at all levels of society (Cluny's uncle, a plumber who "votes Labour," is just as class-obsessed as the upper-class characters), the smugness, the obsession with order and routine, the lack of interest in non-English culture and the unfamiliarity with the best of English culture (Boyer's character is the only person in the movie who can quote Shakespeare). At the end of the movie, as in the book, the two people who don't have a "place" in this society -- Cluny and Belinski -- go to America together, and Lubitsch ends the film with a scene in New York, shot without sound, where we see that the two are finally at home: Belinski has given up writing long academic works and started writing bestselling mystery novels, while we see Americans being charmed, rather than shocked, by Cluny's openness and outgoing personality.

Lubitsch is often considered the epitome of the sophisticated European director bringing European values to America, but apart from the fact that his sense of humor wasn't all that sophisticated -- he started out as a slapstick comedian in German movies -- he's one of the most pro-American filmmakers, probably more pro-American than most Americans. His movies are usually set in Europe, but they often focus on characters who are a little less Old World than the unsympathetic characters; when Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise is told that he seems American, his response is "Thank you." You can see why Lubitsch chose to do Cluny Brown; though only the last one minute takes place in America, it's still kind of a long-distance celebration of his adopted country as a place that accepts and even celebrates the outcasts of Europe.

The film also plays as a sly parody of some of the more annoying conventions of Hollywood wartime films. For example, the character played by Peter Lawford becomes convinced that Charles Boyer's character, being an Eastern European refugee and a well-known intellectual, must be constantly on the run from Nazis and constantly in danger of being captured and killed. Lawford's distorted image of Boyer makes Boyer out to be almost exactly like the Paul Henreid character from Casablanca or the Paul Lukas character from Watch On the Rhine, and much fun is had at the expense of this distorted view of the situation by one who mostly seems to know about it from movies.

The movie is superbly cast all around, though Jennifer Jones (as Cluny) has trouble doing an English accent, and mostly just gives up in Kevin Costner fashion, she's nonetheless excellent, making you wish that David Selznick had let her do more comedies and fewer overblown dramas like Duel in the Sun. Hopefully Fox will release it one of these days.

Incidentally, when I saw Cluny in a theatre a few years back, the biggest laugh was for Boyer's line, to Helen Walker as the Honorable Betty Cream, acknowledging that he might be subconsiously attracted to her: "When I was reaching for my aftershave lotion, is it possible that subconsciously I was reaching for something else?"

It Pays To Be Negative

Well, my post on why I don't like Family Guy got more hits and comments than any other post I've done so far (partly thanks to the link from Amid Amid at Cartoon Brew -- thanks, Amid). It just goes to prove that the way to blog success is to be a Nattering Nabob of Negativity (tm Spiro Agnew), picking something many readers like and then going negative on it. So look for future posts in the same vein: Motherhood Sucks; What's the Big Deal About Apple Pie?*; and This Whole Internet Thing Is Just a Fad Anyway.

Those wondering what Amid meant when he said that I sing the praises of "Spielberg drivel" can find my posts on Animaniacs here and here, plus Pinky and the Brain here. It may not seem possible now, but Animaniacs was a pretty controversial show online about ten years ago -- mostly because it was part of a battle over the direction of cartoons: should they be "cartoony," created at the storyboard, and run by cartoonists, like Ren and Stimpy, or should they be soulless writer-driven corporate products? (I'm paraphrasing of course.) Animaniacs came along and became successful -- and a huge favorite with the then-cultlike online community -- not long after John Kricfalusi was fired from Ren and Stimpy, which made it look like the symbol of all that was writer-driven and corporate in animation. Of course it wasn't, and the idea that Animaniacs or Tiny Toons were corporate focus-group products was based more on ideology (and an unwillingness to believe that non-drawing writers could possibly have any talent) than anything else, but that's where the battle-lines were drawn, and the arguments raged every month or so in groups like rec.arts.animation. It seems kind of quaint now, in part because Animaniacs never became very influential -- today's bland corporate cookie-cutter cartoons are likely to look more like imitation Kricfalusi than anything else -- and in part because non-computerized animation is in such trouble that the argument is over whether it has a future, not what its future should be. But the arguments were fun while they lasted; that was a time when there was a) A lot of TV animation and b) A reason to take TV animation seriously as an art form.

*(By the way, I really don't like apple pie all that much.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Leo the Lion Gets Bought Out

I see Sony, rather than Warners, appears to be the designated buyer-outer of MGM. To those of us mostly concerned with what happens to the classic film library, this isn't a good sign; Sony/Columbia used to bring out some good special editions of movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and His Girl Friday, but in the last few years they've almost completely stopped bringing out DVDs of older films (and the ones they do bring out are usually shorn of extras and hideously overpriced, like their DVD of The Awful Truth). They're a little better when it comes to older TV shows, but they bring shows like All in the Family out with no extras and shabby-looking packaging. MGM's DVD department was erratic, but they did release a lot of older movies, including some pretty obscure titles. The good news is that they've already released most of the best titles they have in their catalogue -- like all of the movies Billy Wilder made for United Artists.

Because, of course, MGM doesn't own MGM movies, at least not MGM movies made prior to the late '80s or some such time. MGM sold off its catalogue to Ted Turner, who also owned the pre-1948 catalogue of Warner Brothers movies and cartoons; when he merged with Warner Brothers, they wound up with the biggest catalogue of old films (which, fortunately, they currently seem to be handling well, DVD-wise). And of course, MCA/Universal owns all Paramount movies made prior to the late '40s. The shifting ownership of old movies has been going on for decades, of course -- a function of the short-sightedness of studios like WB, whose desperate executives didn't understand that there was more money to be made by holding onto their catalogue than by selling it off.

Most of the time these changes of ownership don't mean much, but on occasion they can change the way movies are perceived by the public; for example, the Warner Brothers cartoons: WB sold off all the color cartoons they made prior to 1948, only to realize -- too late -- that there was an enormous TV market for those cartoons. So their subsequent TV repackagings (The Bugs Bunny Show and such) used only cartoons made in 1948 or later, while local stations bought packages of pre-1948 WB cartoons -- creating the perception that these were two separate "eras" of cartoons, and changing the way the characters were perceived (the angry, greedy Daffy Duck became, for some time, the "definitive" version in large part because most of the cartoons in the post-1948 package showed him that way). Another possible example is the way movies from one studio are now sometimes packaged with movies from another studio; when WB brings out a "film noir" collection with a lot of RKO movies plus an MGM film (The Asphalt Jungle) it tends to create the impression that MGM was part of the hip, gritty film noir scene, when it wasn't really. I wonder if it'll get harder to view MGM or WB's output as having a particular style when more and more MGM movies are coming out on the WB label? The MGM movies still have Leo the Lion roaring on DVD, of course; I'm just saying that part of what gives a studio an identity, a style, is that its movies are kept separate from other studio's movies; throw them all into the same mix, put them in boxed sets with movies from other studios, and they may start to blur together in the public mind, so that the stylistic difference between '40s MGM and '40s Warner Brothers movies may not be as clear now as it used to be. But I admit that's just speculation on my part.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Take Me Out of the Moneyball Game

As the baseball season winds down, I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't been checking to see what the standings are, and I haven't watched a televised game in some weeks. I used to be a huge baseball fan, and I still enjoy reading about baseball, but I haven't really followed it closely for a while. I could ascribe this to the lack of a team to root for -- I was raised an Expos fan, but if rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for General Motors, rooting for the Expos is like rooting for the Packard or the De Soto -- or to the strike of 1994, but my problems with baseball started before that. I think my biggest problem with following baseball now is that it's just not the game I fell in love with as a kid. The game I liked was the baseball of the '80s: it was, or at least it seemed to be, a game of aggressive baserunning, diving catches, strategy, and above all speed. It was fun to see a big guy hit a home run, of course, but it was especially exciting to see all the base stealing and runners on first playing mind games with the pitcher and all that other stuff that you get with fast singles hitters, as opposed to slow power hitters. Now, of course, the game is based around slow power hitters, and around home run hitting, and that doesn't thrill me as much. I guess there must have been people who reacted the same way to the change between the "dead ball" era and the Babe Ruth era; not that the '80s were the equivalent of the dead ball era, but they definitely had more speed and athleticism than we usually see in baseball today.

I won't go over the reasons for the change, because they're all pretty familiar (new parks, steroids, etc). But one other thing that may have contributed to this is that more and more people, in and out of baseball, basically discovered that the kind of baseball playing that looks the most exciting isn't necessarily the kind that produces the most runs or wins the most games. That's the theme of the recent, over-quoted book Moneyball: the Oakland A's succeeded on a shoestring by bypassing the spectacular athletes -- the guys who look good and run fast -- in favor of guys who may not be grade-A athletes but do the things that create runs, namely hit homers and draw walks. Intelligent baseball men always knew about the value of walks and other "sabermetric" things (Branch Rickey knew it, and even hired a statistician to create formulas for analyzing hitters' effectiveness, just like today), but conventional wisdom, both among insiders and outsiders, was mostly that in looking for a great ballplayer, you start by looking for a great athlete. But now everybody knows that a slow guy who walks 100 times will score more runs than a fast guy who walks 40 times; there's hard evidence, available to all, that players who aren't exciting to watch may be winning more games than players who are. Which is great -- if all you care about is winning.

But the thing is, it's the teams that are supposed to care only about winning. As a fan, and particularly a fan with no emotional attachment to a particular team, I care as much if not more about the entertainment value of the game -- about seeing a good show. And a game built around walks and home runs isn't a very good show, at least not for me, at least not compared to a game with fewer walks, fewer home runs, but lots of speed and aggressiveness and displays of athletic ability. In other words, if I'm watching the Yankees play the Red Sox, and I don't care who wins (the Yankees are evil, but the Red Sox have all that annoying fatalism associated with them; I can't root for a team that seems to have been created by Jean-Paul Sartre), then I want to have fun, and I don't really care if the fun stuff I'm seeing is the optimal strategy for creating runs. So while I know that a slow bulked-up steroid-popping player with a .400 OBP and a .600 SLG is a better player than a fast, hustling singles hitter who doesn't walk a lot but drives the pitcher crazy whenever he's on base, I also know that the latter is much more entertaining to watch, at least for me. (By the way, I fully admit that the optimal baseball player is a guy who's a great athlete and aggressive and a patient hitter who walks a lot, someone like Jackie Robinson or Joe Morgan or Mickey Mantle or, from my beloved 1980s, Rickey Henderson or Tim Raines.) This isn't just about the kind of player teams use, though; it's also about strategy. Statistical studies, backed up by common sense, demonstrate that base stealing isn't a winning strategy unless you have a very high success rate, and that the sacrifice bunt is basically a bad play. I accept this. But I also know that I love to see base stealing, bunts, all that dead-ball stuff. And, again, as a fan with no dog in most of these fights, I'm interested more in what I like to see than what the optimal run-maximization strategy should be.

But now that more and more fans and baseball men understand the reality -- that the guy who puts on a good show may not be the guy who wins the most games -- will baseball ever go back to being entertaining? Maybe if the steroids go out of the game and managers have to start thinking about how to occasionally get runs without constant home runs, but until then, I guess it's going to be a game where winning is everything. Darn it.

Fred Ebb

Fred Ebb, the lyricist of Cabaret, Chicago, Flora the Red Menace, The Happy Time, Kiss of the Spider Woman and 70, Girls, 70 died Saturday of a heart attack at age 76. The Associated Press has his obituary. Ebb and composer John Kander were responsible for two great shows, many wonderful songs, and Ebb's combination of direct, simple communicativeness with wit, plus a high degree of technical skill (you won't find many Ebb lyrics that don't sit well on the music or are difficult to sing clearly), made him one of the best theatre lyricists of his generation. Rest in peace.

Also, Kander and Ebb were perhaps the last songwriting team to become a "brand name" -- well-known enough, and so closely associated with each other, that you could just identify them by their last names: Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe,... and Kander and Ebb.

You can hear Ebb as a performer on a 1999 studio recording of Cabaret, where he plays Herr Schultz (I haven't heard the recording, though), as well as the Broadway Cast Recording, which includes, as an appendix, Kander and Ebb's demo recordings of several songs that got cut from the show (including one, "I Don't Care Much," that was reinstated in some later productions).

I'll quote an Ebb lyric from 70, Girls, 70 to close this:

Say "Yes."
Life keeps happening ev'ry day,
Say "Yes."
When possibilities come your way,
You can't start wondering what to say
You never win if you never play --
Say "Yes."
There's mink and marigold right outside
And long white Cadillacs you can ride
But nothing's gained when there's nothing tried --
Say "Yes."
Don't say "Why,"
Say "Why not?"
What lies beyond what is,
Is not.
So what?
Say "Yes."
Yes, I can, yes, I will,
Yes, I'll take a sip, yes, I'll touch.
Yes, of course, yes, how nice,
Yes, I'd happily, thank you very much,

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Next Up: "The Making of Our Making-Of Documentary"

The "all-new making-of documentary" is getting to be almost as much a DVD staple as the audio commentary. Indeed, there are some directors, like Steven Spielberg and David Lynch, who prefer to do such documentaries instead of audio commentaries, on the basis that you should get the behind-the-scenes facts after you watch the movie, not as you're watching it. Anyway, the one thing that's certain about a making-of is that if there's also a commentary on the disc, the best anecdotes will be repeated in both the documentary and the commentary, creating a feeling of deja vu or, more accurately, deja entendu. Most of these documentaries also follow the same pattern: talking heads intercut with still photos, script pages, and clips. The biggest distinction between one making-of and another is that some of them use narrators and some of them don't.

D.K. Holm, reviewing the making-of on the new special edition DVD of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (which, by the way, is an excellent DVD, with a transfer that's quite an improvement over the last DVD release), makes the point that the people interviewed for these things always have the blandest things to say about the movie and the moviemaker; you won't hear from people who have a revisionist take on the film or on Hitchcock. Instead you'll hear from, at best, people delivering the conventional wisdom about the movie and how it works, and, at worst, Peter Bogdanovich. (I am, barely, willing to accept that Peter Bogdanovich should be allowed to talk about his own movies, but that's as far as I'm willing to go; he should not be allowed anywhere near a DVD of someone else's movie, particularly a movie by someone he used to suck up to in the '60s.) Of course, this isn't a problem with making-ofs in general so much as it's a problem inherent in the nature of DVD extras: they have to appeal to any and all people who may buy the film, from people who are seeing it for the first time to people who have seen it every year since they were kids. The latter group may be looking to hear something that goes beyond the conventional wisdom, but you have to start with the conventional wisdom, for the benefit of people who have just seen the movie and want to know how it was made, what happened on the set, etc. A critic like Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose writing style is based on reading what other critics are saying about a movie and then saying the opposite (thus proving he's the only critic who hasn't sold out to corporate indoctrination) wouldn't really work in a DVD feature, which is supposed to be aimed at those of us who don't necessarily know what the critics have traditionally said about this movie. So a making-of offers few surprises if you've already read up on the movie; but I don't see how it can be any other way. It might be nice if some DVDs provided extra features for hardcore fans -- someone popping up, separately, to tell us that all the stories we heard in the making-of are wrong and here's what the movie is really about -- but then, if they did features like that, they'd probably find some way to put Peter Bogdanovich in them, so I guess it's just as well that they don't.

I was going to end this by talking about making-ofs I liked and disliked, but quite honestly, they all kind of blur together in my mind. They follow this basic story formula:

- Someone writes a wonderful book/play/story/article/blog post that no one ever thought could become a movie (insert shot of the original book)
- Director and/or Producer, aka Our Hero, sees the source material and, alone among everyone, believes that it can be a movie
- Our Hero tries to find someone to make the movie, but to no avail
- Finally, after all the other studios have turned the project down, the project comes to the attention of The Last Studio In Town, which takes a chance on Our Hero and his project
- Our Hero assembles the cast and crew. Either he got all the people he wanted, and they were absolutely perfect, or he got his second or third choices, and they were absolutely perfect. Cut to various people talking about how absolutely perfect everybody was.
- The movie goes into production. Cut to various people saying that they knew right from the start that they were involved with something very special.
- During production, something goes wrong that threatens to disrupt the making of movie. This looks like the end for Our Hero. But Our Hero recoups and hires someone else (who was absolutely perfect) or wins his battle with the front office.
- The movie is finished. It doesn't test well. The studio wants to cut it down and then burn the negative and send Our Hero to Siberia. Our Hero stands his ground. He talks the studio into releasing the movie after all.
- The movie opens and is a huge success. Every review is a rave. Everyone who saw it loved it. Our Hero is vindicated.
- Our Hero recalls that this was the greatest experience of his career. Cut to other people saying that this was the greatest experience of their career. Cut back to Our Hero saying that if he can bring a little joy into people's lives with this movie, he has not lived in vain. The end.

Oh, one making-of I like is on the DVD of Casino Royale. Instead of a big conventional making-of, they just have a long interview, intercut with clips from the movie, with director Val Guest (who was supposed to work on the project for eight weeks and wound up staying for eight months). He talks candidly about everything that went wrong with the film, most of it stemming from the fact that the producer was nuts, and what a complete mess they ended up with. He's not complaining about it -- this isn't one of those things where somebody whines that he worked on a bad movie and this was the greatest injustice in the history of mankind -- he's just amused at the weirdness of the experience, and bemused by the fact that it somehow became a hit anyway. That kind of one-man making-of can actually be better than a lot of talking heads, and, unlike a commentary, doesn't require the guy to come up with two hours' worth of stories.