Monday, January 31, 2005

Les Lubitsches

Since I was writing about the Production Code in a previous post... one movie that provides an interesting glimpse into the way the Code was enforced is Ernst Lubitsch's The Merry Widow, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. This truly great film was made for MGM in 1934, just before the Production Code started to be seriously enforced; and it was released just after Code enforcement began. To get Code approval, Irving Thalberg made many small cuts to the film. The cut version -- with lots of abrupt jump-cuts where lines used to be -- was released on VHS, but fortunately the uncut version was preserved, and it has been shown uncut on Turner Classic Movies and released in its original form on laserdisc (and when there's a DVD, it will presumably be that version). So it gives us a chance to see exactly what had to be cut out in order to get a clean bill of health under the Production Code.

The weird thing is that even in its cut form, the movie is clearly a "Pre-Code" movie; all the references to adultery, prostitution and womanizing are intact, as are extremely risque jokes like Chevalier's handcuffs in the trial scene (a closeup of the handcuffs shows that they are a special present to him from the Queen, with whom he had an affair). The lines that were cut generally didn't change the meaning of a scene or a speech; they just made it a tiny bit more oblique in some cases, and were utterly arbitrary in other cases. Here are some of the changes in the cut version (again, I would not recommend getting the VHS version of the movie, because it is the cut version; wait for a DVD):

- Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) says: "Let's go upstairs, to the private dining room." In the cut version, with a jump cut, this becomes: "Let's go... to the private dining room."

- Danilo greets each of the "Maxim girls" individually. One line is cut: when he asks one of them: "Do you still cry when you love someone?"

- The cut version preserves the whole scene where the King (George Barbier) finds out that his wife (Una Merkel) is having an affair with Danilo. The only thing that's cut are two lines when Merkel asks him whether he thinks his meeting will last "all night." Apparently it's OK for her to be contemplating a rendezvous while he's away, as long as she doesn't intend for it to be "all night."

- Merkel reads a letter from Baron Popoff (Edward Everett Horton), explaining that the kingdom needs to send someone to seduce the Widow (MacDonald) and bring her back home: "I know what to do, but am too old to do it." In the cut version this becomes "I know what to do but am too old."

And so on. Weird, arbitrary, essentially pointless nitpicky cuts. Further indication that the real problem with the Production Code was the sheer pointlessness of much of what had to be done to comply with it.

While I'm on the subject of The Merry Widow, I should say that it's a great example of Ernst Lubitsch's strengths and weaknesses as a director of musicals. The strengths are those of most of Lubitsch's films, especially those written by Samson Raphaelson; great dialogue, great jokes, ingenious new ways of dealing with familiar story points (this is the movie where, without dialogue, we see George Barbier come to the realization that his wife is having an affair: he puts on a sword-belt he finds in his bedroom, and it's too small for him -- clearly the sword-belt of a younger, thinner man), constant delights and surprises. It's a great, great comedy film, and it's a tribute to Lubitsch's strength as an artist, as well as the respect in which he was held in Hollywood, that even though this picture was made for MGM, the style of writing, storytelling and performance is almost indistinguishable from Lubitsch's Paramount films (it helps that Lubitsch imported most of his favorite actors from Paramount, like MacDonald, Barbier, and Horton). See it in a theatre and it has a great impact, because, unlike with most comedies, the audience is genuinely surprised moment to moment; Lubitsch and Raphaelson almost never go for the obvious joke, and they always find something that's twice as clever as what we expected.

But as a musical, the film is very problematic. For one thing, there are hardly any musical numbers in it. Most of the songs from the operetta are dropped or consigned to background music. Those that are retained mostly last about thirty seconds. There are no musical numbers at all in the last twenty-five minutes or so. The only extended musical number is a big dance scene (to Lehar's famous waltz) in the middle of the picture. Apart from that, and a shorter dance between Chevalier and MacDonald a little earlier, almost all the big moments in the picture come from dialogue and visuals in non-singing, non-dancing scenes. In other words, even though it stars two famous musical performers, The Merry Widow is hardly a musical at all, more of a straight comedy where characters break into song occasionally.

Lubitsch's earlier musicals, at Paramount, have more musical content than this, but not much more. My favorite of his Paramount musicals, The Smiling Lieutenant (with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins), is also based on an operetta, in this case Oscar Straus's A Waltz Dream -- one of the most entertaining and tuneful of later Viennese operettas (Straus deserves to be better known than the gooey, sentimental Lehar, who wrote one good operetta -- Merry Widow and a lot of dreck). But Lubitsch dumped all the songs from the operetta, using them as background music only, hired Straus to write a few new songs in a more '30s style, cast mostly nonmusical performers, and, again, relied on dialogue scenes, visual scenes, and background music for most of the big moments, and not singing or dancing. The only Lubitsch musical that produced a truly iconic musical number was Monte Carlo, with MacDonald singing "Beyond the Blue Horizon." And even that number is very short.

One gets the sense that Lubitsch, as a control freak, one of the greatest control freaks among the great cinema directors, didn't really want big musical numbers inhibiting his plan for the movie, and couldn't work a long musical number into the plan. Rouben Mamoulian, a stage-trained director who later became one of the great directors of Broadway musicals (Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, Carousel), was much more receptive to songwriters; when he made Love Me Tonight at Paramount with Lubitsch's usual team, Chevalier and MacDonald, Mamoulian hired Rodgers and Hart, got ideas from them for numbers and scenes, built entire sequences around their songs, and came up with a great musical that has perhaps the finest score ever written for a musical film. Lubitsch had Rodgers and Hart on The Merry Widow, too, but he didn't use any of the new songs they wrote, and Hart's contribution wound up limited to putting very simple new lyrics to some very short snatches of the original Lehar songs.

I don't get the impression that Lubitsch liked the collaborative aspect of the musical, the part where the director gives up some of his power to the songwriter, or the choreographer, or the performer. Lubitsch didn't like giving performers too much freedom; he acted out every scene for every performer, with the result that every actor in a Lubitsch film adopts certain mannerisms of line delivery and body language. He could never have dealt with the idea that for three or four minutes the director should just sit back and let the performer do his or her own thing with a song; the songs in a Lubitsch picture had to be as short and simple as a Lubitsch-Raphaelson joke, and the performer had to keep his or her own schtick out of it. I've always wondered what would have happened if Lubitsch had made a picture with the Marx Brothers, as he once wanted to; would he have been able to let himself give them free rein, or would he have tried to make them do his kind of comedy? We'll never know, I guess.

So, anyway, The Merry Widow and The Smiling Lieutenant are marvelous movies, as fresh today as they were 70 years ago. But as musicals, they're only so-so. The musical requires a certain give-and-take between director and performer. A director who sees everything as part of an overriding vision, and wants everyone and everything to fit the movie he has in his head, is either not appropriate to direct musicals (would you want to see a musical by Robert Bresson?), or else will create great movies that are musicals only technically, as Lubitsch did.

The True Meaning of Neoconservatism

This blog is not and never will be political (even if I do revamp it, which at this point is looking unlikely, it'll never, ever be a political blog), but it is about culture n' stuff, and I wanted to write a bit about the term "neoconservative," because that's become almost as much a part of culture as a part of politics.

I remember in college, one of the people in my dorm was a campus conservative activist, fit every stereotype of the college conservative: hated Clinton, worshipped Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr., drank a lot of beer. Anyway, he'd never heard the term "neoconservative" before I mentioned it to him,land he'd never heard of most of the people whom I identified as neoconservatives. The term didn't seem to be very big then, in part because no one had any idea what it was supposed to mean; and the stuff that "neoconservatives" believed tended to be the stuff that conservatives believed, so what was the difference? That's still true today, even after the term has become so popular. (That is, the opinons that the "neocons" hold tend to be opinions that the just-plain-cons hold as well.) But I'd argue that there is such a thing as a neoconservative, only the term refers to two distinct groups of people: one group that doesn't exactly exist any more, and another group that is part of a larger trend on both sides of the so-called culture wars.

The first group of "Neoconservatives" were thinkers, often social scientists, who decided that the liberal approach to social policy wasn't working, or at least was flawed. This group included Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Daniel Bell. Many of these people never accepted the term neoconservative, let alone conservative; they were just people who came to believe in the "law of unintended consequences" -- that just because a policy has good intentions or is meant to achieve social justice doesn't mean it will actually make things better. This is very different from a conservative. A conservative or a liberal has certain basic principles that don't change depending on social utility. So a conservative is presumably opposed to social programs because he or she (usually he) thinks they're wrong in principle, and only secondarily because he believes they don't work. The original "neoconservatives" had no objection in principle to social programs; they just came to believe that they weren't helping, or at least that not all of them were helping.

This group is no longer thought of as "neoconservative" because in a sense, we're all neoconservatives now. That is, it's quite common nowadays for people -- of whatever political persuasion -- to have doubts about the ability of government programs to solve social problems, or to believe that a policy should be judged by results, not intentions. In 1963 it was common to assume, for real, that society's problems could be solved by throwing money at them; that's what the original neoconservatives were reacting to. Now almost everyone accepts that that's not true, so the designation "neoconservative" no longer applies to anyone who believes in the so-called law of unintended consequences.

But there's another type of "neoconservatism" that is still very much with us. This is the type of neoconservatism represented by intellectuals who weren't really focused on social policy -- the Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz types, who moved rightward in response to what they saw as the unacceptable deterioration of the culture, especially in the late '60s. To some extent these writers accepted the social-policy neoconservatives' positions (that the Great Society just wasn't working), but their primary interest was in cultural matters: they hated the cultural upheavals (tm) of the '60s, and the way liberals capitulated to the radicals -- on cultural issues, anyway -- turned them against liberalism altogether. This is a type of neoconservatism that has no real policy agenda of its own, and these types of neoconservatives are all over the policy map. The point of this neoconservatism is not about policy, it's about being against the left. The philosophy was best summed up by Kingsley Amis, a British neoconservative of this particular stripe, who wrote:

I am not a Tory, nor pro-Tory (who could be pro- this Tory party?)... I am anti-Left.

Similarly, most of the American neoconservatives, of the second stripe, were not Republicans until well into the '80s and sometimes beyond (some of them voted for Clinton in 1992, since most "neoconservatives" -- and, perhaps, most conservatives -- despised George H.W. Bush). They just disliked the Left. The positions they took tended to be anti-Left more than anything with a positive agenda. For example, unlike Kingsley Amis, who supported the Vietnam War (a major reason for his break with the Left), most of the American neoconservatives opposed the war and would argue, even after their break with the Left, that the war was a mistake, at least the way it was executed. But they were so anti-Left, and so against what they saw as the Left's attempt to label Vietnam as "not merely a mistake but a crime," that many of them came off sounding like they were, in retrospect, defending the war -- even though they really didn't have much to say in favor of it. And that's true of a lot of the thinking that's now labeled "neoconservative": it is the thinking of people who aren't really all that interested in politics, in the nuts-and-bolts sense of policy and philosophy (the things that drove the policy-oriented neoconservatives); they're mostly taking positions that are the opposite of the Left, likely to weaken the influence of the Left, likely to annoy the Left. The new "neoconservative" is more anti-Left than he or she is in favor of anything.

The downside of this is that it leaves people arguing for nothing except the downfall of the other guy. Norman Podhoretz's gaseous articles, which basically ignores all facts that are inconvenient to an argument that he never really bothers to make in any coherent way, are an example of this: the majority of the essays are spent not on outlining a positive agenda, let alone making an argument for why it's right, but on railing against the political and social Left. The New Criterion, founded by one-note sourpuss Hilton Kramer and run by one-note sourpuss Roger Kimball for the benefit of other one-note sourpusses (or sourpi) is the same way when it comes to the arts: much more time is spent railing against the Left's influence on the arts, or the Left's idea of what art should be, than in outlining what a particular author thinks art should be. (Sam Lipman, the music critic who co-founded the magazine with Kramer, was a perfect example of this: though he claimed to be interested in challenging modern music, and no doubt he was, in his criticism he tended to spend much of his time defending old-fashioned retro-Puccini music, mostly because the cultural Left seemed to be against it.) It's tiresome stuff. I'm no conservative but I'd much rather read the writing of someone who thinks, philosophically, that high taxes are wrong and immoral, than someone who just wants tax cuts because the Left is against them. The former will feel a need to argue his case. The latter will spend all his time telling us how terrible the other side is.

There is an equivalent to this on the Left; it's found most often in the blogosphere and sites like Many of the liberal bloggers and websites are not really left-wing or even all that liberal; they tend to be young professional types who like balanced budgets and Bill Clinton. The so-called "hard Left" tends to turn up more in the comments sections; most of the liberal bloggers are essentially moderates in their politics, just as many "neoconservatives" are not particularly right-wing in their political views. What gives the neo-somethings (I can't say "neoliberal" because that term basically means the same thing as neoconservative) the appearance of being more to the Left than they are is that they really hate conservatives; their passion is mostly against the Right. The ultimate representative of this, in politics, was Howard Dean: a not-particularly-liberal politician who hated the political Right, and both achieved and inspired passion by opposing the Right. There's a lot of this anti-Right sentiment going around lately, and like neoconservatism, it often seems divorced from a political agenda: i.e. the goal is to defeat the other side, not to push for anything specific ourselves. Talk to a college campus activist in the '60s and he just as likely would be protesting against liberals as against conservatives ("Hey, hey, LBJ..."). Talk to a Goldwaterite around the same time and he would just as likely be against Republicans as against Democrats. Today more and more people seem to define their politics and their culture in opposition to the other side, the other political party. Maybe we're all neo-somethings now.

I must admit that I find many of the moderate liberal, anti-Right bloggers more fun to read than the pure-left writers or the anti-Left conservatives. But that might be my own bias talking.

Friday, January 28, 2005

A Code and Two Pair of Plans

It seems to me that movie buffs nowadays know more about the Hollywood Production Code than people did when it was being enforced. Oh, sure, there were those film clips of Will Hays, and there were occasional jokes about film censorship (remember this one in Bob Clampett's Tweety cartoon A Tale of Two Kitties: "Give me the bird! Give me the bird!" "If the Hays Office would only let me, I'd give him the bird, all right"). But arguments over what kind of effect the Code was having, and whether it was a bad idea to enforce it, seem to be bigger nowadays, especially with all the nostalgia for the "Pre-Code" era. There have been "Pre-Code" film festivals, books on Hollywood before the Code, and a general celebration -- to the point of fetishization -- of that brief shining moment when vice could go unpunished in a Hollywood movie.

The main problem with these "Pre-Code" festivals is that most of the pre-Code movies aren't very good. We're not talking here about movies from the silent era (which tended, with some exceptions, to be pretty clean); they're all from the early '30s, from about 1930 to 1934, the year the studios finally started enforcing the Code. This was the period when the studios were adjusting to the sound era, trying to come up with a new set of rules for writing, shooting, and scoring films with dialogue in them. And that meant that many if not most of the movies from this era are kind of techincally inept: static camerawork, overly talky scripts, actors straining to be heard by the microphone, no music on the soundtrack (until King Kong the studios tended to assume that a sound movie doesn't need music, a grievous miscalculation that hobbles such movies as Frankenstein and The Public Enemy). So with the exception of a few films, usually from Paramount or MGM, the fun of watching an Old Hollywood movie with "grown-up" content is often compromised by the fact that the movies themselves look so primitive, compared to the technical proficiency of the silent era or the post-1935 era.

It's not necessarily a coincidence that the most adult content in Old Hollywood movies is to be found in Old Hollywood's most techincally inept period (until the collapse of the studio system, that is). Movies were in a period of adjustment. Sound had forced filmmakers to re-learn everything they knew about how to make an effective movie; the influx of dialogue writers, who mostly came from New York, brought a more hard-edged sensibility to Hollywood movies. The studios were often dominated, in that period, by people who were quite highbrow or had highbrow aspirations: Irving Thalberg had some of the most highbrow tastes of any studio head (he once tried to get Arnold Schoenberg to write a score for him); Paramount went all-out for sophistication and urban chic. Under these influences, films were becoming less of a family-entertainment medium and more of an alternative to more family-oriented media, like radio.

The problem with this approach was that movies had become the true mass medium, the thing that everybody, across the entire huge United States, could enjoy at roughly the same time and talk about the next day. And that meant that the more Hollywood played to the urban centres, the more they were in danger of losing Middle America, the rural areas, the squeamish-American community, whatever. It wasn't like today, when niche marketing is in and a movie can be targeted solely to urbanites or teenagers or just some particular group. The Hollywood studios in the '30s had to make movies that had broad appeal across a gigantic country; without that, you got (to skip ahead a few years), something like Citizen Kane which was beloved in the cities and openly despised everywhere else (a magazine rounded up some notes from Midwestern exhibitors who showed Kane: it bombed at every one of 'em). So with that pressure, and with the high-profile failures of many of the "sophisticated" pre-Code movies, the studios started to move more and more toward making movies for everybody, and part of that was making sure that movies would not offend anybody. Another part of it was polishing the technique of movies until they were wonderful to look at. So the increasing technical finesse of movies in the mid-'30s is, in a way, part of the same process that led to the enforcement of the Code: the process of making movies that would be fun for absolutely everyone.

New York plays could use words like "son of a bitch" becaue they were for urbanites, plus the occasional tourist. Hollywood movies were not just playing in Los Angeles, they were playing everywhere, including places that would refuse to book a movie that offended its audiences' community standards. Hence the enforcement of the Production Code: ridiculous, arbitrary, but a necessary tool to make sure that movies would remain a true mass medium. Once the audience started to fragment, and there was no longer a common popular culture -- a process that you can see developing, say, in the '50s, with the huge splits in popular music -- it once again became possible to make movies for the cities, or for the sticks, or for kids, or for non-squeamish adults; to make movies for somebody rather than everybody. At that point the Code was no longer needed, and it accordingly started to crumble away, collapsing entirely by the mid-'60s, by which time nobody assumed that you could sell anything, even a movie, to the entire country.

Tom Sutpen, who posts on rec.arts.movies.past-films, had a good post on L.B. Mayer's role in Code enforcement, which I will quote from here:

Louis B. Mayer's greatest sin (sorry for writing a mini-essay here) was
that he figured out a way to make Production Code enforcement pay off. In big
numbers. Before Mayer took total control of MGM, most studios were loath to
enforce the Code because they all knew it was a money loser of the first rank.
Nobody in the major cities wanted to see the kinds of movies that would result
from the Code; they wanted to see pictures like "Baby Face" and "Midnight Mary"
and "Five Star Final". Who wouldn't?
Mayer, that's who. He wanted 'clean' pictures, and he resolved to make
them, now that he was in charge. He unwittingly tapped into the tastes and
desires of the country's mid-section. They wanted what he wanted: Movies that
made you feel good without having to be good.
Every other studio followed suit and American movies suffered a good three
decades of arrested development in the process.

One other thing is that the vaunted sexual frankness of pre-Code movies somehow never comes off as all that appealing; the slinky, lingerie-clad women of the early '30s may get to sleep around without getting killed for it, but they are not usually very strong characters, defined as they are by their sexuality alone (and besides, they spend so much time in silken pajamas that they never get out and do anything). The silent era and the post-Code era produced much better roles for women, sexually repressed or not.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Das Hardassmotif

I have a piece up at The Morning News, a short (hopefully) humorous piece called "Wagner's The Breakfast Club".

If you want to know why Wagner was the composer of Brat Pack operas, this is the place to go.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Best Of... Who?

I can't post today, but one of the nice things about doing a blog about non-current stuff is that the posts don't date as fast as the up-to-date blogs. So I thought I'd direct your attention to some older posts of mine that I kind of like. If you want new stuff, well, why don't you go to... uh... the new-stuff place.

Anyway, here are some of last year's better posts:

Autumn For Hitler -- on why Broadway musical comedies were not meant to run more than a year.

Bring Back the Laugh Track! -- everything has been done before, you say? Everything except defending the sitcom laugh track. No one ever did that before. And no one ever will again. Or should.

Why I Don't Dig Dylan -- my dissing of Bob Dylan, and singer-songwriters in general, really should have attracted as many nasty comments as my post on Family Guy. Apparently Family Guy has more devoted fans online than Bob Dylan. Which even I think is a little sad.

Things That Suck: Charles in Charge. 'Nuff said. I should do more "Things that Suck" posts, and I will soon.

My piece on the Broadway play The Moon is Blue.

And if you're in a real film-geek mood, The Bad and the Boom Shot, an analysis of Vincente Minnelli's long takes in the movie The Bad and the Beautiful.

Ditch The Best Director Oscar

There was a poll to determine the most deserving directors, actors and actresses who never won an Academy Award; the polling for the actors was obviously rigged or at least not taken seriously (Demi Moore number 1?), but the list of deserving directors is a pretty good one, except maybe Ridley Scott. In fact, the list barely scratches the surface of great directors who never won an Oscar; there's also Ernst Lubitsch, and Preston Sturges, and Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah, and Raoul Walsh and Orson Welles and Rouben Mamoulian and so on. You could make a very good case that the list of directors of American films who didn't win an Oscar is more impressive than the list of those who did.

But here's the thing that always puzzles me around Oscar time: why is there a Best Director award at all? The arrangement by which the Best Picture award goes to the producer only is one that doesn't really make much sense. (In his interview with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut assumes offhand that Hitchcock got a statuette when Rebecca won Best Picture; Hitchcock corrects him, pointing out that the award went only to the producer, David Selznick.) It was set up that way because the producer was considered the most important figure in the making of a film -- which, in late '20s and early '30s Hollywood, he usually was -- and because they couldn't figure out how to give a "Best Producer" award; after all, you can't separate the contributions of the producer from the finished film, because it's his job to supervise the making of the film.

Well, that's also the director's job. Even under the old studio-system arrangement, where the producer supervised most of the behind-the-scenes stuff (budget, script revisions, staffing the picture, editing the footage), the director was still in a supervising position, coordinating all the stuff that went on on the set, making sure all the elements worked together to translate the script to the screen in the best way possible. Some directors, particularly those who worked as their own producers or writers, did more than that. But whatever a particular director does, the obvious fact is that the director doesn't have a single, easily-definable contribution; his job, rather, is to supervise the contributions of all the other people and make sure they're as good as they can be.

That being the case, giving an award for best "direction," separate from the film itself, strikes me as pointless. Writers, actors, costume designers, composers; all these people can get an award for their work because it's only a part of the film. But the director, like the producer, is supposed to make sure that all these parts coalesce and add up to a good film. If the director didn't make the best movie, then how can he be the best director, when the director's job description is, basically, the job of making the best movie he can? The quality of "direction" is often defined as some visual flourish or cool camera angles, but that's hardly the most important part of what a film director does. If a director creates a lot of great camera angles, but the acting is weak, then I don't think you can say that he did a great directing job in spite of the bad acting; we need to ask, rather, why he didn't get better performances out of the actors (maybe he was too busy with the camera angles). The weak performances in, say, Hitchcock's The Birds are a failure of the director, not just of the actors, and that means that The Birds is not a particularly well-directed film no matter how many great shots Hitchcock pulls off.

I guess there are some cases where you can separate the director's contribution from the film -- like, say, when he was stuck with a bad script which the producer wouldn't let him change; the director might do good work as far as the script allows. But those kinds of movies, B movies mostly, don't get nominated for Oscars anyway, so the point isn't really relevant. When it comes to the kinds of movies that do get nominated, the quality of the script is usually part of the director's responsibility, just as it's the responsibility of a magazine editor to get the best possible articles out of his or her writers. It seems to me that it would make much more sense to just junk the Best Director award entirely and give the Best Picture award jointly to the two or more people who are supervising all the other people on the picture: the producer(s) and the director.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Carson Investigation

If you're looking for the legacy of Johnny Carson, you won't find it in the shows themselves, which are, like all talk shows, essentially pointless after their original airdates. The importance of Carson's Tonight Show was in its power to shape popular culture, especially through the comedians he spotlighted on the show. Jerry Seinfeld is the most obvious example: if there was no Johnny Carson to put comedians on the Tonight Show, Jerry Seinfeld wouldn't have appeared on NBC, gotten a pilot, done a show. In other words, no Johnny, no Seinfeld. That's a pretty big chunk of his cultural legacy right there.

Carson's successors don't have the same effect on the culture, in part because Letterman and Leno split the power between them, in part because their shows don't have the same power to make stars out of young comedians, and in part because they just have very little control over who their guests are. I was too young to be a regular viewer of Johnny Carson, but my impression is that he would sometimes have guests on who weren't plugging anything, just because he liked them. That gave him the power to turn people into celebrities, including some rather unlikely ones (Joan Embrey?). Now it seems like almost no one is on a talk show unless they are plugging something: a movie, a book, a milestone TV episode, whatever. In the words of Peggy Hill, "It seems like every time that Julia Roberts is on TV, it is just to yap about her movie." And that means that who appears on talk shows is almost entirely dictated by who is looking for talk show appearances -- that is, the power is with them, not the hosts. Carson could help mold the celebrity culture; Letterman and Leno are just stewards of the celebrity culture: US magazine says who's hot, and they nod and say "yes, sir." That's why I don't think their shows are having the kind of cultural impact that Carson's had.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Pig Hooooey!

I've been re-reading a collection of P.G. Wodehouse short stories, Lord Emsworth Acts For the Best. This collects together the stories that Wodehouse wrote about the goings-on at Blandings Castle; there aren't many of them, as he usually used Blandings as a setting for novels. But for the most part, the short stories are better than the novels, mostly because the stories focus on the most interesting of the Blandings characters: Lord Emsworth, that "vague and woolen-headed peer," a character who is sort of a Wodehouse surrogate: anti-social, scared of human society in general and women in particular, and never really at ease except when doing the thing he loves most (in Lord Emsworth's case, taking care of his prize pig; in Wodehouse's case, writing). The best stories in the volume are the ever-popular "Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend," where Lord Emsworth forms a bond with a little girl from London (late in life, Wodehouse considered bringing this character back as an adult, but he never got around to it), and "The Crime Wave at Blandings," where various characters take turns shooting Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's ex-secretary and nemesis, with an air-gun.

The Blandings novels are, I believe, pretty popular among hardcore Wodehousians, but most of them don't interest me (an exception is the very funny "Leave it to Psmith," a crossover with the star character of Wodehouse's early work). Like all Wodehouse's novels, they have very complicated plots, but because Lord Emsworth isn't good at plotting and planning, he can't participate much in those plots -- which means that Lord Emsworth, the best character, often gets the least amount of time in the novels. And far too much time is given to his younger brother, Galahad, one of Wodehouse's weakest characters: He's supposed to be a young man-about-town grown old in years (but not in spirit), still sentimental about his wild youth and always ready for a wacky scheme. But as a youthful old man, he's not very convincing, and as a schemer, he's certainly no Jeeves. He's just a walking plot device, there to explain what's going on and help the young lovers. (The one Blandings short story with Galahad, "Sticky Wicket at Blandings," is very weak.) It also doesn't help that by the time he wrote most of the Blandings novels, Wodehouse was no longer very good at writing young lovers; in his early work he would go to great pains to "get the love story right," and in the Jeeves novels, it doesn't matter because all lovers look like idiots from Bertie's point of view. The young couples in Wodehouse's novels from about the late '30s onward are mostly interchangeable sticks who talk way too much and do way too little of interest. He should have stuck with Lord Emsworth, who would rather spend his time with flowers and pigs than young lovers.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Real Tasmanian Devil

Another bit of DVD news: Warner Brothers will release an Errol Flynn collection on April 12, consisting of three Korngold-scored period films, Captain Blood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and The Sea Hawk, two Westerns, Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On, and a new disc-length documentary on Flynn.

I don't know yet whether to spring for the whole thing or just get one or two -- The Sea Hawk is the class of the bunch, and if Olivia DeHavilland had been in it, it would be even better than Robin Hood -- but WB is to be commended for their strategy of marketing older movies: release a bunch of movies that have something in common (a genre, a star), some well-known and others less so, and make them available separately or in an inexpensive boxed set. This encourages people who would normally just get the better-known titles to get the whole box, and discover some good older movies that might not sell great on their own. The best example of this was last year's film noir box, which was such a big hit that Fox is doing its own film noir set.

Someone will tell me that I shouldn't even be talking about buying any DVDs until High Definition comes in. I don't want to talk about it. My Dad has enough Quadrophonic LPs for me to know that not everything catches on.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Back From Non-Permanent Hiatus

I never did figure out how to retool the blog, so I just came back with a few more random posts: scroll down for posts on opera DVDs, a silly '80s TV show, and a film actress who recently passed away.

Opera on DVD

Audio opera recordings are close to being dead. They're too expensive to make, too expensive to buy, and even the reasonably successful ones take years to recoup their costs. Occasionally a new opera recording will come out and make a splash, like Rene Jacobs' superb Marriage of Figaro. But most of the opera recordings being released these days are DVD recordings. Most of these were originally made for television, and feature all the usual problems of stage events on television: performers who are projecting to a theatre look kind of weird in close-up; videotape isn't very flattering to the sets or the performers; the not-so-great picture quality is all too evident in the DVD format. With opera you have an additional problem, which is that you can't just pick a DVD for the musical quality, as you would an audio recording; you also need to find a production you like. For most people, this means avoiding:

a) Eurotrashy decadence
b) Pompous, stiff productions (where everybody stands around and strikes poses like Lasparri in A Night at the Opera)
c) Cutesy productions where the director has allowed, or perhaps ordered, all the singers to mug a lot and do unfunny comic business (the curse of Rossini opera stagings).

As time goes on and more productions are recorded with DVD presentation in mind, video quality and sound quality should improve; what will happen with productions is anybody's guess -- with the knowledge that their productions might be captured for posterity, will directors be less likely to take risks? There are some performers who become less spontaneous, less willing to take risks, when there's a microphone present; one wonders if this could happen to directors too, if they know that somebody might be watching their productions 50 years from now. But on the other hand, some opera houses are putting on 50 year-old productions, just with different performers. So maybe it's all a moot point.

I don't have a lot of opera DVDs, in part because I'm careful about them (I don't buy unless I'm sure I'll like the performance and the staging) and most video stores don't rent opera DVDs, so it's hard to try before you buy. But here are a few I've bought and liked:

Verdi, Falstaff, La Scala Opera, conducted by Riccardo Muti. -- This is a gimmick production, re-creating the sets and costumes from an early 20th century performance of Falstaff. The retro approach works here; the staging may ignore the serious undertones of the comedy, but that's all right with me, because I find Falstaff kind of unpleasant when taken too seriously (like its source, The Merry Wives of Windsor, it's basically a story about a likable guy, Falstaff, being treated with horrible cruelty by a bunch of not very likable women). Muti's conducting is excellent, and the cast, led by the young Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, is very fine all around; a particular plus is that all but one of the singers is Italian (the tenor is Spanish). It's not often we get to hear idiomatic, non-internationalized Italian opera nowadays. The performance takes place in a small theatre in Verdi's hometown; the downside of the small size of the theatre is that the orchestra has to use a smaller-than-usual string section, but the plus side is that the small stage translates very well to the TV screen.

J. Strauss, Die Fledermaus, Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. The late Kleiber was just about the best Johann Strauss conductor of his time; he understood that Strauss's music is great light music that needs to be light and fun, not soupy or sentimental. The director, Otto Schenck, also understands that Fledermaus is the least sentimental of Viennese operettas, and plays it without most of the tiresome schtick that you usually see in productions of this work. The cast has one drawback -- Eberhard Wachter, the Eisenstein, was never vocally right for this part and could barely sing at all by the time this was made -- but overall it's a very entertaining production.

R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Vienna State Opera, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Another Schenck/Kleiber collaboration. Schenk's ultra-traditionalist approach doesn't really give the story much help -- and in this opera, which consists of a rather thin story stretched out to three hours, the story really needs some help from the director -- but Kleiber is great and the cast (Felicity Lott, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Barbara Bonney, Kurt Moll) was grade A. Oddly, the DVD has curtain calls for Act 1 but
not for the other two acts.

Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte, cond. John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner staged this production himself, and does a surprisingly good job; he has strong ideas about the piece, not all of which come off -- like having the sisters occasionally sing each other's lines -- but many of them do, like the general idea of having the two sisters start off as very similar to each other and then gradually becoming "individualised" as they become more self-aware. Moreover it's a production where the characters really act like something real and important is at stake for them, which is how Cosi works best: not a silly romp but a serious comedy about how our romantic ideas about love and sex conflict with the realities. Good performances from a mostly young cast.

Verdi, Otello, La Scala, cond. Muti. Most of the available DVDs of Otello feature Placido Domingo; this one is probably the best. Domingo is past his vocal prime, but even in his prime he was never quite vocally right for this part, so that doesn't matter all that much; he sings well and brings the benefit of a lot of experience to his acting of the part. The production is pretty good, not too gimmicky but not too traditionalist, and the all-Italian supporting cast is, again, a plus.

I recently ordered a Vienna Il Trovatore conducted by Herbert Von Karajan (who conducted this opera more often than any other), with Domingo, Raina Kabaivanksa, and Fiorenza Cossotto. I've heard mixed things about it, but I'm certainly looking forward to finding out about it first hand.

Works For Me

I have a certain bizarre affection for Hunter, probably because it was one of the few action-adventure shows of the '80s to have a really strong female character. I like strong heroines and you couldn't find them -- or indead any regular females at all -- on any of Stephen J. Cannell's other shows, or Maynum P.I. or the rest. Stepfanie Kramer was of course absurd as a cop, with her stuntwomen kicking and punching guys twice her size, and with huge '80s hair and thick makeup, but she was exceptionally likable and entertaining and played everything with a light touch, suggesting (without winking at the audience) that she had a certain consciousness of the absurdity of the thing; that also comes across in her interview on the DVD, where she makes fun of the hair and the bad makeup and the hooker outfits.

Don't let me get too nostalgic about Hunter; most of the episodes on this first-season DVD collection (which I rented, not bought) are pretty bad. Cannell wasn't heavily involved in the show; the pilot was written by one of his lieutenants, Frank Lupo (who co-created The A-Team, Riptide and later Wiseguy with Cannell). Lupo was sort of Cannell without the humor; he could do all the basic elements of the Cannell style -- the terse dialogue, the propulsive construction (Cannell's shows often don't have act breaks per se; believing, like his mentor Roy Huggins, that "a good story can break anywhere," he often wrote in one continuous arc and then figured out where to put the commercials when he was cutting it together), the touches of local color and "eccentric" bit characters -- but Cannell's scripts usually have a sense of humor and an ability to find the humor even in the "serious" moments. Most of his writers, like Lupo, didn't have that. So the pilot of Hunter is a depressingly dead-serious slog through a ridiculous story; there are "comic relief" touches here and there, but for the most part you get the impression that the writer thinks this is all very serious and gritty. And the attempted seriousness makes the rancid elements of the pilot all the more intolerable: the cop-show cliches, the constant brutalization of women.

I really like Stephen Cannell, as a scriptwriter (I've never read any of his novels), and I tend to feel that his problem as an independent producer was that he rarely had any writers who were as good as he was. At Universal, on The Rockford Files, there were three good writers, not counting the co-creator Roy Huggins; most of the scripts were written by Cannell, Juanita Bartlett, and David Chase, and it was a toss-up as to which of them wrote the best scripts. Bartlett did some work for Cannell's company, mostly on The Greatest American Hero, but she didn't stay long; otherwise, Cannell's shows were mostly staffed by people who could do a passable Cannell imitation in terms of structure and characterization, but couldn't really capture the tone. The third episode on the Hunter DVD is written by Cannell, as far as I know the only one he wrote himself; the episode, "The Hot Grounder," doesn't rank with Cannell's best work, but it's everything Hunter could have been: fast, action-packed, funny, with a strong male-female partnership and an avoidance of cliches. Then the regular staff writers take over in the following episodes and we're right back to all the cliches and beatings and silly dialogue. It's a bit like how, in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon was the only writer who could, or at least did, write scenes that were funny and dramatic at the same time (something I like in Cannell's work too); everybody else was just dividing their stuff into "serious" moments and "comic relief" moments.

The other thing that inspires some affection for Hunter is that it's one of the few shows that has ever brought in a veteran as showrunner (or even a writer). Needing a showrunner for the second season, Cannell asked Roy Huggins, then over 70, to come out of retirement. Huggins, as Cannell recalled, had some ideas after he saw the pilot:

ROY: Get rid of that piece of junk car you have him driving. Only an idiot would drive a car like that.

FRANK/STEVE: Come on, Roy, that's funny. See, his Captain thinks he's a jerk and makes him drive it.

ROY: I hate that part too. He's either a good cop or he's not. If he's a good cop and his Captain doesn't know it, then the Captain is a fool. I don't want to have a fool in the show.

STEVE: But Roy, we like that.

FRANK: It's funny.

ROY: What's funny is he never goes to Bel Air. People don't want to look at trash cans, they want to look at--swimming pools.

STEVE: But Roy...

Basically Huggins threw out the most cliche'd stuff -- the unsympathetic Captain, the eccentric car, the big-hatted pimps -- and made the show a little less dopey while simultaneously retooling it for its Saturday night audience (that was the point of shifting the stories to Bel Air and Malibu and places like that: making the show more "comfort TV" for an older audience). Huggins was, the story goes, kind of imperious and a bit of a jerk to younger writers, sort of setting himself up as the all-powerful God of TV drama; but, since he practically invented the conventions of TV drama -- and particularly the drama that combines action and humor, like Maverick and Rockford Files -- maybe he earned the right. Anyway there aren't many 70 year-olds who got to run a network show, let alone turn it around, so that's one more point in favor of this very, very '80s show.

No "Hold The..." or "...Clinic" Jokes, Please

The death of Virginia Mayo didn't get a lot of coverage; as this obituary makes clear, she didn't make a lot of memorable movies, though her best movie, White Heat, is coming out on DVD on Tuesday as part of WB's excellent Gangster movie collection.

Like frequent costar Danny Kaye, Mayo suffered from Samuel Goldwyn's determination to make his leading players as sweet and wholesome as possible. Having decided to make Mayo a star -- it didn't exactly work out, but it worked better for Goldwyn than his legendarily disastrous attempt to make Anna Sten into the new Garbo -- Goldwyn had her playing sweet, innocent, cute and wholesome, even though she wasn't particularly good at it. He did give her a change of pace with A Song is Born, a musical remake of Ball of Fire where she played the Barbara Stanwyck role, but the part called for a type of comic timing that Mayo didn't have either. (Howard Hawks, who directed both films, was asked how Mayo did in A Song is Born; his answer was one word: "Pathetic.") But the problem with acting for Goldwyn wasn't just the kind of parts he gave; it was the overstuffed, over-elegant nature of his productions. Even Bob Hope looks a little at sea in Goldwyn's The Princess and the Pirate; there's just not much freedom or energy in a typical Goldwyn production.

Mayo did better when she left Goldwyn for Warner Brothers, not just because Warner Brothers gave her more of the parts she was good at, but because WB's productions didn't have the same kind of pretentiousness and allowed performers to be a bit more earthy, more freewheeling. Playing a part similar to the Song is Born part in She's Working Her Way Through College with Ronald Reagan, Mayo is much more at ease and enjoyable. (The movie, a musical loosely based on The Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, in my opinion improves on the original by throwing out all the sophomoric political content of the play and the nonmusical movie version.) And of course White Heat is a must-buy this Tuesday; a great funny moment -- which I think is played as intentionally funny by both director and actress -- is when she reminds her lover that he almost got gunned down by her mother-in-law: "I had to shoot her, Ed. She had you covered."

She didn't have a great career, but she proved she was as fun to watch as she was lovely to look at, and anyone who overcomes the stigma of having been in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty deserves a lot of respect.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Non-Permanent Hiatus

For those who are reading this too-infrequently-updated blog, I'm going to be away from blogging for at least the next week. I have some stuff I've been meaning to work on and I haven't really had time to give blogging the daily attention it deserves, so I'm going to take a week off and try to think about how best to revamp the blog. Basically I think a blog ought to be something that has a bit more give-and-take with readers, and more engagement with other bloggers, rather than one guy pontificating occasionally on whatever subject he's thinking about. (Pontification is part of blogging, of course, but only a part.) Hopefully I will be back with an approach that allows a little more variety into my postings, and more frequent posting. Not that there still won't be a lot of "I was watching/reading/thinking about X and here's what I think about that..." posts, but I just want to add something more. See you soon.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gribbroek My World

For those who like the backgrounds of old Warner Brothers cartoons, here's something that might interest you: a reproduction of a painting by Robert Gribbroek. Gribbroek (1906-1971) is best known to cartoon fans as one of the great layout men at Warner Brothers; he worked for Chuck Jones from 1945 to 1953, and for Bob McKimson from 1956 to 1964. (He also returned to the Jones unit in 1955 to design "One Froggy Evening.") His designs and backgrounds were some of the best at the studio -- deceptively simple backgrounds that supported the story and allowed the characters to "read" beautifully wherever they were. In some ways his work for Jones holds up better than that of Jones' more famous layout man, Maurice Noble, whose designs are unique and often beautiful, but sometimes distract attention from the characters.

Anyway, Gribbroek was a painter, and the above painting, done in 1953 when he was on hiatus from Warner Brothers (this was when the studio had temporarily shut down) will be instantly recognizable, in terms of style, to anyone who's seen those Jones cartoons he worked on; the design of the desert is almost identical to that in the 1952 Bugs Bunny/Wile E. Coyote cartoon "Operation Rabbit."

Name pronounced "Grib-rock," by the way. Pronounced that way, it could be the name of a Flintstones character.

Prophet and Loss

An explanation about the "Blog of Isaiah" post: it was one of those things I wrote and didn't have any idea what to do with, so I just put it up on the blog. When I do that, I usually include a little explanation, but I forgot this time. Sorry for the confusion. Pop-culture arcana will resume shortly.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Hi, Bob!

Season 1 of The Bob Newhart Show will be released by Fox (which owns all the MTM shows) on April 12. This is, in general, one of those "classic" sitcoms that I admire more than enjoy; many of the episodes are in the same vein as the early Mary Tyler Moore Show episodes -- well-structured, thoughtful, intelligent, but depressingly sane and uneventful. Especially considering the weird areas that Bob Newhart's best comedy routines went into, I can't help feeling that the creators, Lorenzo Music and Dave Davis, weren't interested enough in letting that kind of nutty and even dark humor onto their show. (The Newhart routine where he tries to talk a guy out of jumping off a ledge is closer to what I would have liked Dr. Bob Hartley to be doing.) The best early episodes were the ones written by the team of Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett, who took over the show in mid-run and revamped it a bit, making it more biting and funny, if not as dark as Tarses's own shows.

More Words To Live By

Every time I get too nostalgic for the Golden Age of Usenet newsgroups -- which, as I've said before, ended somewhere around the time when blogging became more popular than newsgroup postings -- I force myself to remember these words of wisdom from Seanbaby:

Internet forums bring out the worst of humanity: stupid irrational egomaniacs telling each other how much they hate everything. Getting bothered by it is like reading "FUCK YOU" on a bathroom wall and saying, "Fuck ME!? H-how DARE they!!"

The great thing about blogging is that we irrational egomaniacs are now almost immune from criticism. Sure, there's the comments section, but no one has to enable it. We are like Gods in the blogosphere, whereas on usenet we were all equal. Where's the fun in that?

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Blog of Isaiah

January 1, 2000 B.C.

So it's time for my annual New Year's predictions.

First, while this isn't strictly a prediction for the New Year, I'll stick out my neck and say that we are due for a Messiah sometime. I know that's not what the MSP (Mainstream Prophets) are telling you, but my sources tell me that a woman is going to conceive, and call him Imman'u-el.

In more current predictions, I think this is the year that every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. Expect the culture wars to get worse as the environmentalists object to God's plan to cut down all those mountains, while the right-wingers demand that the valleys be kept in place until they finish their mining operations. My question: can't we all get along without partisan bickering?

Update: Elijah disagrees with me on the "Imman'u-el" thing but otherwise backs up my Messiah prediction.

Take all this with a grain of salt, of course, but I think my track record is at least as good as the big network prophets.

Posted by: Isaiah at 9:02 a.m.

January 2, 2000 B.C.

Ecclesiastes has an interesting post up today on the issue of whether achievement is merit-based. He argues that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill."

I don't know that I buy the argument, honestly. Achievement can't be completely random or else complete slowpokes would win races; you've got to have at least some swiftness. When Ecclesiastes starts writing like this, he gets too nihilistic for my tastes, too close to Jeremiah territory. But he's always worth reading. I agree with his other point about a live dog being better than a dead lion, though that's mostly because I love dogs and wouldn't keep a lion around the house.

I keep meaning to "Fisk" the last song of songs from King Solomon, but I haven't had time yet. I'll just say this: I like sex as much as the next guy, but it's not the answer to everything, Solomon.

Posted by: Isaiah at 8:35 pm

January 3, 2000 B.C.

Update from God: I asked him "how long?" And He said that it'll be until the cities are wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land is utterly desolate.

I think God is overly pessimistic, frankly. He's been reading too much of the MSP reports, with their doom and gloom. My question: why doesn't anyone report on the good news coming out of the world? Answer: because bad news sells tickets to the Temple. That's what's great about the blogosphere, that we're here to tell you that things might get better without the cities having to be wasted without inhabitant. You won't hear it from God, but you're hearing it from me.

Posted by: Isaiah at 5:22 p.m.

January 4, 2000 B.C.

Some people have called me a "warprophet" or "warpropheteer" because of my hawkish stance on Assyria. Well, I'm proud to take the title of warpropheteer, in a good cause. Assyria is a menace and must be destroyed, or at least disarmed of all its idols. If we start by cutting down the thickets of the forest, as I advocated last week, we can get in and get out reasonably quickly. I hope the King is listening to this.

I was rough on God in my last post, but I'm happy to say that he sees the issue the way I do. He writes to me: "I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders. This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth: and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations."

Indeed, God. Indeed.

Posted by: Isaiah at 11:40 p.m.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Why Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'?

This article on the Academy Award best picture winners makes a lot of points I consider somewhat dubious, but one I really wanted to argue with -- probably because I've heard it made a lot in the past -- is the argument that The Greatest Show On Earth is one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners. The author's favorite of 1952 is High Noon:

1952 was an embarrassment. The best nominated picture that year was “High Noon,” in which Marshall Wil Kane (Gary Cooper) is abandoned by everyone in the town he’s trying to protect. “Where are the others?” one man asks. “There are no others,” Kane replies. These lines were written by Carl Foreman, who refused to testify before HUAC and saw most of his friends and colleagues abandon him as a result. The film is a metaphor for the McCarthy years and is now considered a classic. But in 1952 it lost to….“The Greatest Show on Earth,” a fluffy, overlong melodrama about the lives and loves of members of the Ringling Brothers Circus, starring a young Charlton Heston. It was like awarding the winning entrĂ©e at a bake-off to cotton candy.

Reading that paragraph reminded me of all the reasons I never liked High Noon: it's more interested in being a political statement than in being a good Western. As a Western, or even just a story about a policeman facing down some bad guys who want to kill him, the story of High Noon is kind of ludicrous: Gary Cooper runs around asking the townspeople to help him out in a gun battle. Really, he has no business asking them to help him; it's his job to protect them, not vice versa, and it's irresponsible of him to ask people who aren't professional gunfighters to go up against people who are. Howard Hawks famously made Rio Bravo to show how a lawman ought to act in a situation like this, but for all the generic moral-codery going on in Rio Bravo, the way John Wayne behaves in that movie is simply more plausible than the way Gary Cooper behaves in High Noon; a sheriff who does his job and doesn't want civilians getting involved makes more sense in a Western. If the law-enforcement chief in my area acted the way Cooper does, asking me to strap on guns and help him fight off some crooks, I'd wonder why the county hired this guy in the first place.

But that's the thing: High Noon isn't really supposed to make sense as a Western, or a movie about law enforcement or gunfighting or any of the things that are actually happening onscreen; it's a political allegory, and once you take away the genre elements, the story finally makes sense, of a kind: Cooper is the guy being railroaded by HUAC, and the townspeople are the people who won't speak up for him (or testify against him). Now asking for help makes sense. But by telling this story in the form of a Western, where the danger is not of getting blacklisted but of getting killed, High Noon winds up with a story that only makes sense on the allegorical level. Because in the actual onscreen, non-allegorical action, he's not asking them to just speak up or refrain from testifying, he's asking the townspeople go out and do something for which they are (mostly) woefully unqualified. Like many pictures made by its producer, Stanley Kramer, it's a movie that respects its own righteous message more than it respects the genre to which it belongs, and it's little wonder that for many years High Noon was one of the few Westerns respected by American film critics: its lack of respect for the genre was considered to be proof of its high seriousness.

So I can't feel bad that High Noon lost the Academy Award. I'd even go so far as to say that The Greatest Show on Earth was an okay choice; you can't accuse Cecil B. DeMille of not respecting the genres to which the movie belongs (circus movie, soap opera), and while it's corny and cheesy, I find it unfailingly entertaining from beginning to end. DeMille's career-long compulsion to throw in anything and everything -- as long as it's entertaining -- was sort of summed up in this one movie, and the Academy Award made a certain amount of sense as a sort of lifetime achievement award to a man who, whatever his faults, was tremendously influential on cinema world-wide. But anyway, given a choice between The Greatest Show On Earth and its implausibile, silly plot, and High Noon and its implausible, preachy plot, I'll go for the silly film. Though among the other nominees, The Quiet Man would have been a better choice, and as often happened, the best films of the year -- Singin' in the Rain, most obviously -- weren't even nominated.

The other widely-mocked win of the 1950s, Around the World in 80 Days, is far harder for me to sit through than Greatest Show On Earth, and I find that win far harder to understand, though the movie that otherwise would have won -- Giant isn't all that easy to sit through either. I guess the explanation for 80 Days is that Hollywood had been thrown into a state of panic by the advent of TV and the collapse of the studio system. Around the World in 80 Days represented all the things that movies could do to that TV couldn't: wide screen, location shooting, deluxe presentation in Roadshow format. The voters were looking for a symbol of the continued viability of movies in a TV world, and so they chose the biggest, most extravagant movie of the year.

Bringin' up the snubbin' of Singin' brings up my other problem with that article's analysis: I don't think the Academy Awards have suffered from too much timidity about recognizing "serious issue" movies. Indeed, one of the redeeming qualities of the Academy voters is that they usually steered clear of ponderous, self-righteous issue-laden movies like Stanley Kramer's. In 1944, the favorite to win Best Picture was Daryl F. Zanuck's Wilson, an overlong Oscar-craving biography of Woodrow Wilson; the Academy sensibly picked an actual entertaining movie, Leo McCarey's Going My Way. But Going My Way wasn't anywhere near McCarey's best work or the best film of 1944; it was a safe, middle-of-the-road choice by voters who weren't quite prepared to deal with the new trends in movies, like the onset of what is now called film noir (Double Indemnity, Laura) or the increased artistry of musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis) or the increasing satirical scope of the best comedies (like Preston Sturges' two films that year, neither of which were nominated). But those were all "pure" genre movies of one kind or another, and pure genre movies almost never win the Oscar.

And that's the history of the Academy Awards: the winning movie has to be entertaining and successful and at least respect the genre it belongs to, but it also has to be recognized as something more than a genre film, because Hollywood people tended to think of genre films as mere bread-and-butter projects, and dream of doing projects that avoided or at least transcended the limitations of genre moviemaking. The result was that the stuff we now think of as Hollywood's best work -- Westerns, musicals, comedies, gangster films, swashbucklers -- almost never won unless the voters could asure themselves that this movie had something big, something prestigious about it. "Little" musicals like Singin' in the Rain never won, but An American in Paris had the high-art aura provided by the Big Ballet; Gigi had the residual glow of Legitimate Theatre provided by the contributions of the My Fair Lady team; West Side Story was a big Roadshow movie packaged like a theatre production. A regular little gangster movie couldn't win, but The Godfather could win, because it was a big epic gangster movie with big messages about American society (also a great movie, but when it comes to winning Oscars, being Important counts for more than being great). And being based on a novel usually helped, because Academy Award voters tended to be people who, like David O. Selznick, dreamed of taking some big thick novel and transferring it to the screen.

So the Oscars never did, and never will, represent what's best about American movies. But it could be a lot worse, and one can be thankful that they rarely took the article writer's advice to go for movies that dealt with the painful issues of the day. Put it this way: at least no Stanley Kramer movie ever won best picture. Score one for the Academy.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Roadshow Follies

April 19 will bring a DVD release of Blake Edwards' semi-legendary flop, Darling Lili. A weird combination of comedy, drama, war movie and musical, it was the first movie Edwards made with his wife, Julie Andrews, and it bombed. More than that, its Old Hollywood, studio-bound style was out of fashion at the time, and the reviews were vitriolic; it was, like David Lean's Ryan's Daughter that same year, siezed upon by younger critics as an example of everything they wanted to crush. (To be fair, Ryan's Daughter is impossible to sit through without a healthy dose of amphetamines and several needles stuck in strategic spots.) Edwards' anger and frustration over being an Old Hollywood guy in the New Hollywood of the '70s eventually made it to the screen in S.O.B., which I wrote about here

Darling Lili was conceived as a "roadshow" movie, a long movie that would be projected in 70 mm, play only in selected theatres with reserved seating, incorporate an intermission, and generally be treated as "event" movies. It did, in fact, play that way in some theatres, though it was not actually filmed in 70 mm (like a number of films of the time, it was blown up to 70 mm for the big showings). Edwards' recent "director's cut" of Lili is twenty minutes shorter than this roadshow version, and is an attempt to make the movie more tonally coherent; I don't know which version will be on the DVD.

The disaster of Darling Lili caused Paramount to take another planned roadshow production, Vincente Minnelli's film of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever -- also due for release on DVD this year -- and chop out about 30 or 40 minutes to turn it into a conventionally-released movie. There were other movies from around this period that were planned as roadshows and then were chopped up when the studios realized that roadshows were no longer popular, most famously Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. The period of 1969-70 is one of the strangest and in some ways saddest in the history of American movies; it's the time when what little was left of the Studio System finally collapsed entirely, when all the gimmicks that the old guard had been using to try to keep itself afloat were no longer working, and when the Easy Rider revolution (combined with an influx of young executives) threw the old hands out of work. On the one hand, movies did get better than they had been in the '60s -- how much better, I'd be inclined to dispute, but certainly better -- but on the other hand, it's kind of sad to read the rosters of veteran technicians, writers, producers and directors who never or hardly ever worked again after 1970.

Another thing that interests me is the history of the roadshow movie; it's something I'd like to write about in an article, or maybe as part of a book on '60s Hollywood. The roadshow gimmick had always been around, but it exploded in popularity in the '50s and early '60s, as the studios tried to make movies more like Broadway shows (which were at the height of their popularity in the '50s, thanks to the publicity from New York-based TV shows). The reserved seating, the intermissions, the general hugeness: it was an attempt to give movies the prestige of theatre, and distinguish movies from television by making them seem more like Big Events. But while the experience of seeing one of these movies in a theatre in 70 mm was reportedly wonderful, the movies themselves generally are not; the roadshow esthetic had a disastrous impact on musicals, making them overlong, bloated, and overly deferential to their theatrical sources.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Jot and Title

Something occurred to me while watching Seinfeld, and it was, as usual, something very geeky: I realized that the show's method of titling episodes -- having every title start with the definite article ("The Contest," "The Yada Yada") -- was borrowed from Dragnet. I don't know what kind of titles the original radio version had, but in the TV version, every episode started with "The Big": "The Big Actor," "The Big Death," "The Big Hate." When Jack Webb revived the show, all the episode titles still started with "The": "The LSD Story," "The Candy Store Robberies." So that's probably where Seinfeld got it. And no, I don't know what you're supposed to do with that information.

Speaking of episode titles, I don't think there are any shows now that actually show the episode's title on screen, the way The Dick Van Dyke Show sometimes did, and the way many dramas did in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Part of the appeal of those old, incredibly self-important Quinn Martin shows is the way they'd present the titles (Tonight's episode: "Fear in a Desert City") and even repeat them at the beginnings of acts. And then there were the shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that would give the acts their own titles.

Currently, shows are more likely to try to come up with clever titles than they used to be, probably because even though the titles aren't shown, the writers know that the titles will be available on the internet, subsequent DVD releases, etc.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Disney Spells

Michael Barrier offers a guide to Disney live-action movies. It's pretty good, and while I disagree with him about Mary Poppins, I do agree with him that Disney's live-action movies suffered from his directors' tendency to treat them like television shows. Robert Stevenson was not, in fact, primarily a TV director, but he and other Disney directors tended to shoot everything like a TV episode of the era: relatively static camerawork, lots of back-and-forth cutting during dialogue scenes, and rather cramped compositions. Some of the numbers in Poppins would benefit from more fluid camerawork, a la Arthur Freed musicals (though in some cases the static camerawork was a product of necessity: the camera couldn't move much during the animated sequences or it would have made the animation prohibitively expensive to do). On the other hand, talking about the contributions of directors in the context of these films is a little pointless. Disney's live-action films were often as meticulously storyboarded as animated films; many of them were co-written by cartoonist Don DaGradi, who "wrote" his scenes in sketches, just as he would "write" the script of an animated cartoon. Whoever the director was -- Stevenson, Ken Annakin, or TV-based Norman Tokar -- his mission was to execute a visual plan that had already been worked out, not to create the visuals on his own.

The one person who did have a major, auteur-like role in Disney's live-action movies was writer-producer Bill Walsh. He wrote many of the Mickey Mouse comic books and comic strips -- in the '40s, the only place where Mickey was allowed to have an edge -- and when Disney started to branch out into live-action features, Walsh became his star writer; he wrote (usually in collaboration with DaGradi) The Absent-Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog, That Darn Cat!, Mary Poppins and, after Walt's death, The Love Bug and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. His track record made him one of the most successful producers of the '60s, in box-office terms. His scripts represent what Walsh thought a live-action family comedy should be: wholesome fun, wacky, cartoonish special effects, and a generally positive attitude (without the dark moments found in some of Disney's '50s movies, like Darby O'Gill). "After 1960 all is darkness," Barrier writes about Disney's live-action ventures; what happened after 1960 is that Disney movies largely became Bill Walsh movies -- even Poppins, which Disney was certainly heavily involved with, is very Bill Walshian, with very broad jokes (the family scrambling to catch vases and such after the Admiral fires his cannon) and an overriding morality that's not entirely Disney's -- the film concludes that George Banks should stop working so hard and relax; "pure" Disney movies, like Pinocchio, tell the hero to stop relaxing and start working hard. What you think of Disney's post-1960 product is largely dictated by your appetite for Bill Walsh's sense of humor.

Of their kind, Walsh's films are extremely well-written and never insult the intelligence of the viewer; there's an art to writing dialogue that is simple enough for children to understand while sounding grown-up enough to please parents as well, and Walsh was good at it. I recall a post on a message board mentioning that one of Disney's veteran animators -- Ward Kimball, I think -- considered Walsh a genius on a level with Disney. That may be a bit much, but certainly the films Walsh wrote and produced in the early '70s are streets ahead of those produced by Disney's son-in-law Ron Miller, and the descent of the Disney studio into mediocrity and near-bankruptcy was hastened by Walsh's untimely death in 1975.

Here's a description of a script Walsh and DaGradi wrote that didn't get produced (because Disney died and no one else at the studio wanted to greenlight it), Khrushchev at Disneyland.

Still More On Family Guy

I already said my piece about why I hate Family Guy, but I couldn't resist quoting this interview with Simpsons writer Matt Selman:

Family Guy was this horrible bizzaro version of The Simpsons, and Fox put all their support behind it. Whereas Futurama was this really funny, inspired show and they flush it down the toilet. The worst thing you can say at The Simpsons about a joke is that it is Family Guy. It means the joke just pointed out the obvious, and we can do better than just the obvious.

Personally I would love to see Simpsons vs. Family Guy escalate into an inter-show feud; those are great, especially when one show is demonstrably superior to the other (and even at this point, The Simpsons still beats Family Guy, particularly since The Simpsons, unlike FG, occasionally manages to attract a viewer over the age of 23).

My favorite story of this nature is of two shows that were being produced by MTM in the late '70s, both created by fairly young writers: Hugh Wilson's WKRP in Cincinnati, and Gary David Goldberg's The Last Resort, about college students who take summer jobs as waiters at a resort hotel. At some point Wilson decided that MTM was giving Last Resort preferential treatment, and wrote an angry letter to Grant Tinker (president of MTM) accusing him of as much. Tinker's even angrier reply is printed in his autobiography. Anyway, the writing staffs of the two shows worked in the same building, and they would do things like (in the case of the WKRP staff) sneak into the washroom and paint "Why hasn't America embraced a sitcom about surly waiters?" on the wall.

So from all Family Guy haters, or fans of feuding TV writers: here's hoping for much lavatory defacement to come.

Incidentally, Selman's statement that Fox "put all its support" behind Family Guy is pretty much accurate; in early 1999 Futurama was expected to be the hot new animated show, but Fox instead gave a bigger buildup to the less-anticipated Family Guy, giving it the post-Super-Bowl launch and the post-Simpsons time slot. At the time, it looked like a bad decision, since once they moved Family Guy to its own time slot, it tanked (it's not just that it didn't win, it's that it got lower ratings than the show that had been in its slot before, a clip show called "Fox Files"). This led to the myth that Fox had killed FG by "moving it around."

Since Family Guy has become such a moneymaker, I suppose that in retrospect it turns out that they bet on the right horse. Like I said, it's not the first bad show to become a hit, nor will it be the last.

Another Resolution Broken...

Well, I was pretty quick when it came to breaking my resolution to post more. However, there's still time to keep it, and I do have some longish posts in the works that will be turning up here soon.

Also, if you have any suggestions as to what I should write about, feel free to drop me a line. As long as it's not something new or currently popular, in which case I will recoil from it as a cat recoils from... uh... something a cat recoils from.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Still Seekin' Haydn

Terry Teachout has a good new article on Joseph Haydn. What intrigues me, in comparison to my post on Haydn, is that his recommended recordings are sort of at the opposite pole from mine -- I recommended mostly recent, "historically informed" performances, while he goes for the big-band, modern instrument performances, including two classics I don't much care for: Thomas Beecham's recordings of the London symphonies (which I carp about at length in my post), and Herbert Von Karajan's recording of The Creation (good soloists, but a mediocre choir and kind of soupy orchestral textures).

I'm not mentioning this as an argument about who's right -- coughmecough -- it's just that it illustrates a divide I've noticed among people who follow classical-period music: the divide between HIP-sters (people who prefer HIP, or "Historically Informed Performance") and non-HIP-sters (those, who prefer it the other way). The split is most evident in classical-period music -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, possibly Schubert -- because the majority of Baroque performances now are HIP or HIP-influenced, and performances of Romantic music on original instruments are (and should be) considered kind of freakish. Even with the classicists, of course, it's not an either/or thing; I named recordings by Bernstein and Klemperer among my favorite Haydn recordings, and I might add some others like Hans Rosbaud's mono recordings of symphonies 92 and 104.

Still, I think the split is a real one, especially when it comes to Haydn. I go for Haydn performances that sound kind of rough, extroverted, even vulgar sometimes (as Haydn's music is sometimes vulgar). I like prominent brass and timpani -- if Haydn included timpani parts in a symphony, it's because he wanted them to make a hell of a noise -- and relatively fast tempos. My one objection to Bernstein's Haydn is that he takes the "minuet" movements too slowly; a lot of these movements are marked "allegro" and they should be played that way. (Many of Haydn's so-called minuets are really scherzi, fast, rough, joke-filled dances of the kind Beethoven would include in his symphonies; indeed, Haydn invented the term "scherzo" for a set of string quartets, though he later reverted to the term "minuet.") I may underrate Beecham's Haydn --David Hurwitz makes a good case for him here and here -- but I just find his Haydn too elegant and sweet in comparison to the more unpredictable, risky-sounding Haydn of Bernstein, Klemperer, and the better HIP-sters (Bruggen, Fey, Jacobs, the Apponyi and Mosaiques Quartets).

I should add hastily that my interest in HIP has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea that it's more "authentic." When HIP started taking off, you often heard it described as "authentic" or "as the composer would have heard it," an absurd description that justifiably offended many music lovers with the implication that their favorite performers (Furtwangler, Toscanini, whoever) were "inauthentic," when in fact they were an authentic part of a long performing tradition. In truth there's no such thing as authentic performance, and the better HIP performers understand that; indeed, some HIP performances of Beethoven are less observant of his metronome markings than, say, Rene Liebowitz's cycle from the early '60s. The point of using the old instruments is, basically, that they sound cool, or give the music a rough edge or a special sound that it doesn't always have with modern instruments (with Mozart's music, for example, his writing for winds often sounds better with period instruments, simply because the old instruments "blend" better in this music). So while I guess I'm an HIP-ster, I'm not a dogmatic one. In fact I'm not dogmatic at all, and that's absolutely final and I'll hear no more argument on the subject.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Tish Tash

Mike Barrier has posted his 1971 interview with Frank Tashlin, one of the truly great American film comedy directors. His cartoons are wonderful; they have the fast pace and wild imagination of Bob Clampett's cartoons, but they're a bit more disciplined -- the animation is a little less broad, the gags a little more carefully structured. Tashlin would probably have adapted better than Clampett to the style of cartoons in the '50s, which tended to depend less on squash-and-stretch animation and more on try/fail gags (of the type that Tashlin himself had pioneered in the Columbia cartoon "The Fox and the Crow," the prototype for Chuck Jones' Road Runner series). But by then, Tashlin was in live-action features, establishing himself as one of the best comedy writer-directors in the business.

It's often said that Tashlin brought cartoon humor to live-action, but it might be more true to say that Tashlin brought old-fashioned silent-style comedy to both cartoons and live-action features. Tashlin worshipped Mack Sennett, and reportedly (though he denied it) kept a little book of his favorite early silent comedy gags. His films, animated and live-action, brim with references to silent comedy and attempts to capture the anything-goes spirit of Sennett. Many of his "cartoony" gags are really silent-movie gags, like the climactic chase scene in The Disorderly Orderly. And sometimes his plots are inspired by the silent days, too; one of the few great Tashlin movies available on DVD, Son of Paleface, is basically a Buster Keaton plot, about a pampered Harvard graduate who goes back West and finds himself out of his league among tough guys and gals (this is more or less the story of many Keaton movies, like Steamboat Bill Jr.). It wasn't only silent movies that Tashlin referred to, of course; a number in Hollywood Or Bust called "A Couple of Travelling Guys" is a takeoff on the "Beyond the Blue Horizon" number in Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo. Tashlin even wanted to start the number with a sign saying "You are now entering Lubitsch county," but the studio said no.

Only one Tashlin cartoon is available on DVD, "Have You Got Any Castles?", but I hope that will change when the third Looney Tunes Golden Collection comes out. Among the Tashlin cartoons I've seen, my definite favorite is "Plane Daffy," where Daffy Duck battles the nefarious Nazi spy Hata Mari and tries to get to the front with an important military secret: a paper reading "Hitler is a Stinker." (Hitler: "That's no military secret!" Goering and Goebbels: "Ja, everybody knows that!") I saw this one in a theatre and it absolutely killed; the biggest laugh came with a line Daffy says when he's hiding in an icebox, which I just don't have the heart to give away.

Other great Tashlin cartoons: "Porky Pig's Feat" (the most "cinematic" of his cartoons -- lots of unusual camera angles and shot setups), the horror-comedy "The Case of the Stuttering Pig," Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in "The Unruly Hare," and another wartime propaganda effort, "Scrap Happy Daffy."

One thing that surprises me from this interview is how much Tashlin hated Porky Pig. I think he's a little unfair to the poor guy, but if other people at the studio felt the same way, it probably helps to explain why Porky stopped getting solo vehicles (after 1951 he never appeared in a cartoon without another, more popular character like Daffy or Sylvester).