Friday, March 31, 2006


I see that there's a low-priced reissue of Charles Mackerras's first recording of Kát’a Kabanová by Leos Janácek. This is one of my favourite operas, though I'm not sure I can exactly explain why. All of Janácek's operas share his uncompromisingly strange approach to theatre writing. His vocal lines are mostly declamatory, mimicking the rhythms and patterns of the spoken Czech language; the declamation (with occasional bursts of lyricism at climactic moments) takes place over an orchestral tapestry of short, brusque, mock-folkish tunes, in a style that someone else described as "cubist Dvořák"; his orchestration is rough and gritty, and accentuates rhythm rather than sensual appeal -- his favourite instrument was the timpani and he lets the timpani carry the melodic/rhythmic interest at key points.

Somehow it all works amazingly well in Kát’a, an intense and unusually fast-paced tragedy. Janácek moves through everything so fast -- the whole opera, minus intermissions, takes only a little over an hour and a half -- and yet every character is fully fleshed out, and every brief moment counts for something. Take the end of scene 1: the ingenue (a mezzo rather than a soprano; in Slavic operas it was common for the "flighty" character to have a heavier voice than the "serious" character) tells off the heroine's drunken, mother-fixated husband, then soliloquizes about her own sympathy for the heroine, but can't shake the feeling that it's not any of her business. All this, with several changes of mood and one character leaving the stage, happens in under a minute; big mood shifts are accomplished with nothing more than an unexpected high note or a sudden, brief lyrical passage lasting a few bars. It's opera boiled down to its essence and stripped of anything non-essential.

The recording above was the first in a series of Janácek operas that Mackerras recorded in Vienna in the late '70s and early '80s; they were the first Janácek recordings to be made outside of the compoer's native country (and while most of the singers were Czech, the lead, Elizabeth Söderström, was a Swede who spoke Russian but not Czech, and learned the language phonetically), and they helped establish more of an international reputation not only for Janácek, but for Mackerras, who at that time was mostly known only in England.

The Leos Janácek website is an excellent introduction to the life and work of this composer, whose music sounds baffling at first and then becomes addictive.

Great Lyrics: "See the Light"

From 70, Girls, 70, the Kander and Ebb flop musical that City Center Encores! is currently putting on in concert. The best song in the show was "See the Light," one of the last songs in a great Broadway tradition: the show-stopping mock-gospel song. Songs in this vein included Cole Porter's "There's a Happy Land in the Sky" (Something For the Boys), Irving Berlin's "The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul" (Louisiana Purchase), the Gershwins' "Clap Yo' Hands" (Oh, Kay!) and dozens of others, but this particular type of song was almost gone from the Broadway stage by 1971, when Kander and Ebb brought it back for singer Lillian Roth in 70, Girls, 70. Nobody writes a gospel song like my fellow Jews.

I used to know a lady known as Emma Finch,
Emma Finch, Emma Finch,
She had a kleptomania that made her pinch
Any article she saw.
She liked to spend the afternoon at Bloomingdale's,
Bloomingdale's, Bloomingdale's,
But Emma's way of going to the bargain sales
Was a bit beyond the law.
Emma took along a shopping bag,
Emma took along a shopping list,
Emma thought whatever Bloomie's lost
Bloomie's never missed.
She couldn't see the light,
She wouldn't see the light,
Emma never knew wrong from right,
Which left her in the dark, unable to see the light.

Emma saw a poochie
And Emma cleared the bin,
Emma Finch walked out of Bloomie's
Weighing ten pounds more than when Emma walked in.
Emma, like a lemur,
Would tiptoe left to right.
Emma's one dilemma
Was the poor kid never could see the light.

But things are never easy when you're at the top,
At the top, at the top,
Emma got to thinking that she oughta stop,
Oughta check her goals again.
"This penny-ante pilfering is just a bore,
Such a bore, quite a bore,
I really think I oughta use my talents more."
So she started lifting men.
Emma took along a shopping bag,
Emma took along a shopping list,
Any man at all who wasn't hers
She could not resist.
She couldn't see the light,
She wouldn't see the light,
Emma never knew wrong from right,
Which left her in the dark, unable to see the light.

But one of Emma's fellas made her very blue,
Mighty blue, black and blue,
Later in the clinic where they brought her to,
She began to comprehend.
"I've been an awful sinner in the way I stole,
I mean the clothes I stole, and the men I stole.
The Devil's reaching out, about to take my soul,
I'd better make the Lord my friend."
Emma put away her shopping bag,
Emma got herself another plan,
Emma went and put the poochies back
And she returned that man.
She cried "I see the light!
Oh, yeah, I see the light!"
Emma figured out wrong from right,
Despite her swollen jaw, she finally saw the light!

And now on Thursday night,
Come down on Thursday night,
Her talks are dynamite,
Pray with Sister Emma, mister, and see the light!

More "Aardvark"

After doing that long analysis of the "Bewitched" episode "A is for Aardvark,", I found a page that goes into detail about a prototype version of this episode. It seems that one of the initial batch of scripts was a different story, with a different setting; but the same basic idea as "Aardvark," developed in a similar way, and with the same ending. The script was put aside (bits of it eventually found their way into a second season episode) but a new script was immediately written around the same idea. It seems that that idea -- what if Darrin stopped forbidding Samantha to use magic and encouraged it instead -- was one of the ones Danny Arnold most wanted to do, but it took a ton of revision to get it right. It's an interesting look at how an episode evolves and morphs through multiple drafts.

The prototype script has a central dialogue exchange with a much nastier tone than the episode they finally wound up with; in this exchange, magic is very explicitly a metaphor for money (with Darrin explicitly portrayed as a man ready to sponge off his rich wife) and Samantha comes off quite unsympathetically. This was dropped in the episode proper, and the metaphor was changed to something less on-the-nose, but it's still interesting to read as a reminder of how much more grown-up Arnold's "Bewitched" was than the other fantasy sitcoms:

SAMANTHA: Darrin, I say this more in anger than in sorrow - but you married me for my magic!
DARRIN: [slowed down some] Samantha, I found out you were a witch after we were married, so don't be ridiculous!
SAMANTHA: You want to live on my magic..... and I'm being ridiculous!
DARRIN: [accusingly] Who's being selfish now?
SAMANTHA: [incredulous] Good grief! I think you're serious!
DARRIN: If you'd stop being emotional for a minute and look at this logically, you'd see....
SAMANTHA: Explain it to me! I dare you!
DARRIN: Take this house for instance. It's not my house, it's not your's our house. When we used to have a bank account - it wasn't mine, it wasn't yours, - it was ours.
SAMANTHA: Of course! It isn't my magic, it isn't your magic, it's our magic!
DARRIN: Now you've got it!
SAMANTHA: Oh, good! Do a trick for me, Darrin - disappear!
DARRIN: What's that supposed to mean?
SAMANTHA: Go ahead - do it with "our" magic. Or just do it - period.
DARRIN: You've missed the point completely. The whole basis of marriage is two people sharing everything - for the rest of their lives,
SAMANTHA: Agreed. But now that you've "retired", we won't have anything to share - but my magic. What are you putting into the pot?

It's a good thing that this rather nasty scene was dropped and a warmer-hearted episode constructed around the same idea, but this sort of thing -- a typical everyday situation, but with fantasy and magic code words substituted for the real-life stuff -- is something familiar to us now from every episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but the first-season "Bewitched" did it first.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Glories of Bad Back Projection

Watching some recent movies, it occurred to me that the use of "bluescreen" effects -- having characters play their scenes in front of a blank screen and then adding in the background digitally -- may prove to be to today's movies what rear projection was to movies from the '30s through the '60s: something that almost instantly dates a movie and makes it look kind of cheesy.

If you look at movies from the '20s, before rear projection was invented, a scene in a moving car is usually actually shot in a moving car. Even as late as 1931, after the coming of sound, The Public Enemy shot some scenes this way, and the scenes look terrific. And then in 1933, rear projection was invented, and was gradually adopted as a useful substitute for the difficulty and expense of sending the stars of a film to a location, or photographing them in an automobile or other vehicle. So in Hitchcock's Notorious, just about every other scene uses rear projection, because the second unit filmed a bunch of shots in Rio de Janeiro, and then Hitchcock projected those scenes behind Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in the studio in Hollywood.

By that time, while many European and Asian movies continued shooting "real" scenes in cars and on trains, Hollywood movies used rear-projection for pretty much any vehicular scene, even in the '50s when location shooting became much easier. It wasn't just about the difficulties of shooting, but about the desire of the old-guard studio people to control the conditions of shooting (lighting, sound, etc). One wonderful exception was Gun Crazy, where, for the big robbery sequence, directer Joseph H. Lewis stuck a camera and sound equipment in the back of a car and filmed the entire robbery and getaway in a single take.

The problem with rear projection is the same as the problem now with blue screen: it just doesn't look the same as the real thing. If the stars are actually in the car, driving along the street, then they look like they're at one with the setting, because they are. But if they're not really in a moving car, no matter how cleverly the process shot is pulled off, there's always a certain amount of disconnect between them and their environment: with rear-projection, the environment looks "flatter" than they do, and with today's process shots, you sort of get the feeling of flesh-and-blood humans in a digitized environment. Just as in an action scene, a CGI scene of someone jumping off a cliff is a poor substitute for having a real live stuntman jump off a cliff, putting actors in an artificial setting is a not-quite-convincing substitute for a real setting. I have a feeling that the process shots in today's movies will soon look as cheesy as anything from the '50s.

So I'll end this with a question: what's the worst back projection you've seen in a movie? There are so many choices, but one pick might be 1964's The Pleasure Seekers (aka Three Coins in the Fountain in their Underwear). They actually brought the cast over to Spain for this thing, yet half the scenes are filmed in front of back projection so obvious that you expect the Leaning Tower of Pisa to turn up by mistake in the background a la Police Squad! In fact, most of Fox's CinemaScope spectaculars -- particularly the ones by their star director, Jean Neuglesco -- have hilarious rear-projection; they spent all that money on location shooting, yet they always had to shoot their actors and actresses in a studio in front of a wobbly 'Scope plate.

Another candidate would be Ernest Lehman's 1972 film of Portnoy's Complaint, if only because almost nobody was using that kind of blatantly bad rear-projection by 1972 -- yet Lehman did, and it makes a 1972 movie look like it was filmed in another era. You haven't lived till you've heard Karen Black say "fuck" in a movie that otherwise looks like a scene out of a 1956 Fox chick-flick.

The Non-Return of Arrested Development

So it looks like "Arrested Development" won't be coming back after all, or if it does, it'll have to be without its creator/showrunner Mitch Hurwitz and his second-in-command Jim Vallely:

Series producers 20th Century Fox TV and Imagine TelevisionImagine Television had agreed on a deal to move "Arrested," previously on Fox, to Showtime -- assuming Hurwitz was willing to come back. In the end, however, a mix of creative and financial concerns has prompted Hurwitz to move on.

It's been previously indicated that no network would want the show back without Hurwitz running it; it's one of those shows that is so dependent on the style of its showrunner that it probably wouldn't work under anybody else, whereas other shows can change showrunners and go on more or less normally, because the characters hold up no matter who's writing for them. The characters on "Arrested Development" are so tied into the fragmented style of the show that they probably wouldn't be of much interest if someone else were writing for them.

As for other shows that were heavily dependent on having the original showrunner stick around, think of "Moonlighting" and Glenn Gordon Caron (but don't think of the last season after he left) or any David E. Kelley quirkfest.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

But How Does He Really Feel About Mary Tyler Moore?

Ken Levine discusses the low points of his career.

His experience with Mary Tyler Moore on her failed 1985 comeback show "Mary" gets particular emphasis. A few years later, Levine and his writing partner David Isaacs struck back at Moore in an episode they wrote for "The Simpsons," where Selma gets her hair done like Mary Tyler Moore's:

BARNEY: Excuse me, are you Mary Tyler Moore?
(Selma sprays him with mace.)
BARNEY: Wow, it is you!

On the Sunny Side of the Della Street

Perry Mason, Season 1, Volume 1. About time the original series came to DVD. Paramount's decision to split the long 38-episode seasons in two is annoying but understandable (a full set of the first season would require 10 discs and cost so much that the second season might never see the light of day). No extras, apparently, but it's worth it just to see Hamilton Berger lose over and over and over and over. The biggest laugh I ever got out of the show as a kid was an episode where Perry said: "Hamilton, you're a good prosecutor."

OT: Last Word on the Media and Internalization

I'm sorry to keep on with this, but I wanted to say one more thing based on L'Affaire Domenech and the "mainstream media"'s internalization of conservative criticisms.

Digby, the anonymous blogger who may be the finest prose-writer among political bloggers (and whose co-blogger, "Tristero," is the distinguished composer Richard Einhorn), had a recent post about the letter the Washington Post's ombudsman received from a Washington lawyer.

The letter, accusing her and the Post of liberal bias in their coverage, said: ""I can't subscribe to your newspaper anymore because you have lost all sense of balance and perspective in your coverage of the war in Iraq and against the terrorists. It is clear to those of us who have our sons and daughters who are in harm's way that you support the terrorists and you are opposed to the efforts of our Marines, all who are sacrificing so that you are free to publish without interference."

The reaction of the ombudsman? "I found his letter haunting; it pains me that he would think Post journalists support terrorists."

Digby points out the problem with her reaction. This man has just accused her and her colleagues of "supporting the terrorists." He doesn't imply it, he says it flat-out: "you support the terrorists." This man has just written an outrageous lie and slander against her and her fellow journalists, the sort of thing that any respectable person should be ashamed to write. And how does she, a veteran journalist, react? Not by calling this man a vicious liar, which he is. Not by defending the honour and integrity of her colleagues from this slander. Not by saying that he is a detestable creep for writing such things. No, she takes his criticism seriously and feels it "pains her" that this guy thinks she supports terrorists. The fact that this person has accused her and her fellow journalists of treason is apparently "haunting." She doesn't get mad, she doesn't get even, she gets "pained."

Digby writes:

The truth is that we are not trying to destroy the media with our barbaric uncouth ways and unflattering criticisms. We are trying to save it. It's not surprising that they have become self-loathing, addicted to RNC spin and dependent on the approbation of the Republican establishment. We can all see why they would no longer be able to tell the difference between rational conservative discourse and RNC propaganda. They've been under sustained attack for years.

That's why we've decided we need to stage an intervention. The first step is to wake them up and make them realize that when a reader calls them a terrorist sympathizer the proper response is not to "feel pained" or be "haunted." It's to recognize that the person who is saying it is a deluded rightwing nutcase --- and then get righteously pissed. That is not a benign charge --- they are fighting words.

Exactly right. Much of the conservative media criticism we've been seeing over the past few years is not media criticism in any real sense. Real media criticism attempts to correct errors and get reporters to report accurately on events. But the guy who wrote to Ms. Howell, or the creepy blogger/radio-host who tried to accuse a reporter of treason, are not trying to get the media to report accurately, they're trying to intimidate the media out of reporting facts that are accurate but inconvenient. "Bias" is defined as "reporting things that I don't like hearing about." And this is lapped up and taken seriously, not so much by reporters, but by their editors and bosses, who push for "balanced" reporting even if facts have to be balanced with non-facts.

That's the last I will say on this particular subject, but it is important to understand: people like the guy who wrote to Ms. Howell are not fringe cranks (he's a Washington D.C. lawyer, after all). They are part of the conservative mainstream. And they literally accuse reporters of treason. If previously-apolitical people like me have gotten a little "shrill" lately, it's because it's tough to sound moderate and bi-partisan when the other side is accusing you of being a terrorist-loving freedom-hater.

Danny Arnold & Bewitched: Addendum

One last thing about Danny Arnold and "Bewitched" and then I will move on. Commenter "R.W." has this to say about Arnold's season on the show and what he was trying to do with the show:

The only comment I ever heard Danny Arnold make about "Bewitched" is that his time on the show was a losing battle. He wanted to downplay the magic angle as much as possible, while ABC, from the beginning, was pushing hard for more magic. His feeling was that the magic would be more effective if it was used sparingly. I believe the strong foundation he established for "Bewitched" was largely responsible for the show's long run, even though, by the end, the series had become much more repitious and childlike than what Danny invented, with, it seemed like, every third episode involving Endora casting some sort of spell on or around Darrin.

"A is For Aardvark"

In one more follow-up to my posts about the Danny Arnold season of "Bewitched," I wanted to write something about the best episode from that first season -- the one Elizabeth Montgomery and Bill Asher considered the best of the series -- "A is For Aardvark." Update: Dialogue excerpts replaced with clips from the episode.

The episode is one of the last of the batch that Danny Arnold produced himself, before turning over producing duties to Jerry Davis for the rest of the season (with Arnold as head writer). It's very low-key and low-maintenance, taking place entirely in the Stephens's house; the fact that it doesn't feel claustrophobic or slow is probably due to the director, actress and pioneering female director Ida Lupino. It's pretty much is the essence of what makes the first season so good: the use of magical elements to tell a human, relatable and, yes, realistic story. As I said earlier, the writer, Earl Barret, was a freelancer who also contributed a similar (and equally good) script to a later season. (There were a few episodes in seasons 3 and 4 that were done in the down-to-earth human style of the Danny Arnold episodes; Barret's script "Charlie Harper, Winner" was one of them.)

The premise of the episode is that when Darrin sprains his ankle and is confined to his bed, Samantha tires herself out running up and down the stairs to bring him things. Tired out, she suggests a way to make things easier on her: she will put a spell on the house so that Darrin can have anything he wants by calling for it. Darrin is reluctant ("Sam, I don't want any part of that nonsense!"), but agrees if it'll make things easier for his wife.

After seeing Darrin teleport one thing after another upstairs to his room, Endora warns Samantha that mortals are inherently greedy and that once Darrin knows what it's like to be able to have anything he wants, he won't stop with just the things that are available in the house: "Today lunch, tomorrow the world."

And at the midpoint of the episode, Samantha is disappointed to find that her mother was right: after being exposed to just a taste of power, Darrin is starting to accept and even encourage the idea that she should use her powers to have anything she wants. The dialogue exchange is very well-written and played -- well-written because it pretty much analyzes Darrin's sexism years before pop-culture analysts started to do it, and well-played because Elizabeth Montgomery conveys Samantha's disappointment: she doesn't want full permission to use her powers, because she married a mortal to get away from a way of living where everything comes too easily:

In act 2, Darrin becomes more and more determined to live off magic: he quits his job and tells Samantha that, for the six-month anniversary of their marriage, they should go around the world and have all the fun "that we could never have if we saved for twenty years." Sam tries to use reverse psychology on her husband by offering him "too much of a good thing," but when she overhears him making plans to sell the house, she realizes that it's over: the life she chose with Darrin has been wrecked by his addiction to having everything right now.

In the climactic scene, Darrin gives Samantha some flowers and a watch that he had already bought for the six-month anniversary: "I bought this a long time ago," he says. "Just a couple of weeks, actually, but it seems like a long time ago." The watch bears the corny inscription "I love you every second." Samantha starts to cry and we get a dead-serious, emotional, tearjerking scene that you wouldn't have expected on a 1964 fantasy sitcom episode on ABC:

And Samantha, doing a bigger magical feat than she'd been capable of earlier in the series (that line "if you want it badly enough" implies that that's what makes it possible for her to pull it off) turns back time to an earlier point in the episode, when she had used magic to send a pencil upstairs to Darrin. Now she happily walks up the stairs to bring it to him.

So the episode answers most of the questions about the series. Is Samantha being oppressed by not being allowed to use her powers? No; living this way is her decision and her preference, because when everything comes easy, there is no fulfilment. Why doesn't Darrin want Samantha to use her powers? Because, as he explains himself, his ego and pride won't allow him to accept the fact that Sam can have things that he can't give her. Did Endora ever call Darrin by his first name? She does in this episode, but only after he's become selfish, idle and determined to live off magic -- now he's worthy of her daughter.

The episode is unusually carefully set up for a '60s sitcom episode, with plot developments tied into structural and thematic elements. So the episode begins with Darrin falling and spraining his ankle when he goes downstairs to lock the back door: that's the setup (Darrin laid up in bed with a sprained ankle), but there's a thematic element built into it: he goes downstairs to shut the door himself because he won't let Samantha use magic to do it. And the very last scene of the episode shows a parallel scene where Darrin has again forgotten to lock the back door -- but this time Samantha uses magic (surreptitiously) to close it without getting out of bed: nothing has changed, but she's happy to be back to her preferred status quo, where she lives the life of a mortal but uses magic as a little private pleasure.

Whew! That's a lot of analysis for one sitcom episode, and more than I meant to provide, but it's a really good episode, and surprisingly rich and meaningful for a sitcom episode. It's about more than a situation or a pratfall; it's about whether you enjoy things more if you have to strive for them; how much you need to give up in order to make a relationship work, and so on. Montgomery, York and Moorehead are all about as good in this episode as they ever were (I'm reminded that Endora was a less cartoonish character in the first season: she was genuinely concerned about her daughter and was mischievous rather than just malicious). That's what makes the much-derided sitcom form worthwhile: a good sitcom episode is about universal situations and questions that we all recognize from our daily lives. Even if it involves witches. Especially if it involves witches.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

You're An O'Neill Drama, You're Whistler's Mama

Roy Edroso has some interesting thoughts on the plays of Eugene O'Neill, why Long Day's Journey Into Night has retained more popularity than most of O'Neill's earlier plays, and why he likes those earlier plays anyway:

It's true that the appeal of plays like The Great God Brown and Mourning Becomes Electra will never be as universal as that of O'Neill's family drama, partly because of its amazing craft, but partly and maybe mostly because it is a family drama. As one of the commentators says, whatever kind of family you have, you can still see yourself in it: cataclysmic as the lives of the Tyrones are, they are also the lives of a father and a mother, a husband and a wife, and sons and brothers. Long Day's Journey got a head-start on "lasting" fame (at this writing, 50 years and counting) in part because it was written -- we must assume unconsciously -- in a form that would become familiar to and beloved of all Americans: that of a TV sitcom. If the language and emotions are a little elevated for modern audiences, they can still relate to the arguments between Archie and Meathead -- I mean Tyrone and Jamie.

Most of O'Neill's other plays are much harder to get to. They are conscious (not to say self-conscious) attempts to recreate ancient tragic forms in American vernacular. To enjoy them you have to have some taste for the declamatory, the outsize, and the outrageously ambitious. In a way I like them for the same reason I like Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone.

O'Neill's greatest virtue as a writer is his passionate sincerity; his dialogue may be clumsy, his themes may be obvious, but you always get the feeling that he means it, that each line comes out of conviction rather than calculation. There were other playwrights who were more sophisticated in their attempts to re-create old forms, like Maxwell Anderson, who tried to apply the Shakespearean blank verse tragedy form to the modern-day underworld in Winterset. But the marginal sophistication of these efforts just makes them seem more dated: you get the feeling the author should have known better. O'Neill's work may be primitive at times, but it doesn't exactly feel dated, because it seems to belong less to a particular time and place than to a particular personality -- O'Neill's. And because he's so direct, so passionate and so unrelenting in setting out his themes (including, in The Iceman Cometh, just adopting the catchprhase "pipe dream" and repeating it nine thousand times), he doesn't have the problem of most English-language playwrights of his time, of being too clever to really produce audience involvement. O'Neill isn't clever (his writing isn't, I mean) and while he knew every trick of the theatrical trade, his plays are not the facile "well-made" plays that most of his contemporaries were writing. He's going to tell you what matters to him, and he's going to tell it to you over and over until you realize that he really means it. The experience of an O'Neill play is a bit like Conrad L. Osborne's description of the experience of an early Verdi opera: you start off being bemused by the crudity, but by refusing to back down, "He forces you to play on his own terms, where he always wins."

By the way, the best parody of O'Neill is probably still George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind's spoof of Strange Interlude in the famous Groucho Marx monologue from Animal Crackers:

Living with your folks. Living with your folks. The beginning of the end. Drab dead yesterdays shutting out beautiful tomorrows. Hideous, stumbling footsteps creaking along the misty corridors of time. And in those corridors I see figures, strange figures, weird figures, Steel 186, Anaconda 74, American Cane 138...

Sitcom Directors Recorded For Posterity

I keep meaning to write a piece about directors of three-camera sitcoms -- the heirs of the tradition of fast-paced, snappy stage comedy directors like George Abbott. I haven't had time yet, but I'll note that two of the "stars" of the sitcom-directing world have recently had a chance to do DVD commentaries, which sitcom directors don't usually get to do. Jay Sandrich (son of Astaire-Rogers director Mark Sandrich, principal director of "Mary Tyler Moore," "Soap," and "The Cosby Show," does a commentary on an episode of "The Cosby Show, Season 2" (which, unlike the first-season set, presents the episodes uncut). And on the new set of "The Bob Newhart Show," Season 3, Jim Burrows (the son of the writer/director of Broadway comedies and musicals, Abe Burrows), of "Taxi," "Cheers" and about seven jillion pilots, does a commentary on the episode "The Way We Weren't."

Identifying Animators And Their Scenes

Please check out Thad Komorowski's blog, Identifying Animators and their scenes. Thad is a terrific analyst of the individual styles of great classic animators, and his posts are illustrated with YouTube clips so you can actually see the work of these animators -- because animation is about movement, stills and individual drawings can't do their work justice the way an actual film clip can.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Helloooooo Nurse!

TLA Video has posted cover art for "Animaniacs: Volume 1" and Pinky and the Brain: Volume 1, both to be released on July 25.

"Animaniacs" has the first 25 episodes (there were 99 in all) and "Pinky and the Brain" has the first 22 episodes (of 65), so we can presumably expect three more volumes for "Animaniacs" and two more for "Pinky," if the first releases sell well enough, that is. The "Animaniacs" set (which I think will be four discs rather than the five mentioned in the listing) will have at least one new special feature: "Animaniacs Live!": Comic Maurice LaMarche [voice of the Brain] hosts an in-studio style interview via satellite big screen TV with Animaniac friends as they comment on this historical [sic] show. "Pinky and the Brain" should have special features too, but they're not identified on the listing.

I have been an unwavering "Animaniacs" fan since that day in 1993 when I happened to look at the old slot of "Tiny Toons" (which I liked, but didn't love) and found it replaced by a show that was similar in style, but faster, sharper and wittier, with the kind of amoral, aggressive humour you just didn't see on TV anymore -- particularly not "kids' TV." The segment was "Meatballs or Consequences" (part of episode 19 on the DVD set), a parody of The Seventh Seal where Yakko, Wakko and Dot meet Death, play checkers with him ("chess is unknown to us"), jump on his back and ride him off a cliff, and offer up some terrific lines of dialogue by John McCann:

SWEDISH GUY: I better go. Gotta help the wife export some iron ore.

YAKKO: Hey, Mister, are you about to drag our brother off to a bleak nether realm of despair, where the future is nothing but an endless sea of anguish and horrible misery?
YAKKO & DOT: We wanna go too!

YAKKO: All is strange and vague.
DOT: Are we dead?
YAKKO: Or is this Ohio?

DOT: What's it like to be dead, Wakko?
WAKKO: Pretty boring. I've already hummed all the songs I know.

The first volume of "Animaniacs" will include many of the best cartoons of the series' run (the first 65 episodes are consistently excellent). They include song sequences like "Yakko's World," featuring all the countries of the world set to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance, and with Yakko doing a dance (storyboarded by Brian Mitchell) based on a dance Groucho Marx used to do; two confrontations with Mr. Director, the vicious Jerry Lewis parody written and voiced by Paul Rugg ("Hello, nice people in the TV!!!"), and great supporting-character cartoons like the first Pinky and the Brain cartoon and Slappy Squirrel in "Bumbie's Mom."

There's also some great animation from two great and very different animation studios that worked on the show: Tokyo Movie Shinsha, the great Japanese studio that created some of the best-looking cartoons ever made for TV, with their uniquely broad and jerky way of making characters move, and Startoons, the Chicago-based studio run by the terrific animator Jon McClenahan.

The "Pinky and the Brain" set will include the first 13-episode season, the best of the series, and some other fine episodes.

In conclusion: buy these sets. But them as soon as they come out. Pitch a tent outside your local store the night before the release date and jump on the clerk first thing in the morning and demand that you be allowed to buy a copy.

That is all.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Animator Links

Some good posts on classic animators and their individual styles:

At YouTube, Thad Komorowski is uploading a ton of great clips that give an introduction to the styles of great animators like Irv Spence, Emery Hawkins, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and many others.

David Germain has a biographical essay on the looniest of all Looney Tunes animators, Rod Scribner.

And John Kricfalusi has more to say about Scribner and "specific acting" in animation, using a Daffy Duck scene from "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" as an illustration.

Richard Fleischer

The director Richard Fleischer, son of Max Fleischer, died yesterday at the age of 89. He had an interesting career. His best movie was one of his earliest, the gritty little train thriller The Narrow Margin. After that movie, he spent most of the rest of his career specializing in two very different genres: most of his big movies were either science-fiction, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green, or true-crime stories like The Boston Strangler, Compulsion (Leopold and Loeb) and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (Stanford White, Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit). He directed some of the worst movies ever made, like Che!, the attempt to do a big-studio movie about Che Guevara (20th Century Fox and Communism just don't mix somehow), the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer, and of course, Mandingo. But he was always a smart, efficient director who knew how to keep a film moving; give him a good script and he'd give you an entertaining movie. He was really one of the last of the old-school studio contract directors, not an auteur but an asset to any producer who needed good solid direction.

OT: The Lessons of L'Affaire Domenech

You may have heard about Ben Domenech, the 24 year-old wunderkind who spent all of two days last week as the Washington Post's designated conservative blogger; various liberal blogs soon found that he had not only called Coretta Scott King a "Communist" and a fellow Post employee a "weasel-faced Democrat shill," but that he had plagiarized many of the articles he'd written for college newspaper and National Review. He resigned, a victim of the perfect blog-swarm storm; here's a funny list of suggestions for his potential replacements.

I wouldn't normally weigh in on this particular story, but it ties in with something I've been thinking about and have written about concerning journalism, and I wanted to bring it up, so here goes:

This was the first widely-publicized example of something I've written about before, which is that the strongest accusations of media bias now come from the left. Editors at big media outlets have gotten used to attacks from the right, and they frequently bend over backwards to accommodate them. We saw an example of that this past week, when editors and hosts accommodated the conservative/Republican complaints that they're not showing the "good news from Iraq." This never made any sense, since their own journalists in Iraq know perfectly well that the situation in Iraq is worse than they're allowed to show on TV or in the newspaper; but once the "liberal media bias" complaint is out there, it has to be taken seriously. (Elton Beard has another example of editors internalizing and taking seriously the most crazy and ridiculous complaints, as long as they come from the right.) Yet the same editors and hosts really have no idea that they could be accused of conservative media bias, even though it is an article of faith among every prominent liberal blogger that the media is biased against liberal points of view.

The Post thought they needed to balance their online columnist Dan Froomkin, because they have gotten complaints that his column betrays a liberal bias. They decided to hire a blogger who was a partisan conservative Republican overflowing with hatred and contempt for "liberals." The initial source of the liberal bloggers' complaints -- what caused them to go looking for Domenech's earlier writings -- was that the Post had hired a partisan conservative/Republican blogger but had no blogger who was comparably partisan liberal/Democratic. Yet the Post really had no idea that such complaints were coming, because they didn't understand how many people out there think they have a conservative bias already. There will be more complaints like this, and media outlets need to understand that they need to look leftward to see where the toughest media criticism is going to be coming from.

P.S. - It's also funny and/or scary to contemplate the fact that he'd been a speechwriter for a U.S. Senator (coming up with an infamous line comparing gay marriage to marrying a box turtle) and an editor of angry but prominent conservative writers at Angry Right publishing house Regnery. He also co-founded the big conservative blog Redstate, and his dad worked in the White House. In other words, Domenech was considered a rising star in the Conservative Journalistic Movement, not unlike the Wall Street Journal's bloodthirsty bulletin-board troll James Taranto. Is this really what conservative journalism has become?

"Bewitched": The Year of Danny Arnold

More about the first season of "Bewitched", which I watched again recently: this is by some distance the best season of the show, and different in several important ways from the later seasons. The writing is much more sophisticated, and the stories are much more focused on the relationship of Samantha (the witch) and Darrin (the mortal) and the problems that arise from that. By the third or fourth season of the series, almost every episode would be about a crazy spell cast by one of Samantha's relatives, and the show became a fantasy with domestic elements, whereas the first season is a domestic screwball comedy with fantasy elements.

The special tone of the first season comes from one participant, the writer Danny Arnold. Arnold, who would later strike it rich as co-creator and showrunner of "Barney Miller," produced the first third or so of "Bewitched"'s first season, and supervised the writing for the rest of the season. And this interview with Canadian writer Bernard Slade, a staff writer on "Bewitched" (he later created "The Partridge Family" and the hit play Same Time, Next Year) suggests that though Sol Saks was credited as the creator of the show, the (superb) pilot episode may have been heavily rewritten by Arnold:

[Saks] was kind of eased out of that. He was lucky, though because I think Danny Arnold did a lot of re-writing on that. Sol had nothing to do with the series after that, and I don't know what his deal was – he probably got a royalty from that. He hasn't written anything since, and he has lived very well.

Slade also recalled that Arnold was a tough guy to work with but a brilliant writer and producer who made "Bewitched" what it was:

I think some of the earlier Bewitched episodes – the ones in black & white – were quite sophisticated. When Danny Arnold was on the show, which was during the first year, he was difficult for a lot of writers to deal with, but he cast incredibly well and he would fight for people. He was the one that set that show up.

People who worked on "Barney Miller" had similar things to say about Arnold: he was abrasive and a credit hog (he took a director credit on the second episode of "Barney Miller" away from the guy who actually directed it), and he was so much of a perfectionist as to be unreliable: "Barney Miller" stopped taping in front of a studio audience because Arnold couldn't get the script rewrites done in time for audience night.

Arnold comes across as a sitcom producer/writer who took situation comedy surprisingly seriously, and was particularly interested in finding ways to get social significance into sitcom episodes without becoming preachy. I've mentioned this article before, where Arnold explains how he saw "Bewitched," and Elizabeth Montgomery admits that others on the show don't take it as seriously as Arnold does:

Danny Arnold sees more profound implications than just entertainment in Bewitched. "With this show," he says, "I saw a great opportunity to accomplish something. Fantasy can always be a jumping-off place for more sophisticated work. We can make it identifiable with people and relate to problems that are everyday. What we do in this series doesn't happen to witches; it happens to people. But the messages are funnier when they happen to a witch - and therefore less offensive."

What sort of messages?

"Well, take the Halloween show. It pointed the finger at bigotry. Samantha's husband was prejudiced about witches - who are definitely a minority group. He thought they were all ugly old crones, and his wife had to break down this prejudice. It is a direct parallel to some of our social problems of today. But through fantasy, we can get a more vivid portrayal. Humor can then come out of touchy subjects."

Did Miss Montgomery catch this assault on bigotry when she was making the Halloween show?

In her cluttered trailer dressing room she wrinkled her nose thoughtfully and pondered the question. "I don't think it's that cerebral," she admitted.

Most of the first-season "Bewitched" episodes use that idea of magic and fantasy as a metaphor for everyday domestic problems or social issues. It's very familiar now, thanks to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and other shows that tell everyday stories but replace the everyday elements with fantasy elements. But at the time, it was unusual to have this kind of storytelling outside of science-fiction shows like "The Twilight Zone." The most similar thing was Bell, Book and Candle, where witchcraft metaphorically stood for homosexuality (in the play) or the Beat generation (in the movie). But what was new was the way Arnold tied the magical elements so closely and to real life and invited us to see the parallels.

So the best episode of the season, "A is For Aardvark," is about Samantha giving Darrin a taste of what it's like to have magical powers, and being horrified to discover that he soon becomes idle, complacent and determined to stop working and get everything through magic. The episode isn't really about magic at all; it's about the real-world issue of whether you get more fulfilment out of instant gratification or working hard and deferring pleasure.

In "Eye of the Beholder," Endora shows Darrin a portrait of Samantha that was painted centuries ago, demonstrating that witches never age. The episode focuses on Darrin's adjusting to the fact that he and Samantha will not grow old together (there are some pretty poignant moments with him observing a happy elderly couple). But we can recognize in the situation, and the way it plays out, an examination of our real-life concerns about aging and mortality. There's even an episode where Darrin is convinced that his swinging bachelor friend (Adam West) must be under a spell when he falls in love with Samantha's plain friend, because the friend is changing so much and so quickly; at the end, it finally seems to dawn on him that what changes a man is not magic but love and marriage.

Other episodes are about the issue of racially or culturally mixed marriages and genteel upper-class prejudice, as when we meet Samantha's father Maurice (Maurice Evans), whose patrician good manners barely conceal a vicious, violent prejudice against non-witches.

The dialogue was also more sophisticated, less jokey and one-liner-y than usual for sitcoms in this period:

(Darrin mistakenly thinks Samantha's friend is a witch)
SAMANTHA: All right. Gertrude is a witch. All my friends are witches, and we're just waiting for the right time to swoop down on Morning Glory Circle and claim it in the name of Beelzebub.

ENDORA: To err is human, to forgive divine?
SAMANTHA: Exactly.
ENDORA: When you’re up to here in err, and you’ve changed into one huge lump of divine, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

BOY: Are a good witch or a bad witch?
ENDORA: Comme ci, comme ça.

DARRIN: Sam, when we do have a child, what do you suppose it'll be?
SAM: Your guess is as good as mine.
DARRIN: Oh, I know it'll be a boy or a girl. Won't it?

There was also more sexual humour in the first season than the show would try to get away with later:

(From an episode about a girl named "Pleasure O'Riley" and her jealous boyfriend)
JEALOUS BOYFRIEND: Do you have Pleasure in this house?
ABNER KRAVITZ: Not too often, but occasionally.

Arnold left the show after the first season -- some accounts say he was fired -- and the show never recaptured the tone he'd brought to it in that first season. The second season, with Slade replacing Arnold as head writer, was good, but had more "wacky" or kid-friendly stories; the number of silly stories increased every year after that, until by the last few seasons most episodes were either: a) Samantha's relatives cast a spell that interferes with Darrin's attempt to land an account, or b) Bill Asher dusts off a script from an earlier season and remakes it. But what Danny Arnold was trying to do with the show in that first year was very impressive, and much more substantial than any other fantasy/comedy show.

Friday, March 24, 2006

"Enough Is Enough. I've Had It With These Snakes."

Snakes on a Plane.

It has come to my attention that a surprising number of people (including, until recently, me) are unfamiliar with the upcoming movie entitled Snakes On a Plane.

Here is the trailer for Snakes On a Plane.

The movie Snakes on a Plane will be released this August. It stars Samuel L. Jackson, and the story is about a plane. With snakes on it. Jackson is transporting a witness to L.A. by plane. The bad guys want to kill the witness. So they release a bunch of snakes. The snakes are on the plane. That's why it's called Snakes on a Plane.

For those of you who are still wondering why this is the best thing ever, I refer you to the man who apparently broke this story, Josh Friedman: "Holy shit, I'm thinking. It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles."

Unbelievably, the studio was considering changing the title to Pacific Air Flight 121, which would have been the worst title change since some idiot changed Cop Gives Waitress 2 Million Dollar Tip to It Could Happen To You. Instead, online buzz for the title was so huge that the studio's re-shoots actually added a line that the fans had been demanding to hear in the film ("I want these motherfucking snakes off the motherfucking plane!"). Plus adding more gore and nudity and profanity to change the film's rating from PG-13 to R, a welcome throwback to the good old '80s days when cheesy action flicks weren't aimed at 15 year-olds, or at least the 15 year-olds who didn't know enough to sneak into the theatre.

This will be the greatest movie ever, and if you don't know why, well, I can't help you if you have no soul.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Noir Town

According to DVD Beaver, the contents of the next Warner Brothers Film Noir box are:

- On Dangerous Ground (1952) - Nicholas Ray directs noir A-lister Robert Ryan as a rogue cop who falls for the sister (Ida Lupino) of the murderer he's trying to catch. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score.
- His Kind of Woman (1951) - A nutty but incredibly enjoyable Howard Hughes production, from the period where he was basically running RKO into the ground. It's got Mr. noir himself, Robert Mitchum, and Hughes favorite Jane Russell shimmying around, and Vincent Price in a movie-stealing performance as an actor trying to be a tough guy in real life. (Mitchum: "I'm too young to die. You?" Price: "Too well-known.")
- The Racket (1951) - I don't know how noir this is; it's more of a straightforward crime-fighting story, with honest cops taking down the titular racket. However, it's an RKO film that has Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott, so it's noir even if it isn't.
- Border Incident (1949) - One of a surprisingly large number of tough, gritty movies MGM made in the late '40s and early '50s -- after Louis B. Mayer started losing power at the studio, its reputation as a home of family-friendly escapism wasn't really operative any more -- this is about a Mexican federal agent (Ricardo Montalban) who teams up with an American fed (George Murphy) to stop corrupt businessmen who smuggle illegal workers into California and then exploit them for no money. Great location photography by John Alton; the director, Anthony Mann, would the following year become one of the top directors of Westerns.
- Lady in the Lake (1947), also known as "The one where director/star Robert Montgomery shot the whole thing from the point of view of the unseen Philip Marlowe," or "Robert Montgomery's bizarre experiment," or "What was Robert Montgomery thinking?" Something must have been in the air in the late '40s, since the following year Alfred Hitchcock would pull off an almost equally bizarre experiment (shooting Rope in what looked like one uninterrupted take). As for Lady in the Lake, I would have liked to have seen what the underrated Montgomery could have done as an on-screen Philip Marlowe.

But Brain, I'm the Producer!

Platypus Comix has Part 1 of a projected multi-part interview with Tom Ruegger. Ruegger was the senior producer for Warner Brothers TV animation in the '90s; he developed "Tiny Toons," "Animaniacs" and "Freakazoid!" among other shows, and was an executive producer on "Batman: The Animated Series" (he co-wrote the famous "Beware the Grey Ghost" episode). The interview focuses on his work before coming to WB, with Filmation and Hanna-Barbera; the look at what Hanna-Barbera in the '80s is pretty interesting, and a reminder that "A Pup Named Scooby-Doo" was actually a pretty good show.

KotH Protest Too Much

The news about the surprise renewal of "King of the Hill," which I broke on this blog several weeks ago, is now official. It'll be the first and last scoop I'll ever have access to.

This New York Post article describes the process of trying to get a long-cancelled show back into production very quickly: after the renewal, which came in January, the producers had two months to re-negotiate a deal for the show, sign back all the voice talent, find writers and animators, and so on. As with "Family Guy" and "Futurama," Fox cartoons never die.

One thing people don't remember about "King of the Hill" is that when it started in 1997, it was big -- more of a genuine pop-culture phenomenon than "Family Guy" or "Futurama" ever were. The ratings it got in the post-"Simpsons" slot sometimes even surpassed "The Simpsons"; it was named the number-one show of the year by TV Guide; it inspired a tie-in book within the first year ("The Boy Ain't Right"). The show's popularity stumbled in its third season when Fox moved it to a new night, Tuesday, hoping that it could anchor the network on a night on which it hadn't been particularly competitive. This didn't work out, and the following year KotH was in the unglamorous, under-publicized time-slot of 7:30 on Sundays, where it has mostly stayed ever since. It's been a solid fan favourite ever since, especially in syndication, but it never recaptured the media buzz it was getting in 1997-8. Also, since 2001 the show's Texas setting has caused it to be pigeonholed as a Southern/Western show, though its appeal is actually pretty universal and its portrayal of small-town suburban life rings true almost anywhere.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Best Tasmanian Devil Cartoon

"Ducking the Devil."

Created by Bob McKimson, the Tasmanian Devil had an odd history. He appeared in one Bugs Bunny cartoon in 1954, "Devil May Hare," made just before the WB cartoon studio temporarily shut down. After returning, McKimson made two more shorts with the character, both of which appeared in 1957: "Bedevilled Rabbit," and "Ducking" (which teamed him for the first and only time with Daffy Duck). McKimson later said that the character was revived because Jack Warner told the studio's cartoon producer, Eddie Selzer (in his last year at the studio) that he liked the Tasmanian Devil character and wanted to see more of him. But after we saw more of him in 1957, he couldn't have been a particularly big hit with audiences, since there nothing for several years. Suddenly Taz returned again as a foil for Bugs in two more cartoons: 1962's "Bill of Hare" and one of the last Bugs Bunny cartoons, 1964's "Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare." His incredible popularity -- which made him a merchandising favourite and even got him his own TV cartoon show, "Taz-Mania" -- came later, but those two early-'60s cartoons might have been influenced by favourable reaction to broadcasts of the Taz cartoons on the prime-time "Bugs Bunny Show."

Note re "Ducking the Devil" that McKimson is trying to adapt to the new, greedy, craven Daffy popularized around that time by Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, but his heart isn't really in it. Of the three directors at WB in the '50s, McKimson stuck the longest with traditional characterizations, especially of Daffy: the wacky hoo-hooing Daffy was starring in McKimson cartoons as late as 1958. Here Daffy is a "craven little coward," but he can also be wacky in the '40s Daffy way, and he actually wins in the end and is rewarded for his greed -- something Jones would never have allowed even for the "wacky" Daffy.

The Greatest Chimp of All

Better than "Me and the Chimp." Better than "Mr. Smith." Better than various versions of Bonzo. There can be only one "Lancelot Link/Secret Chimp," and he's coming to DVD. Chimp fans everywhere can rejoice.

The Magnificent Ambersons of Cartoons

Here's an interesting thread on what appears to be the newest attempt to reconstruct Richard Williams' animated feature The Thief and the Cobbler. It's a very elaborate bootleg, but apparently of much better quality than scratchy workprint versions of the film that float around.

This feature is the great massacred legend of animation, as famous in its own way as Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons for the studio butchery it suffered. As Eddie Bowers explains, Williams spent over 20 years working on this feature film, borrowing time and money to work on the film whenever possible. Finally he secured a distribution deal with a studio to complete the film, but the studio took the film away from him, re-cut it, re-dubbed it, and re-titled it Arabian Night to make it seem more like an Aladdin knockoff. The product that was released to the public was beautifully animated, since most of the animation was directed by Williams, but it wasn't anything like what it was supposed to be.

The goal of a complete, fully-restored, official release of The Thief and the Cobbler remains a possibility, but, as Wikipedia details, there are problems involving rights, payments, and the preservation of the necessary material. The end result is that animation has its own legend of studio hacks tearing an auteur and his dream project to shreds, and the mystery of what the "real" movie would have been like if the creator had had his way.

Depressing Lyrics: "A Pox Upon the Traitor's Brow!"

Continuing my occasional series of depressing, dark or just-plain-wrong song lyrics from Broadway musicals, here are the lyrics to a song from Drat! The Cat!, lyrics by Ira Levin. The song, "A Pox Upon the Traitor's Brow," is sung by a bunch of cops who think that one of their own turned out to be the titular cat burglar (they are of course wrong, but who cares about the plot), and the song just consists of a list of horrible calamities that they wish upon the traitor. If you need to think of a terrible thing that can happen, it's probably in here:

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A curse upon his head!
He tricked us with his sacred vow,
Then took the jewels and fled.
He tricked us all and then he fled,
God knows where he is now.
A curse upon the traitor's head!
A pox upon his brow!

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A pox upon his ear!
A cold that knocks on New Year's Day
And moves in for the year!
Bunions on his toes
And giant blisters on his heels!
May chronic indigestion
Make a folly of his meals!
A siezure that's related
To an apoplectic fit,
A boil or two located
So the creature cannot sit,
Charley horses, strained tendons, and ruptured ligaments,
Baseball fingers, paper cuts, and similar irksome disfigaments.

A scourge upon the traitor's neck!
A foulness on his breath!
In both his eyes a cinder speck
That stings like bitter death!
May vertigo affect him
When he's standing on the ground,
An itchiness he cannot scratch
When people are around!
May dandruff in great showers
Make the turncoat look outrave.
Cuts that bleed for hours
In the wake of ev'ry shave.
Never in all my life have I encountered such diabolical depravity!
May ev'ry one of the blackguard's teeth contain a cavity!

Misfortune take the lowly worm!
May shingles leave him weak!
May ev'ry mischief-making germ
Play house in his physique!
Hangnails on his cuticles,
A constant loss of weight,
A shelf of pharmaceuticals
Entirely out of date!
Measles, mumps, the pip, the grippe,
A classic case of mange,
A thing upon his lower lip
Completely new and strange,
This galaxy of afflictions beyond one man's endurance,
And as the final blow, no medical insurance!

A pox upon the traitor's brow!
A curse upon his head!
He tricked us with his sacred vow,
Then took the jewels and fled.
He tricked us all and then he fled,
God knows where he is now.
A curse upon the traitor's head!
A pox upon his brow!

Monday, March 20, 2006

OT: How I Got Here

You may have noticed, if you're a regular reader (and there's no reason you should be), that my blog has incorporated an increasing number of politicized posts. I want to apologize for that, since I never intended this blog to be that way, and I'm going to try to return the focus to arts and pop culture as originally intended.

But maybe it would help if I posted a little bit about why this happened. If you look at my old posts from usenet -- the ones from 1996 through 2003 or so -- you'll find that whenever I mention politics I come off as neutral or even conservative on many issues. I really wasn't interested in politics; to the extent that I was, I would have defined myself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road type.

And then came the Iraq War. If 9/11 was a defining moment for some people, the Iraq War was a defining moment for many others, particularly for political moderates who tended to believe in the good faith of political leaders. For here was a moment when something big was happening, and it clearly wasn't in good faith. We had governments and media people arguing that the proper response to 9/11 was to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, and that the solution to Fundamentalist Islam was to topple a secular dictator. Even assuming that Saddam needed to go, the constant tie-in with 9/11 made no sense whatsoever. But, of course, polls soon showed that 70% of people believed that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, and without that, there would never have been any kind of popular support for a war. For a lot of us, it was our fullest introduction to how governments can deceive people without actually lying directly (so they can always claim they never actually said X); you just let people believe what they want to believe, and frame the issue so as to encourage these mistaken beliefs. Governments do this all the time, of course, and being as cynical about politics as the next person, I'd come to expect this. But I'd never seen a government try so hard to keep people ill-informed, scared and paranoid in an attempt to get them to support a war. War isn't a farm bill or a drug law; it's the biggest thing a government can do, and there was something deeply fishy about the way it was being done.

One of the odd things about the run-up to the Iraq War was how rare it was to find, in the media, a critique of the war on practical grounds: that is, the idea that such a war would be more trouble than it was worth. The talk shows were split between people who wanted to invade unilaterally and people who wanted to invade only with lots of allies; the idea of not invading at all was hardly discussed. Even the Chomskyite left had trouble stirring up opposition to the war, because the lefties had spent years objecting to the Iraq sanctions regime -- and opposing the war essentially meant defending continued sanctions. It was left to the so-called "paleoconservative" right, the Pat Buchanan, Eric Margolis types, to make the obvious case against the war, but even those of us who agreed with them found it tough to stomach their tendency to blame the whole thing on Israel.

So who was out there speaking for those of us who felt that it was just a terrible idea -- terrible because, bad as Saddam was, there would be a good possibility that what would follow him would be worse; and also because there was no good reason to believe that the West had any vital interest in taking him out? Not many people. There was hard-ass realist Brent Scowcroft, semi-exiled from the Bush II administration for pointing out the obvious; and there was moderate Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who made a speech in February 2003 which, as blogger Glenn Greenwald pointed out, was almost painfully prescient about what could go wrong with a war like this, and stands as a model of moderate good sense compared to most of what you heard on the right and left in 2003, including the simple point that "The Administration has not explained how a lasting peace, and lasting security, will be achieved in Iraq once Saddam Hussein is toppled."

But, you know, when there's so much consensus on a particular point, you tend to doubt your own judgment. Here you had the war supported by most major spokespeople for both U.S. political parties; by Tony Blair (note: it is an example of how pathetic liberals can sometimes be that some liberals of my acquaintance still admire Tony Blair. Stop it. Every lie the Bush administration told, Blair told, and sometimes originated); by most big media spokespeople -- you get the picture. How could all these people be wrong? So I didn't stop believing that the war was a mistake; but I did retain my belief in the good faith of these people, that they had their legitimate reasons for doing things the way they did them. I don't tend to assume that people go into politics just for money or power (they can get those things outside of politics). Even as late as November 2004, I had an argument with someone who was furious at Bush's re-election. I was upset too, believing that Kerry would have hired better foreign-policy people than Bush and listened to them more than Bush did; but I defended the good faith of the Bush administration in the sense that the so-called "neoconservative" approach to foreign policy was based on a legitimate, if misguided, belief. You can be wrong without being evil.

Well, the last years and a half, which has reduced Bush and Blair to new heights of lowness, popularity-wise, has changed a lot of my perceptions. I don't want to elaborate on the various scandals and screw-ups since then. But what's changed is that I no longer believe that there was any good faith involved here. What emerges from the revised picture of the Iraq war is of politicians determined to exploit 9/11 for political gain. We've seen politicians playing on people's paranoia about terrorism and trying to keep people afraid; we've seen the threat of terrorism exaggerated out of all proportion and various fear-crazed politicians and pundits taking to the airwaves to express their cowardly, childish belief that all rational thought must cease because some Muslim, somewhere, might have a box-cutter. And the final straw for me was the revelation of the illegal wiretapping story (yes, it was illegal, yes, I've heard the silly arguments about why it's not "really" illegal, but it's very, very illegal), the final revelation that these people were treating the metaphorical "war on terror" as though it were a real war, and that therefore the government could grab "wartime powers" essentially forever.

I could take the disaster of Iraq as a sad outcome of a good-faith mistake. But the exploitation of 9/11 for political purposes and power-grabbing has been the most shameful thing I have witnessed in my lifetime from a once-admirable political system. And the transformation of "conservatism" and even "libertarianism" into a mixture of cowardice, mendacity and sheer fantasy has been upsetting too. (Guide to the difference between good-faith conservatives and cowardly conservatives: if a writer uses the term "our jihadist enemy," accuses war opponents of being "pacifists," tries to change the subject to the oil-for-food program, or says that the U.S. needs to "win" in Iraq without explaining what winning would entail, he or she supports the war out of sheer cowardly fear of any and all Muslims anywhere. Luckily there are some non-crazy war supporters out there and I have had instructive conversations with them.)

Three years ago today, as the war was starting, I thought some of the people I knew -- who also opposed the war, but doubted the good faith of those running it -- were over-the-top lefties. Some time later, I thought they were over-the-top lefties for talking about torture and illegal government power-grabs.

Now I know they were moderates. Sad, angry moderates who never thought they would witness something like this from governments they had been taught to respect and even admire.

Like me.

More Nessmania

More quotes from Les Nessman of "WKRP in Cincinnati," who has to be one of the most quotable TV characters of all time.

Most quotes courtesy of TV's Other 10 Percent.

LES: My great aunt Eureka Nessman lived in a house very like this once, all alone. She had a little parakeet and she used to let it fly free throughout the house.
LES: Then she bought another parakeet, and another, and more and more until finally there were thousands of parakeets. And the mess they made was beyond belief. Aunt Eureka had gone insane, of course, living all alone in a house very much like this one.

LES: When President Richard Milhous Nixon resigned, I led the news with that story. Looking back, I think I made the right decision.

LES: If the Beatles are the construct of modern music--and I use that word "construct" incorrectly--surely they were given birth to by Elvis Presley. A giant for sure, but the product of the black experience. Ergo--and I use that word correctly--blacks created modern music! Scratch an Allman Brother, and you have black. Scratch Billy Jo-ell, and you have Howling Wolf! I could go on, but my mother is in town. Let's just say that every white rock and roll musician working today should take half of his or her paycheck and mail it directly to Chuck Berry. At least that's what I think. And I won't even go into jazz. Arnold, enjoy your visit to the station. Venus, nice visiting with you too!

JOHNNY: I don't know, Les. What do women want?
LES: Tupperware.

LES (coaching Mr. Carlson before an election debate): The secret is to appear to answer all the questions when in truth it's all mumbo-jumbo. Here, let me show you. Herb, ask me this question.
[Les hands herb a card with a question written on it.]
HERB: Surely. "Mr. Candidate, what is your energy program?"
LES: Right now, I'm devoting a great deal of time and study to that problem. And I intend to issue a position paper on that. A position that is at once simple, yet complex. Flexible, and above all else, fair to every American.

LES: I've often thought about putting Mother into a home. Her apartment seems so large now, what with her getting smaller all the time.

LES: Mr. Carlson, I wanted to wish you a safe journey to Dayton.
MR. CARLSON: Thank you.
LES: Dayton is where Mother lives.
MR. CARLSON: I know, Les.
LES: Well, goodbye, Mr. Carlson, and beware the Dayton Poisoner.

HERB: When you hear "heart operation," what's the first thing that pops into your mind?
LES: Shogun.
HERB: What?
LES: Dr. Kildare was in it.

LES: Have you ever wondered why Russian women look like men?
BAILEY: I hadn't noticed.
LES: I think they kidnap men from all over the world, take them to Moscow, and turn them into Russian women. That's what I think happened to Jimmy Hoffa. By now he's probably a grandmother in the Ukraine.

LES: Last night I was feeling completely alone in the cosmos. An insignificant speck in the sandbox of time. Which is unusual for me, Johnny. I'm generally a pretty "up" fellow.
JOHNNY: I'll say.
LES: But I remembered what Mother Nessman said to do when frustrated, and so, I beat my rugs. Every night this week I've beaten my rugs. They're very clean.

(Jennifer is trying to tell Les that the woman he's dating is a hooker)
JENNIFER: Les, I'm talking about the oldest profession.
LES: Lorraine's a farmer?

STEEL: I like to think that a person's name says a lot about the type of person he is. What was your name again?
LES (after a pause): Les.

(During a tornado, the only emergency warning Les can find is about an impending Russian invasion, so he substitutes the word "tornado" for "Russian")
LES: The city of Cincinnati has just been attacked by the godless... tornadoes! Citizens are advised to arm themselves immediately! If you see a tornado in your area, please call 555-WKRP to keep us appraised of any enemy tornado movements.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Rockford Update

Season 2 of "The Rockford Files" will include the original two-hour pilot (with a different actor as Rockford's dad), which for some reason was left off the season 1 set. The only new special feature is a new interview with Stephen J. Cannell.

When season 3 comes out and the show really hits its stride, it would be nice to see an interview with David Chase, whose arrival on the staff did a lot to turn "Rockford" from a good show to a great one.

The Nessman Factor

This pop-culture comparison's too good to pass up:

Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, March 10, 2006:

"You know, in a sane world, every country would unite against Iran and blow it off the face of the earth. That would be the sane thing to do."

Les Nessman talking about Iran on his WKRP radio show, February 14, 1981:

...And blow the whole country, oil fields and all, right off the map. ... We could take out Iraq, too, then apologize and say it was just a typographical error."

It's Les Nessman's world now, and we just live in it.

Other great Nessman quotes:

"German measles. Russian flu. Montezuma's revenge. And why do we say a foreign word whenever someone sneezes? Tomorrow I'll take a look at swine flu, up close and personal."

"America? Who was that lady I saw you with last night? Could it have been the sweet seductress known as the Communist conspiracy? Was it she who stood under the streetlights, luring the farm boys with her broad shoulders? Beware! Think about it! "

"And finally, did you know that only a miraculous set of circumstances makes life here on Earth possible? For instance, the planet's size is just exactly right to hold our atmosphere. The atmosphere contains just enough oxygen to support life. And our distance from the sun is just perfect for the right temperature. Should there be even a trivial change in any of these conditions, all life here on Earth would certainly be obliterated in a matter of milliseconds. This is Les Nessman saying good day, and may the good news be yours.

"In a situation like this, I always ask myself, what would my hero Edward R. Murrow think? And I think that Ed would think that this was censorship. Then I think about what my other hero, General George Patton, would think, and I think George would think that radio and television ought to be cleaned up, and if he were alive today, he'd take two armoured calvalry divisions into Hollywood and knock all those liberal pinheads into the Pacific! So as you can see, I'm a very confused man. And when I get confused, I watch TV. Television is never confusing. It's all so simple somehow. "

Or as Les's announcement tape put it: "This has been Les Nessman, whose views do represent the views of this station."

In Haydn

This is one music-related Peanuts strip I hadn't seen before.

No comic strip is complete without a Haydn Symphony # 94 reference.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unexpected Greatness from "Bewitched"

The third season of "Bewitched" was the first in colour. It was not as good as the first two seasons, for a number of reasons: the increasingly repetitive plots, the death of the original Gladys Kravitz (Alice Pearce), and the complete abandonment of the sophisticated screwball tone that first season writer/producer Danny Arnold had sought to bring to the show. (As he mentioned in this 1965 article, Arnold saw "Bewitched" as an opportunity to use fantasy situations as metaphors for everyday, real-life problems like infidelity and bigotry; Elizabeth Montgomery's husband, William Asher, tended to go more for standardized wacky fantasy plots after he took over.) It's still worth watching for the usual reasons: Elizabeth Montgomery, Dick York, Agnes Moorehead, and various special guest witches.

But near the end of the third season comes an episode that is so good -- so much better, in fact, than the rest of the season -- that it would always throw me for a loop whenever it came on in syndication. This was an episode called "Charlie Harper, Winner", an episode that departed from the formula the show had followed for most of the season: no wacky relatives, no magic spells that louse up Darrin's attempt to land a big advertising account. The story instead uses a more down-to-earth sitcom premise: Darrin meets an old college friend who is more successful than he is.

The friend flaunts his success and his conspicuous consumption, and in particular the fact that he's bought his wife an expensive fur coat that Darrin could never afford to give Samantha The only fantasy element in the episode comes when Samantha, upset at the couple's attempts to make Darrin feel inferior, uses witchcraft to create a mink coat of her own. (In popular culture, the mink coat was the ultimate status symbol, the clearest point of differentiation between the middle and upper classes: you had "made it" when you could afford to buy your wife a real mink coat.) The coat impresses the wealthy couple but mortifies Darrin: alone with Samantha, he angrily reveals the real source of his inferiority complex: his knowledge that he can't give Samantha anything that she can't give herself. Because she can do and have anything she wants, there's nothing he can achieve for her. The scene isn't played for laughs, and, indeed, most of the rest of the episode is quite serious and played for emotional impace rather than jokes.

Despite -- no, not despite, because of -- the fantasy elements, the episode has some interesting things to say about what happens when a man is married to a woman who doesn't need him to be the breadwinner; it takes the gender and class issues that were always a part of "Bewitched" (we all agree that Darrin's kind of a jerk, and that Samantha is sort of like a rich woman adjusting to suburban housewifery after a life of upper-class idleness) and brings them to the surface. It also digs deeper than we expect into Samantha and Darrin, making them seem like three-dimensional characters and giving their relationship some real depth. It's one of my favourite television episodes, but it really almost seems too good for this season of "Bewitched." It suggests what "Bewitched" could have been if it had really tried to explore the idea of magic as a metaphor for real-world issues (the kind of thing Danny Arnold was trying to do early on, but only fitfully got onto the show).

The episode was written by a freelancer named Earl Barrett, who also wrote the episode that many of the people involved with "Bewitched" cited as their favourite: the first season's "A is For Aardvark." And, again, that's an episode that digs much deeper than usual for "Bewitched," even in the relatively sophisticated first season. The premise of that episode is that Darrin gets a taste of what it's like to have Samantha's power, and immediately disappoints her by becoming lazy and idle, deciding that he should quit his job and they should just live off magic for the rest of their lives. That episode answered all the nagging questions people ask about the show -- why would Samantha agree to stop using her powers, why did she marry this guy, why does Darrin keep his damn advertising job and live in the suburbs -- and again presented real emotional depth in the couple's relationship. I don't know whether I prefer it to "Charlie Harper," but it's at the very least the second-best episode of the series.

I've always wondered why this Earl Barrett fellow -- a good, solid freelance sitcom writer but not legendary or anything like that -- saw possibilities in the show and the characters that the regular writers didn't seem to see, but I wonder what "Bewitched" would have been like if he'd been running it. It's always tantalizing to see a good show briefly become great when one writer takes it to a new level.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Bugs Bunny, Greatest Banned Player Ever" has the most elaborate analysis imaginable of the cartoon "Baseball Bugs." It takes the whole cartoon-physics discussion to a new, dare I say sabermetric, level.

Sample quote: "[Bugs] Bunny’s ability to control energy is further demonstrated on a play when, faced with an unconventional defensive alignment in which all nine Gorillas form up off the third base line, is able to hit all nine of them with a batted ball, maintaining the ball’s speed."

Fox In the Henhouse

Via TV Party, here's a strange little promo for the 1969-70 television series "Bracken's World", a soapy drama about behind-the-scenes life at a major motion picture studio.

"Bracken's World" was produced by the TV division of 20th Century-Fox, and made liberal use of the Fox lot (and sometimes Fox contract players) for authentic studio atmosphere. It's therefore valuable as a time capsule of what Fox was like at the time when the Darryl Zanuck regime was falling apart. Fox's productions from the late '60s and early '70s are oddly fascinating because they reveal a studio that (unlike some of the other studios, which had already downsized) retained all the machinery and resources of an old-fashioned big studio -- standing sets, old-school technicians, contract players -- but where there was a behind-the-scenes war going on about how to adapt to the changing cinema culture. So you had the kind of huge, glossy, super-expensive productions Zanuck loved, like Hello, Dolly!, but you also had movies that were sort of greenlit behind Zanuck's back, like M*A*S*H. A studio that could put all its resources behind Myra Breckenridge -- a bizarre combination of Old Hollywood gloss and sheen with a lame attempt at New Hollywood with-it-ness -- is a studio that doesn't quite know what it's doing or where it's going, and it's interesting to see some of the results.

I think the emblematic Fox contract performer of this era is probably Linda Harrison, the spectacularly beautiful Fox contractee who was in Planet of the Apes and "Bracken's World," never really found a niche at the studio, and is mostly remembered as a stunning walk-on who almost never had a line of dialogue. (She also briefly married Darryl Zanuck's son Richard, who apparently was abusive toward her.) Somehow, in any of her appearances in Fox movies or TV shows, she comes off as a '50s starlet lost in a late '60s/early '70s cinema world, which is probably how Darryl Zanuck felt too. More about this in the book "The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of the Zanuck Dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox," by Stephen Silverman.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Maureen Stapleton, RIP

The great stage and screen actress Maureen Stapleton has died at the age of 80. Here is a partial list of her theatre credits, which included originating the lead roles in The Rose Tattoo, Toys in the Attic and two Neil Simon dramedies.

My favourite Maureen Stapleton story is from the filming of Bye Bye Birdie, during which the director of the film, George Sidney, had focused more and more attention and screen time on the young and hot (career-wise and sex-appeal-wise) Ann-Margret. At the wrap party, Maureen Stapleton got up and said: "I guess I'm the only person in this room who doesn't want to fuck Ann-Margret."

Whether Paul Lynde was in the room at the time is a question that remains unanswered.

More Cannell-oni

And here are some more main title sequences from '80s Stephen J. Cannell shows with Mike Post theme songs:

The mother of all insanely catchy theme songs, "The Greatest American Hero":

The enjoyable but short-lived "Stingray," starring Nick Mancuso in what might be described as a better-written version of "Knight Rider" (except the car didn't talk):

And last but not least, the ultimate '80s title sequence with the ultimate Mike Post (and his composing partner Pete Carpenter) theme song, "The A-Team." The opening narration, by the way, was by producer John Ashley, formerly an actor in "Beach Party" movies.

Are you all '80s-ed out yet?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Art of the Internet: The "Shorter" Post

Once in a while I'd like to write a post on literary or artistic forms that seem to be exclusive to the Internet -- that, in many cases, couldn't have existed anywhere else but the Internet. I'll start with one of the more intriguing net-exclusive literary forms: The "shorter" post, aka just the "shorter." This is a type of post that has become extremely popular with bloggers, especially snarky, satirical bloggers.

Gavin M. at Sadly, No! gives a brief rundown of the origin and style of the "shorter" post:

The 'shorter' concept was invented in early 2003 by Daniel Davies (now of Crooked Timber), as a way to make fun of long-winded right-blogger Stephen Den Beste. Today, the acknowledged master of the form is Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy...

The object is to distill a twisty, mendacious... argument into a single brief passage that manages both to accurately portray the thoughts and sentiments of the victim, and to highlight the argument's absurdity.

The form of the "shorter" is simple and precise. It consists of:

a) A link to the essay or post that is being "shortered."
b) The subject heading or caption "Shorter [name of author]"
c) One sentence, as short as the blogger can make it, distilling the entire essay or post into one ridiculous or banal assertion.

The "shorter" derives in particular from many bloggers' contempt for pundits and editorialists, and reflects their desire to show that when you look closely at many long-winded, self-important pieces of punditry, you find that the writer is using up a lot of words to say something ridiculous or stupid.

Here's an example that Gavin M. cites as one of the best "shorters" of all time. Elton Beard of Busy Busy Busy links to a New York Times piece written by Kenneth Pollack, called "Five Ways to Win Back Iraq." The piece lays out five strategies which the author thinks the Bush administration should consider for turning Iraq around. Here's how Beard boils it down:

Shorter Kenneth M. Pollack:

Five Ways to Win Back Iraq

I have some more advice to give about Iraq.

That one line reduces the whole long-winded article to its essence, which is its utter pointlessness: here is another pundit who, having spent years giving advice which no one will ever listen to, proceeds to give more advice which no one will ever listen to. The problem here is not so much what the pundit is saying but the fact that he thinks anyone cares, and that's what Beard focuses on in this particular "shorter."

A more common form of shortering is to take a particularly mendacious or wrong-headed essay and show how mendacious and wrong-headed it is once you strip away all the qualifiers and big words. This works particularly well with Wall Street Journal op-eds, because all the writers for that page are expected to use big words and snobby rhetoric in the service of awful ideas. So bloggers have a fine old time with; here are some examples:

From Sadly, No!:

Shorter Wall Street Journal

A Tortured Debate

Torture's not all that bad when you just call it "aggressive interrogation" instead. See?

Or this particularly perfect one from Busy Busy Busy, pretty prescient when you consider it was posted almost three years ago:

Shorter Wall Street Journal Editorial:

Lack of Intelligence

The task of America's intelligence agencies is not to provide policy makers with reliable data but to fabricate evidence in support of administration policies which the public would reject if it knew the truth.

Or one more, from Roy Edroso's Alicublog, finding an especially vile WSJ editorialist asserting that African-Americans need to stop "cultivating grievances":

SHORTER JAMES TARANTO: Black people had better stop trying to make us feel guilty or we shan't have anything to do with them.

And so on.

Now, satirically boiling down a long-winded argument to its banal essence is not unique to the web. What gives the "shorter" its unique effect is that the web allows the satirist to link directly to the piece he or she is satirizing. This obviates the need for the writer to explain what the original piece is about, or quote from it in order to make fun of it; if you're writing a piece like this for a newspaper or magazine or book, you have to quote from the original or else no one will know what you're talking about. On the net, the satirist just has to send the reader to the original piece, which frees up space to take down the author's argument while wasting very few words on it, as if it's not even worth the blogger's time to write more about it. The hyperlink, something unique to the web, informs and style and effect of the "shorter," making it a peculiarly web-based form.

Update: Paul Denton does a "shorter" on my post above:

Shorter "The Art of the Internet: The 'Shorter' Post":
The 'shorter' concept is very, very clever, and I applaud its use to smugly mock those stupid and irredeemably wicked people with whom I have philosophical differences.

That's about right. The great thing about the "shorter" is that it allows you to reduce any long-winded pontification to its banal essence -- mine included.