Monday, June 28, 2010

Alan Jay Lerner Hates the '80s

I've been wanting to write something about Dance a Little Closer, possibly the biggest musical flop of the '80s (even more than Carrie) and Alan Jay Lerner's last completed musical.

Like every show Lerner did without Fritz Loewe, it was unsuccessful (though Coco, probably his worst, actually made some money due to the presence of Katharine Hepburn) and like almost all of those shows, it has some wonderful things in it side-by-side with embarrassing things. In this case, the embarrassing things were apparently the staging -- Lerner directed it himself, creating a show that every critic condemned as ugly -- and the book, Lerner's over-ambitious attempt to update Robert Sherwood's anti-war comedy Idiot's Delight to the nuclear era. Critics also said that one of the embarrassing things was Lerner's subplot, about two gay men who ask a clergyman to marry them before nuclear Armageddon hits. But this subplot, which was attacked as Lerner's hopeless attempt to seem with-it, now seems ahead of its time.

Also, Lerner cast his umpteenth and last wife, British actress Liz Robertson, in the difficult lead role; Charles Strouse, the composer, wrote in his autobiography that a show should never have one man on songs, script and direction, and especially not if he's in love with the lead actor.

The good thing about the show, at least relatively, was the score. That's true of most of Lerner's shows; no matter how frustrating he was to work with, composers understood that he got good work from them. Burton Lane hated working with Lerner, in the middle of his Dr. Feelgood period, on On a Clear Day, but the score they produced was so good that Lane came back to him for Carmelina (and turned out another fine score for a flop show). Leonard Bernstein's score for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has some of the best music he'd done since the '50s, even for some songs where Lerner provided awful lyrics. John Barry's music for Lolita My Love was the best he ever produced for a stage show.

Charles Strouse's music for Dance a Little Closer doesn't stand out as much if only because he'd done better scores recently (Annie) and would do a better score right after (Rags). In my opinion Strouse is the most talented musical theatre composer of his generation -- roughly including Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, John Kander, and so on -- a wonderful melodist with an eclectic style that somehow never sounds like anyone other than Strouse. Some of the songs in Dance a Little Closer are cheesy or sleazy, particularly the faster songs. But the ballads are frequently gorgeous.

"There's Always One You Can't Forget," the last song in Act 1, would have become a big hit if it had been in a show that ran more than one performance, even though Len Cariou, the star, has some trouble with it. (It's been speculated that Cariou over-extended himself by playing Sweeney Todd; this score, which was more within his normal range, had his voice sounding ragged a lot of the time.) The orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are excellent here, as they are throughout the show -- a reminder of how much of the Stephen Sondheim sound is Tunick's as well, since portions of the score sound a lot like A Little Night Music without being melodically similar.

The Sherwood play, about an entertainer in a hotel in the middle of a war zone, appealed to Lerner for two reasons. By updating the story to the 1980s (though in turning the villain into a parody of Henry Kissinger, he betrayed the fact that he started writing it in the '70s), he was able to write a show that combined topical social commentary with nightclub numbers that commented on the action, like his ambitious 1948 failure Love Life.

One of the better numbers in this vein is "Mad," a number where Harry (Cariou) complains about all the things that bother him, while his backup singers comment on what's really bothering him. (The way Strouse and Tunick manage to combine two completely different moods in one song is a tribute to their skill as theatrical musicians.) The song is so clearly Lerner's own complaints about stuff that bugged him circa 1983 -- "Whoever made Atari should be hung by his thumbs" -- that it's a strangely enjoyable time capsule; I like finding out what was pissing off cranky 60-something writers in the '80s.

The other thing Lerner clearly liked was the romantic plot of the play: the hero meets a woman he recognizes as the one who left him years ago because he couldn't give her the life she wanted; she's now pretending to be a high-class Englishwoman, and is the mistress of the wealthy bad guy who's behind the upcoming war. After My Fair Lady, every show Lerner wrote -- except Camelot and maybe 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- is about the same thing: a woman who either is made over or makes herself over into someone else. In On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the hero falls in love with the person the heroine was in a past life. In Coco, Gabrielle Chanel has transformed herself into "Coco." The guy even made a musical out of Lolita for heaven's sake (it closed on the road).

The heroine's decision to transform herself gives rise to a song that's had a certain amount of life outside the show -- Robertson has sometimes performed it and it gets done in auditions and musical-theatre recitals. "Another Life" is a weird song because it's a classic, by-the-numbers "I Want" power ballad, complete with big orchestral climax, yet the lyrics are completely materialistic and bitter. It's a big romantic song about preferring money and security to romance. The fact that Strouse's melody sounds a bit like "I Remember It Well" creates an additional level of weirdness here.

No one will ever revive Dance a Little Closer (nicknamed Close a Little Faster at the time). But we can be glad that it was given a cast recording after it closed; there's more worthwhile material in it than in most '80s musicals, and as with many of Lerner's shows, I can't help thinking that it could have been good if only someone else had had more control over it. (Lerner was all right when working with a strong director who could force him to cut and change, as Moss Hart did on My Fair Lady and Camelot.)

To close this off, here's the song where the issue of gay marriage was discussed for the first time in a musical. It's actually not a very good song; the lyrics are goofy doggerel (a lot of Lerner's shows have these types of lyrics in them) and the tune and ostinato accompaniment are the sorts of things Strouse could turn out in his sleep. However it does segue into another nice ballad, "Anyone Who Loves," which, again, would be an anthem by now if the show had been a hit.

Update: In comments, Griff, who saw the show in previews, gives some more details on why it was such a disaster.

Regarding DANCE A LITTLE CLOSER's "embarrassing" subplot with the gay couple who wished to be married, well, this was just handled so poorly (and cluelessly) by Lerner as director, one wanted to just look elsewhere in the theatre, think of other, better shows, hope for a sudden power failure. It could probably have be reworked and handled well by another director (who might have, of course, also suggested certain key revisions to the scenes) but it came across as altogether flatfooted -- indeed, painfully so.

I had no issues with the idea of the Kissinger-like villain, which didn't so much betray the '70s origin of the libretto as the fact that it was penned by a New Yorker with a long memory; I daresay that this is one aspect of Lerner's book that has not really dated, at least not for many residents of Manhattan.

Some of the songs are lovely. But the overall effect of the show, which I saw in previews, was stultifying; it made one want to flee the theatre. It wasn't just bad (my date regretted that we had attended the damn thing) -- I was actually surprised that the show did indeed open.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Perfectly Frank (And Dan)

I'll have more to say about IDW's Best of Dan DeCarlo: Volume 1 collection later, but for now I'll note that -- as first pointed out by Sean Gaffney, and confirmed when I got the book -- the table of contents includes credits for every story. They're in very small print, but they're there.

Because all the stories in the book are Betty and Veronica stories from the period of 1958 through 1969, nearly all the "written by" credits are, of course, for Frank Doyle. There's one story by George Gladir, one by Sy Reit, and one ("The Original") where the credit is "Writer Unknown," though it sure reads like a Doyle script to me. There are one or two stories where I'm not completely sure that the writing credit is right, and a couple of others where the inking credit is hard to figure -- Rudy Lapick is credited for most of them, but I thought there was a period in the '60s where DeCarlo replaced Lapick with his brother, Vince (who usually did DeCarlo's letters until his untimely death in the late '60s). Still, most of the credits look right at a glance.

I wouldn't say that every story here represents the best of DeCarlo or Doyle from this era, though some of them do, and anyway I would assume that the choice of stories was dictated to an extent by what original art was available. Anyway, more on that later.

Update: Here are the stories selected for this book.

All scripts are by Frank Doyle unless otherwise noted:

1. “Birth of a Notion” (Betty and Veronica # 37, July 1958) – The boys toss around a doll and fool the girls into thinking they’re tossing around a baby. (Script: Sy Reit)

2. “Flip Flopped” (Betty and Veronica # 38, September 1958) – Veronica signs up for the cheerleading squad.

3. “Sheep Skinned” (Betty and Veronica # 44, August 1959) – The boys accuse the girls of being “sheep” for following the latest, unattractive-looking fashions.

4. “A Choice Choice” (Betty and Veronica Annual # 8, 1960) – Archie has to break his date with Veronica to take his mother out on her birthday.

5. “Something to Remember” (Betty and Veronica # 63, March 1961) – Veronica is peeved because Archie can never remember what she wears.

6. “The Reader Knows Best” (Betty and Veronica # 63) – Archie tries to do the same task for both Betty and Veronica, while assuring the reader that he knows what he’s doing.

7. “The Bluest Angel” (Betty and Veronica # 63) – Betty feels guilty about exploiting a misunderstanding between Archie and Veronica.

8. “Gambler’s Luck” (Betty and Veronica # 65, May 1961) – The girls toss a coin to see who gets Archie.

9. “Snob Sister” (Betty and Veronica # 69, September 1961) – After Betty berates her for being a snob, Veronica argues that everyone is a snob about something or other.

10. “Switchcraft” (Betty and Veronica # 69) – When Betty has a date with Archie, Veronica thanks her for taking the dull boy off her hands.

11. “The Original” (Betty and Veronica # 77, May 1962) – Veronica explains that she doesn’t wear real jewels in public, just copies of them. (Credit reads “Writer unknown,” though it might also be Doyle)

12. “Commercial Caper” (Betty and Veronica # 83, November 1962) – Betty blows up “Archie Loves Betty” balloons and sends them floating all over town.

13. “Glad To Help” (Betty and Veronica # 86, February 1963) – Archie tries to use Betty to make Veronica jealous, and she’s only too happy to be used.

14. “Dear Diary” (Archie Giant Series # 23, September 1963) – Betty writes her version of the day’s events in her diary, while we see what actually happened.

15. “Sugar Doll” (Betty and Veronica # 103, July 1964) – Veronica tries to make candy, and both she and Betty get tangled up in the sticky goo.

16. “Heat Wave” (Betty and Veronica # 106, October 1964) – Archie, Betty and Veronica spend a hot day squirting each other with hoses.

17. “Bully Girl” (Betty and Veronica # 106) – Veronica shows off her new martial arts skills by beating up everyone in sight.

18. “The Midas Mess” (Betty and Veronica # 112, April 1965) – Everything and everyone Betty touches turns to gold.

19. “Prize Package” (Betty and Veronica # 112) – Betty tells Archie he’s won a “most popular boy” contest.

20. “Message Center” (Betty and Veronica # 116, August 1965) – Betty has to break her date with Archie when she sees a message on the bulletin board saying Miss Grundy wants to see her after school.

21. “The Phenomenon” (Betty and Veronica # 117, September 1965) – Betty and Archie discover that when Veronica stands on her head, her speech balloons are upside down.

22. “Rhyme Time” (Betty and Veronica # 119, November 1965) – The narrator re-introduces us to the Archie gang, in rhyme.

23. “Do No Evil” (reprinted in Archie Giant Series # 137, January 1966 — but from the look of it it’s clearly an earlier story, probably from 1960 or so) – After the girls accuse them of being slobs, Archie and Reggie try to avenge themselves by ruining the girls’ clothes.

24. “Feed Deed” (Betty and Veronica # 130, October 1966) – At the beach, Veronica tries to outdo Betty’s cooking. (Script: George Gladir)

25. “Wing It” (Betty and Veronica # 155, November 1968) – Betty impresses the boys with her great throwing arm, but Veronica gets more results by throwing badly.

26. “Drive To Distraction” (Betty and Veronica # 167, November 1969) – Archie uses a beach umbrella to give Veronica some shade in his car.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Armond White, Rotten Tomatoes and General Hilarity

You may have noticed that Armond White, whose contrarianism and combination of unpredictability and utter predictability (he's loved every Spielberg movie since god knows when) were once known only to a few film buffs, has become more widely-known lately. But not in a good way. There's even a petition to ban him from Rotten Tomatoes.

As movie fans have gotten obsessed with Rotten Tomatoes rankings -- rooting for their favorite action/animation/sci-fi movies to get 100% positive rankings -- they've noticed that White frequently goes against the critical consensus (though not always), and that he single-handedly stands in the way of getting Toy Story 3 a perfect score. And so they're enraged. Since I think a collective critical ranking is kind of useless, particularly a numerical one, I kind of enjoy seeing him screw it up.

And it's also interesting to witness the anger of people who think The Dark Knight is the last word in cinema but can't stand a single contrary opinion. It's as if they don't have full confidence in their own opinions. White fills his contrarian reviews with references to other movies, often very worthwhile ones (I may not agree with his pan of Toy Story 3, but I agree that Small Soldiers is an underrated film), and obviously knows a lot about movies -- not just recent Hollywood movies either, but movies from all places and time periods. That gives his writing a certain authority that can make a person very uncomfortable; I think some (not all) of the people who get really angry at White are worried that he may be right. It's a bit like I used to get angry at John Kricfalusi for his opinions on cartoons I liked, because I wasn't secure enough in my own likes and dislikes. I'm now at the point where I know enough to agree or disagree.

Of course White is not right, or at least I find it very difficult to believe that he means what he says all the time. He denies that he's going out of his way to offer the opposite opinion from other critics, but since it happens so often, it almost comes off as a parody of criticism, a bit of performance art designed to show how meaningless critical buzzwords are. He uses the same words lots of critics use, and makes them argue the exact opposite from what the rest of them are arguing.

I also wonder if White's increasing weirdness is just based on his lack of interest in most current Hollywood movies. As a regular reviewer he has to be, officially, interested in every movie that comes out, and especially the big Hollywood releases. Except I doubt he cares very much about most Hollywood blockbuster sequels, whether it's Transformers 3 or Toy Story 3. And if he doesn't care, he might as well argue the opposite of other critics. Especially when it gets a rise out of the kind of filmgoer who is his natural enemy -- the filmgoer who is almost exclusively interested in current Hollywood product.

That's not really a defense of White. The thing I can say in his defense is that he still can and does write interesting pieces on small, foreign and past films -- that is, the kind of films where no one cares about the Rotten Tomatometer. Those are the films that he clearly gives a damn about, and if you look at his reviews with the new Hollywood movies filtered out, he looks a lot less bizarre.

But, of course, if he really is just having a lark with contrarian reviews of movies he doesn't care about, that's not a defense either. I'm sure it can be a chore to find something to say about every new movie, but his criticisms are so non-specific that I can't help thinking (again) that they're just some big joke on criticism.

Still, I can't help but feel a bit of enjoyment at watching the reaction to a critic who refuses to consider movies important just because they're big and new. I mean, if you look at the famous list of movies he hates and likes -- yes, the hates are sometimes weird and the likes equally so. But I don't think most of the movies on the "hate" list are immortal masterpieces, and his hatred of them isn't that much weirder than the reviews that proclaim these movies to be four-star perfection.

Most movies, then and now, don't matter that much in the long run. And the ones that do turn out to matter often aren't the ones that get the four-star reviews at the time. That, at least, is something that White keeps pointing out in his own strange way. And while everyone should like what they like, there's a weird sense of entitlement in some of his attackers, the idea that not only did they think Toy Story 3 was great (a perfectly good opinion) but that because it's the biggest movie of the week, everybody must validate this opinion. White's performance art is suggesting that most of these big movies are just the flavor of the week, and it doesn't matter much what critics say about them. I'd prefer this suggestion to be coming from a regular critic who actually discusses the movies, not a distant idea of what they are, but at least he's goading people into questioning some assumptions about what the "important" movies are at a given moment.

Update: In comments, Bwolowitz has a different perspective on where White is coming from:

I've read enough Armond to believe that he truly considers himself to be the savior of a diseased film culture. He constantly lashes out viciously against critics and so-called "hipsters" (White's favorite pejorative that's utterly meaningless in his hands) who have taken film culture in the wrong direction. And only he can right the course. So what we see as contrarianism, he sees as corrective measures. (And sometimes - rarely nowadays - he's right.)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Talking Owls, River Rats, and a Wolf Named Kanyook

I discovered some interesting comics and contributions during last year's bout of Archie Comics research, but one of my favorite discoveries was a run of comics I actually remembered reading as a kid: Bob Bolling's two-year run as the writer and artist on Archie and Me, from issue # 141 through issue # 152. Since today is Bolling's 82nd birthday, I thought I'd write a bit about this run, probably his best contribution to the regular Archie comics and one of the more personal, idiosyncratic creator runs of the '80s.

The background is this: Archie and Me was a title launched in the '60s, and the "Me" was Mr. Weatherbee; all the stories had Weatherbee in them and were mostly about his relationship with Archie. It was one of the titles that Bolling was assigned to after he was forcibly removed from his own creation, Little Archie; he drew several issues in the mid-'60s, though from Frank Doyle's scripts, not his own. From the late '60s through the early '70s, the title was mostly written and drawn by the late Joe Edwards (creator of Li'l Jinx), who tried to do longer and more sentimental stories than you'd find in the other books; and then Al Hartley did some that were unbelievably preachy even by his standards. By the late '70s, though, the book became one of many titles that was just an "inventory" book: it had no style or consistent artist of its own, and the editors would just fill it up with four stories that happened to feature Mr. Weatherbee.

This continued up until 1982, when the Archie company contracted heavily (the collapse of the newsstand and subscription markets threatened to kill them off). All their titles were changed to bi-monthlies; many of their artists were temporarily laid off, and when they started producing new stories after several months of getting by mostly on inventory, they were determined to try and make the comics a little more relevant and hip. (I said a little.) This was the period when they switched back to the larger number of panels they'd used in the '50s and early '60s -- trying to "give the kids more for their money," as editor Victor Gorelick put it -- introduced new characters like Cheryl and Jason Blossom, and gave a makeover to a number of their lower-selling titles.

Bolling was originally assigned to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with a mandate to include more fantasy and adventure elements rather than the humdrum domestic comedy stuff. He produced some excellent stories in this vein, but the title was canceled soon after he started, and most of the stories were burned off in other comics. Little Archie had also been canceled as a regular title (though Bolling and Dexter Taylor would continue to do stories for the digests and special issues), so Bolling wound up being given Archie and Me as his regular beat, writing and drawing an issue every two months (while also illustrating other people's scripts for the other comics).

It was his upcoming work on Archie and Me that Bolling was talking about in 1983 when he told an interviewer that he was "trying to bring Archie into today" and "give him some problems to wrestle with." Because this was Archie comics, that didn't really mean anything big or shocking, and Archie remained the good all-American boy who always does the right thing. But in many ways, Bolling's Archie and Me stories were different from anything the company had done. The only rule they followed was that Weatherbee was in every one of them (though he plays only a small part in a few).

The look was different: instead of the bright, light style of the usual Archie comic, these stories were filled with melancholy shadows, characters seen from a distance, and very specific evocations of nature, the seasons, and the times of day. The distinctive feel of all these stories comes from the fact that Bolling is usually quite specific about when a scene is taking place: many comics have just "day" and "night," but Bolling tried to give a different look to dawn, dusk, the time you walk to school and the time you walk home.

The range of subject matter also broadened. As most of you know, regular Archie comics basically had two modes: comedy and adventure. The comedy stories were in the tradition created by Bob Montana, and the adventure stories were the very melodramatic, slightly tongue-in-cheek kind created by Bob White and Sy Reit for Life With Archie. But most of Bolling's Archie and Me stories don't fit into either category. There are adventure stories, but much more serious and earnest than the Life With Archie material. And there are stories that play more as straight drama, like "The New Teacher" (about a meek teacher who turns out to be haunted by his failure to save his buddies in Vietnam) or "Heart's Desire" (Archie buys an obviously stolen tape player, and feels so guilty about it that he can't enjoy anything). There's even a sad, quiet Twilight Zone-ish story about a ghostly girl Archie meets, called "Jogger Jill." And yeah, there are a few regular slapstick stories mixed in there.

All of this is not much like a normal Archie comic, but it is a lot like Bolling's Little Archie, and that's what this run basically was: for the first time, Bolling was doing Archie stories that exist in the same world -- tonally and continuity-wise -- as his own Little Archie creation. The stories are flooded with references and characters that Bolling created in Little Archie and that no one used except him. Spotty, Little Archie's dog, becomes big Archie's dog as well. A guy who tries to rob the school is Chester Punkett, formerly Mad Doctor Doom's teenage assistant. In a Little Archie mystery story, Betty's brother Chick went to work for Kindly Mother Kelly's bakery, run by the unseen but rapacious and evil capitalist Kindly Mother Kelly; when Archie goes to get a job with her in Archie and Me, she's become "Kindly Mother Kelly Industries," with her corporate headquarters guarded by vicious dog. Even the throwaway references are tied into things that only regular Bolling readers would remember; when we see one of the places Malcolm Meeks worked after leaving the army, it's "Dreggs" gas stations, a Lodge-owned gas chain that Bolling created in the late '60s.

Partly because its references only existed within Bolling's stories (though some of them have been taken up by other writers/artists since then), this entire run sort of exists in its own world. Another reason is that the run has its own separate continuity. Archie comics didn't usually have continuity (and they didn't need them; humor comics, like cartoons, regenerate in every story), but Bolling's Archie and Me, while consisting of self-contained stories, does have some continuing threads: Archie gets his wrist broken in one story, spends the next story in a sling, and his recovery becomes a major plot point in the next issue.

And many of the characters act differently than they normally would outside Bolling's world. Archie is much more like Little Archie, the earnest kid who frequently gets into trouble but is incredibly plucky in a crisis; the love-triangle stuff is almost absent here. Jughead is almost totally absent, appearing only in cameos and getting like one line in the entire run. (Jughead didn't appear that much in Bolling's Little Archie stories either; I don't think he's really that into the character.) Instead, Reggie becomes Archie's closest friend, and while they're still in competition over spots on sports teams and the like, it's more of a competition between two friends who have different personalities; this Reggie is Archie's more self-confident, slightly cooler pal.

Given the freedom to turn this comic into his own private world, Bolling responded with the best writing he had ever done for "big" Archie stories. Normally he would over-indulge in bad puns (perhaps a defense mechanism against accusations that his scripts didn't have enough hard jokes), and there are a few stories early in the run that do just that. But for the most part, the punning is kept to a minimum and he turns in the kind of work he had done on his Little Archie stories of 1956-1965 and 1979-81: excellent characterization, sentimentality that doesn't go over the top, and a really personal way of looking at the world, nature and fate ("I knew this tree was here for a purpose," Archie says when he uses a tree to save a bus full of students -- Bolling's stories have no religious content, but they have a lot of quasi-mystical content). There are also some strange framing devices, reminiscent of the talking toys in his classic "The Long Walk." One story appears to be narrated by the wind; another is quite literally narrated by a talking owl (who had actually appeared, though not talking, in some Bolling-drawn stories from the '70s).

Though Bolling probably inked the first couple of issues in this run, most of the others were inked by Chic Stone. Stone, who had been one of the best inkers for Jack Kirby, was working as Harry Lucey's inker when Lucey had to retire; this gave him the chance to draw Archie, but his work as a penciller was frankly awful. (Stone's pencilling on Archie, I mean, was awful; some of his other stuff is better.) As an inker, though, he was tops, and he's one of the few inkers Bolling ever had who doesn't diffuse the rough charm of the pencils.

The last story in this run appeared in Archie and Me # 152. After that, the title went back to a grab-bag inventory title for a few years (Bolling drew but didn't write a few stories in this period) and then was canceled. I don't know how well the Bolling run did, though lasting two years is pretty good considering the Archie company's tendency to get cold feet about everything. I remember as a child being very impressed by "Jogger Jill," but puzzled by this story, "Blue Saturday": I wondered why Spotty was there when I'd never seen him in any of the big Archie stories, where Jughead was, since when Mr. Svenson had a cat named "Loki" (Bolling, who adores cats, likes to give them to any character who could plausibly have one) and why the whole thing gave such a sad, melancholy -- that word again, I know, but it always seems to fit with Bolling -- air to what was otherwise just a normal Archie story. I don't know if my reaction was typical, but I'm not sure if we were ready to see Archie as a regular bittersweet coming-of-age tale.

(An added reference to an earlier story: "Any room in there for me?" is what Archie's father said to Spotty in a Bolling Little Archie.)

If I had to pick a favorite story from Bolling's Archie and Me, it would be the issue-length Lonely Lobo, about Archie's encounter with a wolf at Mr. Lodge's mountain retreat (which, again, is cross-referenced with a Little Archie story). It's got the obsession with nature and the animal world, and Bolling's objective attitude toward the cruelty and danger inherent in that world; it's got a sad but semi-mystical ending that hints at something much bigger than the story we just read.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Lost Continent of Alanis

I've said a few times that the late '90s (really, mid-to-late '90s, starting in 1995 or so) have their own very distinctive culture, and that when I watch a show or a movie from that era, certain obsessions seem to stand out and define the era. Other patches of years don't have that kind of identity as I see it, and others are defined only by the clothes or the style of music, but works from the late '90s seem to form their own weird little world.

One example that came to mind when I was re-watching some '90s TV shows: Alanis Morissette. It's not just that she was a phenomenon of the era, with Jagged Little Pill being played, talked about and imitated everywhere. It's that her success created a new archetype that became huge on TV for about three years: it seemed like everyone was making jokes, sketches, or whole episodes about angry young women singing songs about how much they hate men. Alanis jokes are still popular, come to think of it, since she's become comedy-writer shorthand for "man-hating." But in the late '90s, they were like a way of life.

I don't know if this stood out for anyone else, or if anyone remembers particular examples of pop culture's Alanis obsession. I can't actually name as many specific examples as I thought I could, because I remember several jokes or Alanis-like characters without remembering the source. (That's the problem with trying to reach back 15 years and remember what you saw: you can remember seeing it, you can't always remember where.) One I remember, because I saw it recently, was an entire Duckman episode where Bernice becomes a star by singing about how much she hates Duckman. Another example is below. Still another example is the French and Saunders bit "Bless U," though this one doesn't fit as clearly, because it's a parody of a song from a later album, rather than a response to the success of "Jagged Little Pill." I'll try and find some other examples from the era, or someone else can refresh my memory. But I definitely think it was a real phenomenon, because I remember seeing it in several different places.

It's not a big thing; I just find it very representative of the time. Everyone, everywhere, seemed briefly obsessed with the idea of the young woman who becomes a star by turning angry. I guess if you want to analyze it more, you could note that it's a bit sexist (young men singing angry songs are all over the place, but a young woman singing about her jerky ex-boyfriend is a freak), but lots of obsessions are. It just seems now like a very late '90s thing for writers to be preoccupied with.

Of the Morissette send-ups I remember -- and if you have any other examples from the '90s, refresh my memory -- the best was a Boy Meets World, where Will "Why Isn't This Talented Guy Doing More Non-Voice-Over-Work" Friedle meets a singer of sappy, cutesy songs (Leisha Hailey). When he breaks up with her, it drives her to write angry songs about him, and it makes her an instant star. "Planet Flaflooga" and "That's a minor chord!" are among the lines I have been quoting ever since this thing aired in 1996. It was written, incidentally, by Jeffrey C. Sherman, son of songwriter Robert B. Sherman of Sherman Brothers fame.

It's just me, I don't deny that; but to me, this clip just yells out "1996," just like many episodes from the seventh and eighth seasons of The Simpsons. Anything made in that era is just so redolent of its time, whereas something made in, say, 1992 or 2001 doesn't have as many clear cultural identifiers.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

William A. Fraker

Having written about Frank's Place the other day, I'm sad to see that the man who helped create the distinctive look of the show died this Monday: the great cinematographer, Bill Fraker.

Though he didn't shoot as many successful films as some of his contemporaries, Fraker was, in my opinion, one of the best of the new generation of cinematographers that took over Hollywood in the late '60s and early '70s, when nearly all the old-guard cinematographers were forced into retirement around the same time. He combined the new look and new techniques with a bit of that old larger-than-life glamour; that's what made him a great choice for movies with an element of fantasy, whether it was Rosemary's Baby or Heaven Can Wait or 1941 (not a fantasy per se but certainly not at all realistic).

He didn't usually do TV, but he shot the Frank's Place pilot as a favor to Hugh Wilson (they'd worked together on the movie Burglar) while another film was delayed for some reason. He didn't do the other episodes, but the cinematic look of the show -- the "steam and smoke and food" -- followed the template he set in the pilot.