Saturday, December 17, 2011

Come to the Cabret

I just got back from seeing Hugo, a charming and frustrating experience in equal measure, though I suspect that the charm will stay with me longer than the frustration -- not least because the frustrating stuff mostly is from earlier in the film, while the second half leaves you with a warm feeling.

Still, that feeling would be even warmer if I didn't feel worn out by the time we get to the end, and this brings up the question of when a movie is too long. It's a common complaint about recent movies, so common that I almost feel like I'm jumping on the bandwagon by making it. And 128 minutes isn't that long. Still it felt long in this picture. Maybe it's not so much a question of length as economy. Some movies are extremely long but economical in their storytelling, in the sense that every scene performs an important function (not necessarily a plot function) and stops before it starts repeating itself or previous scenes.

I think you could argue that Hugo is an economical movie; certainly the scenes don't drag. But in the early part of the movie especially, I felt like there was some redundancy, with certain points being hit over and over again, points (like Hugo demanding his notebook) that made scenes overlap with each other. This kind of repetition would have troubled me even if the notebook had been as important to the story as this treatment made it appear to be.

Maybe some of the occasional sense of slackness also comes from the editing. This is one of the things I can never quite get used to, even though the idea that a two-shot is a special or unusual effect has been mainstream for most of my adult life. And Scorsese has been into heavy editing and massive amounts of coverage for a long time. Maybe it's the juxtaposition with silent movies that made me so conscious of all the cutting. But while it's supposed to help tighten up a scene (by giving the director and editor more control over pacing) sometimes I feel that constant back-and-forth cutting can slacken a scene by constantly changing the focal point of the scene. Also I think this may be more of an issue in 3D because every shot has more things to adjust to in terms of how much 3D is used, how much of the background is out of focus, and so on.

(Digression # 1: Gregg Toland died before 3D became operational, but in an article he wrote, he was very enthusiastic about it, much more than color, which he more or less dismissed as a gimmick. And when you remember how Toland liked to shoot, in long front-to-back takes, you can imagine what he might have done with 3D. I feel like the format is still looking for its own Gregg Toland, or at least someone to do new things with all the different levels of a 3D shot, instead of just putting all the burden of the shot on whoever happens to be delivering the line.)

(Digression # 2: There has been some recent discussion about over-editing as it applies to action sequences, which I'm starting to think almost has it backwards. Yes, there are some action sequences in today's film where you can't tell what's going on, but that's more about planning and staging than cutting; a lot of cutting in an action sequence can help to give it an emotional or visceral charge, as long as we know where everybody is. But constant cutting is sometimes a bigger problem in dialogue sequences, because those are the sequences where all the emphasis is on the actors' performance, and cutting on every line, or using every possible angle within a scene, can chop the performances into dust.)

All of that would be a minor issue for me if I had been swept up in Hugo's adventures -- as I mostly was, once the plot started to become clear. Early on, though, I wasn't caught up, and I think part of it may simply be the boy himself. Not so much Asa Butterfield in the part; maybe he could have been more fun, but the way the part is written doesn't provide a lot of opportunities for fun, and that's the point. Like so many children's stories about young boys in a big city (or a big chocolate factory), Hugo has a lead character who is a bit of a cipher. He does things, but he doesn't have a lot of personality, something that's all the clearer because the other kid character, played by Chloƫ Grace Moretz, is given plenty of personality and specific character traits. Hugo is more like Oliver Twist or the young David Copperfield (mentioned by Moretz's character). He has enough moxie to keep us following him, but his main purpose is to be the everykid through whom we experience the world.

Which is a familiar way to structure a story, and not an ineffective one. The problem for me is that for the first half-hour at least, I wasn't observing much through his eyes except a notebook and a cranky old man. Moretz's character is so much more alive -- with qualities of curiosity, intellectual pretension, and charm -- that she can make these things interesting, just by being interested in them. I don't think Hugo can, any more than David Copperfield can make things interesting by his mere presence. If something incredible is not happening around him, then nothing is happening. So by the time I got to what I found to be the interesting stuff (starting roughly around the point where Hugo and Isabelle go to see Safety Last) I felt like I had already spent too much time with this kid.

That all makes my reaction sound more negative than it is. The movie (and presumably the book) has a lot of interesting things to say that go beyond a simple tribute to the magic of the movies, though it certainly is the most expensive brief ever made for the importance of film preservation. It's also about technology and machinery, and the magical qualities they bring to everyday life. The movie is sort of a fantasy, or at least has a fantasy atmosphere, but the story keeps sticking to something resembling reality. So Scorsese almost tricks us into expecting the "magical" moment, the point where the weird stuff that happens will turn out to be supernatural, and what we see instead is that machines are magic: they connect us with the past, bring messages from dead people, give new hope to damaged people and turn people's lives around. Since a key plot point in the movie is World War I, where technology proved how destructive and horrible it could be, this story is like the flip side of that, the good and enchanting power of technology.

Add to that the technical virtuosity of the film (and nobody's ever denied Scorsese's abilities as a technician) and you have a movie that's intriguing and ever timely -- but especially timely now, when we're going through a more-marked-than-usual period of technological upheaval, and when we know that technology is going to change our lives but don't exactly know how yet. It's hard not to be inspired by the optimism of Hugo about technology as a tool for preserving, rather than obliterating, the past.

But, again, all of that is wrapped up in 128 minutes focusing on a hero who seems to me more a collection of plucky-little-orphan-boy characteristics than a character. Maybe I'll feel differently when I see it again, or maybe, with a better idea of where things are going, I'll enjoy the first part of the film more without the disorienting sense of wondering why we're being told all this. (Sometimes stories work better when they've been spoiled.) For now, I think Hugo incorporates some beautiful ideas and shots, which don't exactly add up to a story or scenes.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Back To 1988, By Way of 1986

One of the few sitcoms I watched at the time and then never revisited again (that I recall) was Dear John, the 1988 adaptation of a BBC sitcom from Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan. I watched the pilot when it first aired, because I was watching just about any sitcom on NBC at the time, and I thought it was funny enough to watch a few more times. But like many people, I didn't follow it after it moved away from Cheers; it survived for four years, but was never really a hit, and had almost no syndication life. It turned up here in reruns briefly a couple of years ago, following Taxi reruns on a channel that was showing filler during a transition to a new format. But I didn't watch it then either.

What got me watching it again was reading this article, "Anatomy of a Sitcom," from the New York Times during the show's first season. It really paints a bleak picture of what it's like to make a television sitcom, though that's pretty typical of the way television was profiled back then: behind-the-scenes looks at the making of TV were less reverential, because there was less reverence for TV than there is now. Even mass-market TV publications like TV Guide would often capture the self-doubts of TV producers and stars, or get into the sausage-factory nature of making network TV. The truth is probably somewhere in between that dark perspective and today's happier perspective, where increased media scrutiny (not to mention DVD commentaries) have trained showrunners to talk happier: you would rarely catch a showrunner doubting himself as openly as Ed. Weinberger does here.

That was what interested me about the show, because it was a Paramount TV production smack in the middle of a great period for Paramount TV -- which unfortunately has been folded into CBS and no longer exists. The TV division was still benefiting from the MTM people who jumped ship to do Taxi: Jim Brooks had left, but Glen and Les Charles were still there doing Cheers, and some of the writers they helped train would soon do Wings and Frasier. And then in the middle of this, Ed. Weinberger, another of the Taxi people, came back to Paramount to do a show with his Taxi star -- and the result wasn't a flop, just not anything special.

"Not anything special" describes a lot of Ed. Weinberger's work after Taxi, which is a bit surprising because he was such a talented guy. When he took over as producer of Mary Tyler Moore in the third season, he instantly infused it with a new energy. The creators of the show, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both had a background in single-camera sitcoms and (in Burns's case) advertising and animation, and they specialized in rather "soft" jokes. Weinberger was an experienced writer for stand-up comedians and variety shows, able to write hard jokes and big block comedy scenes, and he brought other writers for stand-ups and talk shows (including Bob Ellison and the great David Lloyd) onto the show. The mix of Weinberger and Brooks was what gave Mary Tyler Moore its shape from then on, and the same mix of hard and soft jokes was all over Taxi.

Weinberger's first act after Taxi was canceled was to create a talking-chimp sitcom, Mr. Smith; it was almost like a performance-art act of contempt for what sitcoms had become in the 1983-4 doldrums.

Then Weinberger seemingly bounced back in a big way by co-creating The Cosby Show. "Seemingly" because while he had co-creator credit, he wasn't with the show after the pilot. (Cosby, for whom Weinberger also created The Bill Cosby Show in the '70s, went through a lot of writers before settling on a few he could work with.) His projects after that seemed a bit scattershot, and often sounded better when you heard the cast list than when you saw the show. Mr. President, starring George C. Scott, probably should have been better than it was. And the Times article suggests that Amen was created by Weinberger almost as an attempt to thumb his nose at Cosby and prove he could do his own all-black show. Again, there was more potential in that subject (there are few American shows about the church, a subject that the British know how to mine for comedy) than Amen got out of it; it was all right in the first season because David Lloyd wrote half the episodes, but it was not a special show.

And then came Dear John. You can see what attracted Weinberger to the UK show: the story of a bunch of divorced people who hang out at a support group, it assembles a group of disparate losers headed by one guy whose pain is more raw than the others but who sees the world more clearly than they do. In other words, it's very Taxi. Here's the pilot of the original series:

And here's the U.S. remake, produced by Weinberger, Ellison and Peter Noah.

1 Pilot by carpalton

As you can see, once John gets to the meeting, the script is mostly the same as John Sullivan's version. (In fact, Sullivan's scripts were used almost verbatim for a few early episodes of the U.S. version.) The biggest difference is at the end. The original pilot just sort of ends on a big laugh -- a common way for UK sitcoms to end. The U.S. version feels a need to have some moment of resolution or hope, so it tacks on a new scene suggesting a) the possibility of sexual tension and b) a moment of redemptive connection between two supporting characters. It doesn't really work, and it may be a hint of why the U.S. version was never going to be on a level with Cheers and Taxi; the heart, the soft stuff, had to be tacked on and wasn't organic.

I may be over-thinking that, and I'd have to watch more of the episodes from later seasons to really know why this one was forgotten. I recall Jere Burns, as Kirk, being the one who made the most impact in the U.S. version; it's a showy part, and he played it more physically than the original actor. On the other hand, the leader of the group (a woman with an unhealthy interest in everyone's sex life) is less funny as a chirpy weirdo than the seemingly normal woman she was in the original. And Judd Hirsch was probably wrong for the part because he was too right for it, if that makes sense: the backstory of the character is close enough to Alex Rieger that he can't help seeming like he's playing the same guy all over again.

And that's how the show comes across in what I've seen of the original episodes: kind of like Taxi but not as sharp and fresh. Like a lot of filmed sitcoms from the late '80s -- Designing Women, Major Dad, Murphy Brown -- it also comes off as being at an uneasy transitional point between the MTM style (the foundational style at that time for any "grown-up" live-audience sitcom shot on film), and the faster-paced style that would soon come to dominate the filmed sitcom (with shorter running times, shorter scenes, and more stories per episode).

Weinberger did one other show while Dear John was running, a gruesome Look Who's Talking adaptation called "Baby Talk," where he was apparently very difficult to get along with: George Clooney fought with him and was dropped, Connie Sellecca left the show before it started, and finally Weinberger himself was let go after the first season. He made a comeback with a couple of other unsuccessful shows in the '90s. But if (like most TV producers) he wasn't able to keep producing hits indefinitely, the '80s and '90s were sitcom era that he did a lot to create -- through the shows he produced and the writers he hired, not to mention his role in keeping the sitcom alive with Cosby.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Harry and Sam

Arguably the best thing about IDW and Archie comics releasing "Best of Harry Lucey" and "Best of Samm Schwartz" hardcover collection can be seen at the Amazon page for the Lucey collection, which has customer reviews from Lucey's daughter Barbara as well as his nephew. The Schwartz book also has an afterword by his daughter, Joanne. These artists, like many comic book artists, were mostly unappreciated and uncredited in their own time, so it's pleasing to see their family members taking some pride in this new recognition. (It would be more pleasing if their estates got royalties for some of these reprints, of course, but this is the comics industry we're talking about here.)

The Lucey and especially the Schwartz books both have their flaws. Fundamentally, we're not talking about "best of" collections exactly, but more a selection of stories for which original art was available. (Some of the best comics stories from this don't seem to exist in art that can be reproduced in a high-quality fashion; some of the stories in the "Best of Archie Comics" book the publisher put out -- a good cross-section of its work, by the way -- are just scanned from comic books.) Granted, there's no scholarship on Archie the way there is for other comics, and therefore there's no panel of experts to consult on the best stories; granted too, most of these stories are pretty similar, and choosing a "best" can be difficult. But there are some stories I would like to have seen in there, like "Actions Speak Louder Than Words."

Also, with Lucey, the book suffers from being only five and six-page stories (plus a few one-page gags). A lot of the work that endeared him to readers occurred not only in covers, but -- maybe most of all -- in the in-house ads. He was Archie's primary in-house ad man until the early '70s, continuing with it even a few years after he was no longer allowed to do covers. And as an Amazon reviewer notes, maybe in too much detail, Lucey's work on the girls was particularly memorable in those ads, since he was dressing and posing them to maximize sales. I hope volume 2, if they are able to do one, has a section for ad pages and covers.

The Lucey volume is still a good deal for Lucey stories from a particular period (1959 through 1965), and has several famous ones including "Woman Scorned," the story that has contributed the most to the "Betty is crazy and murderous" meme, mostly because it portrays Betty as crazy and murderous.

The Schwartz volume covers the same period, and is therefore less essential. This is actually a period when Schwartz often wasn't doing his own inking and lettering, presumably because of the volume of work he was taking on -- he and his friend Bob White had editorial responsibilities at the company in addition to doing a huge amount of drawing work. The stories in this volume are often inked by Marty Epp (one of Lucey's regular inkers into the '70s) and Dan DeCarlo's brother Vince. The stories that Schwartz did ink and letter himself stand out by comparison and make it clear why he was always his own best inker; his Jughead just doesn't have quite the same magic in anyone else's hands. If volume 2 comes out I hope it focuses more on Schwartz's work on Jughead in the '70s and '80s, when he adopted his sparer style and mostly stopped working with other inkers.

The majority of the stories are once again by Frank Doyle, with a few George Gladir scripts thrown in (Gladir's work on Jughead was always some of his best, with monsters and witches and pop-culture spoofs in the spirit of his Mad House and Bats material). I was one of the first to write about what a work horse he was, but even I sometimes understated the case: the amazing thing to me is not just that he wrote so many, but that so few of them are out-and-out remakes of previous stories. They're working within a narrow range, of course, but there's usually some sort of angle that gives the artist something fresh to work with.

Here, for example, is a story that is not in the Lucey book, but which would have been on my "best-of" list just because it's one of those stories that sticks in one's mind as a kid and never goes away. From Pep # 134, it's called "On the Trolley," and has a premise Doyle used a number of times in a number of ways: some phrase or idea gets stuck in people's heads and drives them crazy. This allows various characters to react in different ways, and keeps the story moving as one character after another is pulled into it. And it provides Lucey with an opportunity to do the strong posing and comic emoting that he's now known for -- and should have been known for at the time.