Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Stephen Mullen’s film reviews’ Category

By Stephen Mullen

(1)
When I was growing up, in the 1970s in Maine, baseball on television meant NBC’s game of the week, ABC’s Monday Night Baseball, and maybe a Red Sox game a week. That plus Mel Allen’s This Week in Baseball, and whatever info turned up on the news. Baseball was a radio sport – that’s where I followed it. The Sox were on every single night, Ned Martin’s voice was part of the family. I followed the game on the radio and through magazines and box scores, and I followed it intensely. But all that completely changed by the end of the 1980s. Cable TV changed everything about baseball – changed all sports, probably, except football, which was always a television sport, with its weekly games and predictable schedule. In 1980, cable was a luxury – I don’t remember anyone who had it,or very few; by 1990, everyone had cable TV. And by 1990, baseball had moved to cable. All the Red Sox games were on NESN by then, and cable brought all kinds of baseball to my TV – I could get the Braves and the Mets; other towns, other packages around New England could get you the Yankees and Cubs as well. And ESPN showed games every day, and covered baseball intensely – Sports Center; Baseball Tonight – we were soaked in baseball. Back in the 1970s, I could see about 3 games a week; in 1990, I could watch every single game from three different teams, plus a couple other games every single night. This has only grown since. You might have to pay more to get all the games – but you can get all the games, from all the teams,all of it at the same high production level. Even with basic cable, you get 2-3 games a day, and more on the weekends. We are soaked in baseball on TV.

(2)
One of the stranger aspects of Ken Burns’ Baseball series, from 1994, is that it doesn’t talk about this change. The 9th Inning episode covers 20 very eventful years of baseball – free agency and all that brought to the game, drugs (coke, particularly), Pete Rose, as well as all the on field events of the era. The great world series’ – Brooks Robinson beating the Reds in1970, the Red Sox and Reds in 1975, Sox and Mets in 86, Twins and Braves in 1991; Clemente’s last games; the 1989 earthquake; Kirk Gibson vs. the Eck. But there’s very little about television, about cable TV’s transformation of what baseball on TV was. (And its transformation of baseball itself.) It is a huge omission – take that 1991 world series, one of the best of all time, with its two last to first teams – how do you do justice to it without acknowledging that one of the teams was essentially a national team? TBS brought the Braves to everyone – they deliberately claimed that they were baseball’s version of the Dallas Cowboys – America’s team. I admit to being part of it – I picked up on the Braves when they were in last place, because even before they started winning, they were loaded with young players who were going to make something of themselves. I could watch slow, mediocre, white, Boston win 88 games a year and nip or be nipped by the sightly less bland (but Clemens-less) Blue Jays at the wire – or I could watch Ron Gant and Otis Nixon, watch Tom Glavine and John Smoltz develop into stars, watch Steve Avery and Derek Lilliquist come up and maybe become stars, wonder when Justice and Lopez and the rest were going to make it – they were fun to watch. And I could see them, every game if I wanted; I could follow them as closely as I could follow the Red Sox.

(3)
I have a confession: when I saw this assignment, I thought it was about baseball on television, not about the Burns series. I thought, this is very cool, really – why shouldn’t “baseball” be a topic? or any sport, or even just, “sports” – that is a massive part of what television is. And you might as well take it whole – you can’t make a really clean division, to pick one show – “The 1986 World Series” say – it doesn’t work like that. But baseball on TV? or football, or sports – things like that should be considered in this countdown. Sports – the 7 o’clock news – even whole channels, like CNN – are integral to what TV is. TV is as much the medium as the content, and the content itself is often spread out like this – types of shows, that fill up the hours. And many of them, filling the hours with as much excitement and drama as any actual shows. The advertisers know it, NESN hypes the Red Sox by comparing them to Game of Thrones and the like – why not? We’ve had a few entries like this, game shows and the like, but why shouldn’t baseball be one of them?

(4)
Personally, I love baseball on TV. It allows you to engage at whatever level you want. You can leave it in the background, dip into it when something happens, let it drift when nothing’s going on; or you can hang on every pitch, on all the stuff between the pitches (the decisions about pitches, the psychological battles between pitcher/catcher and hitters, and so on). You can go back and forth between these approaches; you can supplement what’s on TV – fire up baseball reference and look up just how good Mike Trout is this year. Compared to other sports, baseball suits me more – hockey has more consistent excitement and action; basketball has spurts of spectacular action, but a lot of standing around, that doesn’t quite have the drama of a baseball game; I am no fan of football, though it is probably the quintessential television sport – with everyone in the country (who cares about it) watching the same thing at the same time every week), with well defined self-contained plays, everything happening in an orderly manner. (Violence and committee meetings, as George Will described it.) I understand its appeal, though I don’t share it. I like the fact that baseball is diffuse – that all those games going on every day means that all the people around the country watching baseball are watching something different; I like that you can engage with it on so many different levels; I like that the pace of it leaves so much time for consideration – looking up stats; telling stories; speculating about strategy; comparing players to one another, to all the long history of the past – it’s like that. It is intellectually stimulating because it lets you bring whatever you want to it – it stimulates your imagination, your curiosity, it leads you down a dozen pathways. I like that.

(5)
That, I suppose, is one of the things Ken Burns does best: he gets at the endless digressiveness of baseball. He likes to meander in his documentaries, takes his time, dwells on stories and images, sometimes on analysis, sometimes just on contemplation or reflection – all of his shows have some of the ordered digressiveness of baseball. And Baseball is a fine series: beautiful, informative, deep and broad, with well chosen and organized imagery, itself lovely and fascinating. His talking heads? well – I think the world could do without another chance for George Will and Bob Costas to bloviate on camera – but then you get someone like John Sayle, Curt Flood (who’s magnificent, really), or the inimitable Bill Lee – well, I can forgive… Still – for all their good qualities, I sometimes find Burns’ documentaries a bit frustrating – there sometimes seems to be less than meets the eye. Or I should say – the more I know about the subject of the show, the less satisfying they can be. Both The Civil War and Baseball have this quality. Those are subjects I know about – longstanding enthusiasms. I’ve been obsessed with the Civil War for most of my life; and I have always been absorbed in baseball. I spent many hours in my youth poring over old baseball magazines, reading and rereading baseball histories, talking about it to anyone who cared, all my life; I have spent many more hours in my dotage rooting through any piece of information I can find about the sport – online, books, and so on. And always living on stats, as baseball fans do, from the Baseball Digests and annual guides (what a surprise it was to learn that Bill Mazerowski was a ball player and not just a guy who put out a yearly baseball preview!) that came out in the 70s, to Baseball Weekly and USA Today’s stat pages in the 90s, to Baseball Reference and ESPN and MLB online now. So I have heard the big stories he tells – I know most of the historical developments of baseball – I know some developments in the game better than he covers them. I sometimes feel as though his shows are a kind of preaching to the choir – he repeats the stories baseball fans know, Snodgrass’ muff, and Babe’s called shot; what a prick Ty Cobb was and what a gentleman Christy Mathewson was; Jackie Robinson’s arrival, the Miracle Mets, the ’75 series and Fisk’s home run, and so on – repeating them as much to spark a kind of sentimental recognition as to teach you anything. They have a self-congratulation to them, which, admittedly, is what we baseball fans do all the time anyway! Sit around and remember the touchstones of watching baseball – but I don’t need Ken Burns to do that. The truth is, my favorite Burns series is probably the Vietnam series from last year – that’s a subject I know in the outline, but not in the particulars – I could follow along, but I didn’t know more than he was telling me, and it felt like I was learning something. I learned plenty from Baseball, or the Civil War – but not the same. And not as much as I already knew.

(6)
But saying that, it points to the best things about Baseball – when it talks about things I don’t know. The Shadow Ball episode, mainly about the Negro Leagues, is the strongest example. It’s a subject I know something about, but nowhere near enough. Burns covers it in some depth – and it is fascinating. I learned something – I didn’t know most of it; I knew some names (Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson and so on), some team information (I even have a Cuban X Giants hat), but nothing about the history of the leagues, their development, their progression. I do now. That is a great episode, for this reason, as well as just because of the fine collection of footage and photographs he has.

(7)
Burns is very good on covering the social aspects of the game. The roots of its racism, the sociology of the players, the various shifts in the demographics of its fans. He’s good on the labor issues, giving them attention, tracing their evolution (though it’s a miserable story to tell, almost as miserable as the game’s racism, given the corruption of the owners through the first half of the 20th century and beyond). These pieces are good, though often short – his treatment of the media’s role in baseball is often very good as well, though even briefer, frustratingly so. There are bits about radio and Red Barber; lots of quotes from sportswriters, and allusions to them; some discussion of television – but shouldn’t there be more? And that last episode missed the ball badly – cable television is a huge change, for all the reasons I’ve said. It’s a change that was more noticeable in baseball than in other sports – daily games saturates you with games; and that saturation was on radio in the 70s; it is on TV now. He touches on this in earlier periods – on the ways technology spread the games in the old days – newspapers printing partial scores in multiple editions; the scoreboards at newspaper offices, updated from the telegraph wires – you could follow games in lose to real time in the 1920s, just like now – though you might have had to leave the house. That happened on television in the 80s – he ignored it.

(8)
It’s interesting to think about baseball as television. I’ve posted about this before, way back when, on the 20th anniversary of Roger Clemens’ first 20 strikeout game. That’s 12 years back now – how much has coverage changed since 2006? less than it had changed since 1986, I think. Most of the trends in 2006 are still going strong – lots of crowd shots, dugout shots, sideline reporters, closer shots of players. High definition has changed how baseball looks on TV as well. I think has reined in some of the more annoying features of the game on TV – the camera work is less frenetic and annoying now; the images are so good, with contemporary technology, that you don’t need gimmicks to try to catch something interesting. You don’t miss much with a plain shot of the field, so why keep moving the camera and zooming around? These days, of course, the screens are full of stuff – K-zones, stats and numbers and info everywhere on the screen, constant crawls under the picture, graphics to show movement of players (red and blue circles to show shifts, or a players’ route to a fly ball, or what have you). Stats are ubiquitous, all kinds of stats. As are advertisements – no chance to sell something is neglected. The game on the field has changed a bit – there are some new rules, mostly about who you can tackle, that mostly just try to keep catchers and second basemen out of the hospital; the big on field difference is replay, which, of course, relies integrally on television. (It is also one of the best innovations in the game: replay has almost ended the classic argument with the umpire – and good riddance! Earl Weaver or Billy Martin made for great theater,buut you see one argument, and you don’t need to see any more. If you can resolve questions honestly, why shouldn’t you? I like replay!) But as Burns might say – for all the changes, the game is recognizably the same. There are even more stats in the game now than ever – different stats – both the measures of the players results (emphasis on on base and slugging over batting averages; emphasis on WHIP – walks and hits per inning pitched, for pitchers), and things like exit velocity, launch angles, barreling percentages. But for all that, all those new stats – you can still compare them to the old time stats and get a pretty good idea of what was happening then and now. Sure, it’s good to know how often Mookie Betts gets the barrel of the bat on the ball – but you don’t really have to see that stat to guess what that stat is going to be. For players I see a lot – the Red Sox, the Yankees – I don’t need someone to tel me what their exit velocities are, r their barreling percentages are. You don’t need to hear the exit velocity Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez get when you can see what happens when they get a good swing on a ball. And honestly, for players I don’t see as much – Mike Trout say – I can guess what kind of bat speed and how often he gets the barrel on the ball just by looking at those 23 homers, .328 average, .688 slugging percentage. I can hazard a guess what kind of exit velocities Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron got, from the stats they put up – and definitely from watching them swing.

(9)
In the end, though, that is what is best about living in today’s TV environment – with all those games on TV, you can see anyone fairly regularly. Back in the 70s, when there were tow or three games a week on – you got to see lots of the Yankees and Dodger and Reds, Red Sox and Orioles, Phillies maybe – but good luck seeing Andre Dawson or young Jack Clark. The only way you could see them was if they turned up on This Week in Baseball.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

appearance

By Stephen Mullen

Somewhere in Los Angeles are two people who hate each other – or at least one of them hates the other one. Maybe we will see them together; maybe we will see them separately; maybe we will just see one of them, going about some strange ritual. Maybe they’ll talk – maybe they will be, or act, friendly, but more likely they will quarrel. Either way, one of this is going to kill the other. Maybe we see the killer covering up the crime; maybe we now recognize that their rituals were aimed at hiding the crime. By the time the first commercial comes, it looks like they will get away with it. When we come back, the police are on hand. Among them is a dumpy looking guy in a raincoat, who putters around, and notices things; he sticks his nose into conversations; he looks at the bodies; he talks to the relatives. He probably talks to the killer, and he’ll probably notice something when he does. By the end of the first scene we know there’s more to this guy than meets the eye. Over the next hour, he’ll keep running into the killer, and it’s going to take the killer longer to catch on that there’s more to him than meets the eye, but he will – but by then it will be too late.

That is Columbo, and for my money, it’s the best show ever made on network television in the USA. Columbo ran 7 years in the 1970s, came back for a couple more seasons and string of TV movies in the 80s and 90s, and every episode (except one or two here and there) fit that description above. The shows were a series of little movies, 90-100 minutes long, airing in rotation with a number of other shows (McCloud and McMillan & Wife, later Hec Ramsey too) in its first run – the longer production schedules (a show a month, instead of a show a week) meant episodes were made with a lot more care than the average TV show of the time. They looked it. It starred Peter Falk, and brought in high profile guest stars, writers and directors, as prestige television has always done. Columbo’s early years boast Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg at the start of their careers; later years featured people like Jonathan Demme, and along the way, any number of Hollywood veterans and actors got a shot behind the camera – Richard Quine and Leo Penn; Ben Gazzara and Patrick McGoohan. And of course a parade of guest stars, to kill and be killed, or sometimes to offer dubious advice in the role of lawyers or uncles or ex-husbands and wives. (more…)

Read Full Post »

gun

By Stephen Mullen

Gunsmoke was the first and last – the first (or almost the first) western for grownups on TV; and very nearly the last western of any kind of TV. Lasting 20 years will do that – you’re first, you outlast your peers, and sometimes your entire genre. When it came on TV, it led to a flood of similar shows – The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, many others – that shared its grown up approach the western, and its artistic values, and serving, as it did, as a launching ground for many significant actors and directors. It stayed on TV all those years because it was a very fine show – begun as a serious show, and taken seriously, with quality writing, a fantastic cast, solid production values, and consistently fine craft. They brought in first rate guest stars, they brought in first rate directors, they gave them first rate scripts – 635 episodes worth (though I suppose not all 635 were first rate; I can point you to some stinkers) – it changed through the years, but it was always watchable.

I watched it, of course, when I was a kid, both the reruns and the new ones. I didn’t care if it had been on forever; I didn’t really know it had been on that long until people started talking about it. I never saw any of the black and white shows until a long time after – they weren’t the ones in reruns. It didn’t matter. It was probably my favorite show when I was a kid, maybe right up to the time it went off the air, maybe beyond. (And not just the show: I read the books too – over and over, in fact; I liked Gunsmoke.) I liked all westerns – Gunsmoke and Bonanza and Big Valley, especially – but even then, I could tell Gunsmoke had an edge on them. I could tell it was more serious – it had action and excitement, good guys and bad guys, but it had characters too, who had depth, and breadth. More than that, maybe (since Bonanza and Big Valley were also strong on character), it had stories that were deeper and smarter than those other shows. I couldn’t have described the difference then, and barely can now, but it’s there – maybe it had something to do with the stakes – on Gunsmoke things seemed to matter a bit more.

It was designed that way. It was created for radio, and conceived as a hard-boiled western, explicitly reminiscent of Raymond Chandler (inspired by the Philip Marlowe radio show, in fact) – you can hear it in the early shows. Robbery, murder, lynch mobs, venal newspapermen gloating about circulation and Doc Adams angling for more autopsies, Matt accused of having an affair, and an innocent little boy who turns out to be the killer, and William Conrad as Dillon narrating and ruminating (in the best Raymond Chandler style) about how awful human beings really are. And that’s just the first episode! (Here it is, on YouTube: “Billy the Kid”). The darkness didn’t entirely carry over to the TV version, a couple years later – but there’s plenty of it there. The first show has Matt soliloquizing on Boot Hill about the “Gomorrah of the Plains”, keeps a good dose of his bitterness and sarcasm, and his strong sense of isolation (walking away alone as he does), in a story with a cold blooded killer, who just wants to be left alone. (You can see it here: “Matt Gets It”, complete with John Wayne telling the audience that this show was going to last a while.) Chandler’s influence is still there – Matt loses a gun fight in that first show, and when he recovers, has to go back to try again – that’s pretty much standard procedure for a Hammett or Chandler character. And Matt has to outsmart the gunslinger – another bit you see in those classic detective stories. Marlowe would be proud.

As the show evolved, some of that fell away. Even on the radio, the characters had softened – Doc Adams, say, is a pretty nasty piece of work in those early shows. The ensemble, the relationships among the characters became more important, and anchored the show through those 20 years – but it still maintained the grown up approach. The material is dark, full of violence and cruelty, but its maturity is also in the complexity of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. Heroes fail – they can be selfish and unpleasant like the doctor sometimes, physically damaged like Chester, morally compromised like Miss Kitty might be. And the villains are seldom simplistic – they have reasons for what they do; they can be charming, some can be plaintive. If someone starts threatening bar girls, you can bet he lost a daughter or granddaughter somewhere along the line. Many episodes work in multiple foils for Matt Dillon, putting him between a couple hard bitten killers, or a couple aggrieved families – everyone with their reasons. And in those early shows, he fails as often as not – at least, fails to stop other people from massacring each other, or ends up killing people he tried very hard not to have to kill. He’s there to keep the peace, but there isn’t a lot of peace to keep.

This aspect is more pronounced in the early years – by the end, Matt and his friends were pretty well ascended to godhood, the villains tended to be a bit more simplistic, and the guest stars were usually a bit more obviously on the good or evil side. But it never went away completely. It evolved out of the noirish style of the early shows, into something else, though something still rooted in adult problems and complex behavior. The evolotution is reflected in Matt himself – the angry, brooding, tarnished hero of the radio show and early TV gave way to a stoic, strong hero, one who passes through the mire without being soiled. That’s not criticism – it’s just different, more Gary Cooper, less Bogie, if that makes sense. That element took over pretty quickly, I suppose – looking at James Arness, you couldn’t quite picture him as anything other than a strong silent type – if he had stayed bitter and cracked, he would have been terrifying – John Wayne in The Searchers, maybe, something more disturbing than any villain could be. This change didn’t hurt the show – it made Matt into a central hub for the rest of the show to revolve around. It made the dynamics of the cast, the strengths of the guest stars, and the stories themselves shine, with Dillon as anchor, and often as a kind of light that illuminates the nature of others.

doc

Gunsmoke lasted a long time, surviving many changes to the technology and form of television. It moved from radio to TV, first as a half hour show, later as an hour. In the mid-60s, it switched to color. It changed through the years, but generally maintained its quality – though it’s hard to miss how much better it was earlier. That’s something I learned late – the color shows were the ones in syndication, in the early 70s, and onward – that’s what I saw when I was 10, what I watched now and then through the 80s and 90s – it’s what I knew. They were fine shows – they made me think I had good taste when I was 10… But then I saw the black and white episodes. They were a revelation. The half hour shows are superb – tight, efficient little morality plays that never really preach, great looking, with sharp, memorable characters, and even then, a cool mix of action, drama, comedy. They were great shows – but I think the show really blossomed with the hour long format.

They had room. Even now, watching the half hour shows, they can go by a bit too quickly – they don’t get the chance to linger and develop – and it’s the lingering and development that made Gunsmoke so good. The hour long episodes have everything: well developed stories, with characters who have time to evolve in the course of the show, to work out multiple relationships. It feels as though every black and white hour long show I remember was some kind of trip – maybe those shows were aired more often; maybe they’re the ones I remember best. But there are good reasons why journeys are a staple of story telling (and most definitely of westerns) – a chance to put a number of characters in a situation and let it stew. Those shows end up being some of the best hour long shows ever made for TV.

haggens

The black and white episodes have another advantage – they look fantastic. The sets, costumes, props are all very well chosen – and in the black and white episodes,they look right. They look beat up, shabbier, dirtier; cabins and houses and street and fields look like hard places to live – they look real. The color shows lost some of this. Color, I suspect, shows up how clean the sets and clothes are; even artfully mistreated props, like Festus’ costumes, look a bit too artfully messed up. Did they get more conventional later? does black and white indicate grime and wear better? Maybe. But part of it, I think, is that the later shows fell out of step with western movies. The early Gunsmokes were contemporary with films like Anthony Mann’s westerns, Budd Boetticher’s, mature films by Hawks and Ford, classics like Shane and High Noon. TV couldn’t match the production values of top of the line films – but they could match their look. (And low budget westerns thrived in those days as well – filmmakers knew how to make westerns look good no matter what the budget.) But western films evolved between 1955 and 1970, evolved as much as any genre did. Content restrictions disappeared – you could show far more, and what seemed dark on TV in 1955 looked old fashioned next to The Wild Bunch or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Films brought in outside influences – Japanese films; European films. The style became more extreme; the look became grittier, grimier. Gunsmoke in the 70s didn’t look at all like contemporary westerns (at least not the best of them.) It’s a jarring effect: it makes everything, in the later shows, look clean, antiseptic, in ways the older ones never dd. By 1975, it was the last western on TV, maybe not that bad a show, but somehow it felt old, rote, even compared to what you expected to see in a western. And so it went, and that was that.

But it had a magnificent run. It set off a run of serious western shows; it has had an influence beyond. Matt Dillon is an icon – but so are others, particularly Doc. (I offer Star Trek’s Bones as evidence; heck – I could offer Brad Dourif, on Deadwood, riffing on Doc, maybe more the early radio Doc, but still.) The cast and characters of the show were, in fact, fantastic. Arness, Stone, Blake and both Dennis Weaver and Ken Curtis – great actors playing fascinating characters, that the writers seemed to understand. Coming off writing about Get Smart, a show that gave in to ratings desperation at the end, do you know how refreshing it is to see a male and female lead not ever get together? At least not marry (though Matt seemed to know where her room was located in the early shows…) – how many long running shows were able to keep that discipline? The main cast is matched by the guests, often as not – what a pleasure it is to watch someone like Warren Oates or Bruce Dern come in and chew up the scenery. Now – this was common enough practice in those days – a good many of those serious westerns did the same thing – brought on special guests; gave up and coming directors the chance to work. But they did it well on Gunsmoke.

saloon

Read Full Post »

phone booth

By Stephen Mullen

I love 60s sitcoms. Even now, along with a few British shows, and cartoons (Simpsons or Futurama or Bevis and Butthead) they are the sit coms I am most likely to watch when they come on TV, even ahead of great shows like Seinfeld, or All in the Family or Taxi or MASH. Get Smart, Batman, Hogan’s Heroes – even the Beverly Hillbillies – I can always watch those shows.

It’s personal preference, shows I grew up on (though already in syndication; watching them at 4 in the afternoon, between Gunsmoke and Mr. Rogers), but it’s also the style. Sitcoms changed in the 60s – especially in the mid-60s. The culture changed; the technology changed (color TV!) – sitcoms shifted along with these things. The early classics – I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver – were all domestic shows, centered in the home; this was still the case in the early 60s, with shows like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, though the latter is as much about the town as his home. But around the middle of the 60s, shows started to appear that were more and more set outside the home – Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, Batman, Gilligan’s Island. And shows still built around home and family started to get a bit stranger – Bewitched and its magic, The Munsters and Addams Family, with their monsters, even the Beverly Hillbillies, with it’s over the top farce (it’s Li’l Abner vibe.) The technology changed – most of these shows were in color; most of them used single camera setups rather than multi-camera live shooting. And the tone changed – they were parodic, satiric, they embraced absurdity, camp, surrealism. They stopped trying to be realistic, they stopped pretending to be about people like you and me in naturalistic (if comic and extreme) situations – they embraced genre stories, and made fun of them, usually by combining commonplace situations (going to work, hanging with your friends, or even the old domesticity of sitcoms) with absurd situations – spies, POWs, witches, superheroes. In many ways, they adopted the style and tone of cartoons, comic strips, comic books – directly, when it comes to the Addams Family or Batman, but a lot of these shows share the style.

It didn’t last. Sitcoms in the 70s developed in a different direction – even political and socially aware shows became naturalistic again, treated their characters and situations as real people. All in the Family and Normal Lear’s other shows; Happy Days; and all the (wonderful) workplace comedies of the 70s – The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MASH, Taxi, Barney Miller – did this. Showed real work places, not comic spy headquarters or German POW camps; dropped the genre parodies, the absurdity, the magic and science fiction. The 70s was a great era for sitcoms – but I miss the weirdness of the 60s.

And none of them did it better than Get Smart. It was developed and written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (with Henry staying on as story editor for two years), conceived as a combination of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. It starred Don Adams, Barbara Feldon and Ed Platt, plus a mob of character actors, with single or recurring roles. It ran 5 seasons, 4 on NBC and one on CBS, fading a bit through the years, and engaging in more than a few cheap ratings boosts in latter years, though we don’t need to dwell on that. And it was exemplary of the kind of show I am talking about here. It was made right when shows switched to color – the pilot is black and white, but the rest of the show is color; it was a single camera show for it’s whole run; it was a genre parody, and one that let in a lot of genre nonsense – spies and adventure, and funny gadgets, and straight up science fiction; it was never shy about parodying other culture – movies, other TV shows, and so on; it was packed with in-jokes, puns, references outside the show (names and titles and such); and it was a work place comedy, combining the goofy spy stuff with the banalities of an office job, using both to send up the other. (more…)

Read Full Post »

By Stephen Mullen

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.

What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find – on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney’s Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard’s Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did. (more…)

Read Full Post »

opening

By Stephen Mullen

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series – each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind – a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch’s career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television – a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on – which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog’s origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don’t really mean to dispute that – Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art – it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories – but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme – but these themes are themselves part of the series’ emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space – a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes. (more…)

Read Full Post »

by Stephen Mullen

(I’m sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment – but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn’t a bad thing, of course – it’s meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources – Burns’ method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn’t quite the case anymore – I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history – primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It’s clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war – it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks – slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction – if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere – though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents – read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant’s Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »