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by Adam Ferenz

There have been many biographical films about US Presidents. There have been several-including more than a few-good ones, made for television. The Adams Chronicles, about the family of John and Quincy Adams, is among the great classic miniseries of the 1970s. Franklin and Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor: The White House Years, about Franklin D. Roosevelt, are both quite good, as well, along with Truman, which is notable for its fine turn by Gary Sinise as the titular chief executive. Yet all of these pale in comparison to this HBO production, based on David McCullough’s biography of the 2nd president of the United States. Surveying John Adam’s life from the time of the Boston Massacre in 1770 to his death in 1826, this sweeping series is not without its flaws, but it is always engrossing and treats its audience with a modicum of intellectual respect that is uncommon to such programs.

The series occasionally struggles to keep the finer details right, but manages to convey the emotional truth of each episode of history that it covers, and none more so than a discussion between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, in Paris, after the Revolution, in which the divisions in their social and political thinking are clearly rendered, sewing the seeds for their eventual split. Moments like these are what make the series most worth seeing, aside from the fine performances of the cast. Special notice must be given to Sarah Polley, who as Adams daughter, Abigail-known as Nabby, but named after her mother-turns in a performance both fierce and tender, as she faces the premature end of her life in the closing act of the serial. The acting from Giamatti as John and Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail, is revelatory.

Before that, however, we watch as Adams goes from lawyer, acting as defense counsel for the accused in the “Boston Massacre”-which resulted in a positive outcome for his clients-through to his time as a member of the Continental Congress, a leader in drafting the Declaration of Independence, his time as a roving ambassador in Europe, and his many ups and downs as a president. Finally, we see him, in his last years, as a man beginning to make peace with the actions of his life, to come to some understanding, that he will not always be able to control what others say or think of him, and that he bears responsibility in why that is. Famously, he and Jefferson reconcile, dying on the same day, hours apart, each believing the other was to live another day.

The series is presented in remarkable, almost too remarkable, fashion, by Tom Hooper, who uses a variety of lenses and angles-he is fond of the Dutch angle-and of having his camera act as though it were cast on the water, bouncing along to the action unfolding before it. At times, this can become distracting, but often, it serves to somehow enhance the action, as it seems to mimic the inner lives of the characters. The series won many awards, including a record number of Emmys, thirteen, which remains unmatched by any program.

Yet, for all the praise the series deserves, it gets a lot wrong, historically. Among glaring inconsistencies are showing the Boston Massacre Trial as a single event, rather than a series of hearings, showing Adams present at Concord and Lexington, Adams traveling with one son on a single voyage to Europe, calling the Constitutional Convention as such before it took place, when it was referred to by that title only after occurred. Other mistakes have Adams casting the deciding vote to ratify the Jay Treaty, and Benjamin Rush-who died in 1813-encouraging John to reconcile with Jefferson in 1818, when the real correspondence began in 1812, six years before Abigail’s death, which is shown to be the impetus for the correspondence.

Yet, for all these flaws, and they are many, even this historian sits back as a film viewer and appreciates the audacity, scope and emotional truths found in this work. It does not work as history, though it gets many things right-Zjelko Ivanek’s “Skiff made of paper” speech from the second episode, where his character of John Dickinson pleads with his fellow congressmen not to ratify the Declaration of Independence, is a thrilling example of what the series gets right-and as such, is worth seeing. But keep in mind that this is not like watching Peter Watkins 1964 BBC production, “Culloden” which is painstakingly accurate, nor is it a mess of myth like that found in Braveheart. It is something closer to Hollywood classics, and understood as such, is perfectly fine for what it is. And this reviewer, with these caveats, recommends one sees this, and then read the real history behind the story presented in this otherwise wonderful series.

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This past week’s Monday Morning Diary went MIA as it does on occasion, though all things considered, rarely.  For the installment planned for this coming Monday I will combine the theatrical film viewings achieved over two weeks.  Thanks to all who have followed and placed comments and likes during the Greatest Television Countdown Part 2.  Today’s capsule review on The Perry Mason Show from Yours Truly will be published mid-afternoon.     -Sam

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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.

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LOST IN SPACE title card

by Robert Hornak

The faddish and fun story of the Space Family Robinson, which happens to be the name of the comic book the show was first based on, one whose creators had to sue to rectify the ignominious swiping of the concept (perhaps inadvertently) by mega-producer Irwin Allen. Long story short, Allen got to keep the concept and the comic book got to change its name to the now-more-cash-creating Lost in Space. The show is a beloved totem from that golden time when the moon missions of old-school sci-fi overlapped with daily updates of real men in real space suits in real danger, flinging themselves around the planet in tiny intrepid buckets, stoking the imagination of an entire generation of Cold War kids and preying upon the fantasy-tinged optimism of dreamers. Surely from the vantage of the pilot episode in 1965, the show’s setting of 1997 seemed too far in the future for this to finally be happening – surely we’d be launching families into space by 1975!   (more…)

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At Gen. Lee’s headquarters in Gettysburg, Pa. on Saturday. We are staunch Unionists of course, but like to visit all the blue and grey sites.

by Sam Juliano

The second annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival has concluded, and all in all while not remotely besieged with tons of comments nor page views -blogging in general just isn’t what it used to be- it was still memorable because of the quality of the posts.  Taken as a whole they were just stupendous.  Special thanks to Jamie Uhler (project founder); John Grant, Roderick Heath, Marilyn Ferdinand, Sachin Gandhi, Adam Ferenz, J.D. Lafrance and Anuk Bahvkist for their fantastic scholarship and brilliant choices to make this endeavor fly.  Allan is no doubt looking down from above smiling and uttering the words “Good job!”  Heaven willing we will stage the third annual festival next year, and I’ll again be sending out a group e mail to the network, with hopes to expand.  In any case, we did get some fine comments and on some days very good page view totals.  Best of all of course is that all of us have our viewing schedule set for the next few weeks!

Tomorrow, the last leg of the Greatest Television Countdown Part 2 will commence, and it will run until mid July.  Thanks to all the writers and readers who have kept the show afloat.  Here’s hoping to a glorious final few weeks. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Many thanks to all who have followed the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, which is planned to run at the site until Friday June 8th.  The writers again have been up to the task, contributing fabulous reviews of eclectic works only available online.  The television project’s final stage will begin posting a day after the second annual AFOFF concludes.

The school year is winding down and for the very first time in six years the site will not be running a late summer countdown of any sort after the mid-July finale of the Greatest Television Countdown.  This will constitute a well-deserved break for the writers and site readers.  This has been a down period in terms of comments and page views, but I completely understand blogs in general are not what they once were and that there is cyclical aspect to their viability.  As ever Jim Clark will be soon posting his next superlative film essay and other contributors will again publish when the presently running projects finish. (more…)

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by Adam Ferenz

The British Broadcasting System, or BBC, is known for many things. Low budgets. Reuse of sets and costumes. Accusations of bias from whomever is in or out of power. Doctor Who. Missing episodes of classic programs. But they are, or were, known for brilliantly original and challenging programming for adults, and during the 1960s, two directors in particular stood out. These were Peter Watkins and Ken Russell. While Russell is now the better known of the two, Watkins deserves special attention, because he achieved success with a series of documentary-like works that approached their action, and often their re-enactments, with a reality that even the most well intentioned and mounted documentaries often fail to achieve. Presented here are two films, both relatively short, and both, arguably, among the best or most unique work either artist ever created. Both works stand as testament to the BBC that used to be, when one looks beyond the costumes of the dramas, to the real heart of the matter.

Culloden, by Peter Watkins, arrived over the air in 1964, and Dance of the Seven Veils, after some legal issues, saw its one and only, and greatly delayed, airing, in 1970.

Ken Russell did many crazy movies during his career, with The Devils often cited as his most insane work, and that is hard to argue. Unless, of course, one has seen Dance of the Seven Veils, which is impossible to find in an unbowdlerized edition. His final film for the BBC, and for television, this film can be seen as a bold “f*** you and goodbye forever” from its director. Here, Russell upends the music of Strauss-here made caricature by a director who despised him- and explores themes that today might be considered offensive to sensitive types on the bullying right, particularly their Swastika wearing idols, but such was the bravery and openness with which Russell approached this material.

What we receive as viewers is an impression of Strauss, as hollow metaphor, for a failed view of the world and philosophy of control. In this film, Strauss kills his critics with his music, plays his music ever more loudly to drown out his ignorance and culpability in the rise of Nazism, and, most importantly, is credited as co-writer on the film. Despite being a true story told in part through the unwitting confessions of its subject, the film is not a straight biography nor one hundred percent genuine. Again, it is an impression.

Culloden, on the other hand, is like watching Edward R. Murrow reporting from the battlefield during the Second World War, had motion pictures existed in the 18th century. With this film, director Peter Watkins shows the other way in which the BBC was brave and innovative. Here, the work has a veracity almost uncanny in presentation or feel. Never once does Watkins shy from showing the horrors of war, of speaking of the cruelty and stupidity of both sides of “Bonnie Prince Charlie’s” failed conquest and, when the final card tells the tale of how the Scots were forced to live, everything you have seen suddenly seems to come to you, again. For an instant, you relieve the battle and understand the outcome anew.

This is, of course, a fairly straight forward production in terms of visuals, but it is in the telling that it sets itself apart, allowing the viewer to understand the historical figures, because we “see and hear them” talking to us from the battlefield, and it is never once played for laughs. This is a grim hour plus of television, but well worth seeing. It is worth seeing because by the end, Watkins has achieved what he set out to do, which is to enlighten his audience. What that means is up to the individual.

Both of these films are milestones in television history, and in each director’s filmography. As such, each is thus worthy of being given your time. Some would claim television was only great during the “golden age” of the 1950s, or that it has only recently, or at least in the last twenty years, come of age. These two films prove that the medium, with a little digging, has always offered work as thought provoking and challenging as anything found in a movie theater.

Dance of the Seven Veils can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7r2JHq7LMs&t=9s

Culloden can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAdlS2Hdw28&t=6s

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