Friday, January 28, 2011

FFB 1952: Marijane Meaker (as Vin Packer): SPRING FIRE (Fawcett Gold Medal); Patricia Highsmith (as Claire Morgan): THE PRICE OF SALT (Coward, McCann)




The first startling thing about these two novels, pioneering lesbian Bildungsromans, first published in the same year, under pseudonyms, by two writers who would go on to have a two-year affair seven years later, is how even more similar they are than this would suggest.

Quite amusingly, both novels feature analogs of their authors as their protagonists; the backgrounds and physical descriptions of Salt's 19-year-old Therese and Fire's 17yo Mitch are not too terribly far from those of their authors, particularly at those ages; the cover painting of Mitch (with her paramour Leda) also rather resembles the young Meaker, on staff at Gold Medal when she submitted her first novel (which this was, though it was quickly followed by her second, Dark Intruder [1952]; Salt was Highsmith's second, after Strangers on a Train [1950]). Further, both protagonists fall into mutual love at first sight, or at least something more than simply mutually lustful intrigue, with an older, more high-status woman in the midst of stressful coping with a new, ridiculously artificial environment--Mitch is matriculating at a university and being pledged to a sorority, Therese as a harassed new toy-department clerk at a massive and stuffy department store of the type common in the era. (Of course, this sort of encounter strokes the intended reader in at least two ways--the romance-fiction trope of the immediately-recognized soulmate, and the gaydar click--though different terms would've been used in 1952, such as mutual recognition--of being either two of the only or the only two "deviants" in the social milieu they find themselves in, and the stirring of previously unfulfilled need particularly in our heroines.) Now, we learn this much in the space of the first few pages of both novels; I will now warn you that next paragraph will be filled with "spoiler" citations. After that paragraph, things will get more vague and sweeping, or at least less keyed to the novels' events, again.



There's a bit of a dance, as Therese gingerly pursues department-store customer Carol, after Carol makes at least some kind of interest clear, and Mitch seeks ways to get to know Leda, who in her turn is quite happy to have Mitch room with her in the sorority house; both the older women consistently condescend to their new acquaintances, noting how little of the world they seem to know. Therese has a fiance, Richard, a somewhat spoiled man-boy who is very proud of how patient he's been with Therese, only having had three or so sexual encounters with her, all of them unpleasant for her; Mitch soon attracts the attentions of spoiled frat-boy Bud, who alternately sullenly and unctuously plies her with alcohol, and gropingly molests her on their first date, and rapes her on the second, yet is traumatized himself by her contempt for him after the rape, which he apparently saw as seduction. The older women, Carol being about thirty, Leda being a senior to Mitch's frosh, have steady men in their lives, about whom they have mixed feelings at best--Carol's husband Harge, rather a petty dictator who hopes to control Carol, but can't quite, and Leda's steady, Jake, a somewhat less insane character than Bud, but one who is quite content with a rather blatant sex-buddies relation rather than romance with Leda. Both our protagonists meet initial "other" men who seem at least more helpful at first, but who prove unworthy of friendship; then they both meet relatively sensitive, more romantic men with whom they don't mind the mildest sort of making out (and both these Good Guys are relatively short, stocky, strong, unflashy and self-deprecating men--clearly the kind lesbians like). Both Carol and Leda prove to be difficult and weak, even if their weaknesses can be understood, given that Carol has a daughter with Harge who will become the object of a custody battle as Carol and Harge divorce, and Leda's life at college depends in large part on maintaining a delicate balancing act between the sorority she secretly disdains, the campus status and housing it provides, and her relation with her immature and sexually competitive mother (a bit of an inversion between the two stories). Nonetheless, the young protagonists are stalwart and faithful, though vexed by the dithering and excessive capriciousness of their lovers, even as they are usually ecstatic when engaging them sexually...only usually, since both couples also have somewhat jarring sexual encounters, wherein the self-doubt and uncertainty of the older women leaves the younger partners a bit hurt, put off. Therese and Carol take a roadtrip together, from NYC to the western states, in a journey that in some ways prefigures not only Lolita, as at least one critic has famously noted, but also On the Road, written at about the same time though published years later. Mitch and Leda also contemplate making a long road trip, but ultimately discard that as impractical (perhaps in part because they're already in the Midwest, and the exoticism of further west is less immediately apparent). In another mirror-image inversion rather than congruence, much is made of Carol's car, she being the wealthier of the two in Salt, and likewise Mitch's in Fire, where she comes from money which Leda can't match. Therese and Mitch write rhapsodic love letters to their women, which are eventually used against both couples; Carol and Therese are pursued by an efficient private detective, who gathers recordings of their conversations, while Mitch and Leda are burst in upon by sorority sisters while in flagrante delicto (so passionately so that they almost replicate a passage from J. Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire classic "Carmilla"). The upshot of the gathering of such evidence against them is the abandonment of the younger woman by the older in both cases; the more brittle Leda attempts to shift all blame for their tryst onto Mitch, while the more morose Carol simply hides from Therese and dithers as to whether Therese should contact her. In the end of Salt, Therese, while toying with the notion of having a fling with a lesbian actress she meets, decides that after all she really wants the resigned Carol, who has been allowed only the most limited access to her daughter, even if Carol did dare to value her daughter over her new lover...this is interpreted by some as a happy ending, although it does suggest a certain lack of freeflowing empathy between the women. Gold Medal editor Richard Carroll warned Meaker that any paperback novel, which would depend on the USPS censors' approval for at least some of its distribution (Gold Medal offered subscriptions to a GM Book Club in those years), would have to not allow the lesbian affair to continue nor end happily, so Leda, in shock after a car accident, reveals directly that she was at least as passionate as Mitch about their affair, and is placed under well-meaning but utterly oppressive psychiatric care, and forced to confront her mother while so hospitalized...and when she reacts with hostility toward her mother, is bound for an asylum. After a tense but gentle confrontation with Leda, in which the hospitalized woman admits how she tried to shift all the onus onto Mitch, Mitch decides she never actually loved Leda. Mitch then cheerfully contemplates an outing with her new roomie, Robin, to whom she is also sexually attracted, and with Robin's boyfriend Tom and Mitch's stocky, goofy male buddy, nicknamed Lucifer. Many choose to see this as an ending which repudiates lesbianism, though I can only see it as a very elegant way to have the potential of a future womanfriend and possibly to eventually eat her, too...Mitch, as noted, was always playfully, never seriously, attracted to "Lucifer," a fitting companion for a practitioner of Mitchcraft. Mitch might also prefer womenfriends in the future who are not willing to flit between utter backstabbing and total emotional collapse--behavior clearly meant to be attributable to Leda's parents' irresponsibility toward her rather than to her lesbianism per se. Meanwhile, the "sensitive" psychiatrist on Leda's case is all too ready to pack his charge off to a sanatorium for Leda's resentment of attempts to remake her into the kind of woman she has pretended to be...while he's tut-tutting about these empathy-free kids these days. A foreshadowing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, perhaps, in some small way, only much more subversively so.

(Spoilers End)



While casting their analogs as rather more heroic than their (rather sympathetically portrayed as somewhat beaten-down) paramours, both novels are very well-written, often witty and incisive, and even a bit tricky: Highsmith loves to delay mention of a precipitating event until a paragraph or so into the description of the aftermath, or at least she does several times in the novel; Meaker is contantly shifting point of view between characters, sometimes within one paragraph, but she handles this rather deftly if at times too quickly...Highsmith in her turn remains relentlessly within the psyche of her avatar, albeit Therese is usually not extraordinarily unkind. (Both novels include rather mixed portraits of surrogate-mother dowagers, but mostly pitying where not positive...the actual mothers of key characters in each novel do not come off so well at all.) Having read these two novels in the last week, I am now even more interested in reading the Big Highsmith biography, and in digging out my copy of Meaker's memoir of their life together, both during their affair and in their brief period together as ex-lovers and friends near the end of Highsmith's life, when her irascibility had risen alarmingly. Meaker, who was a guest of the Rara-Avis discussion list some years ago, was utterly gracious, and despite her college friendship with Richard Matheson and rather unconnected career as staffer at and contributor to the same Gold Medal line publishing him, had no more directly intended to be primarily a crime-fiction writer than Highsmith did...and yet the Packer novels (and not a few of Meaker's YA novels as M. E. Kerr) at least touch heavily on CF themes, and Highsmith is mostly remembered for her criminous novels and somewhat more outre short fiction. (Meaker is quoted as noting that Anthony Boucher, under that name in the New York Times and as H. H. Holmes in the New York Herald-Tribune, was the only major-paper reviewer to consistently review paperback originals, so it made sense to write what was in his purview to review; as I remember the account in Highsmith, one of the sources of friction between Meaker and Highsmith was the latter's irritation at Meaker's comparitive wealth as a Gold Medal novelist, versus the relatively small royalties, if "higher prestige," Highsmith earned as a writer primarily for Knopf. Highsmith apparently had earned a considerable part of her income in the latter 1940s writing scripts for comics, including for Fawcett (their stable was toplined by Captain Marvel, the Billy Batson-crying-"Shazam" character sued out of existence and later revived by DC), and hated the work intensely by all accounts, and I wonder if that, along for the hunger to be taken seriously, didn't stop her from placing at least a few manuscripts at her womanfriend's house.

Patti Abbott is on Nixon-by-the-Shore vacation, and Kerrie Smith is this week's host for Friday's "Forgotten" Books links...next week, I'll be hosting the links here, and the week after that, George Kelley will to the honors, and then back to Patti again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Forgotten" Music: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (or Bavan)


The problem with doing an entry on Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the vocal trio which formed in 1957 while Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks were attempting to record a choral jazz record of Count Basie charts, only to discover that only one singer among those they'd contracted for the date, the Briton Annie Ross, was fully competent as a singer in jazz idiom...the problem is that they were so immediately a hit that they did a lot of tv, for a jazz group (particularly a vocal group), and so there's a lot of raw (sometimes in the uploaded state very raw, or rather chewed over) video footage one can cite for them. It does augur that they are Not forgotten, but as their era's great popularizers of jazz "vocalizing" in the sense of singing instrumental lines, either note for note or in the same sort of improvisational lines, I have been surprised by how many people have yet to hear of them, even if they have heard them or covers of their songs (such as Annie Ross's "Twisted," which she first recorded for a solo album split with King Pleasure, another singer working in the same mode, he best remembered for his vocalized cover of James Moody's improvisation on "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Moody's Mood for Love"). (And, boy, what a plethora of impressionistic amateur animation there is for some of the videos for the trio, up on YouTube particularly.)

Annie Ross showcase: "Twisted"

Twisted--Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross from Laura Cash on Vimeo.




So, after recording the Basie charts album here by themselves with overdubbing and multitracking like crazy, they did some touring and an album with the Basie Orchestra, such as "Every Day I Have the Blues":


Dave Lambert showcase: "Bijou"


Jon Hendricks showcase: "Moanin'"


LH&R as backing singers, for Louis Armstrong: "They Say I Look Like God" (from Iola and Dave Brubeck's suite The Real Ambassadors)


Sadly, in 1962, Annie Ross had to drop out of the trio, due to illness and personal problems...a Canadian, Anne Moss, briefly filled in, then the Sri Lankan Yolande Bavan became the permanent third partner for the next two years:

Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: "Cousin Mary"


In poorer fidelity (both audio, but particularly video--the initial crackle disippates), but a nice reading of "Come On Home," recorded on their third and last headlining CBS ablum by L, H & R--you might note that Bavan flubs her solo's opening, but still pulls it off (if not quite as brilliantly as Ross did); Jon Hendricks chose to leave the trio in 1964, and so the other two decided to call it a day. Sadly, Lambert was killed in a car crash in '66, while the other three continued as performers and inspirations to, most famously and obviously, the Manhattan Transfer but also to many others:


For a nice range of folk, blues, rock and soundtrack music selections, see Scott Parker's blog for the other entries this month (and feel better, Scott).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

25 Jan 2011: Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V) (2nd Round)

The following bloggers have or probably have their entries up and awaiting your persusal for this week, or will soon (more refined links to occur when possible):
Bill Crider: Cutthroat Island
Brian Arnold: Mischief
Eric Peterson: The Outfit
Evan Lewis: The Adventures of Sir Lancelot
James Reasoner: Hellfire
Jerry House: The Atomic Man aka Timeslip
K.A. Laity: The Knack...and How to Get It
Patti Abbott: Local Hero
Paul D. Brazill: Charlie Bubbles
Pearce Duncan: The Fountain of Youth
Randy Johnson: Man of the West
Scott Cupp: Dark Intruder
Scott Parker: They Were Expendable
Todd Mason: The Great American Dream Machine; Fanfare for a Death Scene; The Firesign Theatre Radio Hour

And posts of related interest:
Cullen Gallagher: Hickey & Boggs
David L. Vineyard (among others, courtesy Steve Lewis's Mystery*File): My Name is Modesty
Paul Bishop: Johnny Staccato
Scoleri and Enfantino's We Are Controlling Transmission...
Vince Keenan: Fuzz
Comedy Film Nerds

...and thanks to all who participate, reviewers and readers alike.

The Great American Dream Machine might not've been indicative of all PBS was meant to be, but it was nonetheless a pretty good start in the form of a relatively free-form, largely satirical magazine series, 90 minutes in its first short season, down to sixty for its second and final in 1971-1972, which included a mixture of animation, sketch comedy (often featuring Marshall Efron, Chevy Chase, Albert Brooks, Ken Shapiro and others, including pre-codger Andy Rooney), reportage, interview segments (including the link above to an extended Studs Terkel discussion), and generally did what it could to push boundaries for US television for its time. Reportedly, at least some of the material in the show was reshot for Shapiro and Chase's film The Groove Tube; more importantly, the series was a guiding light and launching point for such other series as Marshall Efron's Illustrated, Simplified and Painless Sunday School, and, of course, NBC's Saturday Night and its "hip" every-fourth-week slot companion, the newsmagazine Weekend. Here's a bit of Albert Brooks's "School for Comedians" film for TGADM, unfortunately as "sweetened" with a laugh track and cut short for some latter-day clip show. While no legit home video of the original series has been offered, in June, the syndicator Executive Program Services has just announced, a pledge special gathering diverse elements from the series will be offered to public television stations, and perhaps you might be lucky enough to see it in a non-pledge slot.

Television films exist in a gray area...are they really simply teleplays (many of them serve as pilots for series, perhaps more often in the past than they do now), or are they actually more like cinematic releases...since no few US television movies have been given cinematic release, abroad when not also domestically. The most famous examples of the latter include the 1964 remake of The Killers, with the famous footage of Ronald Reagan's thug character slapping Angie Dickinson's around, deemed to be too violent for broadcast in the months after the John Kennedy assassination, and several films co-financed in the 1980s and 1990s by PBS under the American Playhouse rubric, beginning with Testament. (And a number of films made in a similar funding arrangement with the likes of the UK's Channel 4, such as My Beautiful Laundrette, also saw theatrical release in the US and elsewhere). Television films have had a tendency to be bland, even when promising to revel in salacious material (hitting all the stops in notoriety from The War Game through Born Innocent to Mother May I Sleep with Danger? and Little Ladies of the Night), and shallow; only occasionally do we encounter the truly lunatic film-for-television, but some can stand proudly in this "alternative" (in the sense that Bill Pronzini applies this adjective to Harry Stephen Keeler's fiction, and others') field...and one such item is Fanfare for a Death Scene, co-written and directed by The Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens, and one of the most joyously ridiculous crime/espionage dramas one can hope to encounter, straight out of the same well of creativity that led Stevens to also produce the only feature-length horror film in Esperanto, Incubus. Somehow, Stevens managed to get a script approved for the Kraft Suspense Theater which involves a disinterested Richard Egan seeking out a defecting scientist amidst a swirl that includes a drugged and crazed Burgess Meredith mistaking himself for Al Hirt, with the rest of the cast filled in by such stalwarts as Ed Asner, Tina Louise, Telly Savalas, Khigh Dhiegh (born Kenneth Dickerson, in the years before The Manchurian Candidate and Hawaii Five-0) and Viveca Lindfors. The climax is hilarious; the entirety of the episode/telefilm, as the only commenter on IMDb notes correctly, is surreal. It's genuinely fascinating in the way that a Stevens production gone wrong, as with several Outer Limits episodes and Incubus, can be...and you probably won't be wishing you were watching something else while it plays...and I'm happy to report that I've just discovered that Netflix is streaming this alternative classic, so that gray-market discs don't have to be relied upon. I shall have to reacquaint myself.

And my set of links to various comedy podcasts and webbed radio shows from a few months back needs updating and expansion; I'd like to draw particular attention to the slightly revised address for the Firesign Theatre Radio Hour archives, a pulling-together of some of the "lost" material from free-form, at times Very free-form, live radio series the Firesigns did for Pacifica Radio and "underground" commercial FM radio stations in California (and national syndication, before their Nick Danger series) around the turn of the 1970s...not usually up to the best of their work on LP, you can still hear inspired bits and much of the material on the Dear Friends double-LP set is here in context. Perhaps more useful for someone who is already a fan, who's heard Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him, or Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, or The Giant Rat of Sumatra, or even the late, underrated Eat or Be Eaten...but here's more from where that all came from.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Calling for blog-posts: Tuesday's Overlooked Films (and/or Other A/V) tomorrow

All are welcome, of course...please let me know that you're In, via comment here or email at FoxBrick@Gmail.com, if I seem to be missing you. Thanks!

Double-features for the day:

*Hippie parents meaning well and being more on the ball than first appears (the later one more Boomer-stroking than the earlier):
Valley Girl (1982/3)
Pump Up the Volume (1990)

*Earnestly ridiculous Evil high-school students/Evil PTA:
The Blackboard Jungle (1955)
The Explosive Generation (1961)

*best/worst fake punk-rockers on North American tv series:
Best: SCTV, the Queen-Haters, "I Hate the Bloody Queen"
Worst: hard to gauge, but Quincy has the sentimental vote

Friday, January 21, 2011

FFB: Anthony Boucher: BEST FROM F&SF, 5TH SERIES; Allen J. Hubin: BEST DETECTIVE STORIES OF THE YEAR, 1971; Richard Poirier: O. HENRY AWARDS 1962

More firsts, for me...the first volumes I picked up of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction series of anthologies, taken from the magazine Boucher co-founded in 1949 after a gestation period of some years, pulled off a rack in a second-hand store in Nashua, New Hampshire (a battered SF Book Club edition with no jacket); the first of the Dutton Best Detective Stories volumes I read, from the Nashua library, where I also found the first O. Henry Awards volume I would pick up, from the nice stacks of both series I would find (though I lived in Londonderry, NH, that town's library was tiny and run by irritable staff; Nashua's, which my father lied my way into borrowing privileges for, was the promised land by comparison).


(courtesy ISFDb)
The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fifth Series, edited by Anthony Boucher (Doubleday, 1956)
7 • Introduction (Best from F&SF 5) • (1956) • essay by Anthony Boucher
9 • Imagine: A Proem • (1955) • poem by Fredric Brown (aka Imagine)
10 • You're Another • (1955) • novelette by Damon Knight
44 • Survival • (1955) • poem by Carlyn Coffin
45 • This Earth of Majesty • (1955) • shortstory by Arthur C. Clarke
59 • Birds Can't Count • (1955) • shortstory by Mildred Clingerman
68 • The Golem • (1955) • shortstory by Avram Davidson
74 • 1980 Overtures • (1955) • poem by Winona McClintic
75 • Pottage • [The People] • (1955) • novelette by Zenna Henderson
113 • The Vanishing American • (1955) • shortstory by Charles Beaumont
125 • Created He Them • (1955) • shortstory by Alice Eleanor Jones
136 • Silent, Upon Two Peaks . . . • (1955) • poem by Anthony Boucher (aka Silent, Upon Two Peaks...) [as by Herman W. Mudgett]
four vignettes:
138 • Too Far • (1955) • shortstory by Fredric Brown
140 • A Matter of Energy • (1955) • shortstory by James Blish
142 • Nellthu • (1955) • shortstory by Anthony Boucher
144 • Dreamworld • (1955) • shortfiction by Isaac Asimov
146 • One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts • (1955) • shortstory by Shirley Jackson
157 • The Glass of the Future • (1955) • poem by Anthony Boucher [as by Herman W. Mudgett ]
158 • The Short Ones • (1955) • novelette by Raymond E. Banks
181 • The Last Prophet • (1955) • shortstory by Mildred Clingerman
190 • Botany Bay • (1955) • shortstory by P. M. Hubbard
194 • A Canticle for Leibowitz • [Saint Leibowitz] • (1955) • novelette by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
220 • Lament by a Maker • (1955) • poem by L. Sprague de Camp
221 • The Doctrine of Original Design • (1955) • poem by Winona McClintic
222 • Pattern for Survival • (1955) • shortstory by Richard Matheson
226 • The Singing Bell • [Wendell Urth] • (1955) • shortstory by Isaac Asimov
245 • The Last Word • [Claude Adams] • (1955) • shortstory by Chad Oliver and Charles Beaumont

--It should be noted that "This Earth of Majesty" was a title that won a readers' contest F&SF put up, since Boucher was unsatisfied with Clarke's preferred title, "Refugee"--about the first member of the British Royal Family in space. F&SF had published it as simply "?" so as to announce the You Title It contest.

The concentration of brilliant work here is pretty croggling. Any book that includes Beaumont's "The Vanishing American," Knight's "You're Another," and the Avram Davidson (perhaps the most famous story in the book, after the Walter Miller, the first of the stories that would be reworked into the novel of the same name) and the Shirley Jackson (and what I think was P. M. Hubbard's first F&SF contribution), while also offering such happy diversions as Matheson's "Pattern for Survival" and Brown's intensely jokey vignette (a shapeshifting man/buck forcefully pursuing a doe cries, "But, my deer, think of the fawn you'll have!"), is simply waiting to blow out your doors and windows. Certainly did mine. (And it's also interesting, to me, that at least both "The Vanishing American" and "One Ordinary Day..." can be cited as not actually f or sf...but fine and close enough for only the most foolish to kick up a fuss...)

(Courtesy WorldCat)
Best detective stories of the year, 1971. 25th annual collection. Edited by Allen J. Hubin (Dutton 1971)
Wit's end / Michael Harrison --
The big stretch / Clayton Matthews --
The businessmen / Michael Zuroy --
The leakage / Frank Sisk --
The system / Michael Gilbert --
The lord of Central Park / Avram Davidson --
Death and the compass / Jorge Luis Borges --
Dr. Ox will die at midnight / Gerald Kersh --
The verdict / Lawrence Treat --
We spy / Clark Howard --
The Andrech Samples / Joe Gores --
The theft of the loco loot / Edward D. Hoch --
Coins in the Frascati Fountain / James Powell--
Mrs. Twiller takes a trip / Lael J. Littke --
Cain's mark / Bill Pronzini.

--A couple of volumes after Boucher, in his last editorial post, had assembled his last, Allen Hubin, otherwise probably best known for The Armchair Detective magazine, produces what might've been his best entry during his fine tenure with this annual. Or maybe it's just nostalgia...but, whether or not because it was the first volume I picked up, this was also a mind-blowing book, and I'm impressed by how many of these folks remain vital contributors to the crime-fiction literature, even when they themselves are no longer with us. Any anthology featuring Davidson's "The Lord of Central Park" has already proven its editor a person of sound judgment and sterling taste. (Edward Hoch would succeed Hubin as editor, for the last Dutton and the subsequent Walker volumes. The Dutton series never had particuarly elaborate covers...the Hubin, just typography on a brown cover, iirc, but there is no image I can find online for it.)

(Courtesy Random House)
Prize Stories 1962: The O. Henry Awards edited by Richard Poirier, Doubleday 1962 (Fawcett 1963)
First Prize Katherine Anne Porter: Holiday (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1960)
Second Prize Thomas Pynchon: "Under the Rose" (The Noble Savage, No. 3)
Third Prize Tom Cole: "Familiar Usage in Leningrad" (The Atlantic Monthly, July 1961)
Thomas E. Adams: "Sled" (The Sewanee Review, Winter 1961)
Mary Deasy: "The People with the Charm" (The Yale Review, Autumn 1960)
Shirley Ann Grau: "Eight O'Clock One Morning" (The Reporter, June 22, 1961)
John Graves: "The Aztec Dog" (The Colorado Quarterly, Summer 1961)
Maureen Howard: "Bridgeport Bus" (The Hudson Review, Winter 1960-61)
David Jackson: "The English Gardens" (Partisan Review, March-April 1961)
Miriam McKenzie: "Deja Vu" (New World Writing, No. 18)
Reynolds Price: "The Warrior Princess Ozimba" (The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1961)
Shirley W. Schoonover: "The Star Blanket" (The Transatlantic Review, Spring 1961)
David Shaber: "Professorio Collegio" (Venture, Winter 1960-61)
John Updike: "The Doctor's Wife" (The New Yorker, February 11, 1961)
Thomas Whitbread: "The Rememberer" (The Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1960)

I knew Porter's work already (and it's amusing that the Fawcett paperback was quick to try to sell itself on the strength of Ship of Fools), and had heard of Pynchon, but hadn't yet read his work, before digging into this, which would be (re?-)incorporated into V. for book publication after its appearance here and in the Saul Bellow magazine it was taken from. I'm not sure why this was the first volume of the O. Henry Awards series I picked up...perhaps it was the Porter story getting the top slot, or the prevalence of Atlantic stories particularly, since I was already fond of The Atlantic Monthly (far more fond of it in those years, 1978 through the early '80s, than I am of the current inpulpation). Certainly my first encounters with Grau and Price (RIP; as with Joe Gores, a recent loss) as well, and probably one of the first with Updike.

Please see Evan Lewis's blog for more citations of today's "Forgotten" Books entries...Evan is this week's substitute host for the roundelay while Patti Abbott is on retreat in Nixonian realms.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films (And/Or Other A/V Items), Round 1

Jeannine Kaspar in Paper Covers Rock.

Welcome to a revival of the shortlived Forgotten Films roundelay a few of us were engaged with a few years back...now more or less formally expanded to include television and other audio/visual artifacts...and what a wealth of artifacts and formats and delivery systems we have, and sometimes no longer have.

I hope to have a weekly example or so of my own, and as many citations of examples of the insufficiently appreciated as others wish to share, every Tuesday. I will post links to their blogs (and specifically to their relevant posts) when possible, and will post any contribution that blogless folks wish to make on my blog, if they like...very much in the mold of the ongoing Friday's Forgotten Books, hosted by Patti Abbott, and the monthly (last Wednesday) Forgotten Music, hosted by Scott Parker.

The following folks have a post up today:
Bill Crider: Condemned
Eric Peterson: Boiling Point
Evan Lewis: Metropolis
James Reasoner: SOS Coast Guard
Jerry House: Loose Shoes
Juri Nummelin: The Murder Maze
K.A. Laity: Straight to Hell
Randy Johnson: Cop Hater
Scott Parker: π
Todd Mason: The Limits of Control; Paper Covers Rock; The Exiles

and, honorarily:
Dan Stumpf: The Night of the Eagle and other adaptations of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife
Pearce Duncan: on the directorial career of Orson Welles
...but the more the merrier (and these links will be refined at first opportunity.

Now, the range of audio/visual materials for which we don't have easy access any longer is pretty large, and beyond even the lost films and television and radio, whose original prints or recordings were discarded or allowed to deteriorate, when any recording was made at all. While the Internet Archive is just one (and perhaps the most impressive) of the sites on the web that can help ferret out any number of materials hart to get at in any former otherwise (comparable in its excellence and in its necessary incompleteness to the likes of Project Gutenberg), there's so much still only accessible in orphaned formats (up to and including the 33 RPM LP and 16 RPM talking book vinyl discs)...among the supposed facts that used to boggle my young mind was the number of early recordings in the Library of Congress, and presumably collected elsewhere as well, with, as the Guinness Book put it, "no known matrix." I suspect at least a few engineers are working on those...

For another example of Stuff You Probably Don't See Much Of Any Longer: ViewMaster. Now, there's a thriving collectors market, aided like most such by eBay and its competitors over the years, but the new ViewMaster offers for sale the last time I was around a VM display were very sorry, indeed...which I suspect indicated the worsening fortunes of the retail outlet almost as much as the downgraded state of VM in a video and console-game age, with animated 3D still problematic but available. But the beauty of at least some the nature and science packs (VM typically sold its slide discs in three-packs), and the mild (or not so mild) joy of some of the entertainment packs, at least if one was capable of enjoying that kind of photography, was hard to deny (I did throughly enjoy the clay artistry of some of the Peanuts cartoon adaptations). And, of course, that sort of stereo photography wasn't just useful for the entertainment and instruction of children: my only college roommate was a studio art and pre-med major, and as such brought home discs of autopsy photos...a corpse missing a mandible was among the most disturbing images I'd seen to that time. And in dead, nearly palpable color.




The 1970s and the decade before were probably the ViewMaster's heyday, and that of other slide-based toys (I certainly had others, less impressive than VM), and the widespread availability of William Castle's organization's silent 8mm film highlights reels from horror and adventure films, and from his travelog short subjects. And, also, there was no lack of investment, on the part of several small spoken-word record labels, such as Caedmon, Spoken Arts and Argo, in not only readings by authors of poetry and prose, and actors, but also full-cast audio staging of plays; Caedmon particularly would arrange them on three- and four-LP sets so that one could put them on a stacker, and disc one would have side one, then disc two would drop with side two, and on a three disc set one would flip over the stack after side three on disc three and eventually finish with side six on disc one. Tough on the records, but very easy on the listener with the tall spindle on their turntable. Spoken Arts's full-play recording I remember best was their staging of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story, but it'd be hard to recall all the plays I heard through Caedmon Records; they included O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Mourning Becomes Electra, and an excellent Ah, Wilderness!; Williams's The Glass Menagerie; my favorite of Miller's plays, Incident at Vichy; Sartre's No Exit; Cocteau's The Infernal Machine; the Peter Weiss/Peter Brook Marat/Sade; and many more, including Shakespeare and Sophocles...only the American Film Theater complete soundtracks, such as of Ionesco's Rhinoceros with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, were likely to disappoint, in part due to the rushed nature of the productions and in part due to the fact that they were soundtracks to filmed plays that might, in many cases, depend even more than the Caedmon-staged productions on their visuals rather than dialog and sound effects. HarperCollins, who now own the Caedmon catalog, have done a remarkably poor job of getting it back out on the market.

And all that (nostalgia) doesn't even take into account all the nationally-broadcast radio drama one could find in the US in the 1970s, I'd guess at least twice as much as in the '60s, when matters had dwindled to the last two CBS series, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ending in 1962, Bob and Ray continuing largely as a part of NBC's weekend Monitor umbrella, and some Pacifica Radio productions. While few series were consistently good among the new series from CBS and the new NPR, Pacifica (which shared the Firesign Theater with "underground"/free-form commercial rock stations at the turn of the '70s) and such projects as the ZBS production and syndication unit, there certainly was a ferment, ranging from such long-running series as the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and Earplay (and Christian radio's Unshackled) to a new series of full-length Bob & Ray shows and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, Rod Serling's Zero Hour through The Sears Radio Theater to The Fourth Tower of Inverness...and such British and Canadian imports as The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, (1980's) Nightfall and such kids' fare as The General Mills Adventure Theater and the NPR Star Wars adaptations.

Tilda Swinton and Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control

But most of the contributions to this weekly list are likely to be cinematic and television (and perhaps increasingly web) presentations, and I've got some of those to briefly discuss, too (believe it or not, given all the above). I haven't been exploring too many of the really obscure corners of these arts, recently, but I'd like to draw your attention to at least The Limits of Control (2009), a typically beautifully-shot, extremely deliberate, funny and not altogether vague Jim Jarmusch film, which involves characters involved in a conspiracy that borders on the edge of crime and espionage, and has a weight and thoughtfulness that can easily be taken, by the likes of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers, for excruciating pointless pretense. I'd disagree, of course...I think the point is pretty clearly spelled out in the title, for all the characters and for the larger forces around them. If you want more traditional thrills amidst an attempt to add some weight and humanistic wit to spy drama, you might want to check out the similarly good A Few Days in September (briefly mentioned in yesterday's reprinted list) with Juliette Binoche as a spy-master thrust into trying to keep the young-adult children of one her ex-colleagues alive long enough for him to reunite with them, or the slightly more clownish, but still impressive Fay Grim, the sequel to Henry Fool I half-liked upon first viewing, and liked much better upon the second viewing...again, Parker Posey's Grim is forced into a ridiculously complicated situation while simply attempting to see her spy husband again, and does her damnedest to try to make sure as few as possible of the people around her get killed while she attempts this.

Paper Covers Rock (2008) is a pretty grim film, even in comparison to Limits, featuring Jeannine Kaspar as a woman attempting to pull her life back together, after falling into a trough of suicidal depression and being hospitalized for it; we join her, and see all the interpersonal and other obstacles she has to face, and good and not so good people close to her, sometimes supportive and too often insufficiently-so, and how her behavior can trigger them as well as vice verse. Very well-acted and absorbing, and worth the time.

More alienated than actually downbeat, the characters in The Exiles (1961) are from various Native American nations, mostly first-generation escapees from the reservations, who are mostly not doing so well in lives spent in and around the now-vanished Los Angeles largely-native-ghetto Bunker Hill. Made with almost no money with a mostly amateur cast, and meant as a document of the players' actual lives or at least those of their peers, it has post-filming-recorded sound, and a lack of throughline-plot that would presumably enervate those who find The Limits of Control pointless, as it follows the adventures, such as they are, of relatively young adults through the course of a night in the city. Nonetheless, the utter lack of slickness helps the film, in part in the same way that many better no-budget films have a certain fascination for the viewer, as you can see how the desired effect was almost achieved, or achieved in spite of the handicap; the amateur cast isn't put through the kind of ridiculous paces that one finds in such films as Kids, but instead seem to be doing their best to represent the Way We Live in that Today. This film might even be the least obscure of the three I'm highlighting here, as a "lost" film, from its completion by newly graduated USC Film School student Kent MacKenzie in '61 till a revival, with much attendant publicity, in 2008. And, personally, it was very striking that the women in the film looked a whole lot like my aunts, who are, oddly enough, like my mother in being Italian/Cherokee/Irish, but my mother the most Milanese-looking by far among her gen, and the rest of the family much more strongly Cherokee in features, when not also complexion.


I saw these films in those utterly obscure venues, respectively cable channels Showtime, IFC, and TCM...cable does have its uses, still (quite aside from upgrading the budget and showcase of the likes of Children's Hospital). I look forward to what others have to suggest for us, today and in the weeks to come...and please feel free to join in (and please let me know, in comments or via email, that you've done so! Thanks).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy King Day!...some items coming in...and a revival of a weekly Forgotten Films multiple-blogfest...


Happy King Day, folks...my favorite of the national holidays here in the US, because it's the only one devoted to someone who strove to make sweeping change through suasion rather than through armed power. And, while not alone in doing so, succeeded...and, tragically, and not alone in this either, paid too great a price for that.


Among the items I've picked up over the weekend is the new F&SF, including new work by Kate Wilhelm, and, particularly amusingly in concept, a sequel, apparently, to Richard Lupoff's recurring-day story "12:01 AM"..."12:02 PM."

Which is an odd bit of synchronicity, inasmuch as I've been mooting encouraging a return of the Neglected or Overlooked Movies (and other A/V) roundelay, which Steve Allan (apparently now pursuing an MBA and not blogging much) sparked and Patti Abbott picked up on, briefly...but it didn't really catch on as did the "Friday's Forgotten Books" roundelay Patti hosts, or the "Monthly Forgoten Music" Scott Parker hosts, at their blogs. I'm restarting the recommendation posts as "Tuesday's Overlooked Movies and/or A/V" here tomorrow, to go forward weekly, and will post links to any other blogs where the bloggers wish to participate (or will post here any contributions by the blogless who wish to join in and send their items along). And why it's synchronicity? One of the films I mentioned in one of my posts back when was 12:01, the Showtime-commissioned film, also an early Fox Broadcasting offer, the fine adaptation of Richard Lupoff's story first published in the Robert Silverberg & Roger Elwood 1975 anthology Epoch.

And I've taken advantage of the Lulu sale ending today to buy Lupoff's collection of fantastic-fiction parodies, published as if by "Ova Hamlet" (illustrated by Trina Robbins).

So, tune in tomorrow, to see at least a few items cited that might've slipped by you...

And here's that post again:

10 "forgotten" films (from August 2009)

Three Cases of Murder (1955): There are a lot of horror films, and only a few of them don't have a number of exponents...they'd have to be pretty damned obscure not to have some sort of coterie, and actual quality doesn't have much to do with that. But this one is rather little-known among even those reasonably well-versed in horror film, an apparent crime-drama anthology of three stories, only the second of which, "You Killed Elizabeth" based on a "Brett Halliday" story, is traditional crime drama...it's also the weakest. "You're in the Picture," the lead segment, is what lifts this well into the realm of the memorable...a genuinely creepy and allusive horror drama, involving haunted paintings (of all things). "Lord Montdrago," based on a Somerset Maugham story and featuring a fine jocund performance by Orson Welles, wraps up things well with what falls over on the horror side of a borderline case...in this case, a Conservative MP is haunted by the ghost of a Labourite he mocked and hassled in life. While such other modest or clangorous classics as The Haunting or Carnival of Souls, Spider Baby or The Masque of the Red Death, Dead of Night or Black Sabbath are pretty consistently in print in various media (we could use the dvds, at least, of Ingmar Bergman's The Devil's Eye, or ofThe Night of the Eagle aka Burn, Witch, Burn!)[international all-region dvds of those two have since been issued]...I'm definitely waiting to snap up a more durable form of this one than my VHS cassette. Runner up among the more obsure anthology films: Torture Garden, another poorly-titled British film (with nothing to do with Mirbeau's novel), this one the first and only good Amicus film of Robert Bloch's fine scripts for that inconsistent studio.

Castaway (1986): Lucy Irvine wrote a memoir of her year on an otherwise deserted island, some distance from the Australian mainland, with a fellow Briton, a lunkish middle-aged man who advertised for a younger female companion to take on this challenge with him. In the film, these roles were taken by Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed, fairly brilliant casting that meshes well with director Nicholas Roeg's eye for gorgeous composition...all of which, given the utter beauty of the surroundings and Donohoe within them, almost completely trumps Roeg's inability to tell a story (see also, Walkabout and Don't Look Now, for further examples). For whatever reason, this film has been all but eclipsed in the public mind by those other Roegs and by the other film with the same title starring a volleyball and Tom Hanks.

12:01 (1993): A television film made from Richard Lupoff's novelet "12:01 AM"...and as deft an adaptation of a recurring-day sf story as I've seen. Runner-up in this instance: Of Time and Timbuktu, a melange of Kurt Vonnegut's works in tv-movie form, unavailable for decades in part for being made for PBS by the folks who would later do the fine Ursula Le Guin adaptation The Lathe of Heaven and the absolutely miserable adaptation of John Varley's "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" with a lost and bewildered Raul Julia.

It's in the Bag (1945): What happens when a movie is made of the Fred Allen Show version of The Twelve Chairs? Something as shambolic as a W. C. Fields movie, and about as much fun...with strong support not only from Allen's radio cast, in part, but also from Robert Benchley and Jack Benny (who, in a sense, was a part of Allen's radio cast and vice verse). Even the overdone bits, such as the adventures in a mega-theater showing Zombies of the Stratosphere, are worth seeing at least once. (Runners-up: basically any episode of the PBS sitcom anthology series Trying Times.)

City News (1983): Another PBS offering, one of the items commissioned for American Playhouse, but one which didn't get much circulation in theaters...as a romance between an "alternate" weekly paper cartoonist and the slightly mysterious woman he meets, it was refreshingly low-key and witty, and I wish I could see it again (as the only person who has described it even on IMDb, I compare it favorably to Slamdance). Most people seem to remember it, when they do, for the makeout scene to the Normal's "Warm Leatherette." Runner-up: Edward Herrmann's one-man videotaped play for AP, "The End of a Sentence."

City Lovers (1982): A short film based on Nadine Gordimer's story, and presented on public stations in the 1980s as part of the Nadine Gordimer Stories package, this was the most affecting of the group among those I saw, offering a charming yet telling liason between a young "colored" ("mixed-race") South African woman and an older "white" German visitor to SA, back in the last years of apartheid, and how his foolhardiness and the insanity of the national institutional racism messes them over.

New York Eye and Ear Control (1964): Another item I first saw, as a very young child, on PBS (as a very young network)...an impressionistic tour of NYC, conducted in part by silhouette puppets, to a soundtrack made up entirely of an extended free jazz improvisation by a band assembled around saxophonist Albert Ayler. I've had the ESP-Disk reissue of the soundtrack for more than a decade, but haven't sought out the dvd, if one has been offered, for this curio. Perhaps the best example on my list here of a film that might be more Interesting than Fun for many viewers and auditors...

Born in Flames (1983) ...unless this one is. Lizzie Borden, no less, put together this no-budget bit of agit-prop before she went on to more conventional work such as Working Girls (somewhat famous as a film in large part about the banality of prostitution). BIF is a not-quite-dystopia about the kind of non-utopia that "socialists" of the Bernie Sanders stripe might bring about had they somehow managed to take full control of the US government, and just how disenfranchised leftists, feminists, anarchists and similar folk find themselves still. Not terribly convincing as dramatic art, featuring a fairly amateur cast and a bit too much time showing us underground radio broadcasters before their microphones, it's still an exuberant and rather amusing demonstration (in at least two senses) and not the typical sf film, even at the boho margins. (Such as might be exemplified by Liquid Sky.)

The Magic Box (1952): Like most people who remember this story of the pioneering British tinkerer and developer of the moving picture process, the sequence that sticks most in memory is Robert Donat's exhausted, Eureka-moment William Friese-Greene pulling in off the street a stoic, somewhat skeptical cop, played by Laurence Olivier, to demonstrate the breakthrough he's just made...my runner up, which I like even better but which I suspect is of interest to a narrower audience, is the brilliant horor film Hotel, in which Mike Figgis shows us a film troupe making the mistake of trying to do a version of The Duchess of Malfi in a haunted Italian hotel...

Conversations with Other Women (2005): A fine, fun, funny, and reasonably mature indie involving exes who meet again, years after their breakup, at the wedding of a mutual friend. An example of the kind of film that the voracious maw of our cable-film channels can raise from utter obscurity, even if they don't make them hits...I have to wonder if the elegant use of split-screen here didn't scare cinematic distributors. I'll nominate A Few Days in September, a fine humanistic spy drama, as my runner-up here.

And, really, this just sticks with some of the (essentially) Anglophone films that come to mind.
For the last time the Forgotten Films challenge came up, see this older post...

Friday, January 14, 2011

FFB: Joe Gores: SPEAK OF THE DEVIL (Five Star, 1999); John Simon: MOVIES INTO FILM (Dial Press, 1971); JOHN SIMON ON FILM: 1982-2001 (Applause, 2005)

Joseph Gores, 1931-2011.



From the Contento index:
Speak of the Devil: 14 Tales of Crimes and Their Punishments Joe Gores (Five Star 0-7862-2035-X, Nov ’99, $20.95, 200pp, hc)
· Speak of the Devil · ss
· The Second Coming · ss Adam Aug ’66
· Raptor · ss EQMM Oct ’83
· Plot It Yourself [“Detectivitis, Anyone?”] · ss EQMM Jan ’88
· Smart Guys Don’t Snore · nv A Matter of Crime v2, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli & Richard Layman, HBJ, 1987
· Watch for It · ss Mirror, Mirror, Fatal Mirror, ed. Hans Stefan Santesson, 1973
· Quit Screaming · ss Adam’s Reader Nov ’69
· Killer Man [“Pro”] · ss Manhunt Jun ’58
· Faulty Register · ss Two Views of Wonder, ed. Thomas N. Scortia & Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Ballantine, 1973
· You’re Putting Me On—Aren’t You? · ss Adam Bedside Reader, 1971, 1970
· The Andrech Samples · ss Swank Sep ’70
· Night Out · ss Manhunt Oct ’61
· Sleep the Big Sleep · ss EQMM Apr ’91
· Goodbye, Pops · ss EQMM Dec ’69

Joe Gores died the other day, and I have seen nothing but fond remembrance of him as a person, as a pro's pro, as a guiding light of a man. Of course, few run around insisting what a bastard the recently deceased might be, unless they are inarguably so, but this outpouring bespeaks of the kind of person one is utterly glad to have known. I tend, at least sometimes, not to want to disturb such folks with fan letters and such, assuming (probably incorrectly) that they might not need any more affirmation from random folks off the street. But a number of the stories collected in this volume are among the most influential fiction I've read, at very least "The Second Coming," which I read at about age ten in one of the adult Hitchcock Presents: anthologies, probably one of Harold Masur's (I could go look it up, and probably will). I hadn't thought too hard about capital punishment at that point, but was not fond of the concept; this story, about would-be hipsters thinking they're about to have a kind of strange lark in weaseling their way into being among the witnesses of a state execution, and how that experience affects them, certainly affected me. I have been a confirmed opponent since.

Other stories here have stuck with me over the decades, as well..."Watch for It" and "Goodbye, Pops" were also in AHP: volumes, and made Gores's curiously upfront name (he certainly knew how to hook up into one's gut) one to look for; I can't remember for the life of me where I first read "Quit Screaming" all those years ago. Sitting down with the Contento/Ashley and/or Stephensen-Payne indices would probably tell me that, too.

But for now, I'm just ready to buy a copy of this collection, and remind myself of some of the talent and compassion, the anger and grace of the writer we just lost. And, again, condolences to all those folks fortunate enough to know the man, as well.

My greatest obligation is to what, correctly or incorrectly, I perceive as the truth. It is also a genuine satisfaction to express the truth as you feel it should be expressed.
--John Simon, "The Art of Criticism (No.4)," The Paris Review, Spring 1997.




I've recently been re-reading Movies into Film, the first John Simon book I read, and the relatively recent (and still in print) John Simon on Movies, and it remains an enjoyable and compulsive pastime...to read a critic who is not wedded to a specific ideological framework, who is so clear in esthetic judgments and open about his biases but nonetheless strives to take the work in question on its own terms...if those terms are in the pursuit of what he sees as actually achieving art, or at very least intelligently-assembled amusements. His criteria can be questioned, of course, as every Barbra Streisand idolater will insist, but not his commitment; his wit and elegance and open-mindedness are models for me that I only infrequently begin to emulate.

It’s wonderful to be hated by idiots. A German writer whom I love and whom I’ve translated, Erich Kästner, gives advice in one of his poems to a would-be suicide. He tries to give this man various reasons for not blowing his brains out. The man remains unconvinced, so Kästner says, in essence, all right, the world is full of idiots and they’re in control of everything. You fool, stay alive to annoy them! And that, in a sense, is my function in life, and my consolation. If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that. --ibid.

As with all good critics, even when you find yourself disagreeing with his conclusions, you can see where he's coming from. He mildly enjoyed Tootsie, a film which rather bores and annoys me; he utterly dislikes The Rapture and Before Sunrise, films I see virtues in, particularly the former. But his reactions are well-explicated and only very rarely wrongheaded--there is one instance in the newer collection where he clearly misunderstood what was being suggested by the film under review, but I don't have the book at hand and don't remember which it was (I'll slip that in later), but this instance is surprising in its near-uniqueness, in my experience. More often, part of what he so very good at is in isolating what is wrong with a deeply flawed film, whether it be Midnight Run or In the Company of Men, without losing sight of their strengths; in thoroughly castigating the dishonest film, such as Smooth Talk (where the greatest dishonesty is in how it traduces the career-making short story by Joyce Carol Oates that it supposedly seeks to adapt, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?") and celebrates the great, nearly perfect attempt to crystallize truth, such as Badlands. And he is not afraid to turn his analysis to the work of other critics, often demonstrating more virtues in Pauline Kael, for example, or even Andrew Sarris, than I might otherwise credit them with.

I think it's time I finally dug out his Acid Test, and picked up my own copy of Private Screenings, which I believe I've read but am uncertain. Dwight Macdonald's introduction to the first is probably worth the cost of admission in itself, or so I hope.

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog for a roundup.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

TV notes: KCET breaks away from PBS, Tribune debuts Antenna TV and other bits and pieces

Emmy Rossum in Shameless

As of January 1st, Los Angeles PBS anchor, the largest single contributing station of original drama to PBS programming, KCET disaffiliated from PBS and the PBS-programming-heavy World networks, remaking itself into the largest and wealthiest of the independent public-broadcasting stations in the US. There is a large handful of other independent public stations around the coutry, most in large markets as well--WNYE in New York City, WYBE in Philadelphia, KUEN in Salt Lake City (KUED, its sibling, is a PBS affiliate), WNVC and WNVT in Northern Virginia (in the DC suburbs and just a notch south), and, a year or so back, KMTP in San Francsico (with mostly international programming) was joined by KCSM in San Mateo (in the San Francisco Bay area)--this last in the wake of the punitive measures the out-of-control Bush Administration FCC was levying, specifically on the vulernable community-college station KCSM...a relatively unwealthy and bureaucracy-bound station...rather than taking on any of the larger, more independent or wealthier PBS stations for any local complaints about "strong language" in the documentary series The Blues. Other PBS entities rallied to KCSM's defense, but between state budget cuts and the legal expenses for the conveniently ideological prosecution, KCSM could no longer easily afford to make payments to PBS for its programming services. KCSM, which as the quarternary or fourth-largest of the Bay Area PBS stations, by the way which PBS ranks its overlapping stations in one urban market, mostly had delayed access to primetime programming and those children's shows the other stations didn't wish to carry...and had been making efforts over the previous decade to offer locally and syndicate new programming from Australian and other sources, as well as generating some new programming locally and for the national market...it was a relatively small step from there to independent status. For their secondary digital feed, they affiliated with MHz WorldView, the small network of international programming based at the aforementioned WNVC and WNVT (the latter a former quarternary PBS affiliate) in the DC area, which features items such as the original Swedish Wallander films, among a range of often impressive mostly European, East Asian and South Asian programming.

KCET's most visible production on PBS recently has been the adult-education program, in its English version known as A Place of Our Own and in its essentially identical but recast Spanish version as Los Niños en Su Casa, both offered five days a week through PBS to member stations and a Peabody Award-winner. To fund this relatively heavy schedule of production, KCET went through a number of fundraisers over the last year or so, which raised its gross income to the highest rate it had been in quite some time...which, in addition to it being the primary station in a four-PBS-station market that is also the second-largest urban market in the country, meant that by PBS's formula for charging stations for their membership dues, that KCET would be hit with a huge new fee even while it was losing state support and some viewer monetary support (in the depths of the recent recession)...despite arguing that the moneys dedicated to the two PBS series should not be counted as part of their larger operating budget. PBS insisted. KCET, already feeling a bit overtaxed by a PBS which was more worried about such programming powerhouses as WNET New York (and the newly-absorbed-by-them WLIW Long Island, NY) and WGBH Boston, and the less prolific, struggling, but very local to PBS HQ WETA Washington, decided to call their bluff...and now California has three large-market independent public stations. KCET picked up MHz WorldView on its former World frequency, and began programming heavily from the public-broadcasting syndicators, which provide a lot of the most visible programming on US public television anyway (such as the travelog Globe Trekker and the newly-revived Ebert Presents At the Movies), mixed with some new-to-broadcast items such as Jim Henson Productions off-cable series for its children's block in the mornings. And the other three LA PBS stations just found themselves trying to work out who will be running what PBS programming when, as the Orange County station KOCE, only recently under threat of being taken over by a religious broadcaster, movies up to being the LA flagship for PBS, along with KVCR and the LA Schools-affilated KLCS.

California, not too long ago, saw a similar tussle between a big national network, NBC, and one of its legacy tent-pole stations, KRON San Francisco, sparked by the SF Chronicle being unwilling to sell the station to GE/NBC in 2002 when offered a better bid by Young Broadcasting; in the subsequent hassle, KRON disaffiliated, became the largest commercial independent station in the country by some distance (since WTBS no longer has a broadcast signal), a move which in the short run hurt both NBC and KRON severely...NBC found clearance on a relatively weak neighbor-market station, KNTV San Jose, which had to expensively upgrade and relocate equipment and make deals with cable providers to get to most San Francisco viewers...and KNTV actually paid NBC for the privilege of running NBC programming at first (the reverse of how commercial networks usually operate), till NBC bought KNTV outright. Nowadays, as a "news"-heavy MyNetworkTV affiliate, KRON might end up an NBC affiliate again, as Young Broadcasting is in deep trouble...it's already clearing some NBC programs when KNTV pre-empts them for local sports coverage.

Following KCSM's example, and that of WNVC/WNVT/MHz Networks (perhaps not that of WYBE, which in attempting to finance itself through offering courses to the general public in television production, and then leasing time on the primary WYBE channel for the subsequent five-minute productions, has fallen on hard enough times that it's disaffilated one of its digital channels from MHz WorldView to lease that signal to a Central New Jersey evangelical Christian station), KCET might well flourish, and start dusting off some of its own impressive back catalog of former PBS drama programming, or exploit its proximity to Hollywood to again start producing dramatic programming for syndication, rather than for distribution through PBS. PBS Hollywood Theater, most famous for their production of Bruce Jay Friedman's "Steambath" in the 1970s, and briefly revived in the 1990s; the late 1970s anthology Visions; the brilliant sitcom anthology Trying Times produced in the late 1980s; and KCET's involvement in such projects as American Playhouse and the 2000s dramatic hour American Family are an impressive set of shows. And perhaps KCET and PBS will rejoin...but we'll see how that goes.

Far less impressive a developement is the introduction, however financially prudent, of interrupting commercial breaks in the Independent Film Channel's film programming. It doesn't help their repeats of such HBO fare as The Larry Sanders Show, either, but it really detracts from the film-flow...much in the way that AMC's similar inserts made films all but unwatchable on that cable channel. Like AMC, IFC is investing in new and retrieved television series, many of the latter, such as The Ben Stiller Show and Freaks and Geeks, at least were made for commercial television, and their much-touted new The Onion News Network weekly parody series (debuting on Fridays at 10p ET, so as not to go Too head-to-head with The Daily Show or Real Time with Bill Maher) might well be a bright spot...though the same folks are also producing the ESPN-parody SportsDome on Comedy Central simultaneously, feeding weekly on Tuesdays. With luck, they won't be stretched too thin. But the commercial breaks in IFC's films really are unfortunate.

Tribune Media, the jilted partner of Time Warner in the defunct WB Network, now itself the junior partner in the CBS-dominated CW Network, has put up a much less ambitious project, a competitor to the RetroTV network they're calling Antenna TV, both being primarily digital-signal "secondary" networks for commercial stations that have some other affiliation on their primary feeds (and thus differentiated from such small commercial networks as America-One, or even the relatively well-distributed IonTV, which they in some ways resemble). Retro and Antenna particularly are focusing on nostalgia-freighted repeats, but Retro has the much better schedule, as far as I'm concerned...most of Antenna's offerings, with the possible exception of Maude repeats and very little else (I can always sit through another rerun of All in the Family and at least a sizable fraction of, though not all, the episodes of The Monkees, I suppose) that I ever need to see again.


Showtime has introduced an American version of the British comedy/tragedy Shameless, and the pilot of the US version, starring Emmy Rossum and featuring William H. Macy, is not Too shabby...particularly when compared with the new Showtime/BBC sitcom Episodes, which is about as thick-witted and dull as nearly every other Matt LeBlanc project (he's affable, the script of the pilot, at least, is one cliche and unengagingly rote sitcom situation after another), or the increasingly uninteresting Californication (which wasn't all that good when I was briefly blogging about it for the TV Guide website; it, like HBO's similar Entourage, just keeps getting duller and more trivial). Well, at least they aren't quite down to the utter pander of Starz's Spartacus soft-porn and CGI gore series, or Cinemax's soft-porn soap operas, "comic" or otherwise, but close enough. (And even as the soaps slip away on commercial network broadcast, Korean soaps and Eastenders on public broadcasting, Lifetime's various projects, and these lubricious things, starting to move onto Showtime as well, seem to be keeping the form alive. FWIW.)

And, apparently the Sundance Channel, instead of running ads during the movies, might be running banner ads along the bottom of some of its movies throughout the run...I haven't seen this yet, but at least one other Sundance viewer has reported as much. I'll keep my eye out. Goodness. Times really that tough?

Friday, January 7, 2011

preview: PBS's PIONEERS OF TELEVISION: SF and Friday's "Forgotten" Books: THE ART OF HARVEY KURTZMAN by Kitchen & Buhle (Abrams 2009)



So, lets deal with some attempts to celebrate some icons. The PBS series Pioneers of Television, which will be bumping the science-documentary series Nova over to Wednesdays for a couple of months starting on 18 January, returns for its second short season with an episode devoted theoretically to the pioneers of televised science fiction, at least in the US...a task which it slights pretty dismally, since it utterly fails to mention such 1950s series as Tales of Tomorrow or Science Fiction Theater, or even the relatively famous kiddie shows Captain Video (that stalwart of the DuMont network, which employed actual sf writers to do scripts, oddly enough) and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Instead, it focuses almost exclusively on Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, Irwin Allen and Lost in Space (never quite managing to make clear that the similarly bad Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea preceded Lost onto the airwaves by a year, albeit mentioning this series and even interviewing a cast member from The Time Tunnel, apparently the most expensive of Allen's terrible quartet of '60s skiffy embarrassments), and then doubles back to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Only actors are interviewed, though a bit of the footage of a famous (and much YouTubed) Serling interview, conducted by sf writer and lit professor James Gunn, is used as well, with Roddenberry and Allen represented in re-enactments at least as much as by still photos (I suspect for the cost of those cutesy re-enactments, any rights-fee questions could've been settled for any taped or filmed interviews with Roddenberry or Allen). The ST material is almost all likely to be familiar, as it is to me as a casual fan of the series and a devout fan of some of the sf writers who wrote for it (Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, et al.--and Fredric Brown's classic story "Arena" was laughably poorly adapted for the hissing lizard-man episode), though Leonard Nimoy and to some extent Nichelle Nichols come off well in their interview segments (no attempt made, apparently, to sit down with George Takei, Walter Koenig, or any of the surviving off-camera talent). The usual misrepresentations of ST's pioneering of such matters as The "Interracial" Kiss--France Nuyen and Robert Culp had taken care of that in I Spy a season or so before, if indeed they were the first, either (and they actually kissed, rather than more or less rubbed faces), or of pioneering the use of metaphors for dealing with similar taboo subjects...when even the documentary itself has mentioned Roddenberry's previous series, the 1963-64 NBC cop show The Lieutenant, had broached at least some of these matters...and it typically manages to forget the rather more famous 1963-64 series East Side, West Side both in this context and as an example of a series with a recurring African-American woman character, Cicely Tyson's social-worker, who was not a domestic or otherwise blatantly stereotypical. To say nothing of utterly punting recognition of the sometimes effective, sometimes clumsy attempts to address such matters on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (which series is Never mentioned here). At least Bill Mumy, Angela Cartwright, and Marta Kristensen are rather down to Earth about the utter goofiness of their series, Lost in Space, and again as a casual observer of media fandom I've heard less from them over the years (though they were clearly moved by a years-later visit to the Kennedy Space Center, where some of the scientists and technicians told them that their series had inspired the Floridans in their childhood to consider astronautics-oriented careers). Aside from Serling, only Veronica Cartwright (two sisters, no waiting...she was a child actor in the TZ adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric"), William Shatner, Peter Graves (albeit he mostly refers to his Corman film work) and Mumy (of course, his star-making child-actor turn in the adaptation of Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life--") are interviewed for the Serling series, and only brief mention is made of his later work, though at least they do cite some of his earlier, notable teleplays, such as "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and they run a bit of "Patterns." They cite how Bradbury was annoyed by an elision of a scene in the episode's final form, leading to a falling out between Bradbury and Serling, but, aside from a casual reference to Richard Matheson, they manage not to cite any of the other "Little Bradburys" who wrote for the series, such as William F. Nolan (whom Matthew Bradley notes in a comment below never saw his contributed script produced) or the series' best writer, Charles Beaumont (whom Bradley notes was ghosted in some of his last credited work, as his health failed, by Jerry Sohl). There are good bits, here and there, again mostly from the less self-important actors (the script, as narrated by Kelsey Grammer, even attempts to make a virtue of Shatner's take-ruining and scene-stealing), but this is a very poor showing for a series that has been a somewhat superficial but reasonably accurate historical survey in its previous episodes (I'll be reviewing the subsequent new episodes soon, devoted to crime and western drama). And it certainly notes the pressures from the network suits, for Serling to dumb things down, for Allen to go campy (which he gleefully did), and for Roddenberry to emulate Allen (or the unmentioned Outer Limits) and get more monsters on board (the multicolored womenoids, almost all hot for Kirk, apparently not quite enough exotica). And it wraps up with a pronouncement, plummily intoned by Grammer, that TZ was the best-written series in television history, a claim neither Serling nor any reasonable judge would make, even if we took only the Beaumont episodes into consideration; even Bill Mumy, in calling it the best tv series so far, isn't nearly as sweepingly wrong.



Meanwhile, I'm breaking my "rule" again here and am featuring a book that's still in print, albeit it might not be for long, and it certainly turns up a wealth of material from magazines and books that are harder to find. Comics historians Denis Kitchen (a comics artist and publisher, and executor of Kurtzman's estate) and Paul Buhle (a Brown University historian with particular interest in comics and Judaica) have produced a slightly stilted but reasonably informative and beautifully illustrated biography/Festschrift of Harvey Kurtzman, whose career was at least as spectacular in publishing as Serling's in electronic media, his influence at least as great, his ultimate disappointment with the shape of his career probably at least as heartbreaking to him. From his earliest comics aspirations and early one-page humorous strips, "Hey Look!", for Atlas/Timely Comics (which would become Marvel), through his revolutionizing war comics at EC while that house was coming to the fore with its similarly challenging horror titles, and then out-challenging everyone in that business when Mad, which he wrote and designed nearly every aspect of from founding in 1952 to 1956, became a huge success and the only title to long survive the attacks on EC from without (driven by such rabble-rousing as Frederic Wertham's distorting "study" The Seduction of the Innocent--which, it should be noted, was more focused on crime-fiction comics than even the horror titles) and within the comics industry (notably from the triumvirate, including Columbia pulp-line owner Louis Silberkleit, who published Archie Comics, and resented enormously and litigiously Kurtzman's parodies of their cash-cow throughout the decades)...and became, in the course of that success, ever more ambitious and rule-breaking (even the reformatted black-and-white Ballantine collections from the early years of Mad didn't adequately give a sense of all the elegances and innovations of the standard-sized, richly-colored comic book it was, the authors note, and how thrilled Kurtzman was when the title was remade, briefly, into a slick-paper, 8.5 x 11" magazine--the dimensions remain the same through today, but the paper was downgraded not long after). But Kurtzman's desire to continue to run Mad according to his vision was far less practically possible once it was no longer part of a profitable stable, but the sole EC publication, and publisher William Gaines was unwilling to turn it essentially completely over to Kurtzman...who then left, and much of Mad's glory left with him.

Kurtzman already had a fan in Hugh Hefner, who offered an opportunity to do a fully-slick, full-color, more "adult" humor magazine, and a few more artists, such as Arnold Roth, signed on along with a core of his staff from Mad for the two issues produced of Trump. Then a credit-line crunch, partly in the aftermath of the American News Company magazine-distributor dismemberment, slapped around the Playboy Enterprises cashflow and Hefner was, essentially, forced to fold Trump despite excellent sales; a core group of Kurtzman and his ex-Mad and -Trump cronies banded together to produce Humbug!, an inexpensive (from the distributors' point of view, probably Too inexpensive) small-format comic, which lasted for about a year and a half, from '57-'58; Kurtzman and his collaborators scrambled pretty hard for the next year or so, but received interesting assignments from such slick magazines as Playboy, Esquire, and Pageant, and Kurtzman published with Ballantine an all-original paperback comics collection, Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book (1958). In 1960, Kurtzman's fourth and last satire magazine emerged; James Warren, doing well with Famous Monsters of Filmland and its stablemates, was willing to partner on the release of Help! magazine, again in large-sized format but, if anything, on as much a shoestring budget as Humbug! had been. But Help! was about as important a snag in pop-culture history as Kurztman's Mad had been, reuniting most of the old crew from the previous three magazines, at least for occasional contributions, and adding such folks as Robert Sheckley, Ray Bradbury, Gahan Wilson, Serling and Algis Budrys mostly as script/text contributors, along with occasional work in this wise by the likes of Orson Bean, who also, like such up-and-coming comics and actors as Woody Allen and John Cleese (the latter in New York with an Oxbridge Fringe-inspired troupe), would star in the photos used in "fumetti" strips--similar to comic strips, with speech balloons coming from the actors in the photos. Also, for the first year of the magazine, rather more famous comedians and actors, ranging from Ernie Kovacs to Mort Sahl to Tom Poston, posed for humorous cover photos; most of these folks were apparently convinced to do so by assistant editor Gloria Steinem, just beginning her magazine-production career. She left after the first year, but was soon replaced by a promising young Midwestern cartoonist, Terry Gilliam, who was in place when Cleese was employed for his photo shoot; this would result in their mutual participation in Monty Python's Flying Circus when Gilliam moved to England to avoid the Draft in the latter '60s. Other Kurtzman-inspired young cartoonists, including Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, contributed to the magazine in various ways; Crumb even a had a bit-role in a fumetti, as well as debuting Fritz the Cat in Help!. But the constant budget restrictions Warren offered, as well as his caving in quickly to the again-outraged Archie Comics folks after Kurtzman's recurring character Goodman Beaver had an adventure which thoroughly mocked Archie and company again, led to discontent...and the magazine folded in 1965. Beaver, a somewhat Candide-like figure (with an ambiguously provocative name) was pitched to Playboy, which countered with a desire to have Beaver become a female character, and the strips to have a fair amount of cheesecake in them, and thus was born Little Annie Fanny, who would be a prime source of income for Kurtzman and his usual partner on the strip Will Elder for nearly three decades. Other activities came and went, but Annie went on forever (and oddly rather resembles actress Loni Anderson, not on the scene in the early '60s, but who might've patterned her look after the character a bit).

But Kurtzman also had opportunities to teach, and see his work influence further generations of comics and comix artists, who understandably lionized him; his early projects in graphic novels were mostly stymied, aside from the collection of Goodman Beaver from Macfadden and the Ballantine original book, and best-ofs his magazines with Ballantine (Mad comics, Humbug!) and Fawcett Gold Medal (Help!). Kitchen and Buhle note that the kind of graphic novel he wanted to do, and did manage, in relatively short form, to see one impressive example published, reprinted here in color from The Saturday Evening Post, wouldn't be too common until after Will Eisner's A Contract with God appeared in 1978, and not popular nor critically acclaimed till the likes of Art Spiegelman's Maus in the next decade--true unless you take into account such works as Walt Kelly and Jules Feiffer were publishing in the 1950s and later. But it's a very handsome book and does some innovative presentations of unpublished and work-in-progress from Kurtzman and his collaborators. You would do well to supplement it as a history with such items as the Fantagraphics complete reprint of Humbug! (and its accompanying interviews) and their collection of interviews with Kurtzman, reprinted from their critical magazine The Comics Journal, but this is a valuable book. Even if Harry Shearer's witty, bitter intro is too short to be so prominently advertised.

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's "forgotten" books...