Monday, October 29, 2012

Escaping into Beatles Psychedelia in the Throes of the Storm

To drown out the HISSING, HISSING, WHIPPING winds outside the window and the enveloping sickly wet grayness, I am escaping into the psychedelic COLORS of the Magical Mystery Tour, and then crawling over to Pepperland.

The Paley Center screened the newly remastered print of MMT, with a panel discussion with Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt, Tony Gilroy, Jonathan Clyde of Apple Films, moderated by Bill Flanagan. Magical Mystery Tour is the film the Beatles created themselves. They decided to wing it with no script,  just the Fab 4 on a holiday bus trip to nowhere. For more background and analysis, here is John Harris in the Guardian.

Observations from the panel:

Flanagan: MMT is the film everyone thinks they have seen, but very few have.

It was shown once on the BBC on Boxing Day, 1967,  and Elvis Costello was one of the 15 million who sat down with families at 8:35 pm to watch. On the whole, the audience was not amused, and the BBC was inundated with complaints about this "rubbish."

Elvis reminds the audience that they were watching it in black & white, because almost no one had a color TV in 1967.

Little Stevie called it "a curiosity, with a masterpiece [Walrus] at its center."

Gilroy saw it as a "toolbox" for so much that came after, from the Monkees episodes to Easy Rider to Monty Python. Also how the Beatles could be that unique combination of revolution and nostalgia: "Ken Kesey would not have brought his Aunt on the bus."

Clyde brought up several times what an influence Richard Lester had on the Beatles. When they wanted to do their own film he told them to forget about making a film and approach it like an album.

I can watch "I Am the Walrus" endlessly: I love their clothes, which are much more hip than their the Sgt. Pepper costumes; Paul looks tired but the close-ups on his hands show that easy command of the musician beyond the pop star; John looks happy; Lewis Carroll, even if John said in later interview that he didn't realize the Walrus was the bad guy; "Goo goo ga 'jobb" John swore he made up nonsense after getting a letter from a student at his old Quarry Bank High School who said the teacher was making them analyze Beatles lyrics.

Yellow Submarine

Lucy in the Sky

Hello, Goodbye (which was shown on the Ed Sullivan show and has the most Beatles views on YouTube at 4.1 million)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Life Imitating Art: The Storm and Two Cathedrals

What separates Sandy from the power of the mere Hurricane Irene is its historic convergence of meterological phenomena. From Newsday:

"It's been 69 years since the metropolitan area was hit by a late-season hurricane. Sandy's expected turbulent merger WITH a cold front moving in from the west, AND a southern dip in the jet stream from Canada, will make it a hybrid storm, an even rarer occurrence, experts say."

No West Wing fan can hear that description without thinking of the season two finale "Two Cathedrals," and the tropical storm that had not hit DC in May, out of season, in 100 years, but descended after Mrs. Landingham's funeral and pushed Bartlet to make a decision.

The episode is on many people's list of top 5 episodes in TV history, and Bartlet's confrontation with God in the National Cathedral, partly in Latin, is most often cited. But it is so much more than that, and for me, it's the last 6 minutes that have to do with the storm that put it in the realm of art.

•Like all great works of film, the episode defies time boundaries, meaning  it conveys what seems to be a magical amount of exposition in its 44 minutes. Every stroke is so efficiently and exquisitely planned that the sheer impact of story and emotion and ideas is remarkable.

•The flashbacks to young Jed are beautiful haikus to Jed’s whole relationship with his unloving father and Mrs. Landingham’s “big sister” love and encouragement. They start beautifully integrated into the situation room scene.

•Before he starts speaking in Latin, Barlett lashes out against God killing Mrs. Landingham in the vernacular:

“You're a son of a bitch, You know that? She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? 'You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God', says Graham Greene. I don't know whose ass he was kissing there, 'cus I think You're just vindictive.”

It’s a startling, liberating speech on tv. It’s perfect for the character, it’s perfect for the storyline.

•The funeral itself. Visually moving. Bartlet’s earlier line when Charlie asks him does he need anything, “I need pall bearers” is heart wrenching, in the midst of the MS news breaking

•Then the storm, blowing in Mrs. Landingham's ghost or soul, or just raising the anger in Jed. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” It’s beautifully filmed, beautifully written:

Bartlet: I've got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham. I've never been the most popular guy in the Democratic Party.

Mrs. Landingham: I've got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn't as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Why? Because there are people way worse off then you.

•And then comes the finest 6 minutes of one of the finest hours in television: Jed’s walk through the West Wing to the car to go over to the press conference at the State. Dept. to the haunting strains of Dire Straits’s "Brothers in Arms." This music essay within an episode is a tv convention that has been so imitated that it seems trite now, but in 2001 in was still fresh. (Although I must note that Michael Mann scooped Sorkin with BIA by 16 years, in a music essay in Miami Vice's “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run.” Another exquisite hour of television).

Sorkin’s essay has a twinge of Bartlet as Lear, walking in the rain with no coat or umbrella, yet not in madness but in a baptismal rain cleansing his sin of concealing MS; Jed’s own band of brothers falling in behind him as he walks to the car; a beautifully framed motorcade in the rain; the purposeful walking feet shot; the president’s car passing the Cathedral just as the janitor finds the cigarette butt; and at the press podium, Bartlet being Bartlet.

There's no soundtrack to the real power and potential terror of nature unleashed upon people. I dearly hope everyone remains safe. If the essentials are covered, then Aaron Sorkin and Dire Straits do offer some inspiring, serious rain.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Trafalgar Day Meets Me and the First Filmed James Bond

Lord Horatio Nelson and the first screen appearance of
James Bond share a particular detail with me: October 21. It was the date Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; the date the Climax! anthology series on CBS brought Ian Flemming's Casino Royal to the small screen with Barry Nelson as James Bond in 1954, eight years before Dr. No; and the date I landed on earth (and never you mind what year that was).

The date of your birth is a defining detail of your life, even if you share it with about 300,000 others, the most consistent stat I could find for the daily worldwide birth rate.  (And side note, Apple has now surpassed that number, as Luke Wroblewski tweeted "There are more iPhones sold per day (402k) than people born in the World per day (300k)" More on that here.)

Your birth calendar date is distinct because it's one of your life's defining dates that you get to know, but don't get to choose. Weddings, important employment dates, moving dates you pretty much get to chose. The other defining date—of your death—you don't even get to know. So for me at least, I have always felt a connection to the people and events of 21 October.

The Greatest Hero of the British Navy
My path has crossed Lord Nelson's in various ways. First was That Hamilton Women which I saw as a kid and haven't seen since. I later learned that while Nelson lost his sight in his right eye, he never wore an eye patch! Hollywood strikes again.

I visited the Nelson Dockyards in Antigua when the BFF was working at Carlisle Bay, a Campbell Gray resort in St. Mary's. It's the only continuously working Georgian dockyard in the world, build in English Harbour in the sixteenth century. Nelson was there from 1784 to 1787 as captain of the HMS Boreas, sent to Angtigua to enforce British law in the colonies. I looked at the restored buildings and tried to imagine Olivier/Nelson under that sparkling Caribbean blue sky, which would later be outdone by the sun of Naples.

I have sung the Lord Nelson Mass, the nickname for Haydn's Missa in Angustiis, Mass in Troubled Times, because its first performances came just as Nelson trounced Napoleon in Egypt, the great Battle of the Nile. In 1800 Nelson visited Palais Esterhazy with Lady Hamilton, and may have heard it performed.

But it's Susan Sontag's sweeping historical novel, The Volcano Lover, that brought me the closest to the admiral. I read it when I visited Pompeii with Cadfael and we visited Vesuvius.

Her description at the Battle of Tenerife, where his arm had to be amputated:

'The boat he had stepped out of a right-handed hero, drawing his sword to lead a nighttime amphibious assault on a Spanish fort; the boat that received his senseless body as he fell backward, his right elbow shattered by grape. He had regained consciousness, clawing at the tourniquet near his shoulder. . . he insisted on stopping to pick up survivors. Raging at those who would have helped him, Let me alone! I have my legs left, and one arm! he twisted a rope around his left arm and hauled himself on board, called for a surgeon to come and cut the right one, high up, and a half hour later was on his feet, giving orders to his flag captain in a severe, calm voice.

Now his was a left-handed hero.'

Sontag is mocking her hero a bit, as she follows this paragraph with a made-up, almost Monty Python feat of a physical bravery of some other captain, but that doesn't detract from the physical pain Horatio endured. Beyond the loss of his sight and his arm, he lost all of his teeth in battle, and suffered severe head wounds.

The novel captures the menage a trois between the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples Sir William Hamilton, his wife Emma Hamilton, and Nelson, who went to Naples on his way to the Egypt campaign, and then returned, injured, when he was taken in to be nursed by Emma and they fell passionately in love.

It does not follow Admiral Lord Nelson to the deck of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar on October 21, but we hear the news and devastating effect on Lady Hamilton from her mother:

Everyone deserted her, even the one she loved most, though he did not mean to die, but why go about the boat in his admiral's frock coat and his stars so a French sharpshooter could find him easy and kill him, if he wanted to stay alive and come back to her.  Men are so foolish.

A personal loss was a country's glory: it was the most decisive British navel victory of the Napoleonic Wars and confirmed Britain's naval supremacy.

Trafalgar Day was a very big deal in 2005 on the two hundredth anniversary.  This year, according to  The Nelson Society site: "It is fitting that at  midday on Sunday 21st October STS Lord Nelson will slip her moorings in Southampton to start an epic world  circumnavigation including a leg around Cape Horn in the spirit of the old clippers." And so the memory and honors live on.

Bond. Jimmy Bond.

On October 21, 1954, the very first moving image depiction of James Bond hit the small screen on the CBS anthology drama series, Climax!. Surprised, aren't you?

Climax brought together a lot of talented people at the dawn of commercial programming, including John Frankenheimer, and composers Jerry Goldsmith & Bernard Herrmann, and producer Martin Manulis.

I don't know why/how Barry Nelson got cast and made the role an American, Jimmy Bond, while Peter Lorre was an inspired Le Chiffre.  More about the production is at this Bond site.

So it was a historic moment, not a successful one.

Just like birthdays.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Funked by the Emmys, Revived by Rick and AJ

I have been afflicted a bit lately from the nearly 6-year itch of the blogger, which hits different people at different times. Tim Footman recently chronicled his own near-anniversary with an homage to "old style blogging," when unrelated ideas flowed so easily, one to the other.

Besides the general wear and tear of weekly blogging, my funk had an odd trigger: the Emmy Award show at the end of September. Not who won/who didn't win, but the show itself.

Starting right as it began with the taped segment "Backstage," which was set in the bathroom with Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, Zooey Deschanel, Connie Britton, Martha Plimpton, and Mindy Kaling. Bates hears someone crying and opens a stall to see Lena Dunham, naked, binge eating on the toilet. Then finds the source of the crying is Jimmy Kimmel, crazy eyebrowed with too much botox so he isn't going to go on.

The women say they can punch him into shape, and start punching him in the face one by one.

I don't think award shows of any kind should have a sense of self importance, but it's pretty low to locate your sensibility in the toilet, even with Jimmy Kimmel as host.

I have long been a cheerleader for the intelligent creativity of TV, celebrating its spectrum from Three's Company to Scenes from a Marriage, which Bergman made for Swedish television, fascinated by the power of the "miniseries" to bring people back in front of the screen several nights running. And here I was being assaulted by the industry's projection of itself in the lavatory, with an eating disorder and physical violence, which many people thought was funny. I hated all the Kimmel taped pieces, particularly the mock In Memoriam.

With all the talent who come together to create Homeland and Modern Family, this is how the industry presents itself on "their night." I found it so depressing and disappointing that it took my voice away for a while.

The next day I saw a picture of Jim Parsons and Zooey Deschanel presenting that I love for its composition and color, and for the easy elegance of the actors, even if they look like they escaped from a Pushing Daisies episode. But beneath this facade of beauty, New Girl and Big Bang Theory are on Neil Genzlinger's "Trends That Deserve the Unwelcome Mat," for their reveling in urine gags. Crap, we're back in the bathroom.

I agree with Genzlinger that this is an unwelcomed trend, which worries me a little. He's the guy who took on what is clearly Seinfeld territory, "Really," without referencing Seinfeld. As Jerry declared, "You crumbled a bit of civilization off there yourself."

Rick or AJ?

Well, the funk has lifted, fueled in part by the ridiculous Funny or Die, "Greatest Event in Television History," from Paul Scheer, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Paul Rudd, Jeff Probst and their love of Simon & Simon. It's completely over the top, but done by guys who love and know television from its smallest pixel to every inflection that we all picked up on since our impressionable childhood viewing.

Simon & Simon has that great, lame, 1980s magnetism about it. I was just in San Diego and took a city trolley tour. They did not mentioned Simon & Simon when going over the Coronado Bridge, but I will write to tell them they really should.