Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why Don't More TV Characters Talk About, Well, TV? Don't They Watch the Hit Shows Too?

Scottie: "I know we got into a fight last night, but drinking before 10am, is that really the answer?"
Harvey: "It is on Mad Men. Who does that guy think he is?"

Catching up on USA's Suits, this line of dialogue in the season finale "No Way Out"  hit my ear.  Why shouldn't Harvey Specter watch TV, and why shouldn't he make a reference to it in his everyday speech?

No reason on either count, but it illuminates that it's a relatively uncommon occurrence. As a kid I remember thinking that there must be a rule that TV characters don't watch TV the way we do, or else they would talk about it more. (Truly I was destined to work at The Paley Center for Media.) It was a first inkling of understanding the conventions & boundaries of the fictional worlds of TV.

The examples that I'm looking for are not meta-references and the series built around them like The Simpsons and Family Guy. (Oh, look what they have in common: adult series animation.) Nor do I mean characters that we see watching TV, like Tony Soprano and his History channel or Don's recent TV watching while he's spiraling down. Nor do I mean when TV characters meet each other, a la the Law & Order franchise crossovers, roping in their colleagues down in Baltimore, Homicide: Life on the Streets, or the CSI interstate meet-ups.

I mean references in "natural" conversation between characters, like the scene with Harvey & Scottie.

The the Darrins, the Beckys, and the Lois Lanes

The first time I remember hearing a direct TV-watching reference was in Roseanne. I didn't watch it religiously, but I caught the 1993 episode Homecoming, when daughter Becky returned after a long plot-related absence. And when she came back, it was Sarah Chalke in the role, not Lecy Goranson.

There was a tag scene over the closing credits, in the Conner living room, with the family watching TV. You hear the unmistakable music from Bewitched, and then this dialogue:

Roseanne: "I cannot believe that they replaced that Darrin."
Jackie: "Well it was a hit show, they knew they could get away with anything."
Becky: "Well, I like the second Darren much better."

Yes meta, because of the actress switch, but also natural that a family watching the series together would note the strange change in actors with no explanation.

Before the Beckys and the Darrins there were the Lois Lanes.  Phyllis Coates played the role for the first year of the series, replaced by Noel Neill.  Both were put into syndication in the 1970s, which is why I saw both. But I've never heard a reference to it.

The Big Bang Theory has lots of references to TV, particularly the entire Star Trek franchise, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five, and other classics in the nerd cannon. But dialogue in the recent "Relationship Diremption," April 10, 2014, written by Chuck Lorre, Eric Kaplan & Steve Holland, was different. It was more casual to friends watching hit shows, not plot points specific to their identities.

Sheldon responds to why he hasn't proven string theory yet: "I have a lot on my plate. We're in a Golden Age of Television."

Sheldon: "Am I wasting my life on something that can't be proven?"
Wolowitz: " Maybe,  but how great is Game of Thrones?"

Sheldon: "I couldn't sleep."
Penny: "I told you those Walking Dead pillowcases were a bad idea."

These casual references simply illustrate that the characters watch TV, not a meta "wink wink, nod nod" (thank you Monty Python). Which could be seen as the next step in the evolution of TV's narrative journey.

I can't find the citation, but I remember someone pointing out that Samantha Steven's pregnancy in Bewitched was the first time that episodic TV had a connecting thread.  Hill Street Blues was the first time that nightime prime time used the multiple, interconnecting, long story arcs of soap operas. And that lead to the glories of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, etc.

And decades later now TV characters are free to watch TV show with no meta overtones. They continue to become more and more autonomous in the most interesting ways. Hmm.

Here's a great fan video of TV & film characters reacting to the Purple Wedding of Games of Thrones, because of course everyone watches it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter from Irving, Fred, Bing, (and the Guys at Kings)

Irving Berlin gave us our one great pop culture Easter song, Easter Parade, published in 1933 and first sung in the Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer, the same year. As my mother told me long ago, Berlin first wrote the melody way back in 1917 with lyrics, "Smile and Show Your Dimple." It was a flop, but he was smart enough to bring back the lilting tune for the revue.

Berlin then used it in his 1942 film Holiday Inn as the Easter song, with Bing Crosby singing to Marjorie Reynolds.

The song then become the basis for the story for the 1948 film from Charles Walters and Arthur Freed with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.  It is for the me the epitome of the movie musical. Every number is a classic. It's where I learned word "rotogravure" as a kid and loved seeing the shot of St. Patrick's Cathedral "on the avenue, Fifth Avenue."

In your Easter bonnet with all the frills upon it
You'll be the grandest fella in the Easter Parade
I'll be all in clover and when they look us over
We'll be the proudest couple in the Easter Parade

On the avenue, Fifth Avenue, the photographers will snap us
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet
And of the guy, I'm taking to the Easter Parade

And, just because they are so good, the men & boy's from King's College, Cambridge, because it's not Easter without the Hallelujah Chorus. Happy Easter to all who celebrate, and everyone can enjoy the great music.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday: Johnny Cash Asks Us "Were You There?"

Some of my favorite hymns and a motet for the day.

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord
Johnny Cash  
The show-closer from the Sept. 6, 1969, episode of The Johnny Cash Show, with Johnny, the Carter Family (featuring Anita Carter) and the whole ensemble bring down the house. Johnny sings the all-important lowest "F" in "trem-blllle."

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross
Eddy Arnold
Not talked about much in this century, but he had quite a following in the middle of the last.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Choir of Kings College, Cambridge
Isaac Watts' wonderful hymn sung to the lovely tune Rockingham. Nobody sings a descant like the boys at Kings.

O Vos Omnes

"O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte:
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus."

"O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
If there be any sorrow like my sorrow."

The great cry of hurt written by the prophet Jeremiah mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples, traditionally recited on Tisha B’Av, was co-opted by the first-rate Catholic composers of the 16th as motets for the Tenebrae Service of Good Friday or Holy Saturday, turning the POV to Christ on the cross.

You know what they say, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Pain for a devastating loss is the same, no matter who you are. The composers may have lifted the text, but they did make it completely their own with the most sublime composing saved for this holy day.

Gesualdo was a prince of Venosa known for murdering his wife, her lover, possibly his son and father-in-law. He also wrote in a chromatic musical language 300 years before its time, it wouldn’t be heard again until the late 19th century. Completely astounding. Two telling comments from YouTube: “insanely stunning music by a stunningly insane man” and “really disturbing... that's Gesualdo. Perfection itself.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday from the Poets

It’s a confluence of riches, thinking about poetry during Holy Week.

Oscar Wilde, the poet's poet,  imagines the week in Genoa, that ill-fated city where the faulty vessel that carried Shelley to his watery death was built. And in honor of Maundy Thursday—the commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist—Wilfred Owen, the great World War One poet. His take on the custom of kissing a crucifix has a reveal that underscores the humanness behind all ritual. Owen was shot and killed on the battlefield in France one week before the WW1 Armistice. He was 25 years old. And via PoemHunter, Rilke's stunning poem on seeing Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Holy Week at Genoa
Oscar Wilde

I wandered through Scoglietto's far retreat,
The oranges on each o'erhanging spray
Burned as bright lamps of gold to shame the day;
Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet
Made snow of all the blossoms; at my feet
Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay:
And the curved waves that streaked the great green bay
Laughed i' the sun, and life seemed very sweet.

Outside the young boy-priest passed singing clear,
'Jesus the son of Mary has been slain,
O come and fill His sepulchre with flowers.'
Ah, God! Ah, God! those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers and the Spear.

Maundy Thursday
Wilfred Owen

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)

Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)

Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed - my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)

The Last Supper
Rainer Maria Rilke

They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.

To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
they flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.

[On seeing Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, Milan 1904.]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Roy Baker, A Director to Remember

The British director Roy Baker died on October 5, 2010, at the age of 93. The Telegraph obituary summarized the eclectic career, from second assistant to Hitchcock on The Lady Vanishes to directing Marilyn Monroe in the studio’s early attempt at “yes, she can really act” film Don’t Bother to Knock, to the strange Singer Not the Song with Dirk Bogarde in leather pursuing John Mills as a priest.

That is all eclipsed by his sterling direction of A Night to Remember, the most engrossing, poignant, heart wrenching depiction of the sinking of the Titanic ever filmed. The entire production—-from the book by Walter Lord to the script by Eric Ambler to Geoffrey Unsworth cinematography-—is a dream team of talent who put the most affecting verisimilitude of that horrific night and early morning death 102 years ago--onto celluloid.

But what I will remember the talented Mr. Baker for best is the 8 episodes he directed during the black & white Mrs. Peel era of The Avengers. You can watch The Girl from A.U.N.T.I.E. here

The Cinematic Look of The Avengers

I don’t know if it was producer Albert Fennell or writer/producer Brian Clemens who brought Baker on, but whoever did it was a brilliant move that meant a visual film sense would grace the early small screen phenomenon. This changed when the series went into color in 1966/67, and it went back to having that thinner look of video, however offset by the Sixties Mod coloring, sets, and costuming, which was lovely too. But Baker's talent brought the distinctive look of Ealing Studios and the Rank Organization to television and left a distinction mark on the innovative spy series.

These 8 episodes he directed are a high point of the entire series:

1. The Town of No Return (28 September 1965)
2. Two's a Crowd (18 December 1965)
3. Too Many Christmas Trees (25 December 1965)
4. Silent Dust (31 December 1965)
5. Room Without a View (8 January 1966)
6. The Girl from Auntie (21 January 1966)
7. The Thirteenth Hole (29 January 1966)

From the man walking out of the sea to Steed's full high tea on a train in Town of No Return  to Steed and Emma punting on an idyllic canal to investigate “where have all the martlets gone?” in Silent Dust (a nod to Rachel Carson)  to the stylized dream sequences and Dickensian Christmas nightmare of Too Many Christmas Trees, Baker made a huge contribution to the early success of The Avengers. He brought that certain wry British sensibility that fans for several generations have found simply irresistible and have long remembered.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

April Is National Poetry Month: Robert Frost in Orange Is the New Black and More

April is National Poetry Month! From the website: Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month is now held every April, when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.

I encourage everyone to look at the 30 Ways to Celebrate, with a month of poetic activities. My offering is "Revisit a Poem."

The poem is Robert Frost's much anthologized "The Road Not Taken." What prompted the choice is I recently stumbled upon my retort poem—doesn't everybody have one?—which I wrote when I was 13. I had a very poetic yearnings in junior high school, before the angst set in.

I'm not entirely at his "ages and ages" hence stage, but far enough along to appreciate the energy and optimism of early the teen years, and to smile at the ability to mirror the original cadence and rhyme scheme pretty well.

In Defense of the Road Less Traveled

They say the man who had the task
To choose of two roads, when he was asked,
Chose the one traveled upon less.
(I would think that this is best.)

Then they contend that he did sigh
A lament of regret before he died.
To this I say I cannot see
How from his words they hold this to be.

Perhaps my eyes are too new yet
To recognize the anxiety and regret
That they can see and identify;
Through personal experience they sympathize.

To prove them wrong I pray to hold
To this less traveled, regrettable road.
Then show my contentment ages hence
And declare: it did make all the difference.

M.A. Peel, 13-year-old poet

Revisiting the Original
Frost's 1916 poem entered pop culture consciousness last year in Orange Is the New Black in the episode "Blood Donut." On that occasion, Slate's David Haglund wrote a great current-day summary of the nearly century-old debate about the poem's meaning, and dare we say, Frost's intention (paging W.K. Wimsatt's Verbal Icon).

"Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) makes a passing reference to “the road less traveled,” prompting a brief, agitated lecture from her fellow inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). “You know,” Piper says, “that doesn’t mean what everyone thinks it means.” snip 
"But Piper is essentially right about the “The Road Not Taken,” which has long been one of the more misunderstood chestnuts in American poetry. In the first three stanzas, the speaker of the 1916 poem looks at one road, then another, which he calls “just as fair.” This second road, he thinks, has “perhaps the better claim,” because it appears less trodden. But he quickly corrects himself, noting that the “passing” of people to and fro “had worn them really about the same.”

Lots of good links in Haglund's piece to voices explicating in various directions, although many back the 'there-is-no-difference-in-the-paths' meme based on the line "had worn them really about the same."

What strikes me now is, how is everyone missing the grassy knoll:

"Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black."

One side was "grassy and wanted wear" and then he completely contradicts that when he says "Had worn them really about the same."  So what seems like a sweet pastoral poem really has a serious World War One-like disjunction at its core—is anything what we thought it was; dulce est decorum est, pro patria mori?—which gets compounded as we progress to the sigh and beyond.

The other thing that strikes me is the title. He did not title it "The Road Less Traveled" i.e., the chosen path.  His title focuses us first on the unknown, the empty cipher, the path not taken, starting us off immediately with the wistful. He was 42 when he wrote the poem, and he knew a thing or two how these things go.

And Now for the Designers
Chip Kidd did the National Poetry Month poster for this year, focusing on Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. Sure. Making the other dominant image just a hand, Whitman's actual hand to size from a cast. Hmm. No comment.

My favorite remains Paul Sahre from 2009 and the brilliant visualization of my pal T.S. Eliot.