Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pass that peace pipe

Almost against my better judgment, I like the 40's MGM musical GOOD NEWS; it's a cute little college musical with Peter Lawford, looking quite young and handsome, and June Allyson, cute but at 30, too old to be playing a college student, even a senior. It closes with an energetic version of "The Varsity Drag" and there's a nice novelty song called "The French Lesson," but the main reason I own it on DVD is for Joan McCracken, a Broadway singer and actress whose career hit its peak in the 40's. Aside from performing one number in the variety movie Hollywood Canteen, this is her only film role. She's a delight here, especially in her big dance number, "Pass That Peace Pipe": "Pass that peace pipe/And bury that hatchet/Like the Choctaws, Chickasawas, Chattahoochees, Chippewas dooooooooo." It's basically a novelty song, but once it gets in your head, it's there for weeks.

McCracken is inevitably described as "pixieish," and she was, but she also had, based on the evidence of her small supporting role in this movie, sex appeal and an inner core of determination. I always wondered why she never made it in movies, but it was difficult to find anything out about her. I was surprised when I read a biography of Bob Fosse to find out that she had been married to him at one time, but that was about all I knew of her. A couple of summers ago, in one of those happy accidents I love, I ran across a book about McCracken, "The Girl Who Fell Down" by Lisa Jo Sagolla. (The title refers to the tiny role in the original cast of "Oklahoma! that brought her to fame.) I bought it immediately, but then it vanished into that Black Hole of Possessions into which so many of my books (not to mention CDs and DVDs) wind up. Luckily, in doing some spring cleaning recently, I found it, having forgotten I even had it, and devoured it in a couple of nights.

The book, published by a university press, is not as gossipy as one might like, though there are a few juicy bits about her first marriage to writer Jack Dunphy, who later became Truman Capote's life partner. Sagolla is a dance critic and historian, and spends a lot of time describing McCracken's dance numbers, but she also did a prodigious amount of research and has certainly turned up more about McCracken's life than I'd assumed could be found. Her downfall was her poor physical condition; she had diabetes most of her life, and suffered from a weak heart as well (probably tied to her diabetes). But she also made some career choices that didn't turn out so well for her, especially in Hollywood--though it does seem as if she was not terribly interested in doing movies. Sagolla reports a rumor that McCracken was asked to play Judy Garland's sister in "Meet Me In St. Louis," and I bet she would have been great (certainly better than the bland Lucille Bremer, the one weak spot in that wonderful movie), but she turned it down. If only she'd taken the part. If only she'd taken better care of herself and had a longer life and career. Now if anyone out there knows some information about Ray McDonald, another wonderful dancer (who dances with McCracken in Good News) who never quite hit the big time and also suffered an untimely death, please write a book about him to put on the shelves with this one, which I highly recommend to fans of classic-era movie musicals.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Watching the detectives

My earliest memory of TV, aside from Captain Kangaroo and Tom Terrific, is of the opening credits to "Hawaiian Eye"--between the singers shrieking "Hawaiian Eyyyyyyyy-Ai!!" and the gigantic and spooky looking Tiki god shown on screen, it scared the shit out of me every time I saw it, which probably wasn't all that often since it was on awfully late (10:00, I imagine). But it made a strong impression on me, and when I saw an episode (on the American Life cable channel) for the first time in 40 years, that opening still made me jumpy. But now what I appreciate most about that opening is the shot of the incredibly taut and chiseled body of the young and shirtless Robert Conrad, who plays one of the detectives of the title agency.

Back in the late 50's, Warner Brothers Television had a string of detective shows which, like the current-day franchises "CSI" and "Law & Order," all shared a similar set-up: two or three men, at least one young and handsome, and one a bit more mature and handsome, ran a private eye agency in some relatively exotic American city. "Bourbon Street Beat" was in New Orleans, "Surfside 6" was in Miami Beach, "77 Sunset Strip" in Los Angeles, and "Eye" in Honolulu. There was always lots of local color, though except for an occasional exterior, the episodes were shot in the WB Burbank studio. The supporting cast usually had a lovely lady and a colorful comic relief guy, and there was a nightclub nearby where at least one song was performed by a singer or a jazz combo. The stories were frequently taken from older screenplays or novels owned by Warners (and the music was usually part of the Warners holdings as well--"77 Sunset Strip" in particular gave Cole Porter's catalog a workout).

All four of these shows are currently airing on Monday nights on American Life, but only "Eye" and "77" are part of our regular viewing schedule. I got sucked into these shows by the beefcake--Conrad on "Eye" and Roger Smith in "77"--but I keep watching them because they really are entertaining. The predictable, cliche-ridden plots are barely worth following, but in addition to the fun supporting players, mid-level stars on the way down (or up) were often guests: some I've noticed so far include Mary Tyler Moore, Adam West, George Takei, Nancy Kulp, Neil Hamilton, Fay Wray, Victor Buono, Bert Convy, and Marilyn Maxwell. I'll write more on the individual shows later, but I'll close today by wondering why, when you can get entire seasons of "Wonder Woman," "Sky King" and "21 Jump Street" (for God's sake!!) on DVD, you can't get these classic shows.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It starts with "word"....

Bruce Springsteen sang about "57 channels and nothin' on" way back in the early 90's. Now, we have pretty close to 200 channels and there's still nothin' on. Except for an occasional network show now and then, we pretty much only watch Turner Classic Movies, Fox Movie Channel, Cartoon Network, American Life (for their reruns of the late 50's detective shows "77 Sunset Strip" and "Hawaiian Eye"), and the Game Show Network. We spend an hour a day watching two shows on GSN, Chuck Woolery's "Lingo" (which I'll discuss another time) and "Chain Reaction," hosted by the cutiepie Dylan Lane, below.

The show is a word game in which contestants have to guess a linked chain of words that go together in pairs. As the theme song notes, you might start with "word." There's a "g" underneath as the first letter of the 2nd word. You guess the word "game" and you're right! (The mini-chain being "word game"). The chain continues with a "b" which might be for "ball" (game ball), followed by "r" for "room" (ballroom), and so on. It's always, as Dylan helpfully tells us at the beginning of each show, his hands spread expansively and his eyebrows cocked as though he can barely believe what he's about to say, "a battle of the sexes"; a team of three women vs. three men. In each round, more money is at stake until at the end, one team has won, and plays a final word game with two team members constructing a question, one word at a time, to get the third to guess a secret word.

As both Don and I have taught English in the past, we were drawn in by the vocabulary play, and by the usual game-show appeal of watching ordinary people (smarties, doofusses, druggies, tramps, and hotties) struggle with answers which have become painfully obvious to us viewers who are under no bright-light pressure in our living rooms. But the attractive twinkie of a host is what keeps us watching every night. Lane used to be a VJ on Fuse, a fairly obscure music video channel, and I imagine someday he'll move on to being an entertainment-show host or to romantic leads in lighter-than-air Lifetime Christmas romance movies. But he may never be better than he is now, as the friendly host who manages to poke a little fun at some of the contestants' dumb answers without becoming snarky about it.

He's at his most appealing when he's squinting sexily across the set at the game board to read off the first and last words in the chain. He appears to be remarkably short--practically every contestant is taller than him, which becomes obvious in the final round when they're all standing around together. But he is usually a treat for the eyes, except when the producers mess with his look--at the beginning of the current season, his hair was long and dirty-looking, and his eyebrows needed shaving, which was weird because last season, he was always the perfect metrosexual. It's on Tuesday thru Saturday, 2 shows a night at 10:00 and 10:30. Of course, we're never up *that* late, so we always DVR it to watch during dinner, and so we can skip through the annoying chatter with the players--Lane could take a lesson or two from Alex Trebek on this, though to be fair, we also DVR Jeopardy so we don't have to watch the chatter.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bubblegum 101: Notes on genre

Sooner or later, I knew I'd have to write about my love of bubblegum music. Years ago, when I first stated toying with the idea of creating my own blog, I envisioned it as one devoted to my love of bubblegum music. Partly this was because I couldn't find many Internet resources devoted to it, and partly because I was going through a personal resurgence of interest in the genre, as many "lost" bubblegum treasures, by artists like The Partridge Family, Sagittarius and Boyce & Hart were being unearthed on CD, and many that never made the switch from vinyl to CD were accessible through Napster 1.0 (God rest its soul).

So this is the first of a series of occasional entries about bubblegum. I’ll start by trying to define the genre. There seem to be dozens of ways to define it; I believe in genre and categorization, but I’m also inclined toward inclusiveness, so bubblegum, like obscenity, is to some extent in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. It’s upbeat and simple, fizzy and fun, often sounds both grungy and glossy at the same time, has a little guitar and a lot of organ, and it's usually about romance (by which I really mean, sex), buried beneath lots of references to the things of childhood (candy, as in "Goody, Goody Gumdrops" or "Sugar, Sugar," or nursery rhymes, as in "Simple Simon"), hence the assumption that this is music for kids only. Of course, you had lyrics like this (and this is 25 years before folks like R. Kelly):

“Yummy, yummy, yummy/I’ve got love in my tummy
And I feel like lovin’ you
Love, you’re such a sweet thing/Good enough to eat thing
And that’s just what I’m gonna do”

Sometimes, the band that makes the music isn't a "real" band; often, the groups were either studio concoctions or pre-existing bands which were molded into bubblegum bands. Some of the animosity against bubblegum may stem from the fact that, like disco, it is seen as an “inauthentic” music since it is more obviously “produced,” assembly-line fashion, than other genres. I could write a whole post on this issue (for an interesting if flawed and incomplete discussion of this issue, see the recent book "Faking It" by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor) and might some other time.

The "golden age" of bubblegum is usually assumed to be 1967-1970 when Buddah Records (led by the producing team of Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz) were cranking out hits by the Ohio Express, the 1910 Fruitgum Company, and The Lemon Pipers, and when the TV bands The Monkees, the Archies, and The Partridge Family were at their peaks. However, some have argued the roots of bubblegum go back at least to Little Richard ("Tutti Frutti"), and to this day, critics of the glossy teen pop of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys use the "bubblegum" label for them, automatically assuming that's a bad thing. OK, that's enough background. For a great web site on bubblegum music, visit the Classic Bubblegum Music Page. In the future, I'll write about some of my favorite bubblegum tunes, both well known and unknown.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Leni on film

My penultimate note on Leni Riefenstahl (there may be one more because I have Olympia, her documentary on the Berlin Olympics of 1936 coming from Netflix): I watched the 3-hour documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" over the weekend. It makes a great companion to the Steven Bach book for a couple different reasons. Naturally, it's valuable because she went on camera, at age 90, to address some of the controversies which have been attached to her, though as Bach noted, much of what she claims contradicts the other evidence out there; even more interesting to me was that the documentary contains footage from most of the films Bach covers, from her early mountain films, to the closest thing she got to a Hollywood studio film ("SOS Iceberg"), to the infamous "Triumph of the Will," to the shorter propaganda film she made of a Nuremberg Nazi rally the year before "Triumph" (and which Hitler had suppressed later because it prominently featured Ernst Rohm, whom Hitler had assassinated on the Night of the Long Knives). It also has some of the footage she took of the Nuba, an African tribe she lived with briefly in the 1960's, and some of the underwater film she shot while scuba diving in her 80's and 90's. A very interesting film, and the combo of the film and the Bach book should just about cover everything I need to know about Riefenstahl.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Apocalypse soon?

Well, the first season of "Jericho" ended in the middle of a cliffhanger, so the producers and writers are clearly hoping for a renewal--I liked the new flag, and Gerald McRaney had an Emmy-worthy scene. We seem to be in the middle of an apocalyptic cultural moment right now, in a way we haven't been since the early-to-mid 80's, when books like "Fate of the Earth" and "When the Wind Blows" and movies like THE DAY AFTER, THREADS, TESTAMENT, THE ROAD WARRIOR, RED DAWN, and THE TERMINATOR were all the rage. Most of the above works were concerned fairly specifically with the possibility of a nuclear war with Russia and its aftermath. After the horror of 9/11, however, we have a new batch of "end of the world" works: "Jericho" is about life in America after a nuclear terrorist attack; the current "Battlestar Galactica" is about the near-destruction of the human race; "Lost" and last season's "Invasion" aren't about wars or terrorists, but nevertheless both have a dash of apocalypse fever in their set-ups. Much current literary fiction (most recently the new Don DeLillo novel) is about people, usually New Yorkers, dealing with the destruction of the World Trade Center. In the movies, there's been a resurgence in apocalyptic-toned films (often involving zombies), such as 28 DAYS LATER, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, RESIDENT EVIL, WAR OF THE WORLDS, the "Planet Terror" half of GRINDHOUSE, and the coming 28 WEEKS LATER and I AM LEGEND.

Between the last two episodes of "Jericho," I read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," not because it's the newest Oprah book, but because my partner checked it out of the library so it was lying around the house and not due back for a few days, and it's a short and easy read. Well, not so easy in terms of what happens. The story involves a man and his young son who wander the country from somewhere in the West, heading for the coast, after some kind of apocalyptic event has blasted the land, killing off all the trees and wildlife and turning the human survivors into scavenging bands of desperate creatures, reduced to theft, murder, and cannibalism. This is a poet's version of a zombie movie with hardly any zombies; lots of interesting physical description, but little action, and surprisingly little in the way of direct threat, despite the constant paranoia that the man and boy feel. They stay close to the road, although they must slink off to the side frequently to avoid what the man calls "the bad guys" who would threaten them. They carry their few belongings in a shopping cart and stop in towns to find abandoned homes which might still have canned foods or bottled water, but they stay nowhere for more than a few days, despite running across a fully stocked bomb shelter at one point. It's all told from the point of view of the man, though not in first person, and it becomes difficult to know how much to trust his thinking. He refers to himself and the boy as "good guys," but the boy is confused when they never act compassionately toward the few pathetic beings they encounter along the road. The man's only goal is surviving to reach the sea, which is not completely understandable: Why would one want to survive to live in such a savage world? Why reach the sea? Both seem more like natural, non-rational impulses, which may be part of the point. More character development would have made this more interesting. But what's most interesting to me about all the current doom and gloom is how amorphous the fears expressed are. We no longer have one monolithic enemy country to worry about, and most of the current stories don't explain exactly what happens to trigger the end of our world. I'm stuck between wishing they weren't so frustrating on a narrative level, and appreciating their emotionally wrenching ambiguity.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Watching Jericho

I'm not a fan of hour-long TV dramas, mostly because they all seem to be either lawyer shows, cop shows, or doctor shows, and I've seen enough of those to last me a lifetime. And I'm even less a fan of the current rash of "serials"; I've gotten hooked on shows like "Lost" and "Invasion" (and the godfather of all of today's non-soap opera serials, "Twin Peaks") only to wind up bitterly disappointed when it becomes clear that the writers have no idea how to keep the shows fresh and maintain creative integrity--though I do believe that "Invasion" was about to escape that curse when it was cancelled. But I do like the CBS series "Jericho," a serialized drama about what happens in a small Kansas town after nuclear terrorist attacks in several American cities leave our nation's infrastructure in disarray--not enough food, power, medicine, or communication. The show has done a nice job of giving us just enough information about the attacks (Was it China? Radical Islamists? Home-grown terrorists?) and slowly revealing the possibly shady backgrounds of some of the characters. The lead, Skeet Ulrich, doesn't do much for me--he's playing a deadly serious person, the son of a town leader who had been gone from Jericho for years under mysterious circumstances and returned just before the attacks, but he tries too hard to be an unreadable stoic and I keep expecting him to burst out laughing at his most melodramatic moments. However, he's grown on me over the season, as has Alicia Coppola as Mimi, a tax inspector from New York City who was in Jericho to foreclose on the farm of corn fed hunk Stanley (Brad Beyer); in true screwball comedy style, the two began as enemies and have become lovers, and the scene in which Mimi tearfully bid goodbye to Stanley as he went off to a neighboring town to build windmills (for power) actually made me teary, despite the cliched situation and writing--though I am the kind of person who gets teary at Folgers' commercials.

The most interesting character is Hawkins (Lennie James), another man of mystery who arrived in Jericho with his wife and two kids just before the bombs fell. The fact that he's just about the only black man in town made him stand out even more, and the show did a good job of keeping us in the dark about his background--he's supposed to be an ex-cop but we found out quickly that he's FBI, but is he good FBI or rogue FBI? Turns out he's CIA, and was undercover with a band of terrorists, trying to stop the attacks (he was assigned to set off a bomb in Columbus, Ohio, which is where I live!), and he's been playing cat and mouse games with other goodie/baddie agents all season. Gerald McRaney is the ex-mayor, father of Ulrich, and husband of Pamela Reed, and though I've never seen McRaney in much before, I like him here, and I'm sorry to hear that he doesn't want to a second season, and will presumably be killed off next week in the first season finale. There are lots of other situations and relationships which have been developed, my least favorite being the plight of the wimpy high school boy who is learning to be less wimpy as he starts to gain power as owner of the town's only grocery store. But generally, the show has kept me involved and has done a nice job of balancing the larger issues (the bombs, the cold, hunger, unfriendly visitors) with smaller ones (keeping the bar going, getting folks in and out of romantic entanglements). The show has taken a turn toward the action side of things in the last couple episodes, stopping character development dead in its tracks, but it has apparently been renewed for a second season so I have high hopes for the season finale this week. As long as Stanley and Mimi don't get killed off, I'll come back in September for more.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The horror of history

I've read two books recently about Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous director of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and OLYMPIA, who has typically been judged either a brilliant documentarian or an evil Nazi propagandist. I saw TRIUMPH, a film about the 1934 Nazi party rally at Nuremberg, for the first time in a Jewish history class on the Holocaust, and I've seen it at least one other time since; OLYMPIA (shot at the 1936 Olympics) I've only seen in bits and pieces. I'm still not sure myself what to make of Riefenstahl. Moments of both films are among the most striking ever put to film, but it's impossible to take them out of context: they were made with the financial backing of and in the service of Adolf Hitler.

Both of the recent books have the same agenda: to debunk the self-mythologizing comments that Riefenstahl made about herself over the years in attempts to claim that she did nothing wrong and that she was so devoted to art that she didn't notice what the Nazis were doing to her country and the world. Jurgen Trimborn's book, "Leni Riefenstahl: A Life," is laser-beam focused on this debunking, and he had some access both to her and her correspondence that other authors didn't, but his book does not give a very good picture of the woman herself. The other book, "Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl" by Steven Bach, is much better written and does let us see the person behind the controversial figure. Trimborn pretty much ignores her later life (she lived until 2003, dying just after her 101st birthday, and spent most of the last half of her life photographing African tribes and undersea life), but Bach spends almost a third of his book on that period of her career. I came away from the Bach book agreeing with German Culture Minister Christina Weiss who said that Riefenstahl had a "revolutionary artistic vision," but also a "political blindness and infatuation," and noted that, though her work has become part of "an aesthetic canon," she is also a reminder that "one cannot lead an honest life in service of the false, and that art is never apolitical" (Bach, 297). Andrew Sarris is quoted as defending her by saying that she was "imprisoned by the horror of history"; true, but aren't we all? I highly recommend the Bach book.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

My Summer Music iPod Mix, Part 1

I know it's not summer yet, even though it's 70 degrees and sunny out right now, and the first big summer movie, Spider-Man 3, opens this weekend. But I made a "summer music" mix for my iPod the other day, and here's what was playing while I was driving around today:

"Hot Fun in the Summertime"--Sly and the Family Stone--Gotta be on any summer mix!

"Honky Tonk Women"--The Rolling Stones--This raunchy tune came out in July of 1969, the summer I turned 13, hit puberty, and discovered the joys of AM radio; I had WCOL 1230 pumping out of my little transistor radio as close to 24 hours a day as I could. The station premiered this song, with a spoken intro by Mick Jagger saying he hoped we liked their new tune, while I was selling lemonade at the end of our driveway with my little brother. I wasn't exactly sure what the term "laid a divorcee" meant, but I knew if they were laying down, it must have been naughty.

"Spinning Wheel"--Blood, Sweat & Tears--Another song from that same summer--one of the first 45s I bought that wasn't by the Beatles, the Monkees, or the Archies. The night I brought it home, I played it over and over for almost an hour.

"The Warmth of the Sun"--Beach Boys

"Hey Mister Sun"--Bobby Sherman

"Watching Xanadu"--Mull Historical Society--A one-man band and a one-hit wonder, as far as I know. I think it's about the singer's girl watching the movie Xanadu, but the video's about the singer dressed up as a big red rabbit at a dog race. Catchy pop song with a Phil Spectorish sound in the chorus. It's on a summer mix because the first time I heard it, I was teaching a summer writing class at OSU and I heard this song on the piped-in music at the donut shop before class started.

"Girl from Ipanema"--Pizzicato Five--Not the original drowsy, loungy version from the 60's, which is great, but a peppy, fragmented version from the 90's. Most of it would make for great dancing (although the stop/start jerkiness takes some getting used to), but the middle part slows way down. It's a druggy hyper dream of a song.

"Summer, Summer"--Andy Pratt--Singer known mostly for "Avenging Annie" from '73; a yearning summer song.

"Let's Never Stop Falling in Love"--Pink Martini--Everything this modern lounge/world music band does sounds summery, even their downbeat killer version of "Que Sera Sera."


"Smoke on the Water"--Deep Purple--When this song plays, I'm always 17 and riding around the city on a hot summer afternoon with a friend in her convertible, playing air guitar and taking clandestine chugs of beer.

"Rock Lobster"--The B-52s--Duh....