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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Sin City

Today I finally got to see Sin City. The Five and Drive in Moberly failed to get the movie and then my trip to Texas prevented me from seeing it in Columbia. At last I was able to make my way to the Hollywood Stadium in Columbia to see the film. I can definitely say it was worth the wait.

For those of you who don't know, Sin City is based on the series of graphic novels of the same name by Frank Miller. Both the graphic novels and the movie are set in the fictional town of Basin City, nicknamed "Sin City" because of its extraordinarily high crime rate. Co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, this is absolutely the most loyal comic book adaptation ever made. The movie reproduces the graphic novels practically frame for frame, complete with dialogue and even narration. I daresay that it departs from the three stories it adapts ("The Hard Goodbye," "The Big Fat Kill," and "That Yellow Bastard") hardly at all.

The greatest strength of Sin City lies in its visuals. The movie is shot in black and white with splashes of colour for emphasis (for instance, the red blood that often covers the character Marv). Robert Rodriguez's cinematography is at its best in this film. His editing helps in reproducing the look and feel of the Sin City grahpic novels. This is one comic book film that is loyal not only in spirit to the original, but to the letter of it as well.

The movie is also bolstered by some strong performances. Mickey Rourke was perfectly cast as Marv, a violent ex-con possessed of his own skewed sense of honour. He is entirely convincing in the role, so much so it is hard to believe Miller didn't have him in mind when he originally created the character. Bruce Willis also gives one of his best performances as disgraced ex-cop Hartigan. Even the minor characters are played excellently, an example being Powers Booth as the evil Sentator Roarke.

I do have to offer a word of warning to anyone thinking of seeing this film. It is exceedingly violent. The violence begins in the first few frames and it is practically non-stop for the rest of the movie. If you are the least bit squeamish about violence or outright object to it, I would not recommend seeing this film. I definitely would not recommend letting children see it. Besides the violence it does have some nudity, not to mention that it deals with subjects not suitable for children.

If you don't mind violence and you enjoy a well written, well filmed, and well performed movie, on the other hand, then I would definitely say that Sin City is for you. It is a a must see for Frank Miller fans, as well as anyone who can appreciate a good film with well told stories.

Friday, April 29, 2005

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

It has come to my attention that there has been some confusion about my non de guerre, Mercurie. A blog I ran onto a few weeks ago apparently thought the name was feminine, as the author insisted on referring to me as "she." A lovely, young ladyfriend of mine (the same one who hit a cow) thought it was simply a mispelling of modern English Mercury (she is at least partially right, as I am about to explain). For those of you who are wondering, Mercurie is the Middle English/early modern English version of Mercury. It entered the language via Old French (brought to England by the Normans), which in turn stems from Latin Mercurius. Of course, Mercurius is the Latin name for the Roman god we call Mercury, the Roman god who governs trade, commerce, money making, and mediation, among other things. He was identified with the Greek god Hermes from an early time and is often depicted in the same way: wearing a winged helmet and winged sandals, and bearing a cadeseus (sort of a winged staff).

The god Mercurie (or Mercury, if you prefer) is referenced in a good many Middle English sources, chief among them Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Below are a few quotes mentioning Mercurie:

The children of Mercurie and Venus
Been in hir wirkyng ful contrarius,
Mercurie loveth wysdam and science,
And Venus loveth ryot and dispence.
And for hire diverse disposicioun
Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun,
And thus, God woot, Mercurie is desolat
In Pisces, wher Venus is exaltat;
And Venus falleth ther Mercurie is reysed.

The children of Mercury and Venus
are contrary in their lives.
Mercury loves wisdom and science,
and Venus loves pleasure and expense.
And for their diverse dispositons
each falls when the other is ascendant,
and God knows, Mercurie is desloate
in Pisces, when Venus is exalted,
and Venus falls when Mercury rises.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," The Canterbury Tales)

Hoold thou thy pees, thou poete Marcian,
That writest us that ilke weddyng murie
Of hire Philologie and hym Mercurie,
And of the songes that the Muses songe!

Hold your peace, you poet Marcian,
who writes of theat merry wedding
of Philology and Mercury,
and of the songs that the Muses sing.
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Merchant's Tale," The Canterbury Tales)

Upon a nyght in sleep as he hym leyde,
Hym thoughte how that the wynged god Mercurie
Biforn hym stood, and bad hym to be murie.
His slepy yerde in hond he bar uprighte,
An hat he werede upon hise heris brighte.
Arrayed was this god, as he took keep,
As he was whan that Argus took his sleep;
And seyde hym thus, "To Atthenes shaltou wende,
Ther is thee shapen of thy wo an ende."

Upon a night as in sleep he lay,
he thought how the winged god Mercury
stood before him, and bad him to be merry.
His sleep givng wand in hand he bore upright,
a hat he wore upon his hair bright.
Arayed was this god, as he took keep,
as he was when Argus took his sleep,
and said to him, "To Athens shall you go,
There will become an end to your woe."
(Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Knight's Tale," The Canterbury Tales)

Of course, the spelling of the name as Mercurie lasted into early modern English, so that the name Mercury is spelled Mercurie even in Shakespeare. Again, here are more quotes:

"The words of Mercurie, are harsh after the songs of Apollo...." (William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost Act V, Scene II)

My Father nam'd me Autolicus, who being (as I am) lytter'd under Mercurie, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.... (Wiliam Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Act IV, Scene III)

Look here upon this Picture, and on this,
The counterfet presentment of two Brothers:
See what a grace was seated on his Brow,
Hyperions curls, the front of Iove himself,
An eye like Mars, to threaten or command
A Station, like the Herald Mercurie
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill:
A Combination, and a form indeed,
Where every God did seem to set his Seal,
To give the world assurance of a man.
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4)

You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest; You fur your gloves with reason. Here are your reasons: You know an enemy intends you harm; You know a sword employ'd is perilous, And reason flies the object of all harm. Who marvels, then, when Helenus beholds A Grecian and his sword, if he do set The very wings of reason to his heels And fly like chidden Mercurie from Jove, Or like a star disorb'd? Nay, if we talk of reason, Let's shut our gates and sleep. Manhood and honour Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts With this cramm'd reason. Reason and respect Make livers pale and lustihood deject. (William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene II)

Is leaden servitor to dull delay: Delay leads impotent and snail-pac’d beggary: Then fiery expedition be my wing, Jove's Mercurie, and herald for a king! Go, muster men: my counsel is my shield; We must be brief when traitors brave the field (William Shakespeare, Richard the Third, Act IV, Scene III)

As to why I chose the name Mercurie, that is simple. I have always had an affinity for the god know among the Norse (often erroneously called "the Vikings"--"Viking" is a word for a profession, not an ethnicity....) as Odhinn and among the Anglo-Saxons as Woden, In the interpretation Romana, Woden was identified with Mercurius. Since the name of Mercurius in every moden English language was taken, as well as Latin Mercurius, I settled upon the Middle English version--Mercurie. There are times being a student of the Engilsh language comes in useful! Anyhow, for those who are wondering, that is the explanation behind my nom de plume and the reason why I adopted it.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Some Late Night Music

Okay, here's another song that has been going through my head of late. The Dave Matthews Band aren't The Beatles, and the clip gives out about a quarter of the way through, but it is the only streaming RealAudio clip of the song I could find (besides the Anne Murray version...bleh...):

"You Won't See Me"--The Dave Matthews Band

The Decline of the Sitcom?

Of late there has been a lot of talk about the death of the sitcom. I personally think that, as Mark Twain once said of himself, the demise of the format is great exaggerated. For better or worse, sitcoms have been around since the 1920s and they will be around well past the 2020s. That having been said, sitcoms have obviously seen better days.

Looking at last week's Nielsen ratings, sitcoms would appear to be in decline. Only Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men ranked in top thirty (Everybody Loves Raymond even made the top ten). At least CBS had two sitcoms in the top thirty, ABC and NBC couldn't had none. ABC's highest rated sitcom, According to Jim, came in at #40. At NBC, Joey and Will and Grace came in at #55 and #45 respectively.

I suppose the obvious question to ask is, "Why are sitcoms faring so badly in the ratings?" Well, I think there are two basic reasons. The first is purely my opinion and may be taken with a grain of salt, but, quite frankly, there aren't many good sitcoms on the air these days. With the excpetion of Two and a Half Men, CBS has insisted on filling its schedule with pale imitations of The King of Queens. Still Standing is just The King of Queens with kids. Yes, Dear is just The King of Queens living with their inlaws. Only Three and a Half Men is different, and I don't particularly care for it myself. At NBC things are equally bleak. Until The Office debuted a few weeks ago (not as good as the original Britcom, but very funny nonetheless), NBC hadn't debuted a good sitcom since Scrubs (now about four years old). While Joey and Committed are hardly as bad as some of the sitcoms the network aired in the Nineties (anyone remember Veronica's Closet or The Single Guy?), they hardly match NBC's classics either (Cheers, Seinfeld). ABC may well be in worse shape than NBC. With the possible exception of The George Lopez Show, which is passable, I don't think they have debuted a good sitcom in over a decade. With the airwaves filled with mediocre to bad sitcoms, I rather suspect that viewers have simply opted to watch something else. Indeed, with the exception of Scrubs and The Office, I can't recall the last time I watched a sitcom in primetime (other than on TVLand, of course...).

The second reason that I think sitcoms are now getting low ratings is, quite simply, television runs in cycles. Currently, television seems to be in cycles towards police procedurals and reality shows (although both cycles seem to be slowing down now). With viewers tuning into police procedurals and reality shows, the ratings for sitcoms will naturally suffer. There is then no reason for networks or sitcom producers to be particularly alarmed. Eventually, television will go back into a cycle towards sitcoms. It could be this year, it could be the next, but it will happen eventually. In the early Eighties, many thought the sitcom was dead, then Cheers and The Cosby Show brought attention to the format once more and revived it.

Regardless, I do think it might be a good idea for the networks to concentrate on the development of newer, better, and different sitcoms. While television will eventually go back into a cycle towards sitcoms regardless, it could be rough going for the networks until that time arrives. Traditionally, the networks have depended a good deal on sitcoms for ratings. Indeed, since the Eighties sitcoms have been the source of nearly all of NBC's ratings victories. With Everybody Loves Raymond going off the air this year, CBS could see itself stuck with a batch of mediocre sitcoms that will tank in the ratings next year. As to NBC, they may actually be in a little bit better shape. Their American version of The Office is actually good. If viewers realise how good The Office actually is, it could draw viewers back to NBC. Along with Scrubs and some new sitcoms of similar quality, they could actully rebuild their Tuesday and Thursday night line ups. At any rate, it seems to me that the networks really cannot afford to waste their time on medicore sitcoms. If last week's Nielsen ratings are any indication, viewers simply won't watch them any more. They need something new and different, another All in the Family or Seinfeld, not more clones of The King of Queens.

Some ELO in the Morning

For some reason this has been going through my head the past two days...

"The Fall"--Electric Light Orchestra

I have to apologise for the sound quality. It sounds like they recorded it off vinyl, that good old "pop and hiss..." For those of you who don't know, the song is from the movie Xanadu, for which ELO provided about half the soundtrack. Xanadu is one of Gene Kelly's last movies, and while hardly his worst, it is far from his best....

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Ahoy There, Maties! (Pirate MMORPGs)

I just saw on Yahoo News where Disney has plans to release a MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called Pirates of the Caribbean Online, based on the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. Needless to say, as a fan of both pirate movies and pirate fiction, not to mention a student of the Golden Age of piracy, my interest is piqued.

The game is currently being developed by the Walt Disney Internet Group's VR Studio. It will retain the flavour of the movie, complete with humour and plenty of swashbuckling adventure. Not only will players be able to make their own characters, but they will also be able to form their own pirate crews! As in Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl, players will be able to fight other pirates and the undead (I have a friend who claims Pirates of the Caribbean is "the most historically accurate undead/pirate movie ever made..."). The game will be suitable for anyone 12 and over. They have yet to decide if any of the characters from the movie will appear in the MMORPG. They also have yet to settle on pricing for the game. Right now they are looking at a release date in summer 2006, roughly coinciding with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl).

Of course, Disney is not the first company to start development on a pirate game. Flying Lab Software has had Pirates of the Burning Sea in development for years now. The game is set in the 18th century Caribbean. Players will be able to serve in the navy as commander of a ship of the line, get a letter of marque as a privateer, or simply "go on the account" as a pirate. Players can even create their own content, making their own 3-D models and textures and submitting them for approval for inclusion in the game.

Pirates of the Burning Sea sounds very interesting to me. Unforutnately, from reading the system requirements it looks like I would have to get a brand new, top of the line PC just to play it. The games requires very high resolution and either a DSL or cable modem connection. Those of us with standard dial up modems cannot even play the game! Anyhow, Pirates of the Burning Sea is sitll in development and no release date has yet been announced.

Another pirate oriented MMORPG is The World of Pirates, this one from the WOP-DevTeam. It is set in the 17th century Caribbean. The emphasis in this game seems to be on strategy, construction, and trade. The player can operate as a pirate or even the governor of a province. He or she can own cities, engage in diplomacy with other nations, and, of course, experience swashbuckling on the high seas. The World of Pirates seems to take the opposite approach from Pirates of the Burning Sea. The graphics are strictly 2-D. The World of Pirates is currently in beta testing.

I'm not sure that The World of Pirates would interest me that much. It sounds almost like an online cross between two Sid Meier games--Pirates and Civlization. Now I have always enjoyed such strategy games myself (I've spent literally hours playing Civlization), but a strategy game is not exactly what I want out of a MMORPG. As to the graphics, if I am going to play in a MMORPG, they had best be 3-D and as a high a calibre as my PC can handle.

As to whether any of these games will be successful, that is hard to say. With the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl behind it, I am guessing that Pirates of the Caribbean Online will be fairly successful. I imagine that the general public, especially children, might well flock to it. As to whether serious MMORPG players will find it to their liking, that may be a different matter. I have no idea if Pirates of the Burning Sea or The World of Pirates will meet with success. With regards to the former, I am thinking that its system requirements might limit its potential subscriber base. As to the latter, I am not sure that most MMORPG players are going to want a 2-D strategy game. At any rate, I do think that there are enough people interested in pirates that a pirate themed MMORPG could be a hit.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Ratings Systems

I just read on Yahoo News where the wireless industry has begun work on a ratings system for wireless content. This has been precipitated by the emergence of ringtones that are actually song clips (some lyrics not being particularly suitable for minors) and interest on the part of the adult entertainment industry in offering wireless content. The ratings system would essentilaly filter content so that those underage would not be able to access it.

I am not absolutely sure what the first ratings system classifying the content of any given medium was. I am thinking that the first ratings system may have developed with the foundation of British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification or BBFC). The organisation was founded in 1913 as an independent group, free of the government. At that time their ratings system was very simple, consisting of only two ratings: U (Universal, meaning the film was suitable for all audiences) and A (Adult, meaning children must be accompanied by an Adult). The ratings system has undergone many changes throughout the years.

In 1932 they introduced the "H" rating (for Horror, in which no one under 16 could be admitted). In 1951 the "H" rating was replaced by the "X" rating (essentially the same thing at the time). While here in America the "X" rating would become associated with pornography, in Britain at the time it was not unusual for horror movies or action films with significant violence to be rated X. Of course, the Sixties saw more sexual content emerging in films, so that in 1970 the age for attending an X rated film was raised to 18. For those British Invasion fans, you might recall the line from Peter and Gordon's song "Lady Godiva:" "He directs certificate 'X'...," sung of the movie director in the film. Since the Seventies, the British ratings system has changed even more, to where it resembles the American MPAA ratings system to a large degree (complete with a PG rating).

While the British utilised a ratings system, here in the United States, the motion picture industry had depended upon the Production Code of the Motion Picture Association of America since the Thirties to control content in movies. While many, many great films were made under the Production Code, it was so restrictive that many subjects could not be covered in film at all and many situations could not be portrayed realistically. By the Fifties many producers and directors defied the MPAA and simply distributed their films without Production Code approval. The Production Code was then abandoned. Not surprisingly, as the Sixties progressed, films became more explicit in violence, sex, and profanity. Both Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen pushed the envelope on screen violence for the time. The "F" word was used in both the screen adaptation of Ulysses and the movie I'll Never Forget What's His Name in 1967. The MPAA then decided to create a ratings system based on the content of any given movie.

The original ratings system instituted in November 1968 consisted of: G (General Audiences, meaning everyone), M (Mature audiences, parents are advised to accompany their children to the movie), R (Restricted, children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult), and X (Children under 17 not admitted). The ratings system initially caused some confusion, as many people thought that the "M" rating indicated content that was more adult even than that of an "R" rating. In 1969, M was then changed to GP (General audiences/Parental guidance suggested). GP would be changed to PG (Parental Guidance suggested) in 1970.

Since then the ratings system has undergone two changes. The first was the creation of "PG-13 (indicating parents should think twice about taking children under the age of 13)" rating. In 1984 two PG-rated films were released that caused controversy among parents of young children as to their content. One was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which featured a somewhat graphic scene of human sacrifice. The other was Gremlins, which included a scene in which one of the title creatures meets his end in a microwave oven. The MPAA decided it might then be time to create a rating for content suitable for older children, but which might be objectionable for younger kids.

The second change was the replacement of "X" with the "NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted)" rating. The reason for this was that the "X" rating had become associated with pornography, making it impossible for any serious movie with such a rating to have any sort of audience. Exhibitors simply refused to show them. As to why the "X" rating became associated with pornogrpahy, that was because the MPAA did not trademark the rating as they did others. As a result any producer could simply place the "X" rating on his product, which pornographers naturally did. The creation of NC-17 (which is trademarked) gave the MPAA their own "adult" rating, but it still did not entirely solve their problems. While pornographers are not running around rating their own movies NC-17, many exhibitors simply refuse to show movies with the rating. As a result, most producers and directors try to avoid an "NC-17" rating as much as they once would have tried to avoid an "X" rating.

While the idea of a ratings system originated with the movie industry, movies are not the only medium subject to a ratings system. In the mid-Nineties, the American television industry once more found itself under attack for violent content. The relatively adult content of TV series like NYPD Blue (then a brand new show) and the violence of mini-series, such as Murder in the Heartland (a 1993 mini about mass murderer Charley Starkweather), even attracted the attention of lawmakers. There were two end results of this backlash against the TV industry. The first was the creation of the V-chip, a chip installed in television sets that permits parents to screen out objectionable content. The second was the creation of the television ratings system. The TV programme ratings consist of: TV-Y (programmes suitable for all children, even those under 6), TV-Y7 (programmes suitable for children over 7), TV-G (programmes suitable for all audiences, but not specifically made for children), TV-PG (Parental Guidance recommended, the programme may not be suitable for younger children), TV-14 (the programme is unsuitable for children under the age of 14), and TV-M (Mature audienes only, unsuitable for children under 17). In addition to these ratings, there are also content descriptors, indicating possibly objectionable content, such as langauge (L), graphic violence (V), and so on.

While ratings systems originated with the movies, they are not the only media which utilise them. The Entertainment Software Rating Board is a voluntary organisation which enforces ratings on video games. The system uses the ratings EC (Early Childhood), E (Everyone, suitable for everyone over the age of 10), T (Teen, suitable for anyone over the age of 13), M (Mature, suitable for anyone over the age of 17), and AO (Adults Only, the equivalent of an "X" rating--for those 18 and over only). The ESRB also uses a number of content descriptors, indicating everything from alcohol use to violence.

While many media have opted for ratings systems as a means of regulating content, others have sought different means. In 1954, when the comic book industry was under attack for violence and other objetionable content, the Comic Magazine Association of America (CMAA) did not even consider a ratings system (of course, even the American movie ratings did not exist at this time). Instead they created the Comics Code Authority, which determined what content was acceptable in comic books. The problem with the Comics Code was that it was very restrictive, so much so that it reduced most comic books to little more than children's literature (the classic EC horror comics were impossible under the new code). Over the years the Code was revised so that it was not quite so strict, but eventually publishers would seek other ways of dealing with objectioanble content. In the Eighties, DC Comics started labelling certain titles for Mature Audiences Only. In 2001 Marvel Comics went one step further and abandoned the Comics Code Authority entirely. They chose instead to institute their own ratings system.

While ratings systems now exist in many different media, there are some instances where they simply have not taken hold. I remember in the Eighties, when the PMRC (the Parents' Music Resource Centre) created a tempest in a teapot over the lyrics in rock music, there was some talk of a ratings system where music was concerned. In the end, no such ratings system emerged, although the music industry started placing "Parental Advisory" labels on certain titles.

While ratings systems have existed at least since 1913 (with the creation of the British film board) and are utilised by many media, they have always had their share of detractors. Indeed, the MPAA ratings system has been under attack by various individuals and groups for years. Perhaps the most common complaint is that the system seems somewhat arbitrary. In 2001 the produers of the independent film L.I.E. appealed that film's "NC-17" rating, feeling that the MPAA had arbirarily given the movie that rating. In 1999 star and co-producer of the film This is My Father, Aidan Quinn, complained about that film being rated R. The reasons given for the movie being so rated was brief profanity, a sex scene (tame by the standards of some films), and a hanging scene which was no more intense than Judas Iscariot's suicide in Jesus Christ Superstar (in 1973 that film was rated G). In fact, some independent producers have gone so far as to accuse the MPAA of being more lenient on films from the major studios than they are on independent films. In some ways I find it hard to argue against this. While This is My Father was rated R, the Austin Powers movies, Saving Silverman, and Eight Crazy Nights all recieved "PG-13" ratings. It seems to me that either the MPAA does go a bit lighter on films from the big studios or they simply don't find raunchy humour that objectionable.

One complaint about the MPAA's ratings is what is known as "ratings creep"--that is, the idea that what would have once been ratied R is now being rated PG-13. I am not so sure that this is actually happening. I can think of plenty of instances in which a film rated PG-13 years ago contained material that would warrant an "R" rating now. A perfect example of this is the first grown up movie I ever saw, Logan's Run. Released in the mid-Seventies, the film was rated PG, yet it contained both nudity and violence. Another example is National Lampoon's European Vacation. Released in 1985, the film actually featured nudity, yet it was only rated PG-13. Today, with but few exceptions, nudity in a movie warrants an "R" rating. Even if there is no "ratings creep," the fact that what is acceptable in a "PG-13" rating varies from year to year would create a bit of a problem. Consider the dilemma of a parent trying to determine what movies are acceptable for his or her children to watch? It is quite possible that they might let their kids watch National Lampoon's European Vacation, not realising that in 1985 nudity was accetpable in movies rated PG-13.

Yet another complaint levelled at the MPAA ratings system is that it tends to be stricter on langauge and sexual situations and more lenient with regards to violence. Crtic Roger Ebert has argued consistently for the creation of an "A" rating that would restrict teenagers from attending films with high amounts of graphic violence. There have also been questions as to how much profanity, violence, nudity, and so on. in a film warrants a "PG-13" or an "R" rating.

While ratings systems have their drawbacks and will probably always have their detractors, I do think that they are preferable to the alternatives. First, I do not think that there are very many of us who want children to be exposed to material for which they simply are not ready or simply are not psychologically equipped to deal with. For that reason, a laissez-faire approach, in which films, TV shows, video games, et. al. are released with no sort of parental advisory or any means of keeping children from accessing objectionable material is not favourable to me.

Second, if we wish to regulate the content of movies, TV shows, books, and so on, the only other alternative to a ratings system of which I can think would be some sort of code. Knowing my history of pop culture, however, it seems to me that this would not work. I do not think it can be denied that many great films were produced under Hollywood's Production Code from the Thirties into the Fifites, but the fact remains that the Code was so restrictive that many great films made since that time simply could not be released. As mild a film as The Graduate (from all the way back in 1967) might seem to us today, it could not have possibly been released in 1937 under the old Production Code. A more severe example may be the Comics Code instituted by the comic book industry in 1954. For many years thereafter, content in comic books were so restricted that they became little more than children's literature (as many thought them to be anyhow). Ratings systems permit content that may not be suitable for children, while at the same time insuring that, for the most part, such material does not reach children.

I then think it is a good idea for the wireless industry to create a ratings system for regulating content. I will admit that I do not like the idea of adult entertainment being accessible through wireless technology myself, but as a supporter of the First Admendment I cannot see banning it either. Since a "code" for the wireless industry could impede creative expression, it seems to me that a ratings system might be the best route to go.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Geeks Versus Nerds

For much of society, the words geek and nerd are synonymous. It seems to me that this is not the case in geekdom, for lack of a better term, where the two words refer to two similar sorts of people with some fundamental differences. It seems to me that most geeks perceive a difference between geeks and nerds, and I have noticed the words do tend to be used differently. Indeed, I consider myself a geek, but in no way do I conisder myself a nerd.

To get an idea of the differences between geeks and nerds, it might be a good idea to look at the history of the two words. The word geek stems from a Scottish dialectal word, geck, meaning "fool," itself deriving from Middle Low German gek. The word geck appears in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: "Why have you suffer'd me to be imprison'd. And made the most notorious gecke and gull that ere invention played on?" A variant spelling, closer to modern geek, also appears in the Bard's Cymbeline: "To taint his nobler heart and brain, with needless jealousy, and to become the geeke and scorn o'th' others villiany?"

By the 19th century the word geek was being used in the United States as a word for an offensive or undesirable person. It was not long before it also attained one of its most famous senses, that of a sideshow performer who would commit bizarre acts, such as biting the heads off birds, swallowing live bugs, or pounding nails into their skulls. Geeks were considered the lowest form of life even in carnival sideshow circles, and this was perhaps for good reason. Many geeks were either drunks who would literally do anything for drinking money, while others were simply deranged. Still, there were yet other geeks who were simply skilled performers, although the skills they possessed were outré to say the least. From an undesirable or offensive person or a very specialised (to say the least) sideshow performer, the term geek took on the meaning of someone who is intensely devoted to something outside the mainstream. The keywords here are "intensely devoted" and "outside the mainstream." One can be intensely devoted to the movie Gone With the Wind, but one cannot be a Gone With the Wind geek. The reason is because Gone with the Wind is part of the mainstream. One can have a casual interest in Star Trek, but he or she would not be a Star Trek geek. While Star Trek arguably lies outside the mainstream, it takes extreme devotion rather than casual interest to be a Star Trek geek.

If the modern use of the word geek as someone with an intense devotion to something outside the mainstream stems from its use for a very specialised sideshow performer, I think this might say something about the nature of geekdom. Quite simply, geeks are geeks by choice. Arguably, except for those who were hopelessly deranged, sideshow geeks could have chosen another profession, yet they did not. By the same token, modern geeks do not have to be slavishly devoted to Lord of the Rings or anime or computers, and so on, but they choose to be so. Indeed, they choose to do so even though this may well place them at odds with the rest of society's tastes in books and movies. Quite simply, a geek is a nonconformist with an extreme devotion to something outside the norm.

While the origins of the word geek are more or less well documented, the origins of the word nerd are more obscure. In fact, the word seems to be unknown before 1950. As how or where the word originated, no one can say for certain. A word nerd appears as the name of a creature in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" In the book, the nerd is a very thin hominid. Given that Dr. Seuss does not tell precisely what a nerd is and the illustration tells us little more than nerds are thin, it seems doubtful to me that the modern slang term derives from If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss. Yet another etymology maintains that the word nerd could derive from a variation on the last name of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's dummy Mortimer Snerd. The one problem I can see with this derivation is that the word does not appear before 1950, a time when Mortimer Snerd's fame was not what it once was, making it unlikely that a variation on his last name would enter the language as a slang term.

Regardless, the word nerd may have been an established slang term by the late Fifties. It appears in 1957 in a regular column devoted to teenage slang called "ABC for SQUARES" in the Glasgow Sunday Mail. There it is defined simply as "a square." It could well have been an American slang term, as the word "square" itself was. Of course, a square is someone who is out of touch with the latest trends, someone regarded as coventional, a rigid conformist. If nerd was an established part of American slang by the late Fifties, that might explain why philosopher Timothy Charles Paul Fuller adopted the term to describe a reclusive intellectual with poor social skills in the Sixties. It would appear that this is the meaning that stuck, as by the Seventies nerds were regarded as intelligent individuals who have poor social skills, a meaning it has retained to this day. While geeks are nonconformists who have chosen their lot, nerds are simply socially inept individuals with little choice in the matter but to improve their people skills.

This brings us to what I feel to be the fundamental differences between geeks and nerds. A geek is simply a nonconformist who chooses to be extremely devoted to things that lie outside the mainstream. It is not that a geek lacks social skills or cannot get along with people, it is simply that he or she chooses not to conform to society's expectations. Just as sideshow geeks chose a profession that was outside the mainstream, a geek chooses pursuits that are outside the mainstream. On the other hand, a nerd lacks social skills. He or she simply does not know how to interact with people. In many respects, a nerd is a "square" in that he or she is to a degree out of touch with society. To put it more bluntly, a geek may well have an active social life. He or she may date, go to parties, and do everything that other people do. A nerd might well spend his or her evenings in his parents' basement watching old reruns of Lost in Space. While a nerd may be hopeless devoted to, say, Farscape in the same way that a geek may be, he or she does not have the social skills to have much of a life beyond fandom (often not even that).

In fact, the implication of intense devotion inherent in the word geek seems to be another area in which geeks differ from nerds. I have observed that the word geek is often used where we might expect the words fan or devotee, i.e. Lord of the Rings geek, computer geek, and so on. The word geek appears to me to differ from the words fan and devotee in that it implies a higher form of devotion (one bordering on obsession, perhaps) and, as pointed out above, it implies a devotion to something off the beaten track (Star Wars, heavy metal music, et. al.). As near as I can tell, the word nerd implies no such devotion. It is fully possible for one to be a nerd and not be devoted to anything.

To get a better idea of the differences between geeks and nerds, we might well look at pop culture. To me the perfect example of a geek is Q from the James Bond movies. Q is clearly devoted to the creation of unusual gadgets. He will gladly explain to 007 what each gadget can do and chides him when he doesn't bring those gadgets back intact. Yet, Q gets along quite well with people. In fact, he seems to have a high degree of social skills. The perfect example of a nerd would be the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Overweight, unattractive, and wholly abrasive, the Comic Book Guy simply rubs people the wrong way. In fact, one wonders how he stayed in business all these years, given the fact that he could well drive off all his customers with his personality! While he has a devotion to comic books that a geek might well have, he lacks the social skills that a geek would have as well.

Given that I do have social skills and I do have a life beyond the computer, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, et. al., I believe that I am a geek rather than a nerd. Geekdom is something I have chosen for myself. I can and do interact with "mundanes" and talk about such normal things as sports and the weather, topics which may be out of reach for the typical nerd. Unfortunately, for the most part I am not sure that society at large realise the terms refer to two different types of people. While the average person may look at me and know I am not a nerd, at the same time they probably do not realise I am a geek (thinking the two words synonyms). Whether using the terms correctly matters beyond geekdom, well, that is a topic for another time

Sir John Mills R.I.P.

Actor Sir John Mills died today at age 97 after a brief illness. Mills' acting career spanned over seven decades, a record matched only by a few.

While Mills was known for playing a succession of military roles, he actually began his career as a song and dance man. At the beginning of his career he was part of a team, the other half of which was a fellow called George Posford, who played the balalaika. Eventually, he would travel with an acting troupe called The Quaints, which put him in touch with Noel Coward. Coward gave him parts in his revues.

Mills made his film debut in 1932 in The Midshipmaid. It was seven years later that Mills played the role that would bring him fame and a lasting career, as Colley in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. From World War II onwards, Mills played a succession of military men, everything from an able seaman in In Which We Serve to an RAF pilot in The Way to the Star. Mills also played non-military roles as well, most notably Pip in Great Expectations, Willie Mossop in Hobson's Choice, the father in Swiss Family Robinson, and Michael in Ryan's Daughter.

While Mills was known for his roles as servicemen, his own service in World War II was brief. He was part of the Royal Engineers for less than a year before an ulcer led to him being declared unfit.

Mills won his share of honours. In 1960 he was made a Companion of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1976 he was knighted. He won the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Michael in Ryan's Daughter.

Mills did very little television and when he did it was usually in the form of TV movies and mini-series. He played Professor Bernard Quatermass in both Quatermass Conclusion and the TV series Quatermass. He also played Watson in the Sherlock Holmes telefilm Masks of Death and appeared in an adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder with Mirrors.

Mills was the consumate professional. He made over 100 films in a film career that spanned six decades. At age 80 he dismissed the idea of giving up acting. Indeed, his last role was in this year's Lights2. For many Mills will always be the very image of the British serviceman. For many more he will always be the very model of a British actor

Friday, April 22, 2005

Children's Shows

Visting my brother and sister in law this week, I was exposed to many children's DVDs some of which were collections of episodes from children's shows (The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss being one). I find it interesting how children's shows have changed over the years.

Growing up, most of the children's shows on the air were either cartoons or, at least, featured cartoons. This wasn't always the case, from what I know of television history. Before I was born the big children's show was Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody debuted on NBC in December 1947. It aired at 5:30 PM EST five days a week. The show was fairly suceessful, with good ratings and a good number of merchandising tie ins. Howdy Doody also achieved a few milestones. It was the first show to reach 1000 broadcasts. It was also the first show regularly shown in colour. The show also introduced the clay animated character known as Gumby to the world (who would outlast Howdy himself). Howdy Doody also provided Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo to most of us) with one of his first jobs (he was the first Clarabell the Clown). The show's ratings declined over the years, especially when The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC in the same time slot. Eventually the show would be moved to Saturday afternoons. In 1960, Howdy Doody would leave the air. Declining ratings had left it without a sponsor. I have seen clips of Howdy Doody and I never have understood it appeal. I asked my sister about it (she is 17 years older than I am), but she never watched the show. I guess television was simpler in those days, not to mention there were fewer children's shows.

In 1955, Howdy Doody got competition. That year The Mickey Mouse Club debuted. The show's format was simple. Each episode featured one or two musical numbers, a classic Disney cartoon, and serialised shorts of continuing series (The Hardy Boys was one). The Mickey Mouse Club was fairly successful for a time. It turned Annette Funicello into a star and produced a good amount of merchandise. Unfortunately, as the Fifties progressed, ratings for late afternoon children's shows were in decline. The Mickey Mouse Club went off the air after three years. I wasn't alive when the show first aired, although as an adult I can understand the show's appeal, having seen reruns of it on the Disney Channel. The various series aired on the show were entertaining and well done. And, of course, it was a chance to see some classic Disney animation. The show was revived in 1977, but only lasted two years. There have been a number of revivals on the Disney Channel since that time.

On the same day in 1955 that The Mickey Mouse Club debuted, so did another show. Captain Kangaroo may well be the most successful children's show of all time short of Sesame Street. Captain Kangaroo was the creation of Bob Keeshan, who had played Clarabell the Clown for five years on Howdy Doody. Keeshan wanted to create a show for children that would not be purely exploitative, but would seek to educate them as well. He created the character of the Captain as an elderly gentleman, feeling that children would relate to him as a grandfatherly figure. The show also featured a number of characters in addition to Captain Kangaroo. Mr. Greenjeans (Hugh Brannum) was the Captain's friend and would bring around various animals and talk about them. Like many kid's shows, Captain Kangaroo featured a number of puppets. Mr. Moose was a practical joker who always sought to bombard people with ping pong balls. Bunny Rabbit was always seeking to con the Captain out of a few carrots. Captain Kangaroo ran for thirty years on CBS, cancelled because the network wanted to expand its morning news. It ran another six years on PBS, for a total of 36 years on the air. Such an institution was Captain Kangaroo that I remember when CBS cancelled it, there was a good deal of uproar.

I grew up watching Captain Kangaroo and I honestly believe it was the greatest children's show of all time. It was very educational. Watching Captain Kangaroo I learned about various animals (everything from goats to dolphins), American history, proper etiquette, and many other things. At the same time, however, it was a fun show. Bob Keeshan created a wonderful world where the characters were believable and interacted with each other just as real people did. Indeed, the Captain himself was part of the show's appeal. He never talked down to the viewer, addressing us as equals.

In 1967 a similar show debuted on WQED in Pittsburgh, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. It went nationwide in 1968 on NET (National Educational Television, which would become PBS). Like Captain Kangaroo, the show blended education with fun. It featured various characters from the neighborhood, including delivery man Mr. McFeely and baker Chef Brockett. It also featured various puppet characters, such as Lady Elaine Fairchild, King Friday XIII, and Daniel Striped Tiger. The show educated its audience on a number of different topics, from getting shots to going to bed. Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was very successful. Until it was surpassed by Sesame Street, it was the longest running series on PBS. Mid-Missouri didn't have a PBS station for years, so I never got to see the show as a child. But watching it with my great nieces, I do have to say that I was impressed.

Of course, PBS is also the home of Sesame Street, which is still on the air after debuting in 1968. It is seen in over 120 countries around the globe. For those few of you who have never seen Sesame Street, the show educates children on letter, numbers,language, and social skills. It utilises both human characters and Muppets. In fact, the Muppets from the show are probably its most famous characters, from Oscar the Grouch to Cookie Monster to Bert and Ernie. As a child I remember Kermit the Frog even appeared on the show. Probably the show's most famous human character was Mr. Hooper (Will Lee), who ran the street's store. When Lee died, the show actually addressed the issue of death by having Mr. Hooper pass on as well.

While we did not have a PBS affiliate when I was growing up, I was able to watch Sesame Steet as a child. KRCG aired it right after Captain Kangaroo at 9:00 AM CST. I enjoyed the show a good deal and I have to wonder if much of my skill with words doesn't stem from learning about the alphabet and words on the show. Given that I am bad at math, it doesn't seem like it taught me much about numbers...

As a young adult I didn't pay too much to children's shows, although I became aware of them again with the birth of my oldest great niece. At two years of age she became hooked on Barney. The series was created in 1987 by teacher Sheryl Leach, who had the idea of a show for the preschool set. The series is centred on Barney, a stuffed, toy dinosaur who comes to life in a day care centre. Episodes of the seires were initially released on home video in 1988, but by 1992 the series was airing on PBS. It became a veritable craze among many preschool children (incuding my oldest great niece). The show now airs in over 100 countries.

I have to say that I have never cared for Barney. The show is supposed to be educational, covering such subjects as respect for others, self esteem, good manners, and so on. Unfortunately, I think it might do this very poorly, as I think an adult simply explaining such things to a child could do it better and in shorter time. Too, it seems to me that the show does not keep children's attention. My youngest great niece never cared for Barney. When it came on, she would usually go play or insist on watching something else. My nephew is even worse. He will demand I put a DVD on! I can only guess the show's initial success was due to the fact that there just weren't any other shows on the air for younger children at the time it debuted.

Now it seems as if there are hundreds of them, too many for me to list here. One children's show I remember from when my youngest great niece was little is Bananas in Pyjamas. The show debuted in Australia on ABC in 1992. It centres on two man-sized bananas, simply called B1 and B2. The two lived on Cuddles Lane, along side their friends Rat-in-a-Hat (my favourite character) and the Teddy Bears ( Amy, Morgan and Lulu), not to mention various assorted chracters. The typical episode might centre on one of Rat-in-a-Hat's tricks, which B1 and B2 also managed to foil. I don't remember too much about it, except it was a fun show. It had a bouncy theme song and jokes that only adults would probably get. I have to wonder if the show wasn't somewhat influenced by The Prisoner, the bananas being only know by letter and number designations... At the very least, the show was pretty surreal. I know it aired here in the States in the mid-Nineties and it is still on the air in Australia, but I've no idea if it is still airing here.

Surreal is also the word for TeleTubbies. The show originated on BBC2 in the United Kingdom in 1997 before making its way to PBS here in America in 1998. It is made with one to four year olds in mind and is meant to help with the child's imagination and thought. It centres on the TeleTubbies (Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po), who live in the magical place of Teletubbyland. The show seems entertaining enough, if a bit strange. It seems to me it would have been really popular in the Sixties with the Haight-Ashbury crowd...

The one recent kid's show that has always impressed me is The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. The series as produced by Jim Henson Productions and combined CGI with Muppets. The show featured various characters from Dr. Seuss's books, centring on the Cat in the Hat. Each episode would include a central plot involving the Cat or Sam I Am or another character, as well as one or two stories. As an adult I find the show entertaining (my sister in law claimed I was watching it a bit too intently the other day...) and my nephew absoluately loves it. Unfortunately, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss only ran one season, from 1997 to 1998. Fortunately, the whole series is available on DVD.

I really don't know where children's shows are going to go from here. I suspect that there will continue to be an emphasis on education, which it is as it should be. Depsite its failure, I think The Wubbuluous World of Seuss may well point to the future, in which children's shows may well combine computer animation and puppets. At any rate, I hope the next batch of children's shows are better than Barney..

A Bit of Morning Music

For some reason this has been going through my head very often of late...

"This Boy"--The Beatles

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dan Viets Lomahaftewa 1951-2005

Well, I am back from Texas and I am very tired. I have not slept for 24 hours (I've never been able to sleep on buses), so if this entry doesn't sound quite right, that's probably why). At least I had fun, even if I would liked to have seen a certain girl in Abilene.

Anyhow, I just learned that Dan Viets Lomahaftewa died at age 53 from internal hemorrhaging. For those of you who don't know, Lomahaftewa was a Native American aritst born of a Hopi father and a Choctaw mother. He was raised in Phoenix and got his education at Arizona State University. As a child, however, he spent summers on the Hopi reservation with his grandfather.

Lomahaeftewa was known for combining both traditional Hopi styles with more modern ones. He was also know for his vivid use of colour. He was named the first official Indian Market poster artist in 1993. He also received first place in painting at the 1989 and 1990 Indian Markets.

For a sample of his work, go to his page at the Shared Visions Gallery. For those of you interested in Native art in general, you might want to check out Kiva Fine Art, another good gallery specialising in Native American art.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Adventures of Robin Hood

For those of you who would like to know, I am still in Texas. My trip has been a mixed bag so far. On the one hand, I am still very disappointed that I didn't get to see the young lady in Abilene. I also did not much care for arriving late into Dallas. And I developed some sort of stomach bug while here. On the other hand, we had a nice family dinner Saturday and I have gotten to play a good deal with my nephews.

Anyhow, today I'd like to talk about The Adventures of Robin Hood. No, I am not talking about the classic Errol Flynn movie, but rather the British TV series that ran from 1955 to 1960. When I was in grade school, KOMU showed it every weekday afternoon. My brother and I couldn't wait to get home from school to watch it. A few years ago Encore's Action Channel showed it for a while. My brother and sister in law got me 12 of the episodes on DVD. I am still surprised at how good the show was.

Compared to today's standards, the production values of The Adventures of Robin Hood are not always up to par. But what it might lack at times in set design, it more than makes up for with great performances, good scripts and fairly solid direction. Given the individuals who made The Adventures of Robin Hood, it would probably be surprising if it wasn't good. The series was produced by Sidney Cole, who would go onto produce such shows as Danger Man (known here in the United States as Secret Agent) and Man in a Suitcase. Among the people who directed various episodes were Ralph Smart, who would go on to create Danger Man and Terence Fischer, who would go onto direct such Hammer movies as The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy. Some very talented writers also worked on the series. Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter wrote many, many episodes under pseudonyms, having been blacklisted in Hollywood (this was done to keep the folks responsible for American syndication from wanting to meet the writers). Ralph Smart also wrote quite a few episodes.

The Adventures of Robin Hood was successful in both Britain and the United States. In fact, it may well have been the first British show to become a hit here. The series ran for five years over all and even inspired a feature film (Sword of Sherwood Forest) released in 1960. It ran from 1955 to 1958 on CBS here in the United States and continued another two years with new episodes in syndication. Reruns continue in syndication to this day. To this day The Adventures of Robin Hood has maintained a cult following, primarily men like me who saw it as a child. While we may remember it from childhood, however, it is clearly a series that adults can enjoy as well.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Gone to Texas

For those of you wondering why I haven't made a post in the past few days, I've gone to Texas to visit friends and family. It was in some respects a rather rough trip. On the way down I forgot the effects of shimmying and shaking of buses on soda bottles. While on the bus I opened my bottle of Dr. Pepper and wound up with soda sprayed all over the place. I had to change pants in the bus restroom.

In Abilene I did not get to see the young lady I had wanted to. To a large degree I expected this, as her car had an unfortunate encounter with a cow earlier in the week. She didn't know if she would get a car by Thursday and, even if she had, she may not have felt up to a trip into Abilene due to her injuries. At any rate, not getting to see her did cast a dark shadow on that portion of my trip.

Fortunately, I can't say that the trip was a total waste. I walked around Abilene and saw such sites as the Grace Museum and the Paramount Theatre. The Paramount is beautiful, especially at night. It was built in 1930 with a Moorish/Spanish design. What's more, it still has all of its neon lights. This weekend they were showing Annie Get Your Gun.

Anyhow, the bus was late getting out of Abilene. It seems that they had overbooked another bus and were moving passengers to our bus. What is worse is some fellow who could not be placed on our bus (all the seats were full) decided to take the fact out on the bus driver. They wound up having to call the Abilene Police. I finally made it into Dallas about 50 minutes late, where my brother picked me up. Fortunately, my visit here in Little Elm has been pleasant.

For those of you who have been wondering where I have been at, well, there's the answer to your question. I suppose the morals of this story are: 1. If you are driving in central west Texas at night, beware of cows, and 2.) If you are living in Missouri, avoid taking buses to Texas if you possibly can...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Ever Changing Genres of Music

It seems to me that in most media, the classification of works in various genres remains fairly consistent over time. In books, Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie was considered a mystery when it was first published, as it still is today. In movies, Casblanca was considered a romance when it first debuted. It still is. In television, Star Trek was considered a sci-fi show, and it is still classed as such today. But it seems to me in music that whatever genre any given group, album, or song is considered might well tend to change over time.

A perfect example of this is Rush. When they first debuted in the Seventies, they were considered a heavy metal band. Over time, however, they came to be considered "hard rock" or, more often, "progressive rock." And while I do believe Rush's sound softened over time, I don't see that it changed so drastically that they ceased to be heavy metal. A more severe example may be Roy Orbison. Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, Orbison was considered a rock 'n' roll singer. Since then I have occasionally heard him described as country. Now Orbision certainly did perform songs that could be counted as country, but it seems to me that the majority of his work were either rock 'n' roll or ballads. I think he is best counted as a rock performer who sometimes did country songs.

Of course, sometimes artists are counted in genres into which they don't even fit. I remember in the early days of Van Halen, they were counted as heavy metal. Now eventually they would be considered hard rock. That having been said, I don't see how they could have been counted as heavy metal. Even then, they sounded more like hard rock to me. An even more extreme example may be Kid Rock. I read an article many, many months ago in which he was described as a rock star. Now, quite frankly, to me Kid Rock sounds about as much like a rock performer as The Beatles do a swing band. Or The Killers do a calypso group. If I were to classify his music, it would be as rap. He has more in common with Ice Cube and Eminen than he does The Who or Cheap Trick.

Anyhow, it seems to me that to some degree music genres and subgenres tend to be amorphous and everchanging. Today's heavy metal is tomorrow's hard rock. I don't really have any explanation for why, except perhaps for the genres themselves changing and evolving over the years. Of course, I have no explanation for why some artists are placed in genres into which they do not even fit (Kid Rock is not rock). That doesn't make sense to me at all.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Waiting in Line for Revenge of the Sith...for Weeks?!

I just read an article about fans already lining up to see Revenge of the Sith in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Now I am a huge Star Wars fan. Growing up I had a ton of Star Wars parphenalia: the comic books, paperbacks, models, et. al. That having been said, I cannot picture lining up to see a movie that won't be released for another six weeks!

What is worse is that the fans lining up at Grauman's cannot be aboslutely certain that Revenge of the Sith will even play there. The theatre has not booked the movie as of yet. It will definitely play at the Arclight Theater, which is apparently a few blocks away. Despite this, Star Wars fans are refusing to move the line to the Arclight. From what I gather, they simply prefer Grauman's Chinese Theatre to the Arclight. I have to admit I can understand why. I never heard of the Arclight until I read the article. I've known of Grauman's Chinese Theatre since childhood. It is perhaps the most famous movie theatre in the world besides Radio City Music Hall.

I suppose a lot of mundanes would call these fans "crazy," but as for myself I see little harm in lining up for a movie six weeks before it even opens. Of course, as I said, I cannot picture doing it myself. For one thing, I do not think it would be comfortable camping out on the sidewalks of Los Angeles for literally weeks, at the mercy of the weather and who knows what else.

For another thing I cannot see how anyone who is not independently wealthy could afford to do so. Like most Americans, I only get two weeks paid vacation from my job. I assume then that, unless all of these fans are indendently wealthy, most of them are making no money while standing in line to see Revenge of the Sith. I have to wonder how they can afford to eat or keep a roof over their heads. Anyhow, I can think of better things to do with my own time than to wait in line for a movie. Besides which, there are other things I would rather do with my vacation than wait in line for a movie for six weeks.

Anyhow, as a Star Wars fan myself I do have to sympathise with them. I wish them luck and I do wish the fans luck and I hope Grauman's does wind up showing Revenge of the Sith. Otherwise, I imagine there will be a lot of irate people...

The Overexposure of TV Series

Today on the Internet I was reading how ratings for Trading Spaces have dropped dramatically. Last year around 659,000 people watched Trading Spaces on Saturday night. That number is down to 429,000 this year. This dramatic dip in ratings for Trading Space would perhaps not be so serious if similar makeover shows, such as Clean Sweep and While You Were Out were not performing poorly in the ratings as well. The end result is that TLC's over all ratings are down from what they were two years ago, when Trading Spaces was still a hot show.

Quite simply, the problem was overexposure. TLC aired Trading Spaces ten times a week at its peak. On top of that, a whole host of imitators sprung up, such as The Discovery Channel's Surprise by Design and ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In the end, not only did Trading Spaces suffer from overexposure, but the entire genre of home makeover shows.

It seems to me that overexposure is a relatively new phenomenon in television. Indeed, I think what constituted overexposure has changed from what it was in the Sixties and Seventies. One of the old theories as to why The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. failed and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s ratings slid in its third season was that there was too much U.N.C.L.E. on the air--even though between the two shows there would have only been two hours of U.N.C.L.E. each week! Of course, this was at a time when any given prime time show might air six times a week at most. And that once only if prior seasons of a show still on prime time had been released to syndication! With but few exceptions (Batman and Peyton Place being two), most prime time shows on the broadcast networks only aired once a week.

It seems to me that the advent of cable channels changed all this. MTV would air episodes of The Real World and Road Rules as many as ten or more times a week. Lifetime would air reruns of various sitcoms at least twice a day. Even a broadcast network overexposed a show. ABC aired Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? so often that its ratings plummeted, taking the rest of the ABC schedule with it.

Why does overexposure hurt TV shows and even entire networks so badly? My theory is that there are two factors at work. The first is a simple case of supply and demand. The more times a show is aired, the more times people can watch it. As a result, the audience becomes spread out over several different airings. If the show was on only once or even twice a week, its ratings may well be higher as the audience would be forced to watch the show all at once. The second is that people probably just get burned out on a show when it airs too often. After seeing Trading Spaces too many times, people may well have tired of the show (not to mention its imitators), and so they sought other things to watch.

I think the lesson to be learned from all of this is that for both the broadcast networks and cable channels, overexposure should be avoided whenever possible. Too often a show's ratings can suffer as a result. And too often that show's ratings can drag the rest of the network or cable channel's ratings down as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Atlas of Middle-Earth

I recently checked out The Atlas of Middle-Earth by Karen Wynn Fonstad from the library. Yes, I know it was first published in 1981. Yes, I do believe that there have been at least two editions since then. I hope that doesn't mean my geek status will be revoked for reading it just now! For those of you who are not Tolkien fans or geeks, The Atlas of Middle-Earth is a collection of maps and a discussion of the geography of the world featured in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Anyhow, The Atlas of Middle-Earth is a marvelous book in my opinion. It features maps of Arda in the First, Second, and Third Ages. What is more is that it has maps of places featured in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. There are maps of the Shire, Hobbiton, Minas Tirith, Mount Doom, and many other places of interest. There are even blueprints of many of the buildings that play a major role in the books, from Bilbo's hobbit hole to the Prancing Pony to the home of Elrond. There are also maps of every major battle, as well as the paths the various adventurers took in their journeys. If The Atlas of Middle-Earth had stopped there, it would still be a remarkable book, yet it also features thematic maps showing the landforms, climates, vegetation, population distribution, and the distribution of languages in Middle-Earth.

The Atlas of Middle-Earth is a great resource for any fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. In a small space Karen Wynn Fonstad provides a great deal of information and a meticulous attention to detail. If you have never read it and you are a fan of Tolkien, I recommend that you by all means do so.

Saturday, April 9, 2005

MGM and UA Requiescat in Pace

MGM, the studio that brought us the Thin Man films, Grand Hotel, the Tarzan movies, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and even Tom and Jerry, is gone. Gone too is United Artists, the studio that brought us The African Queen the James Bond movies, the Pink Panther films, The Beatles' movies, and Annie Hall. Sony Corporation and a collection of other companies bought United Artists and MGM's assets for $3 billion yesterday. This gives Sony control of both United Artists and MGM's impressive film libraries, as well as the MGM and United Artists names. Sony will continue to release movies under those names, but the days when MGM and United Artists were independent studios are over.

MGM was formed in 1924 through the merger of three studios: Metro (founded in 1915 by the Loews family, owners of the famous theatre chain), Goldwyn (founded in 1916 by famous producer Samuel Goldwyn and Broadway producers Edgar and Archibald Selwyn), and Mayer (founded in 1917 by Louis B. Mayer). MGM became the dominant studio in the Thirties. It boasted more stars than any other studio, including such big names as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow. MGM became known for its large scale melodramas. Still later it would become the home of the Hollywood musical. From the Thirties into the Fifties, it produced such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin' in the Rain.

United Artists was founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford. The idea behind United Artists was simple--it was a studio owned by the artists. Unfortunately, United Artists was never as large as studios such as MGM and Warner Brothers. It met with financial problems as early as the late Forties and was bought by Arthur Krim in 1952. He sold it to Transamerica in 1967. Over the years United Artists produced more than its share of classics, such as The Front Page (1931), Scarface (1932), and Judegement at Nuremberg.

Amazingly, MGM also experienced financial difficulties in the Sixties. The studio found more and more of its films failing at the box office. By 1969 MGM was in the hands of corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian. Unfortunately, it fared no better in the Seventies. Buying United Artists in 1981 did not help either studio. Much of the MGM and UA film library was sold to Ted Turner in 1986.

I am truly saddened to hear that MGM/UA has been sold to Sony Corporation and its partners. MGM was the giant of the industry for some time, with many classic films to its credit. United Artists also produced its fair share of classics, although on a smaller scale. I have fond memories of both companies. I remember seeing the MGM logo before such films as The Wizard of Oz and the Thin Man movies, not to mention the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons. I also remember watching many a film with the United Artists logo, among them The Beatles movies and the James Bond films. It is sad to think both studios are gone.

Besides the fact that the two studios have ceased to exist beyond labels to be placed on Sony productions, there is the simple fact that now there are two less studios in existence. It seems that with each year the entertainment industry falls under the control of fewer and fewer companies. At one time there were 7 major studios and a potpourri of smaller ones. I am guessing now that number is much, much smaller. That is unfortunate, as I suspect better movies (and, for that matter, songs, TV shows, books, and so on) are more likely to arise from a diversity of sources than only a few. It is a sad day in entertainment history.

Friday, April 8, 2005

Gene Kelly and Animation

When most people think of animated cartoons, they don't tend to think of musicals as well. Despite this, animation and musicals have a long association going back nearly to the introdcution of sound to motion pictures. Walt Disney was one of the first animators to introduce music into animated cartoons. In fact, Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a musical, as were the majority of animated features Disney Studios released from the Thirties to the Eighties.

While Disney Studios may have made the most use of music combined with animation (either full animation or animation mixed with live action), they were not the only ones. MGM did its share as well, sometimes incorporating animated segments into its musicals. MGM boasted what may have been the third biggest animation studio in the industry during the Golden Age of Hollywood (only Disney and Warner Brothers may have been bigger) and also boasted two of the industry's most talented animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. MGM may also have been the biggest producer of musicals during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was natural then for MGM to occasionally blend the two. And, naturally, it would be their biggest musical star, Gene Kelly who would work with animated characters the most.

Kelly's first encounter with animation came with the movie Anchors Aweigh. Among the highlights of the film are Kelly's famous dance with Jerry the mouse of Tom and Jerry fame. Oddly enough, initally Mickey Mouse had been wanted for the sequence, even though MGM had more than its fair share of famous cartoon characters. Walt Disney refused permission to use Mickey, so it was Jerry who got to perform the famous dance. The sequence was created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who also happened to be the creators of Tom and Jerry, MGM's most famous characters. Seeing the sequence, even Dinsey was forced to admit that it was better than anything his studio could have done during that period. Keep in mind that Disney had been one of the first animators to combine live action and animation, going all the way back to his Alice shorts of the Twenties!

Gene Kelly would again work with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera on Invitation to the Dance, in the final (and many consider the best) sequence of the movie, entitled "Sinbad the Sailor." "Sinbad the Sailor" was much longer than the Gene and Jerry sequence from Anchors Aweigh. And while the Gene and Jerry sequence involved only one animated character, "Sinbad the Sailor" involved only one live action character--Gene. The sequence begins with Gene in a United States navy uniform in a live action Arabian market place. He finds a lamp, complete with a genie, and is then transported to an animated world based on The Arabian Nights. There he encounters a dragon, woos a princess, and fights with swordsmen. The entire sequence is devoid of dialogue and set to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. While An Invitation to the Dance was one of Gene's pet projects, it did not fare well at the box office. Indeed, while it was finished in 1953, MGM did not release it until 1957. Apparently, the studio did not know what to make of it!

MGM's animation studios would close in 1957. This would not mean that Gene Kelly and the team of Hanna and Barbera would not work together again. Hanna and Barbera opend their own studio and moved into the area of producing cartoons for television. February 26, 1967, NBC aired a special called Jack and the Beanstalk. The hour long special was directed by Gene and featured himself in the role of the peddler. It also featured a good deal of animation provided by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Jack and the Beanstalk was the first work in television history to combine both live action and animation. It was also critically well received and won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Programme.

Unfortunately, this would be the last time Kelly worked with animation. Xanadu would feature an animated sequence created by Don Bluth, but Gene was not featured in that sequence.

While Disney perhaps did the most extensive work with animation and music, arguably the work Gene Kelly did with animation was among the most memorable. Both his dance with Jerry from Anchors Aweigh and "Sinbad the Sailor" from Invitation to the Dance are counted among the classic sequences in animation history. While Jack in the Beanstalk has largely been forgotten, I would suspect a release on DVD would establish it as a classic as well. In my humble opinion, Gene Kelly, William Hanna, and Joseph Barbera took animation and musicals where they had never been before.

Wednesday, April 6, 2005

The Library

"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
Marcus Tullius Cicero (Rome, 106 BCE-43 BCE)


Yesterday the proposed library tax passed here in Randolph County by a margin of about 60%. That makes me very happy. The library's budget has been drastically cut in the past two years. We have had to cut down on the number of books and DVDs we can buy each year. Concievably, if this tax had not passed, we may well have had to shut down branches in the coming years. Worse yet, the entire libary system could shut down. That would be a shame as I consider libarires to be very necessary to the health of any community.

Indeed, I feel that I have learned more at various libraries over the years than I did in school or university. Oh, school gave me the basics. It taught me how to read and write, but with those skills I was able to utilise the library. And it was at the library that I learned about such things as the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, television history, the histories of various religions, and so on. I cannot say that libraries are necessarily more important than schools (after all, what use is a library if one cannot read?), but I would say that they are as important. They allow people to continue their education on their own.

Libraries have existed since ancient times. The earliest library is believed to be one that existed in Babylonia circa the 21st century BCE. Libraries existed in ancient Egypt, Ninevah, and Jersualem. In 330 BCE the first public library in Greece opened. Of course, the greatest library of the ancient world existed in Alexandria. It was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World. Caius Asinius Pollio founded the first public library in Rome. Under Augustus, public libraires flourished in the Roman Empire.

In the Middle Ages most monasteries were equipped with libraries. Later the universities would follow suit. Libraries were very much a part of the Arabic world at the time, and the Arabs preserved many classic Greek works lost to Europe. Byzantium also had its share of fine libraries.

In the United States, the Boston Public Library opened in 1653. Benjamin Franklin was key in the founding of a circulation library in Philadephia in 1732. The first Public Libaries Act, passed in 1850, established libraries in teh United Kingdom. Key to the history of the library was philathrophist and millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Throughout his lifetime he donated more than $65 million to establish libraries throughout the United States. Both the Moberly Library (originally Carnegie Library, named for its benefactor) and the Huntsville Library owe their existence to Carnegie. The fact that these two libraries were the cornerstones of the Little Dixie Library System (serving Randolph and Monroe Counties) means he was responsible for it, too.

Libraries have then been around for a long time. And it is through libraries that a good many people have gained further education. I am then very happy that our library tax passed. It means we can continue our mission of serving the community for some time to come.

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

LeStat the Musical?

A few weeks ago I talked about a musical based on Lord of the Rings. If you are like me, I imagine that struck many of you as rather strange. Now here is another strange idea for a musical for you: a musical called LeStat based on the works of Anne Rice. Believe it or not, just such a musical is soon going to be a reality. It won't be long before the famous vampire will be on stage.

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin are working on the musical as I write this. At the moment it it is planned for LeStat to open at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco this fall. They hope that it will make Broadway next yaar. From what I understand, the musical is based on the novels Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire LeStat, and Queen of the Damned.

Unlike Lord of the Rings, I think a musical based on Anne Rice's books could work. It is not as if musicals have not drawn upon the horror genre before. Little Shop of Horrors has been one of the most successful musicals of the past two decades. Jekyll and Hyde has been a hit and even boasts a cult following. There is also the musical based on Dracula, although I have heard it has actually lost money. While musicals have been made that were based in the horror genre and even been successful, I have my doubts about LeStat. The first problem I have with the idea is that, like Lord of the Rings, they seem to be trying to draw upon too much material. I could see a musical based on Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire LeStat, but how are they going to fit material from Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire LeStat, and Queen of the Damned into a space of less than three hours? I don't see how they could succeeed at that without it seeming rushed.

My second problem is that when I think of Anne Rice's works, I don't think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Their musical style may be suited to The Lion King and Aida, but it does not bring to mind vampires and Gothic settings. As far as musicals go, I could see, Andrew Lloyd Webber might be able to pull this off (after all, he did do The Phantom of the Opera. Ideally for me, a musical based on the character of LeStat would either have a score in the Gothic genre (Sisters of Mercy, Type O Negative) or heavy metal (Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica). I am not sure that such a musical would be a hit, but at least those genres bring to my mind vampires and Gothic horror. I then have serious doubts that John and Taupin can pull this musical off.

Anyhow, take a look at the story on Yahoo News

Monday, April 4, 2005

Three Short Lived Shows with a Difference

Every now and again a television show comes along that is different from anything that has been on before. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek are examples of such shows from the past. Lost is a current example. Often such shows are critically acclaimed. Often such shows also develop cult followings. And, unfortunately, often such shows are cancelled in a season or less.

To me the perfect example of one such show is Profit. Profit aired for all of four weeks on Fox in April 1996. Even rave reviews from critics did not save the show from cancellation. What set Profit apart from every other series before it is that its protagonist was also the villain. The series centred on Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar), born Jimmy Stokowski, who was a Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Profit was hardly what one would call a sympathetic character. In fact, he might well have been the vilest character ever seen on television. He would literally do anything to get ahead at Gracen and Gracen. In the debut episode alone, Profit framed co-worker Walters for the "murder" of Wayne Gresham, who actually died of natural causes! What made Profit such a remarkable series was that its characters were very well developed for a TV series. Jim Profit himself was hardly a cardboard cutout, as the reasons behind his evil rest in his past. The child of an older father and a younger woman, Profit's father took very little interest in him. In fact, he even made little Jimmy sleep in a cardboard packing box! That Profit still sleeps in a box even as an adult perhaps says that he, quite simply, never grew up. Profit was one of the shows aired as part of Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled, allowing more people to discover the series. Perhaps for that reason, it makes its debut on DVD this summer--all ten episodes, even those not aired in the United States!

Another series which was decidedly different but lasted all too briefly was Nowhere Man. Nowhere Man was one of the first shows to air on UPN. Unfortunately, it only lasted 25 episodes, exactly one season (the 1995-1996 season to be exact). Nowhere Man is a hard series to sum up in a sound byte. Perhaps the best way to describe it briefly and concisely is as a cross between The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Nowhere Man centred on Thomas Veil, a documentary photographer who suddenly finds his entire life wiped out. His friends and family refuse to acknowledge him. His ATM cards and credit cards no longer work. Even the keys to his home and his studio work no more. Veil has little idea why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with photographs of an execution from a Third World country which went missing from his studio. Regardless of the reasons, some vast Conspiracy with a Hidden Agenda has erased all record of his existence. Worse yet, they are pursuing him, forcing Veil on a cross country journey to both escape them and uncover the truth about them. Nowhere Man featured starkly original plots that tended towards the cerebral side. Like The Prisoner, Nowhere Man was a thinking man's action series.

A more recent, short lived series that was decidedly different was Firefly. Created by Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Firefly centred on the spaceship Serenity, whose crew were largely outcasts. There was Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe Warren (Gina Torres), who made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side in the Unification Wars. There was Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher well off the beaten track. And there was Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who was a Companion (sort of a high scale prostitute). On the surface, Firefly might sound a lot like Farscape or Blake's Seven, but the show's execution set it apart from other sci-fi shows. There were no strange aliens to be found on Firefly; only human beings appeared on the series. And the show had a definite Old West feel. Firefly treated outer space literally as a new frontier, where lawlessness often prevailed. The series boasted some very original, very well written episodes and received good reviews from critics. It also developed a loyal following. Unfortunately, Fox gave the show little chance. It was placed on Friday night, where very few genre shows have ever survived. And rather than move the show to a better time slot, Fox simply cancelled the series. Fortunately, this was not the end of Firefly. A feature film based on the series, Serenity, hits theatres later this year.

There are many other shows that were decidely different (and were actually good as well), that I could probably discuss here. It seems to me that when a show is actually different from any other series that has aired before, it often shortens the lifespan of that show a good deal. Such shows seem to take time to develop followings. And, unfortuately, from what I know of television history, it does not seem that network executives are a patient lot. They want fairly good ratings from the beginning and, if they don't get them, the series is generally cancelled. If Lost had not performed well in the ratings, it would probably be off the air by now. It can only be hoped that in the future, network excecutives will give shows that are different more of a chance. Looking back at such shows that have been given a chance (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hill Street Blues), they could well have a hit on their hands.

Sunday, April 3, 2005

Two Figures in the Television Industry Pass On

Two figures in the television industry have recently died. The first death was that of television director Greg Garrison. He passed on March 25 at age 81 from pneumonia. Garrison was tapped by legendary NBC programmer Sylvester "Pat" Weaver and producer Max Liebman to direct Your Show of Shows in 1950. He would go onto direct The Milton Berle Show, as well as many TV specials. From 1965 to 1974 he directed the show for which he is best known, The Dean Martin Show. Despite his entertainment background, Garrison also directed the pivotal, presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

The second figure from the television industry to die was also part of the music industry. Songwriter and producer Jack Keller died Friday at age 68 from leukemia.

With partner Howard Greenfield, Jack Keller wrote "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own" for Connie Frances and "Venus in Blue Jeans" for Jimmy Clanton. With Gerry Goffin, Keller wrote "Run to Him" for Bobby Vee.

Jack Keller also wrote various television themes, including the themes to Hazel and Gidget. Arugably, his most famous composition was the theme song to the TV series Bewitched. Keller was one of the producers on The Monkees' first album and the man who produced their theme song. He also co-wrote the songs "Hold On Girl" and "Your Auntie Grizelda" with Diane Hilderbrand for the band. Keller was both a talented songsmith and a talented music producer.

Saturday, April 2, 2005

Daylight Savings Time

Tonight we here in the United States (except for a few select counties in Indiana) will move our clocks an hour forward as Daylight Savings Time goes into effect. Daylight Savings time has been the law of the land for the majority of my life. Even so, I still detest it.It takes me weeks to adjust to it. In fact, for the first few weeks of Daylight Savings Time, I often find myself feeling sleep deprived.

In theory, Daylight Savings Time is supposed to save energy. I have always tended to doubt this myself. True, according to the clock it stays light later of an evening, but then, according to the clock, it also stays dark later of a morning. That means that the electricity one saves by turning on their lights later of an evening is pretty much spent by turning them on earlier of a morning. It's like my boss says, "It's like cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it to the other in an effort to make it longer."

This brings me to another point. Discounting solar batteries, it is impossible to save daylight. Regardless of what time clocks here in the United States say, there is going to be the same amount of daylight on April 4 regardless of whether Daylight Savings Time is in effect or not.

Beyond the possiblity that Daylight Savings Time probably doesn't result in much energy saved, the fact that many of us are sleep deprived after switching to Daylight Savings Time, and sheer impossibility of actually saving daylight, there is the sheer fact that, according to the clock, nightfall occurs later. Even though Daylight Savings Time has been around since I was a child, it just seems unnatural to me for the sun to be setting at 8:00 PM.

Anyhow, to me Daylight Savings Time hardly seems worth it. I very seriously doubt it saves much energy. Even if some energy is saved, it seems to me that the lost productivity due to sleep deprived people whose bodies have not yet adjusted to Daylight Savings Time would cost employers more than the energy supposedly saved by Daylight Savings Time. Anyhow, I am all for its repeal. Immediately.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Fantasy Films of the Eighties

It seems to me that, in the Eighties, the motion picture industry went through a cycle of fantasy movies. I am not sure, but I think that more fantasy films may have been made in the Eighties than any other time. It is possible that there may have been more fantasy films made in the late Fifties and the early Sixties, when such movies as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and the Hercules movies were released, although I tend to doubt it. Regardless, even if more fantasy films were made in the late Fifties and early Sixties, there were a good number of fantasy movies made in the Eighties.

The cycle began in 1981 when two major motion pictures in the fantasy genre were released. The first was Excalibur, directed by John Boorman. To this day Excalibur is considered the definitive movie about the Arthurian mythos. As such, it is most definitely a fantasy movie. Unlike some movies about King Arthur which downplay or even do away with the magical aspects of the legends, Excalibur played them up. Indeed, Merlin (Nicol Williamson) is very nearly the main character. The movie did well at the box office and maintains a loyal following to this day.

The second fantasy movie released in 1981 was Dragonslayer. Dragonslayer combined the classic dragon slaying motif with the idea of the sorcerer's apprentice. The result is a fairly original story with a few surprises. Dragonslayer also boasted some of the best special effects of its era. In fact, they hold up very well alongside today CGI creations and often look better.

Even then, when I was still an teenager, I thought it odd for two fantasy movies to be released in one year. After all, the motion picture industry can go literally years without even one film in the genre. It was a bit more surprising, then, when in 1982 Conan the Barbarian was released. Conan the Barbarian departed from Robert E. Howard's stories a good deal. And Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting left a little bit to be desired at this point in his career. Ultimately, Conan the Barbarian would do well at the box office and give a good boost to Schwarzenegger's career.

Of course, Conan the Barbarian was not the only fantasy film released in 1982. That same year saw the release of The Dark Crystal. The Dark Crystal is a unique movie in that no human beings appear in the entirety of the movie. Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz and produced by Jim Henson Productions, every single role was played by Muppets. But these Muppets were a far cry from Kermit and Miss Piggy. The movie is set on another planet where the good Gelfings have been in a long conflict with the evil Skekses. The key to preventing the planet from falling under control of the Skekses forver is to repair the Dark Crystal, a magical artefact damaged long ago and capable of restoring order to the world. The Dark Crystal is some of the best work Henson Productions ever did, with well rounded characters and some very interesting visuals. Definitely a different sort of movie.

Nineteen eighty three saw the release of Krull, an ill fated attempt to blend fantasy and science fiction. In this movie the planet Krull, a world with medieval technology and magic, is attacked by an alien force. Both the special effects and makeup left a bit to be desired in Krull. This could perhaps be forgiven if it was not for the very poor script. Krull is perhaps one of the worst of the major motion pictures released in the fantasy genre in the Eighties.

Nineteen eighty five saw the release of two fantasy films. The first here in the United States was Legend. Directed by Ridley Scott, the director behind both Aliens and Blade Runner, the movie was highly anticipated by sci-fi and fantasy fans alike. Unfortunately, many of them would be disappointed. The movie was severely cut for release in the United States. As a result the characters seemed little more than cardboard cutouts. The music by Eric Allaman was also replaced by a score by Tangerine Dream, an ill fit for a fantasy movie set in a fairy tale world. I have yet to see the European version of the film, but I have heard it is very good from friends who have seen it. It is a shame it wasn't the version that was released here in the United States.

The second fantasy film to be released in the United States in 1985 was Ladyhawke. Directed by Richard Donner and starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Hauer (both at the peak of their careers), LadyHawke drew upon medieval folk tales to create a tale about two lovers, the man cursed with being a wolf by night and the woman with being a hawk by day. LadyHawke has a little bit of everything for everyone. There is romance. There is action. And there is beautifully shot medieval settings. It also features what may well be the longest sword fight in cinematic history (I can't recall if the one in Scarmouche is longer or not). Besides Excalibur and Dragonslayer, it may well be one of the best fantasy mvoies of the Eighties.

By 1986 the cycle towards fantasy movies seems to have been winding down. That year saw only one major release. Labryrinth was another Henson Production, once more featuring Muppets (as well as David Bowie as the Goblin King). The story centred on a girl who wishes her little brother to the goblins and then must rescue him from the critters. Beyond featuring a number of fanciful characters (various Muppets very unlike Kermit or Miss Piggy), Labryrinth also differed from other fantasy movies in that it was set in the present day (most were set in some past, whether real or imagined). Like The Dark Crystal, Labryrinth was well done, with well developed characters and a great sense of humour.

Humour took the forefront in The Princess Bride, released in 1987. The Princess Bride is a unique blend of comedy, swashbuckler movies, and fairy tales. It is also set apart from other movies of the fantasy cycle in having a more of a Renaissance setting rather than a medieval one. The Princess Bride is quite simply a crowd pleaser, a likable movie with a good cast, a good script, and good direction. It is no wonder it is considered by some a classic.

By 1988 the fantasy cycle had pretty much come to an end. That year saw the release of the last major motion picture in the cycle, Willow. Willow has taken its share of criticism for apparently being inspired by both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but ultimately it is simply a fun, well made movie. In the film, the dwarf Willow finds that he must protect an infant who will some day put an end to the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda. As the plot unfolds there is plenty of action and excitement, and even a bit of romance. While Willow may not be of the same quality as Excalibur or LadyHawke, it is quite an enjoyable film that most genre fans can probably appreciate.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that the fantasy cycle of the Eighties did not entirely consist of big budget, major releases. In fact, low budget fantasy films may well have outnumbered the big budget ones. Just like the fantasy cycle of the late Fifties and early Sixties, Italian producers flooded the market with cheap, often poorly made fantasy movies. Ator the Fighting Eagle and a very bad remake of the Fifties movie Hercurles were among the legion of Italian fantasy movies released throughout the Eighties. The Italians were not the only ones producing cheap fantasy movies. One of the worst fantasy films of the era was a British movie based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sword of the Valiant wasted the talents of Sean Connery and everyone else in it.

It is difficult to say what caused the fantasy cycle of the Eighties. It is quite possible that the continued success of Tolkien's works may have a hand in creating the cycle. In 1966 Lord of the Rings became a veritable fad on college campuses. By the Seventies, the novel had become an institution. Throughout the Seventies, books about Tolkien's works, as well as previously unpublished Tolkien works, were published in droves. Movie producers probably noticed this success and sought to emulate it on film. Indeed, this seems to have occurred in the book industry, as more and more fantasy novels were being published at this time.

It must also be remembered that in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games became a bit of a fad. Any producer keeping an eye on fads and trends may well have realised that fantasy movies would naturally appeal to the role playing set. Of course, the success of Excalibur, Dragonslayer (at least its success on video--Dragonslayer did not do well at the box office), and Conan the Barbarian undoubtably led to the production of more fantasy movies. In fact, the fantasy cycle of the Eighties could have owed its existence to one film--Star Wars. The space opera has its share of fantasy elemenets, including the mystical Force, Jedi Knights, and sword duels in the form of light sabre battles.

Since the Eighties only a handful of fantasy films have been released. Given the success of The Lord of the Rings movies, I have to wonder that this won't change. Indeed, the first book in C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is being filmed even as I write this. If it is a hit, I have no doubt that another cycle towards fantasy movies might well take place.