Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tristan + Isolde

"You were right. Life is greater than death. And love is greater than either."
(Tristan from the film Tristan + Isolde)

"All men must have someone, have someone
who would never take advantage
of a love bright as the sun.
Someone to stand beside them
and you just may be the one."
("You Just May Be the One," Michael Nesmith)

Last night I watched Tristan + Isolde on DVD. I must admit that I didn't know quite what to expect from the film. I knew that it was directed from Kevin Reynolds, who directed two of my favourite movies (Fandango and The Count of Monte Cristo). I also knew that it based on the Celtic myth of Tristan and Iseult, upon which many poems, books, and even an opera (by Wagner, no less) are based. Unfortunately, the movie made little impact at the box office and I seem to recall it got decidedly mixed reviews. While I knew the subject matter would interest me (I have always been a Welsh mythology buff), I did not know if I would like the film.

Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised. Tristan + Isolde is a very good movie. The movie's strength rests with Dean Georgaris's screenplay. Geogaris wrote a tale which unfolds with a deliberate pace, where character development is given precedence over set pieces. Tristan + Isolde is not an empty love story where all the old cliches are slipped into place. It is a romance where the events emerge from the emotional states and actions of the characters and the political realities that surround them. The love between Tristan and Isolde develops over time as their characters develop. As a result their love seems all the more realistic. Indeed, the movie captures the themes of the myth perfectly--the conflict between a man's honour and duty to his king and his love for a woman.

Of course, even the best screenplay won't make a good movie if the performances aren't good. Fortunately, the cast does a good job in Tristan + Isolde. Sophia Myles is very convincing as Isolde, while James Franco does well as Tristan. The best performance by far, however, is given by Rufus Sewell as Marke. Sewell's Marke is good, noble, sympathetic, and, ultimately, tragic.

The performances are aided aptly by the movie's production values themselves. Shot on limited money, Tristan + Isolde has the feel of an epic without an epic budget. Much of this is due to the direction of Kevin Reynolds and the cienmatography of Arthur Reinhart, who wisely choose their shots to give the movie a bigger than life feel without a cast of thousands. Indeed, Reinhart's photography (the movie was shot on location in both Ireland and the Czech Republic) is absolutely beautiful.

I will not say that Tristan + Isolde is necessarily a great film, but it is certainly a very good film. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Celtic myth, the Dark Ages, or simply a well told love story.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Warren Platner R.I.P.

On April 20 architect and designer Warren Platner died of complications from spinal mennigitis at the age 86. Platner designed the interiors of several prominent buildings and one of the most successful collections of furniture of all time.

Platner was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a degree in architecture from Cornell University in 1941. He would go onto work for Eero Saarinen (the man who designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis), participating in the designs of the Lincoln Centre's Repetory Theatre and New York's Dulles International Airport.

It was in the Sixties that he commenced upon what may be his most famous work. Working with a production team at Knoll Inc. (manufacturer of furnishings for the workplace), he created the Knoll Platner collection. The Knoll Platner collection (which has been in production since 1966) was a series of chairs, tables, ottomans, and various other furnishings, made largely from steel wire. Platner not only designed the furniture itself, but the methods through which it was produced as well. The Knoll Platner collection is to be noted for its futuristic (for the Sixties, anyway) look, while at the same time evoking the kind of grace found in furniture of the 18th century.

Platner would also design the lighting and interiors in the Windows in the World Restaurant at the World Trade Centre, the interiors of the Ford Foundation building, Water Tower Place in Chicago, and the Georg Jensen Design Centre.

There are not many modern architects or designers whom I admire, but I must say that Warren Platner was always one of them. His designs always seemed to me to have a sleek, natural look. Indeed, Knoll themsevles compard his designs in Platner collection to a sheaf of wheat. Growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, the furnishings in the Platner collection always impressed me as looking very futuristic. They would not have been out of place on any of the sci-fi shows or movies of the era. Admiring his work, I must say that I am saddened by Platner's passing.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Worst Songs of All Time?

As the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. I might add that one man's song is another man's noise. CNN recently conducted an online poll of its users as to what they consider the worst songs of all time. And, as might be expected, there was no shortage of nominees for the title.

As to what made CNN's list of the five worst songs of all time, well, here they are: 5. "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks; 4. "I've Never Been to Me" by Charlene; 3. "You Light Up My Life" by Debby Boone; 2. "Muskrat Love" by The Captain and Tenille; and 1. "(You're) Having My Baby" by Paul Anka. I must admit that I am surprised by the results. It's not that I consider any of these songs could be good by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I would say every one of these songs are bad. That having been said, I am not sure that I would say they are the worst songs of all time.

Of course, I am not sure if I were to make a list of the worst songs of all time which songs would make my top five, but I can think of many contenders. "Achy Breaky Heart" by Billy Ray Cyrus would certainly rank up there. I hate country as it is and this song is bad even by country standards. "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent also grates on my nerves. Rather than a song from a Broadway musical, it sounds more like Muzak to me. And then there is "The Macarena," Los Del Rios's hit which sparked a dance craze as well. I hated both the song and the dance. As to "Feelings" by Morris Albert, I think it goes without saying that it is one of the worst songs of all time. And don't get me started about "We Built This City" by Starship....

Having said all this, in all fairness, I must admit that if I were to create a list of the worst songs of all time, it would certainly show a bias against certain genres. I have said in this blog that I hate both rap and country. As a result any list of the worst songs of all time I would make would probably feature songs that rap and country fans would consider classics. I must admit that if I go without hearing "I'm Not Lisa" by Jessi Colter or "My Name Is" by Eminem ever again, I'll be very happy.

This brings me to something else surprising about CNN's online poll--some songs widely considered classics recieved votes. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens, "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las, and "Hey, Jude" by The Beatles all got nominations! I suppose this is proof positive that one man's song is another man's noise. I personally like all three songs.

Regardless of what I think, I am sure that many of my favourite songs are counted among the worst songs by someone else out there. And I have no doubt that some of the songs I count among the worst are someone else's favourite songs....

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Timing is Everything

Last season Alias performed better in the ratings than it ever had. This season, moved to a new time slot, it performed so pathetically that it was both put on a four month hiatus and cancelled. Last Wednesday Alias returned with a two hour episode and peformed better in the ratings than it had all season. Many people might be curious as to why a show which had done so poorly in the ratings as to be cancelled suddenly saw the size of its audience increase. As for me, I am not. It all comes down to the show's time slot.

When it comes to a show's success, its time slot is all important. I think Alias is a perfect example of this. Last season Alias aired on Wednesday nights following Lost. Lost proved to be one of the surprise hits of the season and shares the same production team as Alias. The audience of Lost then, quite naturally, stayed tuned for Alias. This season ABC, for whatever reason, moved Alias to Thursday nights. Moved away from Lost and facing both Survivor on CBS and Will and Grace on NBC, the ratings for Alias plummetted. Quite simply, it was facing more than one highly rated, established show, while at the same time it lost the lead in from a show whose audience it largely shared. The cancellation of Alias could then largely be blamed on ABC, who quite unwisely moved the show from a time slot in which it was doing very well.

Of course, the ratings plunge which Alias experienced was nothing when compared to the drop in the ratings which Mork and Mindy saw in its second season. It was a smash hit in its first season, ranking third in the ratings for the over all season. For its second season ABC made two fatal mistakes with the show. First, they did away with many of the series' supporting characters. Second, they moved the show from its original time slot. The end result was that a show that had previously been a top ten hit started ranking regularly in the bottom of the Nielsens. In the end, Mork and Mindy never quite recovered, even when it was returned to its original time slot.

The importance of a show's time slot can even explain why some shows actually peform better when reran in syndication than they do in their original time slot. There is perhaps no better example of this than Star Trek. During its original network run Star Trek performed abysmally in the ratings, yet it has gone on to become one of the most successful shows in syndication of all time (right up there with I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island). I suspect much of this had to do with when NBC scheduled the show. In its first season, Star Trek faced the still successful My Three Sons on CBS and the hit Bewitched on ABC. It is little wonder it did not do well in its first season. For its second season NBC gave Star Trek a new time slot. Sadly, this one was even worse than its original time slot. It was moved to Friday night, when many of the teenagers and college students who comprised the majority of its audience at the time would be out and about. I mean, just how many young people stay home on Friday night? Worse yet, it was against Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS, then one of the top ten shows. Again, it is little wonder Star Trek did not perform well in the ratings. For its third and final season, it remained on Friday night, but aired later than it had before--at 10:00 PM EST/9:00 PM CST. As might be expected, its ratings declined even more and it was cancelled. Because of its time slots, Star Trek never really had a chance during its original network run. I have always thought that had it in placed in just the right time slot, it could well have been a hit in its first run.

Of course, the example of Star Trek brings to me something that has always puzzled me about the networks--that is their habit of placing genre shows with an appeal to young people on Friday nights. I realise that in the early Sixties a study was conducted that Friday night was the best time to schedule such programmes, but the history of television has since proven that study to be false. The list of youth oriented, genre shows which have failed on Friday night is a long one: Star Trek, Beauty and the Beast, the prime time revival of Dark Shadows, Millenium... There have only been a few such shows that have actually succeeded on Friday night. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of three: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and The X Files. Here I should point out that the success of these shows can easily be explained. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was moved to Friday night, it was alreay a smash hit and had become something of an outright fad. It could have been placed in nearly any time slot and done well. As it is, many of the show's fans protested its move to Friday nights. As to The Wild Wild West, it was a combinatin Western, spy series, and sci-fi show. As a Western and a spy series, it quite naturally had an audience of older males as well as younger people. Being scheduled on Friday night, it might well have lost many teenage and college age viewers, but it retained many male viewers in its thirties and forties. As to The X-Files, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. it emerged as something of a phenomenon. Even then, its ratings were not spectacular when it aired on Friday nights. The X-Files would not become a smash hit until it made the move to Sunday nights. I have to wonder that if it had remained on Friday nights that it would not have gone the way of Beauty and the Beast.

Anyhow, I am still puzzled to this day as to why the networks choose to schedule youth oriented, genre shows on Friday night when so many such series have failed on this night. Most teenagers and college age people choose to go out on Friday nights. At the very least, they have never chosen to stay at home and watch network television! Common sense would then seem to dicate that Friday is then the worst night for youth oriented, genre shows...

Obviously, the time slot of a show is not the only thing which dictates its success or failure. The changes made in Mork and Mindy in its second season may have had caused its drop in the ratings as much as its move to a new time slot. That having been said, a show's time slot can play a large role in whether it is successful or not. A series scheduled against an established hit (these days C.S.I. would be a good example probably will not perform well. By the same token, a show scheduled against weak competition might perform better than expected. Sadly, I don't know that the networks always pay attention to this...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Spoof Emails

If one has email access, chances are that at some time or another he or she has received a spoof email. A spoof email is one that appears to have come from one source, when actually it has come from another. Spoofing is usually done in order to obtain sensitive information, such as passwords, credit card numbers, and so on. A prime example of a spoof email is one I received this morning which claimed to be from Ebay. It claimed that my account could be suspended if I did not verify or authenticate the information in my account. It even included a link which would take me to a place where I could "verify" or "authenticate" my information.

I must admit that this spoof email may have been convincing to someone else, but it did not fool me. The link through which I could "verify" or "authenticate" my information was a dead giveaway. EBay never includes links to pages where one can "verify" or "authenticate" one's information. Another dead give away is that nowhere did it include my EBay ID. In its emails EBay almost always includes one's Ebay ID. Another clue that the email was spoofed was its address--it did not sound to me like anything that would actually come from EBay. Here I should point out that if anyone receives an email claiming to be from EBay, they can always go to "My Messages" on the EBay website. If it is an official email, then it will be there. If it's a spoof email, then it won't.

One should never respond to any email that claims to be from an official site (EBay, PayPal, Yahoo, and so on) and demands that one provide personal information, particularly through a link conveniently provided on the email. And when at all possible, one should forward the offending email to the company from which the email claims to have come. Both EBay and PayPal have email addresses to which one can forward spoof emails. Spoofing is a very serious problem. While it is not that difficult to detect a spoof email, many people still fall victim to spoofing each year.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Richard Cory

Tonight finds me both sick and tired. I then don't feel much like making a blog entry. Instead I thought I would leave you with one of my favouite poems by one of my favourite poets. Indeed, I'm apparently not the only one who likes the poem. Simon and Gafunkel set it to music and the song appears on their album Sounds of Silence. Anyway, here is the poem...

"Richard Cory"
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich-yes, richer than a king-
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head

Friday, April 21, 2006

Midnight Confessions

Have you ever had one of those times when you can't get a song out of your head? This is one of those for me. For the past few days, "Midnight Confessions" by The Grass Roots (in one of that groups's many incarnations) has been going through my mind at regular intervals. I'm not sure, but I think it might have been their biggest hit. At any rate, it peaked at #5 on the Billboard singles chart in August of 1968. Anyhow, I thought I might let the rest of you hear it....

"Midnight Confessions" by The Grass Roots

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Well, I finally got the PC fixed. It turns out my niece shut it down while Windows XP was still loading. She did not realise the dire consequences of this action. Anyhow, it is running normally again.

Last night I got off early from work, which gave me the luxury of actually watching primetime television for once. In this case I watched the last part of American Idol (not a show I would watch on a regular basis, but they were performing standards last night) and then House. Along with Lost and Desperate Housewives, House has been one of the most talked about TV shows of the past two years. Despite this, I did not have high hopes for the series. Medical dramas have never particularly appealed to me. Indeed, it seems to me that they all tend to be made from a cookie cutter. Every week another patient suffers some unusual ailment and the brave doctors must rush to save his or her life. And every week the brave doctors become emotionally involved with their patients. Indeed, I think it would be safe to consider medical dramas as a subgenre of soap operas for the most part.

Fortunately, House is different. Much of this is due to the character of Dr. Gregory House himself, played by the great Hugh Laurie (of The Young Ones, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster fame). House is an absolute curmudgeon who never gets emotionally involved with his patients. In fact, he has a tendency to view his patients more as "cases" than as "human beings." House is also an outright cynic when it comes to humanity. When it comes to people, he tends to believe that they almost always act with their own interests in mind. Despite this, there can be little doubt that deep down House does care about his patients, even though he does keep his distance, and he always fights to save the life of each and everyone.

House is assisted by a small group of residents, each with his or her own unique personality. Dr. Allison Cameron (played by Jennifer Morrison) is the closest the show comes to the physicians usually found on TV medical dramas. She typcially becomes emotionally involved with her patients (much to House's consternation) and is always concerned with the ethics of any given situation. Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) is ambitious and sometimes seems to put such ambition above his relationship with his other residents and even his patients. Dr. Robert Chase, played by Jesse Spencer, is the closest of the residents in personality to House. He is a bit of a medical detective, fascinated by the puzzles that often confront them.

Indeed, moreso than its characters, House is set apart from other medical dramas in that it is much more of a mystery series than a soap opera. The show has been compared to the Sherlock Holmes stories and with good reason. Each week House and his residents are confronted with another mysterious malady. The doctors then chase down various clues until finally arriving at a diagnosis. Gregory House is a good match for Holmes, often using unconventional methods to solve a mystery. In fact, he has been accused of caring more about his medical puzzles than his patients.

In this respect, I rather suspect that House would appeal more to fans of mystery series than medical dramas. The show literally owes more to Columbo than it does Marcus Welby M.D.. In fact, I can actaully see the typical fan of medical dramas actually disliking the show. On the other hand, I think anyone who likes a good mystery and can appreciate original, unique characters enjoying the series quite a bit. On the surface, House might appear to be a medical drama, but it owes more to CSI than it does ER.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Technical Difficulties...

Last night I came home from one of my two jobs to find my PC behaving oddly. Although it would connect to the net, Internet Explorer would simply stop responding rather than connect to any web site. Netscape worked fine. My Symantec Internet Security would simply stop responding. Trend Micro Anti-Spyware simply would not launch at all. I know that my niece had been on the computer earlier from various evidence, but I am not absolutely sure that she inadvertantly downloaded any malware, spyware, or trojans. At least a cursory look at the system revealed none, although as both Trend Micro and Symantec could not be run, I could not be certain.

At any rate, last night I spent doing a reinstall on my PC. I am still in the process of reinstalling various programmes, not to mention fix a few more that appear to have been damaged in the transition. I am certainly not happy. If I don't make another blog entry for a few days, well, it is because I am still getting this machine back in shape.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Whatever Happened to Easter Programming?

Today Christians celebrated their Easter. Since Thursday Jews have been celebrating Passover (which continues until this coming Thursday at sunset). And while these holidays are important to a good many people, one wouldn't know it from the television networks. There was very little in the way of programming dedicated to Passover, the Christian's Easter, or even so much as the season of spring. While I am neither Christian nor Jewish, I think this is a grevious oversight on the networks' parts.

It wasn't always this way. Growing up I can remember that the networks would show various specials this time year. Naturally, given that the majority of people in the U.S. are Christian (or at least nominally so), most of them had an Easter theme. Rankin/Bass, the animation studio which dominated holiday specials in the Sixties and Seventies, produced no less than three Easter specials alone. Here Comes Peter Cottontail was the first, in 1971. Curiously, it was not based on the song of the same name, but on the Priscilla and Otto Friedrich novel The Easter Bunny That Overslept. They followed this special with another, The First Easter Rabbit in 1976. The First Easter Rabbit is unusual for a Rankin/Bass producton. Best known for their stop motion work (think Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer), this particular special used cel animation (think Frosty the Snowman). They produced another Easter special the following year, The Easter Bunny is Comin' to Town, which was in some ways a sequel to their popular Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. Fred Astaire gave his voice to the mailman narrator just as he had in Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, this time explaining the origins of the Easter Bunny.

Rankin/Bass were not the only people who could be counted on for specials for nearly every holiday. Lee Mendelson-Bill Melendez produced Peanuts specials for nearly every special occasion, including Easter. It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown was a variation on the Great Pumpkin idea, with Linus insisting that the Easter Beagle will bring everyone eggs. The Peanuts weren't the only comic strip characters with an Easter special. A Family Circus Easter debuted in 1982, based on the famous one panel strip by Bill Keane.

Even classic animated characters received their own Easter specials back in the day. In 1977 Warner Brothers produced the special Bugs Bunny's Easter Funnies. It pretty much featured classic Warner Brothers shorts within a framework story in which Bugs must replace the Easter Bunny. From my childhood into early adulthood, there were many other animated Easter specials. There was Fat Albert's Easter Special, Peter and the Magic Egg, and so on.

Of course, not all Easter programming was animated. And not all of them concentrated on eggs and Easter bunnies. Some of the programming that the networks once showed this time of year drew upon Christianity, while at least one classic film typically shown this time of year was based on events portrayed in the Torah. Growing up I can remember that for a few years NBC showed the classic rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar this time of year. And for a time the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth was a staple of the season. The all time champion for being aired this time of year, however, goes to the classic Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments. I swear it has been shown every year since the Seventies. Based on the stories of Moses and how he led the Hebrews out of Egypt from the Torah, the movie is arguably a great choice for this time of year. It could appeal to both Christians and Jews alike, making the only Easter/Passover special ever shown.

Regardless, this Passover and this Easter saw far fewer shows dedicated to the season airing on the networks. ABC aired It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown just a few days ago. Last night they continued their annual airing of The Ten Commandments. That has been the extent of the networks' observation of the season.

Of course, the fact that there are not very many Passover or Easter specials being shown the past several years should not be surprising. I have written in this blog of how the networks don't show nearly as many Yuletide specials as they once did. The truth be told, they don't show very many specials dedicated to any holiday any more. I can remember a time when there were several Halloween specials on the air. Beyond It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I can't think of any that aired last year. As to Thanksgiving, the only thing I can think of that they have shown of late is the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Personally, I find this sad. Holidays play an important role in our society. They serve as a break from the humdrum, workaday world. They give people a chance to escape from their everyday lives and to enjoy themselves. In the case of holiday specials, they give individuals a break from usual network programming, as well as envelop them in the spirit of the holiday. A Christian watching Jesus of Nazareth may well be reminded of the meaning of the holiday to him or her. Quite simply, holiday specials help in maintaining holidays as a part of our lives. True, we don't need them to celebrate the holidays, but it is nice to be able to watch programming oriented to a holiday when that holiday rolls around.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Country Store

Those of you living in larger cities or are too young may not remember the old country stores. The country store was a descendant of the general stores which could once be found across the United States. "General stores" got their name because they carried a little bit of everything. They not only carried groceries, but often other items such as dry goods, toys, and so on. Usually the stores were not very big, with as much merchandise crammed into as little space as possible.

The general store began its decline during World War I and into the Twenties. It is at this time that such grocery chains as Safeway arose, not to mention the various specialty stores and other chains. The general store took more blows with the rise of such discount houses as WalMart and K-Mart in the Sixties. By the mid-Twentieth century, most general stores only remained in rural areas. By the late Twentieth century, even these country stores became few and far between.

Because of this, my experience with country stores is somewhat limited. I remember as a young child, when the bridge on Highway C would flood (thus blocking easy access to Huntsville or Moberly), we would go to a country store. Sadly, I can't remember if the store was in Darksville, Thomas Hill, or College Mound, although I do remember it was north of our farm on Highway C. I do remember it was literally crowded with merchandise. Along its narrow aisles one could find everything from breakfast food to batteries.

As I got older I had the opportunity to experience more country stores. The one I frequented the most was Heuer's, which is on Old Highway 63 north of Harrisburg. In the Eighties, on our trips to Columbia, we would often stop at Heuer's to buy soda, get something to eat, and use the restroom. I do believe at that time it was still known as the Pinnacle Hill Store. At any rate, since it became Heuer's, the store has not changed terribly much. It still has its cafe where they serve sandwiches and coffee. It still carries a large array of goods. And there is still the Liar's Table (basically an old electric spool), so called because of the tall tales told there ("...the fish was this big..."). In the Liar's Table are carved the names of past patrons. At any rate, Heuer's as a wonderful atmosphere: simple, rural furnishings and simply crowded with goods.

Heuer's isn't the only country store remaining in Missouri. There is also Crane's Country Store in Mineola. I have never been to the store, but I have heard a lot about it. It was founded in 1898 along the Boone's Lick Trail. It is also one of the few stores that has remained in the same family for the entirety of its existence. Founded as the Harrison and Crane Store, it became B. R. Crane and Sons not long after and has remained with the Cranes ever since. Like Heuer's they serve food (they are well known for their $1.00 sandwiches). And like Heuer's they carry a wide variety of goods, everything from milk to boots.

Henson's General Store is another country store still operating in Missouri. Like Crane's, I have never been to Henson's, although I have heard a good deal abou tit. Founded in 1940, it is much younger than either Heuer's or Crane's. It is tucked away east of Ava in the township of Champion. And like all general stores, it sells a bit of everything.

Hard as it is to believe, not all the remaining country stores are in the country. Once a very small town, Little Elm, TX (where my brother lives) now has a population of 12,003. Despite this, most of the locals still do much of their shopping at the Lakeview. The Lakeview is primarily a grocery, although one can also buy gas and bait for fishing. I've been to the Lakeview many times and I must say that I have always enjoyed my trips there. It is much more pleasant than the big grocery store (whose name I can't recall) or even Dollar General.

As I said above, there are only a few country stores remaining throughout the United States. That having been said, I am not sure that the concept of the general store is entirely dead. The convenience store can be seen as a variation on the idea of the general store, although it seems to me that convenience stores carry much less in the way of goods. Similarly, such hypermarkets as the Wal-Mart Supercentres and SuperTargets can be seen as the general store taken to its logical extreme. Such hypermarkets carry both groceries and the variety of goods one expects from discount houses such as Wal-Mart and KMart. I must state, however, that I don't really consider the hypermarkets to be general stores any more than I do convenience stores. They lack the homey atmosphere and laid back feel of the old time country stores.

I seriously doubt that country stores will ever cover the United States as they once did. For better or worse, the chain stores, discount houses, and hypermarkets drove them out of business. I rather expect that they will keep them out of business. One can only hope that the few country stores remaining will continue to stay in business.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Well, it's one of those times when I have to eat my words. In my overview of this year's Academy Awards I commented that I could not see how Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit could be better than the other two animated films nominated for Best Animated Feature (The Corpse Bride and Howl's Moving Castle). I have to say that I was wrong. Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is not only the best animated film of the year, but the funniest as well.

For those of you who don't know who Wallace and Gromit are, they are the lead characters in a series of clay animation film shorts (and as of last year a feature film) made in the United Kingdom. Wallace is a tinkerer and inventor, whose Rube Goldberg (or perhaps "Heath Robinson" would be the better term, since they are British) type devices never work as he wants them to. Gromit is Wallace's dog and the brains of the outfit. Although he never makes a sound, it is usually Gromit who must get them out of the trouble Wallace sometimes gets them into. The two made their debut in the animated short "A Grand Day Out" in 1989, which was nomimated for the Oscar for Best Short Film, Animated. They went onto star in two Oscar winning shorts, "The Wrong Trousers" and "A Close Shave." They also became a bit of a phenomenon in both Britain and abroad. In fact, they are credited with single handedly saving Wensleydale cheese (Wallace's favourite cheese in the world), which had been declining in sales until Wallace came along.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit is Wallace and Gromit at their best. This time out they are operating a humane pest control business (Anti-Pest-O) which deals with pests (namely, vegetable devouring rabbits) by capturing and incarcerating them (as opposed to killing them). Unfortunately, it is not long before Tottington's vegetables are being ravaged en masse by a monster rabbit, and it is up to Wallace and Gromit to stop him.

Curse of the Were-Rabbit remains loyal to the animated shorts. It has the same off-kilter humour, complete with sight gags, word play, and so on. The movie even manages a few homages/parodies to classic horror films, including The Wolfman, King Kong, and Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (AKA Braindead). Much, perhaps most, of the humour will go above the heads of children, although there is still enough there to keep them entertained. Like Pixar's films, Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a film made for adults that children can enjoy.

The humour is greatly aided by vocal talents of the cast. After over ten years away from the character, the great Peter Sallis slides easily back into playing Wallace, endowing the absent minded inventor with the kind of empathy he had in the shorts. Helena Bonham Carter is also perfect as Lady Tottingham (Wallace's love interest!), while Ralph Fiennes does very well as the villainous hunter Victor Quartermaine (something tells me Nick Park has read his share of H. Rider Haggard in his lifetime...).

The animation is top notch. Indeed, with the budget of a feature film, Aardman Animations (the company behind Wallace and Gromit) were able to add a good deal more detail than one saw in the shorts. In fact, given that we are talking about stop motion animation here, many of the sequences will leave the viewer wondering "How did they do that?" The were-rabbit sequences are especially impressive. Curse of the Were-Rabbit is one of the most amazing achievements in clay animation ever put on film.

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is easily the best animated film of 2005. It is also the funniest movie of that year as well. I would recommend it to anyone who likes stop motion animation, comedies, or just plain good movies. It is simply marvelous.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Men and Musicals

I'm sure all of you are familiar with the stereotype. Heterosexual men simply do not like musicals. Indeed, the stereotype is so strong that there is practically an assumption in some quarters that if a man likes musicals, then he must be gay. As a very heterosexual male who happens like musicals (particularly the Hollywood musicals from the Golden Age of film), I happen to disagree with this whole idea.

As a child I was introduced to musicals early. Both of my parents enjoyed music and as a result they enjoyed musicals. Indeed, it was my father who introduced me to My Fair Lady (as a matter of fact, he pretty much forced me to watch it). Of course, as I got older I discovered the musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the beautiful women who frequently starred in them. If I am a fan of musicals, much of that credit goes to Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller.

Regardless, I can't say I am an atypical, heterosexual male by any means. While I am not a huge sports fan, I do enjoy watching football games (I am a Rams fan, after all), hockey games (the Blues, of course), and soccer (that's what we Americans call, well, football...) sometimes. I enjoy camping, hunting, and fishing. Among my favourite genres of movies are action movies and Westerns. Indeed, Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and Fight Club all number among my favourite movies.

Indeed, as a pretty typical guy, I can see a number of reasons why the average heterosexual male should like musicals. The first is as I poined out above--in most Hollywood musicals there is at least one beautiful woman in the cast. And often these beautiful women are very skimpily clad. Just look at some of the costumes Cyd Charisse wore in Singin' in the Rain! I have always thought that if the average, red blooded, heterosexual man could see Cyd Charisse in many of her films, he would entirely forget about his dislike for musicals....

Second, a majority of the musicals from Holywood's Golden Age have a very strong sense of conflict. In many instances (perhaps most), the conflict is over a woman. In Cover Girl song and dance man Danny McGuire (the irrepressible Gene Kelly) finds he has a rival for the hand of Rusty (Rita Hayworth) in the form of big time, Broadway producer Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Other times the conflict may be something other than romantic in nature. In Singin' in the Rain the conflict is between movie star Donald Lockwood and his frequent co-star Lina (Jean Hagen). Essentially, Donald wants to save his own career, save Monumental Pictures, and help his lady love and Hollywood newcomer Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) in her career. This conflicts with Lina's goals, which are essentially to help herself and her own career, whether this is a detriment to everyone else or not. To a large degree, then, Hollywood musicals offer the same thrils that sporting events or action movies do--conflict and competition between one or more individuals.

Third, many of the lead characters in Hollywood musicals were average Joes. This is particuarly true of the great Gene Kelly. His characters are the sort one might encounter in the local bar or at a baseball game. Even Don Lockwood from Singin' in the Rain, although a big time movie star, comes off as just an average guy with the same concerns and interests as any other guy.

Fourth, most of the Hollywood musicals were also comedies. Indeed, I would say that not only is Singin' in the Rain one of the greatest musicals of all time, but also one of the greatest comedies of all time. It has some of the best lines and some of the best schticks to be found in any film. Quite simply, it is absolutely hilarious. Even if someone can't appreciate the music or the dancing, he or she can always find a lot to laugh about in that film. And this holds true for many of the musicals from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Fifth, I guess it is fairly obvious that an important component of any musical is, well, music. The Hollywood musicals were often scored by some of the greatest composers of all time. An American in Paris featured the music of the Gershwin brothers. The music for Holiday Inn was written by Irving Berlin. The movie Kiss Me Kate was based on the Broadway musical of the same name created by Cole Porter. If a man has a love for the songs of the great songwriters of the 20th century, then it seems to me he should be able to appreciate the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Quite frankly, then, it seems to me that there is quite a bit with regards to musicals that the average heterosexual male can appreciate. Indeed, I have always been puzzled as to where the stereotype that heterosexual men don't like musicals came from. Many of the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age did enormously well at the box office, and no one can tell me that those audiences were composed entirely of women and gay men. Indeed, my father and many other men of his generation had a genuine love for musicals. And my father was undeniably straight.

At any rate, I suppose it should be pointed out that stereotypes should not be confused with the truth. Not all Irishmen drink. Not all Italians are mobsters. And not all staright men hate musicals. For that matter, not all gay men love musicals. Out of the gay friends I have, not a one of them likes musicals. All of the men I know who love musicals are straight! Regardless, this is one stereotype I would like to see put to rest once and for all.

Sunday, April 9, 2006

This Whole Katie Couric Thing

By now I am sure everyone has heard the news. After fifteen years Katie Couric is leaving Today for CBS where she will become the first woman to anchor a weekday, evening network newscast on her own. As the co-host of Today, Meredith Vieira of The View will replace Couric.

As might be expected, Couric's move is receiving mixed responses. An Associated Press/TV Guide showed that 49 percent of people would prefer to see Couric in the morning, with only 28 percent preferring her in the evening. This could be a bad sign for CBS, if not for the fact that about half of the people responding to the poll said that they would be willing to give Couric a chance as an evening anchor. Of course, there are many doubters when it comes to Couric anchoring The CBS Evening News. As host of Today she was required to do everything from interview heads of state to dressing up as SpongeBob Squarepants. As a result there are those who think that Couric lacks the seriousness to be an evening anchor.

Personally, I have no real objection to Couric taking over The CBS Evening News. It must be pointed out that two alumni from Today have made the move to evenings in the past. Tom Brokaw was the host of Today years before he anchored the evening newscast at NBC. Barbara Walters was also a co-anchor on ABC's World News Tonight for a brief time. If they made the move to evenings, I can see no reason why Couric can't either. Granted, she has dressed up as SpongeBob Squarepants (it was Halloween, for gods' sakes...), but it seems to me that she can be serious when she wants to be, as when interviewing presidents or political candidates. Indeed, while Today has its share of frivolous moments, it is ultimately a news programme. While there are others I would rather see take over CBS's evening newscasts, I have no real objections to Couric.

It is a bit more difficult to gauge the public's reaction to Meredith Vieira taking over Couric's position at Today (a position for which she beat out Today news reader Ann Curry and Today Weekend anchor Campbell Brown). As far as I know none of the big polling places have asked people what they think of Vieira as Couric's replacement, but the impression I have gotten from a smattering of blogs and various polls conducted on websites is that it is not a popular idea. On most blogs I have read there is a marked preference for either Ann Curry or Campbell Brown as co-host of Today. In nearly every poll I have seen on the web, Vieira ranks a distant third to Curry and Brown.

As for me, I agree with most of the blogs I've read and polls I've seen. Quite frankly, I just cannot take Meredith Vieira seriously as a journalist. Okay, I know she spent over ten years at CBS News. She was even a correspondent for Sixty Minutes and sometimes anchored their morning newscast. Once she moved to ABC, she was the chief correspondent for Turning Point. Since then, however, she has been one of the hosts of The View, host of the syndicated version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and even emceed the Miss America pageant. To me Meredith Vieira taking over Couric's position would be something akin to Regis Philbin taking over from Matt Lauer. She may have been a serious journalist at one time--now she is simply a talk show host in my mind. I must admit that I prefer either Ann Curry or Campbell Brown over Meredith Vieira, as I can both take them seriously as journalists. And Campbell Brown has the additional advantage of being utterly adorable (okay, one doesn't need to be adorable to be a TV journalist--gods know, neither Barbara Walters nor Dan Rather could be called "adorable"--but I must admit that "adorableness" makes me more likely to tune in...).

Anyhow, I suppose we can only wait and see how all of this turns out. Will the public accept Katie Couric as a nighttime news anchor? Will the public accept Meredith Vieira as the co-host of Today? Right now I don't think anyone can truly say for sure how things will go. One thing I can say, it will be an interesting year for network television newscasts.

Saturday, April 8, 2006

"I Think I Love You"

Tonight I am overly tired, having had to get up earlier than I usually would on a Saturday morning to attend a karate tournament. Being wearier than usual, I then don't feel like making a full fledged blog entry. Instead, I thought I would leave you with a song.

That song is "I Think I Love You," by The Partridge Family. The song went to number one on the Billboard singles chart in 1970. It has also been one of the show's most lasting contributions to pop culture. The song has appeared in various movies over the years, including My First Mister, Lake Placid, Choyonghan kajok, and Scream 2 (where it was performed by Less Than Jake). Besides the version performed by Less Than Jake, "I Think I Love You" has also been remade by Kaci and even Perry Como.

And while the song has gotten a lot of flack over the years, I must confess to having always liked "I Think I Love You." Most people have the impression that it's just a simple, happy, little, bubblegum love song. But while it's definitely a love song and definitely bubblegum, I don't think it can be described as either simple or even happy. Indeed, the central theme of the song is the fear that accompanys falling in love. The narrator refers to the words "I think I love you" as "...the words I dread." As to what the narrator is so afraid of, it's that he's "not sure of a love there is no cure for." Quite simply, he is worried that his love might not be returned and that his love might well never end. In other words, "I Think I Love You" is not a happy, little love song--it's a discourse on the fear of unrequited love. Regardless, here it is...

"I Think I Love You" by The Partridge Family

Friday, April 7, 2006

Addicted to Weather

Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by meteorology. For those of you who don't know what meteorology is, it is the science dealing with the earth's atmosphere, in particular its weather. I suppose a lot of my fascination with weather comes from having grown up on a farm in Missouri. Moreso than any other business, farming is reliant on the weather. If there is too little rain in any given summer, the crops can fail. Too much and the same thing can happen. A particularly cold winter can have an adverse effect on livestock, particularly young ones. Of course, Missouri is a state known for its extreme weather conditions. We have particuarly hot, humid summers and the winters can be cold. Tornados and severe thunder storms are par for the course in this state. There is an old saying in Missouri, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain (although he also said it of New England), "If you don't like the weather in Missouri, just wait five minutes. It will change." Since the weather had a huge impact on my life as a child, I guess I have always been drawn to meteorology.

Of course, growing up as a child there were really not that many venues for weather forecasts. If one wanted to know what the weather may be, he or she only had a few choices. He or she could buy a copy of the local paper. He or she could tune into the newscasts on the local TV stations (here in Missouri, at noon, 6 PM and 10 PM). Or he or she could turn on the local radio station and wait for the forecasts in between songs. Things have changed a lot since then. Now one can get weather forecasts from a number of sources.

Chief among these is the Weather Channel. The Weather Channel is a cable channel devoted to just one thing: meteorology and meteorology related news. It was founded in 1982 and has since gone on to become one of the most popular cable channels around. One of the things I love the best about the Weather Channel is that one can get his or her local weather throughout the day. These local weather forecasts air during what they call "the Local on the 8s," so called because they air on the "8s" of the hour (i.e. 10:08, 10:18, 10:28, and so on). With the Weather Channel one doesn't have to wait for one's local forecast on his or her local TV stations or radio stations.

Of course, with the advent of the World Wide Web, one need no longer even wait for "the Local on the 8s." As would be expected, the Weather Channel has its own website. In the United States one need only type in his or her ZIP code to get access to weather forecasts throughout the day. Among other things, it has maps (just one sees on television), seasonal features, and even a weather glossary. Of course, the Weather Channel's web site is not the only weather related web site around. There is also AccuWeather and the National Weather Service's web site. Of course, one need not go to any of these web sites to keep up with the weather on one's computer. WeatherBug is a programme which delivers information about one's local weather straight to his or her computer.

Indeed, one can even get weather forecasts on his or her cell phone or other mobile devices now. WeatherBug, AccuWeather, and the Weather Channel all have mobile versions of their products. It has then been become possible for someone to check on the weather in his or her location literally anywhere. I must admit that I check AccuWeather on my computer regularly.

Access to weather forecasts have changed a lot from when I was a child. One no longer has to wait for the weather forecasts on his or her local TV and radio stations. And one can get weather forecasts in any number of ways--television, radio, the World Wide Web, and the cell phone. For someone addicted to meteorology as I am, things couldn't be better.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Dan Curtis Passes On

Dan Curtis, one of the most successful television producers and directors of all time, died March 30, after having been diagnosed with a brain tumour several monthas ago, at the age of 78. He was perhaps best known as the creator of Dark Shadows. His wife, Norma Mae Klein, died just three weeks before he did.

Dan Curtis was born Daniel Mayer Cerkoss in Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 28, 1928. Curtis read voraciously as a child, developing a taste for Gothic horror even then. He attended Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, graduating in 1950. Following graduation he sold syndicated programming for both NBC and MCA. In 1962 he created the show Challenge Golf. Airing on ABC, the series created a new demand for golf on televison and led CBS to buy a similar show, The CBS Match Play Golf Classic, from Curtis.

Curtis' greatest claim to fame would come in 1965 when he created the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The series as originally concieved was simply a televsion version of the Gothic romances so popular at the time. It was not long, however, before Dark Shadows shifted more towards Gothic horror than Gothic romance. The introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins (played by Jonathan Frid) to the series cemented Dark Shadows as the first Gothic horror soap opera. As a result, Dark Shadows became a cult series and one of the few (perhaps the only) soap opera to have a successful syndication run. It would also lead to a short lived prime time revivial in 1990.

Curtis would produce and direct two motion pictures based on the series (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows). He also produced a number of Gothic horror TV movies from the late Sixties into the early Sixties, among them Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw, Frankenstein, and Dracula. Among these films were two of the most successful telefilms of all time, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. The films centred on reporter Carl Kolchak (played by Darren McGavin, who died earlier this year), who faced a vampire in the first film and an immortal murderer in the second. They would lead to the TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, in which Curtis was only a consultant.

Not all of Curtis's work was in the field of Gothic horror. He also produced the miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Of course, Curtis was not just a television producer. He also directed both feature films and television movies. He directed both Dark Shadows films, as well as the films Burnt Offerings and Dead of Night. The TV movies he directed included The Norliss Tapes, Melvin Purviss G-Man, and The Long Days of Summer. He worked into 2005 when he directed both Saving Milly and Our Fathers.

I don't think there can be any argument that Dan Curtis was not one of the greatest and most influential television producers and directors of all time. Indeed, he was one of the few true auteurs in television. Had his only achievement been Dark Shadows, Curtis would have earned his place in history. As it is, Curtis was involved in many more important projects, including the two Night Stalker movies and the miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. And while Curtis was best known for his works in the horror genre, he was obviously capable of handling other material and handling it well. The Winds of War and War and Rememberance was based on Herman Wouk's novels about the events leading up to World War II and the war itself. Saving Milly centred on a woman with Parkinson's disease, while Our Fathers focused on the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Regardless of whatever material Curtis was dealing with, he always focused on the characters. In his works of Gothic horror, the terror emerged not from blood and gore, but from the characters themselves.

As a very young child I remember Dark Shadows was one of the most popular shows amongst us kids. All of us could not wait to get home from school to see the show. As a child it often scared me and I must admit that as an adult I have found it to be one of the creepiest things ever aired on television. And I have loved nearly all of the television movies Curtis produced in the Gothic horror genre. Indeed, his version of Dracula is one of the best adaptations of the novel ever filmed. Like many, I have an enduring love for the two Night Stalker movies. I cannot deny that Dan Curtis has had a huge impact on my life. In fact, it was probably because of Dark Shadows, and hence Dan Curtis, may well be what made me a fan of the horror genre. I was very sad to read of his death.

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Gene Pitney R. I. P.

"Only love can break a heart, only love can mend it again."
(Hal David and Burt Bacharach, "Only Love Can Break a Heart," originally performed by Gene Pitney)

Today finds me in a rather poor mood. I don't really want to go into why, but I am not very happy. I can only hope things soon change for the better.

Anyway, singer/songwriter Gene Pitney died earlier today at the Hotel Cardiff in Wales at the age of 65 after one final performance. At the moment they do not know the cause of death, but it does not appear to have been anything suspicious. He was found fully clothed and lying down, as if he was going to take a nap.

Pitney was born in February 17, 1941 in Harford, Conneticut and grew up in Rockville. He broke into the music business as a songwriter. His first real success was "Rubber Ball," performed by Bobby Vee. He would go onto write "He's a Rebel" for The Crystals and "Hello, Mary Lou" for Ricky Nelson. Pitney eventually launched his own career as a music artist. His first major hit was "Love My Life Away." This was the first of a string of hits that Pitney had in the early Sixties. He performed two songs written for movies. "Town Without Pity" was the theme to the movie of the same name. It was nominated both for the Golden Globe for "Best Song in a Motion Picture" and the Academy Award for "Best Song." "The Man Who Shot Libery Valance," written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the movie of the same name, was one of his top ten hits. Pitney's biggest hit was "Only Love Can Break a Heart," which went to #2 on the Billboard charts in 1962 (the #1 song at the time was one of his own compositions--"He's a Rebel" by The Crystals). The British Invasion would put an end to Pitney's string of hits, although he continued to find success in Europe and Britian.

I always liked Gene Pitney. "Hello, Mary Lou" has always been my favourite Ricky Nelson song, while I have always loved "He's a Rebel." I cannot say that I liked every single song he performed as a singer, although I have always enjoyed both "Town Without Pity" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." I do have to say he had a very unique vocal style--melodramatic and pained. It is sad to think that he is gone.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Kellogg's 100th Anniversary

The Kellogg Company, arguably the best known maker of ready to eat cereals, has its orgins in Battle Creek, Michigan at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a hospital and health spa for the rich and famous ran by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. His brother William Keith ("W. K.") Kellogg a ready made, breakfast food that would not only be nutritious, but would taste good as well. In 1894 that W. K. Kellogg developed a baked wheat flake, the first modern ready to eat cereal. With his brother, John Harvey, he formed the Sanitas Food Company in 1898. The brothers eventually came to disagree and as a result W. K. left to form his own company. The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company (later renamed the Kellogg Company) was founded by him on February 19, 1906. Their premiere product, of course, was Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Of course, this year the company turned 100 years old.

W. K. Kellogg literally revolutionised the way Americans ate breakfast. At the time the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company was founded, the typical breakfast might consist of eggs, bacon, porridge, and various other foods, most all of which had to be cooked. The introduction of Corn Flakes made eating breakfast much simpler--all one needed is a box of the breakfast cereal and milk. Indeed, ready to eat cereals were such a success that several companies entered the field: Post (which was actually founded before the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, in 1897), Ralston-Purina, Quaker Oasts, and General Mills (actually a latecomer to the field, not making their first ready to eat cereal until 1924).

As a result of the demand for ready to eat cereals, the Kellogg Company would expand beyond Corn Flakes. In the twenties they introduced both Pep (now defunct, it is perhaps best known for the premiums it offered, such as pinback buttons of comic strip characters and model planes) and perennial favourite Rice Krispies. In 1942 the company introduced Raisin Bran. The Fifties saw the comapny introduce both Sugar Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, and Special K. The Sixties also saw Kelloggs establish many of its better known products: Fruit Loops, Apple Jacks, and Pop Tarts. The company has continued to expand throughout its history, not just introducing new cereals and other foods, but either founding or simply buying many subsidiaries.

Of course, often times the characters Kellogg's created to promote its cereals are as famous as the cereals themselves. In 1933 they introduced three elves named Snap, Crackle, and Pop to promote Rice Krispies. They would become the first cereal characters to be animated for a commercial (a 1939 movie short) and are the oldest cereal characters still around. Equally as successful as Snap, Crackle, and Pop is the spokesman for Frosted Flakes. In 1952 Kelloggs held a poll to see which of four characters would promote their new cereal, Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. People could vote for Elmo the Elephant, Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Tony the Tiger. Tony won and has promoted Frosted Flakes ever since. The success of Tony the Tiger would result in a proliferation of cereal characters in the Sixties, from Kellogg's own Tucan Sam to Quaker Oats' Cap'n Crunch.

While Kellogg's played a central role in the use of cartoon characters to promote cereals, they also pioneered the use of premiums and giveaways to encourage people to buy their cereals. In 1909 they offered what may well have been the first cereal premium, the Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet, available for two box tops from any of their cereals. Pep was perhaps more famous for its giveaways than anything else. In the Forties pinback buttons featuring cartoon characters (Dick Tracy, Superman, and so on) were included in each box of Pep. Another popular giveaway associated with Pep were model planes. Pep would eventually be discontinued, although many of its premiums and giveaways are still collectibles.

Beyond manufacturing ready to eat breakfast cereals and creating characters to promote them, the Kellogg Company has had an even more direct impact on pop culture by sponsoring various radio and TV shows. Kellogg's Pep had a long association with Superman. The cereal sponsored the radio show The Adventures of Superman from the Thirties to the Fifites. When the TV show, The Adventures of Superman debuted in the Fifties, the sponsor remained Kellogg's Pep. Other Fifties TV shows were also sponsored by Kellogg, among them Howdy Doody, Art Linkletter's House Party, and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The Sixties saw Kellogg as the company which sponsored some of the most successful sitcoms of all time: The Beverly Hillbillies, My Favourite Martian, Batman, and The Monkees among them. The Monkees even sang the Kellogg's jingle in the Kellogg's billboard on the show!

The Kellogg Company has been around for over 100 years now. Long before radio and television it had started to infiltrate American pop culture. Many of the characters created to promote its cereals, such as Snap, Crackle, and Pop and Tony the Tiger, are more recognisable than many politicians, sports figures, and even movie stars. The premiums and giveaways associated with its cereals are now collectables. Even its commercials are well remembered by many. Given the fact that America's appetite for ready to eat cereals has yet to decline, I think it is safe that the Kellogg Company could well be around for another 100 years.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee

In February 1968 NBC cancelled The Monkees. The series, well into its second season, had never done particularly well in the ratings, even though the band themselves had seen incredible musical success. Well aware of The Monkees' continued popularity, NBC then struck a deal with the group to do three television specials to air in 1969. In the end, only one such special would air, the legendary (or perhaps "notorious" would be a better word) 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the first Monkees television project produced without creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. In fact, beyond The Monkees themselves, only executive producer Ward Sylvester remained on the special from the show's production staff. The special's creator and producer was Jack Good, the man who produced the British pop show Oh, Boy! and the American pop show Shindig. It was directed by Art Fisher, who would go onto direct The Andy Williams Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Together they concocted a bizarre script in which a mad wizard (played by Brian Auger of The Trinity) seeks to brainwash The Monkees into becoming the greatest rock band of all time, who will in turn brainwash the world. The special featured Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll (who would go onto sing the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous) and their group The Trinity promiently and included appearances by some of rock music's greats--Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and so on.

From the beginning 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee appears to have been doomed. A musicians' strike at NBC occurred just as the special was going into production. As a result they had to abandon complex sets built for the special and move the production to MGM studios. There many aspects of the special had to be improvised. This would perhaps would not have been so bad if the script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been better. The Monkees themselves were none too happy with Jack Good and Art Fisher's work. They considered the script to be both "sloppy" and "fairy tale like." Davy Jones himself complained that it focused too much on the special's guest stars and not enough on The Monkees themselves.

Indeed, this is one of the greatest weaknesses of 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Individually, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll receive more dialouge and possibly even more screen time than the group themselves. In fact, the special seems to me more like it starred The Trinity with special guests The Monkees. In my humble opinion, the concept behind 33 1/3 Revolutons Per Monkee is sound. Like their movie Head, it seeks to desconstruct The Monkees phenomenon, while at the same time making a commentary on the manipulation of both artists and audience by the media. Unfortunately, I feel that The Monkees were right. The script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was sloppy. I must admit that beyond the basic concept for the special, I had trouble understanding what was taking place at any given time. Why does Darwin (also played by Brian Auger) appear and why does he take The Monkees though various stages of evolution? Why is there a guy in a gorilla suit sitting in a forklift and wearing head phones? I sometimes get the feeling that Good and Fisher were at times being strange for the sake of being strange.

Because of the, well, sloppiness of the script, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee is very uneven in quality. As might be expected, the musical performances are good for the most part. A highlight is a medley (typical of those Good had used in both Oh, Boy! and Shindig) of Fifties rock 'n' roll featuring The Monkees and various legendary performers, as well as the climax featuring Michael Nesmith's "Listen to the Band." Peter Tork gives a solid performance of Michael Murphy's "I Prithee (Do Not Ask for Love)," which The Monkees had previously recorded in 1966 with Micky on lead vocals (although that version wouldn't be released until the Nineties), while Nesmith's "Naked Persimmon" is simply a great song. If 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been filled back to back with such performances, it might well have overcome the weakness of its script. Sadly, this was not the case. The Monkees' performances of "Wind Up Man" and Neil Sedaka's "I Go Ape" both leave me cold. Even worse is a long, psychedelic, interpretative dance sequence that I can only describe as, well, boring.

It seems that The Monkees were not the only ones who had misgivings about 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. NBC executives thought that the special was much too strange and much too subversive. They elected to to place it against the Academy Awards on April 14, 1969. I can only assume that they did so in hopes that no one would see it. Indeed, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee would not see the light of day in the United States again until Rhino released it on VHS in 1997. Sadly, after seeing the special, NBC decided to do no more Monkees specials.

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee can then be seen as a turning point in The Monkees' career. It marked the end of any chance The Monkees had for regular appearances on television, their TV show having been cancelled and NBC vetoing any more specials. Peter Tork having announced he was leaving the band shortly before the special aired, this would also be the last time during The Monkees' initial run that the four original members would perform together. "Listen to the Band" would be the last song they would perform as a quartet for 16 years.

Unless one is an extremely huge fan of The Monkees (as I am), I cannot recommend 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Fortunately, it is available on The Monkees Season Two DVD set, so that one can see the special for himself or herself while at the same time getting something that is actually worth the money (namely, the second season of The Monkees). While I love many of the musical performances on the special, I can't say I really like the special itself.