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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni R.I.P.

I was going to eulogise Laszlo Kovacs, Michel Serrault, and Tom Snyder today, but it seems that yesterday the world lost not one, but two legendary directors. One was Ingmar Bergman. The other was Michelangelo Antonioni, the man who directed such classics as Blowup and L'Avventura. He died yesterday at age 94 in Rome.

Like Bergman, Antonioni had an enormous impact on film. He was best known for his manipulation of film narrative. The perfect example of this is his masterpiece Blowup. Unlike most movies then and now, Blowup is not the least bit linear in structure. Events in the film may, on the surface, seem unrelated. And the film lacks anything in the way of a conventional ending. Antionioni was also a master of the camera, and he used it in ways previous directors probably never considered. Indeed, Antonioni often depended more on imagery than dialogue to communicate what he meant. And even then, what the viewer saw was often open to interpretation. That Antonioni's narratives were always non-traditional and that he used the camera in such a way as to allow the viewer to come to his own conclusions about what he seeing should come as no surprise. His films centred around alienation, isolation, and incompleteness, so his use of narrative and camera work suited his films perfectly. He was quite possibly the first modernist director.

Michelangelo Antonioni was born in Ferrara, Italy on September 29, 1912. He attended the University of Bologna where he majored in business and economics. After graduation he worked at a bank for a time before becoming a film critic for the newspaper Il Corriere Padano in Ferrara. He worked there for five years before getting hired for the official Fascist film magazine Cinema. Not surprisingly, he was fired after only a few months. Antonioni then enrolled in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia where he studied film. By 1942 he wrote his first screenplay, Un Pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns), directed by Roberto Rossellini. In 1943 he directed his first film, a documentary short entitled Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley). For the next several years Antonioni was both a screen writer and a maker of often neo-realist documentary shorts.

Despite having worked for years in documentary film making, Antonioni's first feature film, Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of Love), was a middle class crime drama dealing with alienation. By 1955 Antonioni was getting attention for his films. His movie Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It was in 1960 that the film which would make him a legend was released. L'Avventura, blend of crime drama, mystery, and romance, took the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival. For the next several years Antonioni would do some of his best work: La Notte (a rather dark drama) in 1961, L'Eclisse (a rather tragic love story) in 1962), Il Deserto Rosso in 1964, and Blowup in 1966. Arguably, it was Blowup that was his masterpiece. The film won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a slough of other awards. The film focused on a photographer in Swinging London who, among other things, believes his photographed a murder after developing some negatives. Beyond being the best expression of Antonioni's modernism and neo-realism, it may well have captured Swinging London better than any other filmmaker, even those born in Britain.

Antonioni never matched Blowup, although he came close in 1982 with Professione: reporter (better known as The Passenger in the English speaking world). Like Blowup, The Passenger was not one single thing--it was a drama, a mystery, a thriller, and a road movie all rolled into one. Sadly, Antonioni would only make two more feature films: Identificazione di una donna in 1982 and Al di la delle nuvole (co-directed with Wim Wenders) in 1995. Antonioni returned to directing documentary shorts, as he had done in the beginning. His last work was a segment of the anthology film Eros in 2004.

Antonioni was a director whose work was hated nearly as often as it was loved. The fact that most of his films focused on alienation and isolation, that his narratives often lacked a traditional ending, his spare yet masterful use of the camera, may have made him an acquired taste for many. Regardless, Antonioni would have a huge impact on art films, particularly in the wake of Blowup (indeed, there was a point in the late Sixties when every art film seemed to look like Blowup. He would also have a huge impact on modern Italian cinema, surpassed only by Fellini. Antonioni would have a powerful influence on young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mike Nichols, and Quention Tarentino. A man who defined film isolation and angst in the Sixties, he was a true pioneer.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Antonius Block: "Nothing escapes you!"
Death: "Nothing escapes me. No one escapes me."
(from Det sjunde inseglet by Ingmar Bergman)

"All our times have come
Here but now they're gone
Seasons don't fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are..."
("Don't Fear the Reaper," by Buck Dharma, originally performed by Blue Oyster Cult)

Recently legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs died. Yesterday French actor Michel Serrault died. Today talk show pioneer Tom Snyder died. Sadly, I will have to wait to eulogise them, as today a man died whose influence extends farther than even these towering figures in their respective fields. Quite simply, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman died today at the age of 89 in Faro, Sweden.

Bergman was born on July 14, 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden (fittingly enough, the spiritual capital of Sweden in the Viking Age). His father, Erik, was a Lutheran minister of Danish descent. His upbringing was rather strict, and he grew up in a religious atmosphere that would later inform his films. He attended Palmgrens School in Stockholm. It was while he was attending Stockholm University that he became interested in film. It was in 1943 that he joined Svensk Filmindustri as a screenwriter. From the beginning Bergman also worked on the stage. He was director of Helsingborg City Theatre in 1944. It was also that year that the first film to ever bear a credit for Bergman was released; Hets was written by him. Two years later would see the release of the first film directed by Bergman, Kris (literally Crisis). By 1949 Bergman was being noticed. His film Musik i Morker was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year; however, it would be Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Nihgt), released in 1955, that would be his break out film. It was nominated for the Palm d' Or at the Cannes film festival and won the award for Best European Film at the Danish Bodil Awards.

Two years later saw the release of the film that would make Bergman a force to be reckoned with. Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, literally) received a good deal of critical acclaim and several awards, including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes (it was nominated for the Palm d'Or). Its imagery of a knight who plays a game of chess with Death became the most iconic of Bergman's entire career. It was with The Seventh Seal that Bergman entered his best period. Within a few years he directed the classics Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries), Ansiktet (The Face, called The Magician here in the United States), Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring), Nattvardsgasterna (Winter Light), and Persona.

While the period from Det sjunde inseglet to Persona could be described as Bergman's Golden Age, he continued to produce widely acclaimed movies for nearly the rest of his life, turning his eye to television in his later years. Ansikte mot ansikte (Face to Face), released in 1976, would earn Bergman a Best Director nomination at the Oscars and win the award for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1984 and earned Bergman another Best Director nomination. It would be his last major feature film, although he would continue to work both on stage and in television. His last work was the telefilm Saraband, first aired in 2003.

It is perhaps important to remember that Bergman was not only a film director,but worked in theatre as well. He directed his first play in 1938 when he was only 19. The last play he staged was a reinterpretation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in 2002.

There can be no doubt that Ingrid Bergman was an innovator who revolutionised film. Alongside contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Frederico Fellini he changed motion pictures forever. And like most innovators he went through a period of unpopularity. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he was known for his symbolism, existentialism, and the blending of fantastic imagery with realism. As the French New Wave grew ever more popular, it became fashionable to hold Bergman up to scorn. Much of the mockery hurled Bergman's way ended when he began to make more personal films such as Persona. Regardless, in the end Bergman would have his revenge. As legions of new fans discovered The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, Bergman's early films regained their reputation as numbering among the greatest films of all time. Indeed, it is arugable that Bergman's early work is better remembered than many movies of the French New Wave. If Bergman's work was able to return to its rightful place among the classics of cinema, it is perhaps because he dealt with the ultimate questions of life: the meaning of existence, the existence of a deity, and how humanity relates to each other. In dealing with these questions, his films became timeless.

In time Bergman would prove to be a influence on such directors as Lars von Trier, Bille August, Woody Allen, and even Wes Craven. What is more, he is one of the few arthouse directors whose films have entered the collective unconscious of the United States and the United Kingdom. The Seventh Seal was parodied in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, in which Bill and Ted must play Death at Battleship, Clue, electronic football, and Twister. Wes Craven remade The Virgin Spring as Last House on the Left. His early film Smiles of a Summer Night was tranformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. A script direction in The Simpsons episode "Moaning Lisa," in which Lisa looks in a mirror, was simply, "an Ingmar Bergman moment." His impact on Anglo-American pop culture can even be seen in the influence he had on, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whose Middle Ages look remarkably like that of Det sjunde inseglet. It is not every director who can say his works have had an impact on entertainment both high and low brow.

Sadly, many of the homages and references to Bergman's work is probably lost on the average American. This is tragic, as he was quite possibly the greatest living director of our time. With passing today, there is simply no one left to match him. The other truly great directors of his time, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Fellini, and Truffaut, had all died before he did. With Bergman, we have seen the passing of a generation of filmmakers. And, unfortunately, I doubt that we see their like again for many, many years.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (No Spoilers!)


It was ten years ago that Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in the United Kingdom. Since that time the Harry Potter series has become an outright phenomenon, one to match Star Wars and The Beatles. There haven't just been the books themselves and the movies based on the books, but scores of merchandise. Even a casual search on the Internet will reveal literally thousands of web sites, blogs, message boards, and so on dedicated to the Harry Potter series. It should be no surprise, then, that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold 11 million copies in the United Kingdom and United States in its first day. Indeed, worldwide it became the fastest selling book of all time.

Given this, the pertinent question might be, "Is the book worth all the furore surrounding it? For me, at least, the answer is, "Yes." Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is definitely the best book in a series that some already consider a classic, alongside L. Frank Baum's Oz books and the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Whether the series is truly a classic is something that only time will tell. For myself, however, the series is not only truly entertaining, but outright riveting. What is more, for books written for young adults (that's librarian for "adolescents"), they possess a surprising amount of depth in terms of the characters and the world they inhabit. In being the best of the Harry Potter series, then, it can be argued that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the best of the best.

While it is the best book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows also stands apart from the rest of the series to a degree. In many respects Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows reads like an action-adventure novel, with some very intense action scenes occurring regularly throughout the novel. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the past six books. After all, Voldemort has finally returned and the wizarding world is at war. This makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a very exciting novel and one that is hard to put down. What sets Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows apart is J. K. Rowling's gift for character development. In the final Harry Potter book, the characters we have known so long have a depth and complexity never seen before in the series, a series whose popularity grew in part out of its three dimensional characters.

All of this having been said, for fans like myself Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can be a very difficult book to read. The novel has a considerable body count, and it is not just the bad guys who die. This is a natural outgrowth of Rowling's gift for realistic characters--she lets the characters drive the plot rather than the plot drive the characters. A lesser writer might be tempted to spare popular characters in hopes of appeasing their readership. Not Rowling, she lets the personalities of the characters and the logical progression of events determine who lives and who dies. And while this makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all the more enjoyable, it also makes painful at times to read.

Ultimately, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a satisfying conclusion to what may be the most popular book series of our time. It cannot have been easy for Rowling to have produced a book that not only ties up all the loose ends, but also entertains and does so in a logical manner as well. That she has done so is a tribute to her talent as a writer. Other series of books have sometimes simply petered out. Fortunately, the Harry Potter series has ended on a high note.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sometimes You Aren't the Hero...

Last night I hardly got any sleep because of a stye (it's surprising something so small can hurt so much), so I am really not in any shape to write a good post tonight. Instead I decide to present you with a bunch of memes or, as I call them, quiz thingies. This time the results were interesting as, for once, I only wound a hero in a few of them (of course, one quiz I couldn't possibly be the hero...) and I didn't end up the "priest" or "religious guru" in any of them.

You scored as Sirius Black, You are a gifted wizard and very loyal to your allegiance. Whilst you have a big heart and care very much about those around you, you can be a little arrogant and reckless at times.

Sirius Black

90%

Draco Malfoy

90%

Severus Snape

80%

Albus Dumbledore

75%

Harry Potter

65%

Remus Lupin

55%

Ron Weasley

50%

Ginny Weasley

45%

Hermione Granger

45%

Lord Voldemort

5%

Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with QuizFarm.com


I am fairly happy with this result. The last "Which Harry Potter Character Are You" Quiz I took ended with me being Snape. And while I do have at least one thing in common with Snape, I don't think that result is a perfect fit (I have to wonder if the quiz's author took into account the later books). On the other hand, I think I have a good deal with Sirius Black. I can be arrogant at times, although I am loyal to my family and friends to a fault. I do have to disagree with "Draco Malfoy" coming in second. About all I have in common with him is arrogance. Let's face it, even as a bad guy Draco is a dweeb. And while I like Snape as a character, it seems to me that I only have one thing in common (granted, it is probably the most important thing to Snape, but still....). Honestly, I think 2 and 3 would be Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.


Which Batman Villain Are You?




You are: R'AS AL GHUL!
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Okay, this is the quiz on which I couldn't possibly be the hero. I have to say I like this result. I have to admit The Joker and Two Face are my favourite Batman villains, but then I can't see myself as either a homicidal maniac or a madman obsessed with duality. Indeed, I think if I were a supervillain, my goals would be the same as Ra's. Why settle for robbery or extortion when you can conquer the world?


Which Fight Club Character Are You?

You are Tyler!!
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Okay, this is another case where I am not the hero. I have to admit that I probably have more in common with Tyler Durden than the Narrator (and definitely more than Marla or Bob). Granted, I don't go around doing rude stuff in people's soup or blowing stuff up, but I have to admit to having a desire to change the world. Like both Tyler and The Narrator, I've been in my share of fights (and I've lost a few, too...). That having been said, I do work for a major corporation and I haven't really done much to change that...


Which House Character Are You?

You are Dr. Gregory House. You are the God of Snark. Life has given you lemons so you cut them in half and squeeze lemon juice in people's eyes to get your jollies. Although underneath it all you are really just a damaged person who can't deal with emotions, especially your own. The good news is you're brilliant!
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I suppose Dr. Gregory House counts as another bad guy? Or is he really a hero? An anti-hero? Whatever he is, he is my favourite character on the show. Like most people I think he is obnoxious and arrogant, so I really haven't much in common with him (although, sadly, I have more in common with him than the other characters on the series). That having been said, I still think he is carrying a torch for Cuddy, something I can understand perfectly....

Which The Office Character Are You?



Jim Halpert
You are extremely nice and everyone likes you. You are popular with the ladies. You go to parties and have a good time. You are good at your job but if you could leave you would. You have everything a guy could want.
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I must confess Jim Halpert is my favourite character on The Office. And I can think of a few things we have in common. People tell me I am nice and everyone at work likes me. And when I was Jim's age I did go to a number of parties. I must also confess that I am good at my everyday job (not writing, the other one), but I really don't like it that much. The two differences between us is that I don't really think I am popular with the ladies (not that I've noticed, anyhow), and while I am always cracking jokes at work, I am not a practical joker (although I did nail my second best friend with one of those fake lighters that delivers a slight shock--she wasn't too happy with me). Well, I guess that is one more thing I have in common with Jim, my best friend at work is a girl.

You scored as Code name V, Your Code name "V". Your vengeful and cold hearted at times. People have done horriable things to you in the past...but dont worry about them, you'll get back at them one way or another. Your a good person on the inside who believes strongly in the good of the people. You think that you could never fall in love because your heart is filled with hate...but even a heart as broken as your can love. Your strong and just and would fight for the good of your world.

Code name V

100%

Finch

33%

Creedy

33%

Evey

33%

Sutler

33%

Deitrich

0%

What V for Vendetta character are you?
created with QuizFarm.com


Okay, I've already posted the results of a V for Vendetta quiz here, but I decided to post another. It's always nice to know I am nothing like Sutler and Creedy. Naturally, I always do remember the fifth of November.

I don't know that any of these characters have much in common, although I suppose Sirius, Tyler, and V all have a strong desire to change the world and end what they consider injustice (I guess Ra's Al Ghul does too, although his solution isn't something many beyond himself and his minions would find desirable...). All of the characters are also intelligent, in some cases brilliant (namely Ra's, House, and V). That having been said, I think House is probably the most different from the rest. I'm not sure, but I think Ra's Al Ghul may even be less selfish than he is....

Anyhow, I promise I'll do a real post tomorrow (a spoiler free review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Whatever Happened to A&E?

At one time I watched a good deal of the A&E Network. For some time it was possibly my favourite cable channel out there. As time has gone by, however, I found myself watching it less and less. The past year I have found that I only watch it for The Sopranos, Criss Angel, or, if there is nothing else on, CSI: Miami. It seems that the A&E I watched so often is long gone and an impostor has taken its place.

Today A&E has been infected by the plague known as "reality shows," but there was a time when A&E was known for quality programming. The channel was born in 1984 when the ARTS Network (ran by Hearst and ABC) acquired the programming of the Entertainment Channel (run by NBC). The new channel was named A&E, short for Arts and Entertainment. A&E aired an inordinately large number of shows devoted to the fine arts. There was A&E Stage, which featured broadcasts of various plays. There was also Breakfast with the Arts, which included interviews and even performances from everything from the stage to ballet to rock music to film.

Of course, it is sad a fact that no cable channel in America could survive on fine arts programming alone. A&E would also air reruns of high quality, classic TV shows, among them Columbo, Crime Story, Northern Exposure, Law and Order, and NewsRadio. Before BBC America came along, it may well have aired more British programming than other American cable channel (even more than PBS). These British series included older classics such as The Avengers and The Saint, as well as newer series, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Airline, Inspector Morse, and Lovejoy. A&E also showed British movie series based on popular series of books. There was Sharpe, based on the Richard Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell, Horatio Hornblower, based on the Horatio Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the novels by Baroness Orczy. A&E also aired such special programming as the miniseries Napoleon and Shackleton. The original series Nero Wolfe was one of the best things on television. Its series Biography was so popular that it was spun off into its own cable channel. The programming A&E broadcast on history gave rise to The History Channel. Quite simply, A&E was one of the best networks around.

Oh, that is not to say that A&E didn't have its share of flaws. The cable channel was joking called the "Murder She Wrote Channel" for good reason (how that show ever ended up on A&E I can never figure out). And as much as I love Biography, there were times it showed it too much. Ultimately, however, A&E was the only place one could see a lot of quality series, British programming, and miniseries on subjects the broadcast networks would ignore.

Sadly, things changed not long ago. The reality show fad finally reached A&E. In April 2004 A&E debuted Growing Up Gotti, a reality show following around mobster John Gotti's daughter Victoria Gotti. In August 2004 the channel debuted Dog the Bounty Hunter, now their most popular show. In March 2005 A&E debuted Intervention, a purely exploitative series focusing on interventions with addicts of various sorts. By March 2006 A&E would ditch many of their longtime shows, including those reruns of Murder She Wrote (which really wasn't a bad idea) in hopes of attracting a younger viewership. The British spy series Spooks (aired here as MI-5), was unceremoniously dumped. It's apparently the last British show A&E has aired. Unfortunately, all of this meant that there would be even more reality shows on the cable channel. They did eventually pick up CSI: Miami and The Sopranos, but they seem to be the only dramas the channel show of an evening any more.

When A&E got the rights to The Sopranos reruns, the channel's general manager Bob DeBitetto, claimed that the show "...speaks so eloquently as to what A&E is all about." I disagree. At one time it would have. The Sopranos would have fit in so perfectly with shows such as The Avengers, Sharpe, NewsRadio, and MI-5. As A&E is now, however, it seems oddly out of place beside Dog the Bounty Hunter, Confessions of a Matchmaker, God or the Girl, and Flip This House (shouldn't that be on TLC?). As much as I once loved A&E, I keep hoping that the ratings on their various reality shows would drop so that they would stop airing them. In fact, I would be more than happy if they were forced to cancel every one of their series save Criss Angel and The Sopranos (although Gene Simmons' Family Jewels could always move to MTV). There are many of us who wish A&E would return to what it once was, a cable channel that aired quality programming. Now, like so many other cable channels, its programming consists primarily of junk.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The President's Analyst

If Theodore J. Flicker is known for anything, it is his work in television. After all, he was co-creator of the classic sitcom Barney Miller alongside Danny Arnold. Most of his work was in directing TV shows. Over the years Flicker directed everything from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to I Dream of Jeannie to The Streets of San Francisco. He wrote for television as well, writing episodes of Nichols, Night Gallery, and, of course, Barney Miller.

That having been said, Flicker did some work in feature films. He co-wrote the screenplay to The Troublemaker with Buck Henry and directed the movie. He also wrote the screenplay to the Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout. He directed such films as Up in the Cellar and Soggy Bottom U.S.A.. For the most part, however, Flicker's feature films have been forgotten. Not all of them have, as The President's Analyst, directed by Flicker and released in 1967, has been remembered as both a cult film and one of the funniest films of the Sixties in the opinion of many.

The President's Analyst was produced at the the tail end of the spy fad that swept America and Europe in the mid-Sixties. The President's Analyst is largely a a parody of the myriad spy films produced from 1964 to 1967, but it is also so much more than that. Essentially, it is a political and social satire, which takes jabs at everything from the United States government to middle class suburbanites to, well, the phone company. Indeed, The President's Analyst was among the first films turned out by Paramount with Robert Evans as Head of Production. Not long after Evans agreed to go forward on The President's Analyst, Evans claimed that he was approached by two men from the FBI who let him know that J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau felt that the picture would be detrimental. Evans told them in no uncertain terms that they were going ahead with the picture. Whether Evans went ahead with The President's Analyst due to FBI objections is something ultimately known only to Mr. Evans and the Bureau. That having been said, it is notable that through out the film FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) were replaced by FBR (Federal Bureau of Regulations) and CEA (Central Enquiries Agency) respectively.

A pet project of James Coburn, The President's Analyst was the film on which he was a producer, being made through his Panpiper Productions. Coburn's first roles which attracted attention were in the ensemble action films The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. The two Derek Flint spy parodies, Our Man Flint and In Like Flint, arguably made him a star. It was a natural step for Coburn, then, to start producing his own films. Coburn played the lead role of Dr. Sidney Schaefer, the psychiatrist who gets the unfortunate job of analysing the President. The cast also featured comedian Godfrey Cambridge as CEA agent Don Masters, Joan Delaney as Dr. Schaefer's girlfriend Nan, singer Barry McGuire as the hippie Old Wrangler, and Pat Harrington as Arlington Hewes, President of TPC (The Phone Company).

As I said earlier, The President's Analyst is both a spy spoof and a political and social satire. Its plot is starkly original for its time. Not long after accepting the position of analyst to the President of the United States, Dr. Sidney Schaefer soon becomes paranoid about constantly being watched and flees Washington. The only problem is that Dr. Schaefer is being watched, and soon every spy from seemingly every country in the world is out to get him.

The President Analyst is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Indeed, I suspect the only film from the Sixties that matches it in irreverence is Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The list of institutions The President's Analyst sends up is a long one: psychiatry, the Federal government, foreign governments, the middle class, suburbia, liberals, conservatives, and spies. In fact, the only characters presented somewhat sympathetically in the film are Dr. Schaeffer, spies, or Barry McGuire and his merry band of hippies! As a measure of just how sharp the satire in this film is, reportedly when NBC first aired the film in the early Seventies, they cut the movie's punchline!

What makes The President's Analyst so effective, however, is that it is actually a very carefully structured film. At first glance the film appears to be a set of skits loosely interconnected by Dr. Schaeffer's flight for his life, largely a product of Sixties style improvisational comedy. On closer examination, however, its plot is much more closely knitted than on the surface. It is one of those films that expects the viewer to be intelligent enough to catch the numerous bits of foreshadowing (not to mention some funny sight gags) that are peppered throughout the film. I suspect that The President's Analyst became a cult film largely because it benefits from repeated viewings.

Sadly, The President's Analyst did not fair well on its initial release. It bombed at the box office and quickly disappeared from theatres. I rather suspect that many older people saw the film as a bit too sympathetic to the counterculture of the time. At the same time, it must be remembered that the spy fad of the Sixties was coming to an end. Many seeing its trailer may have concluded that this remarkable movie was simply another spy spoof.

While The President's Analyst would be aired regularly on television (I first saw it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies as a very young child), it did not precisely fare well in that format. As I mentioned earlier, when it first aired on television on NBC, the network cut its punchline. Something even worse would occur later, as for a time a copyright dispute prevented Barry McGuire's originals songs from appearing in television prints of the film (fortunately, this was resolved before its DVD release). The President's Analyst was further altered from its theatrical version when a scene cut from the the original print of the film was added in television prints to pad out its air time. This scene has Dr. Schaeffer running into his girlfriend Nan by chance at a underground film of the sort so popular in the Sixties. Some fans of the movie believe the scene is important, while others simply see it as out of place.A picture from this scene can be seen at Roger Ebert's web site. Quite simply, it appears for some time that The President's Anaylst was aired on television in a different version from that of its theatrical release, without McGuire's music and with a scene between Dr. Schaeffer and Nan in an art cinema. Reportedly, there is something else that has been cut, although I have my serious doubts that it was part of the theatrical release or even television prints. There are those who claim that there was a segment during Dr. Schaeffer's collapse into paranoia involving disembodied, glowing eyes. I have not even seen clips from this segment and I have to wonder if reports of the segment aren't apocryphal. At any rate, given how the film has fared over the years, it is surprising that The President's Analyst ever achieved a cult following.

The President's Analyst was easily the funniest film of 1967 (arguably The Graduate is a better film, but does not match it for comedy). It is an equal opportunity satire which pokes fun at nearly every important part of the Establishment of the Sixties. What is more is that it holds up remarkably well. Indeed, if anything else, The President's Analyst may well be more relevant now than it was in the Sixties.

Monday, July 23, 2007

59th Annual Emmy Awards Nominations

Last week the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences the nominations for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards to be held this year. As usual, it was a mixed bag, with some series that in my opinion receiving nominations that should not have, and others that deserved to be nominated but weren't.

Indeed, perhaps the least deserving show on television received several nominations. I am talking about Grey's Anatomyh. This show is simply a standard medical drama. There is next to nothing to differentiate it from Dr. Kildare beyond unusual cases (done before on both St. Elsewhere and E.R.) and more sex. It did not deserve to be nominated in the Best Drama category by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, outside of special effects, I am not sure it should have been nominated in any category, although I will admit the cast can be forgiven if their performances aren't up to par with the rest of television. They don't have much to work with.

There are other Best Drama nominees that I am also not sure deserved to be so honoured. Boston Legal is more enjoyable than most David E. Kelley, primarily due to a good cast (it's hard to beat William Shatner and Candice Bergen), but I am not sure it is entertaining enough for Best Drama. And while Heroes has its enjoyable moments, I am also sure it deserves a Best Drama nomination.

While Grey's Anatomy was nominated for Best Drama, Lost was once again snubbed. While this season of Lost started poorly, in the end it turned out to be the best season so far. Indeed, the best single episode of the show aired this season ("Flashes Before Your Eyes"). At least Lost has picked up several other nominations, including direction (for the episode "Through the Looking Glass"), Editing (for the same episode), Sound Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Terry O'Quinn as Locke and Michael Emerson as Ben), and Writing (although it was for "Through the Looking Glass" instead of "Flashes Before Your Eyes..."). I am disappointed that Evangeline Lily did not receive an Outstanding Actress nod. In fact, none of the actresses from the show were nominated, even though Grey's Anatomy received three.

At least Lost received some nominations. HBO's The Wire is easily the best show on television, yet it was entirely shut out. It did not receive any nominations at all.

That having been said, I can say both The Sopranos and House deserved to be nominated for Best Drama. House also received a nomination for Lead Actor, and I can honestly say that I believe Huge Laurie (who lays Gregory House M. D.) deserves to win. The Sopranos also picked up several other nominations, which it definitely deserved to.

As to the Comedy Series category, I was glad to see Entourage, The Office, and 30 Rock were all nominated. That having been said, I am puzzled why My Name is Earl wasn't. Did they think they had too many NBC sitcoms nominated? Quite frankly, My Name is Earl is funnier than the pedestrian Two and Half Men and The New Adventures of Old Christine. Indeed, if I had to nominated a CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother would have beaten both of those! It also pleases me that Entourage picked up several nominations, including a Guest Actor nod for Martin Landau and Supporting Actor nods for Jeremy Piven as Ari and Kevin Dillon as Drama (who's easily the funniest character on the show). I'm also happy to see that Alec Baldwin was nominated for Lead Actor for 30 Rock. That having been said, I was disappointed to see that Tracy Morgan wasn't nominated in the Supporting Actor category for the same show. I am glad to see that both Jamie Pressly (Earl's evil ex-wife on My Name is Earl and Jenna Fischer (Pam on The Office received Outstanding Supporting Actress nominations. I was also happy to see Tina Fey receive an Outstanding Lead Actress nod.

As to other categories, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the Outstanding Animated Progrramme (for less than one hour). While The Simpsons and South Park were nominated as usual, another old timer was missing--King of the Hill. This is a series that has been consistently good over its long run, which is more than can be said for The Simpsons of late (as much as I love the show, I can't help but wonder that it hasn't overstayed its welcome). I was also happy to see the excellent Broken Trail nominated in the Outstanding Miniseries category.

Over all I suppose the 59th Annual Emmy Award nominations could have been worse. Lost was at least nominated in several categories, even if it was snubbed when it came to Outstanding Drama. And many of my favourite actors did receive nods. I only wish the Academy would get over their infatuation with Grey's Anatomy. I rather suspect years from now they will look back at having nominated that show with the thought, "What was I thinking?!"

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell R.I.P.

Most of you are probably not familiar with the name of Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, but if you are under forty you have been exposed to her work. Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was the woman for turning A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh into a merchandising empire. She passed from respiratory failure at the age of 84.

Shirley Slesinger Lasswell was born Shirley Ann Basso in Detroit, Michigan on May 27, 1923. In 1947 she was a dancer on Broadway when she met literary agent Stephen
Slesinger backstage on the show Hellzapoppin'. Stephen Slesinger was responsible for the merchandising of such characters as Tarzan, King of the Royal Mounted, Tom Mix, Charlie Chan, and a number of other characters. He was also a creator of various characters, whom he hired others to write and illustrate (in the case of comic strips), among them Red Ryder. He also entered the field of film and television production, producing adaptations of Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted, and so on. In the Thirties he acquired the rights to Winnie the Pooh.

Stephen Slesinger died in 1954, whereupon Shirley Slesinger took over his business. She concentrated on Winnie the Pooh, seeing a good deal of potential in Milne's creation. Not only did she design much of the merchandise, everything from toys to clothing, she actually went door to door to the top department stores selling Winnie the Pooh merchandise. It was in 1961 that Slesinger and Daphne Milne, the widow of A. A. Milne, entered into an agreement with Disney that gave them the television, trademark, and other commercial rights to Winnie the Pooh. In return Disney would pay the Slesinger and Milne families royalties from all Winnie the Pooh products the company produced. Eventually, in 1991, Slesinger Lasswell would be forced to sue Disney for underpaying royalties and mixing the money made from Winnie the Pooh with such Disney characters as Mickey Mouse.

After Stephen Slesinger's death, Shirley Slesinger married Fred Lasswell, Jr., longtime cartoonist on Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. They were married for 37 years.

In merchandising Winnie the Pooh, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell introduced many people to A. A. Milne's characters. While I have little doubt that A. A. Milne's books would still be published today, they probably would not have readership that Slesinger Lasswell's exposure created. She then has had part in the continued popularity of the one of the best loved literary creations in the Twentieth Century.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Where Does J. K. Rowling Go From Here?

It was ten years ago that readers were first introduced to the young wizard named Harry Potter. His creator, Joanne Rowling (who used her initials--the K was borrowed from her father's mother because she lacks a middle name--because Bloombury feared boys would not read a book written by a woman), has lived with the young spell caster even longer, having conceived him on on train trip through England way back in 1990. One has to wonder, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows coming out in a few hours, what she will do next.

After all, Rowling created one of those rare things in Anglo-American pop culture, an outright phenomenon. They are not precisely common. Off the top of my head I can only think of three other phenomena: The Beatles, Star Trek, and Star Wars. Rowling herself has said that she will never write anything nearly as popular again. And as much as her fans (among whom I am one) love her, it is most likely true. Pop culture phenomena are very rare, and I can think of no creator (whether writer, filmmaker or TV producer) who has ever created more than one.

Rowling has also said that she has no immediate plans for the future. At the moment she is not planning to write anything else set in the world of Harry Potter (and definitely not any more Harry Potter adventures), but then she has also stated that she will never say that she will never write anything set in that world again. It does seem like she wants to continue writing, and she will simply write what she really wants to write. I suppose that must seem unusual to many, as with the success of Harry Potter she is set for life. She is the richest woman in the United Kingdom; her wealth even surpassed that of the Queen. As a writer, I understand perfectly. A writer lives to write, whether he or she must do so to earn a living or not.

Of course, no one but Rowling can know what she will write. I rather suspect she will return to the world of Harry Potter, but there will be some time before she does. After all, like most people writers prefer a change of pace after doing the same thing for so long. My best friend has a theory that she might do what Stephen King did when he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman; assume a pen name just to find out if it was sheer luck that led to the success of Harry Potter or inborn talent. I am not so sure about that, although I rather suspect that if she ever writes an adult book she might use a pen name. J. K. Rowling is too identified with young adult fiction. And I rather suspect her given name, Joanne Rowling would be too.

Regardless of what Rowling decided to write in the future, I am sure many will read it. I doubt it will see the success of Harry Potter, but I've no doubt that it will be successful. And I know I will be one of the people to rush out and buy it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Robin and Marion

Many, many years ago two of my friends watched Robin and Marion on VHS (yes, it was that long ago). Both of them love classic movies and their tastes are quite similar. That having been said, one of them loved the movie. The other, a fan of the old swashbuckler movies made by the likes of Errol Flynn, hated it. Quite simply, Robin and Marion is not your standard Robin Hood movie.

Released in 1976, Robin and Marion was directed by Richard Lester during his swashbuckler phase (in the Seventies he directed The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers and The Royal Flash as well). The movie begins just as Robin Hood (played by Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williams) return from the Crusades with Richard I (Richard Harris). While Robin was gone, Marion (Audrey Hepburn) became a nun and rose to the position of abbess of her abbey. The film's primary focus is their reunion and the renewal of their romance. Robin and Marion is hardly a simple romance movie. Not only does it contain the prerequisite action scenes, but it is different from any other movie focusing on the outlaw from Sherwood Forrest. Although still a force to be dealt with, Robin is older and not nearly as spry as he once was. Contrary to viewing Robin as an outlaw and enemy to be despatched, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) sees him as a respected adversary, even if he still wants him dead. Richard Lionheart is hardly the epitome of chivalry. It is revealed that he has killed women and children without mercy. Only King John, played by Ian Holm, appears as he usually does in the Robin Hood mythos.

Indeed, Robin still bears the scars, both physical and psychological, of the Crusades. It is clear from his conversations with Marion that for Robin the Crusades were not some glorious "holy" war to free Christians under Muslim rule and liberating Jerusalem, nor were they some grand adventure. Instead, they were simply often meaningless slaughter. King John, in a dispute with Pope Innocent III, over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called important church figures to him. Marion has no intention of obeying the King's order and has decided to resist in protest. Made shortly after both the end of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal in the United States, and Edward Heath's term as Prime Minister in the United Kingdom, Robin and Marion reflects attitudes towards the Vietnam War and the increasing distrust of government on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, the primary reason to watch Robin and Marion are the performances of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. The two are wholly convincing in their roles, alternately melancholic and romantic, remembering better days and hoping for a better future. Robin and Marion is ultimately about love lost and found again.

Robin and Marion is definitely not for every Robin Hood fan. If one expects his or her Robin Hood movies to be filled with spectacular sword battles, grand escapes, and impossible feats of archery, then this is not the movie for him or her. On the other hand, if one enjoys a character study of two of the most legendary characters in English literature in their later years, then he or she will definitely enjoy this movie. If anything else, the performances of Connery and Hepburn make it worth a look.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Spoiling the Party

I'm sure we all have them, those friends who insist on telling one every single detail of that cool new movie they have seen or that cool new book they have read. Sadly, most of us don't want to know every single detail of a movie we haven't seen or a book we haven't read, wanting to experience them for ourselves. Fortunately, most of us can talk our friends into not telling us everything about movies and books they've just seen and read.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Internet. With the development of the World Wide Web, it seems a whole new phenomenon arose--spoiling books and movies on a heretofore unmatched scale. It seems that there are many people out there who, once they have read a book or watched a movie, cannot wait to post every single detail to their personal website or their own blog. What makes this even worse is that some of the people who do this should know better. I am sure we have all read reviews by professional critics who insist on summarising the whole book or movie, thus spoiling any surprises. I don't know about others, but I tend to avoid such critics like the plague.

What make spoiling on the World Wide Web even worse are the situations of books and movies that are pirated and reach individuals before their official release date, or errors made by various stores who accidentally sell material before it is officially released. This situation has arose with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Even though Bloombury in the United Kingdom and Scholastic in the United States set the release of the book as this coming Saturday, copies have already been sent out to people. Namely, Deepdiscount.Com sent copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows out early, Some customers received them as early as yesterday. While the number of copies sent out only amounted to 1/100th 1% of the total copies being printed here in the States, spoilers and purportedly entire copies of the book have made it to the Internet. This has not only displeased J. K. Rowling, but many Potter fans as well. There are many of us who do not want to know what happens until we have finished the book ourselves.

Indeed, the Harry Potter series is one of those book series in which the element of surprise provides much of the enjoyment in reading them. It seems to me to be true that spoilers can be worse for some works than it might be for others. I must confess that I don't mind if a friend tells me that superhero Captain Zero defeats the evil Dr. Malevolens at the end of The Amazing Adventures of Captain Zero (don't bother looking that up), because in most superhero movies the good guy defeats the bad guy in the end. On the other hand, I will be very unhappy if someone were to announce the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to me or let slip the ending of the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie. When a book or movie has a twist ending or relies largely on a very important plot point for much of its enjoyment, spoiling is even worse than for other works.

Of course, there are those movies and books which once had surprising twists or plot turns that are no longer so surprising because they have become part of pop culture. Perhaps the prime example of this is the fact that Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker. When Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back came out this was a shocking revelation and most Star Wars fans avoided telling their friends for fear of spoiling the movie. Nearly thirty years later, however, it is common knowledge. Not only has this once shocking revelation become part of pop culture, but the first trilogy makes it blatantly clear who fathered Luke and Leia. Another example of this is the ending of Pscycho. When the movie was first released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock went to extra lengths to avoid the twist ending from becoming public knowledge. Critics were denied a private screening lest they reveal the ending before the movie came out. Hitchcock also had a strict policy that no one would be admitted late to the movie, so that audiences would have to watch the film from the very beginning. Of course, today the end of Pscyho is known even to people who haven't seen the movie!

I realise that there is to some degree or another a demand for spoilers where movies and books are concerned. There have probably always been those people who turn to the last page of a book to read the ending. I would imagine these are the sort of people who rush to these web sites containing spoilers. While there are those who probably want to know the ending of a book or movie before they have read or seen it, I would daresay there are more of us who don't want to know. Sadly, those who post spoilers essentially act as killjoys for those of who want to experience plot twists and climaxes for ourselves.

Of course, I don't know what motivates people to post spoilers to the web sites. For some it may be the same reason that those aforementioned friends have for spoiling things--they simply want to share that great movie or great book with everyone else. In other cases, I am not so sure. I can only assume that they take some malicious pleasure out of ruining watching a particular movie or reading a particular book ourselves.

Sadly, beyond avoiding certain websites and the reviews of many critics, there is very little the average person can do with regards to spoilers. In the Information Age it is getting increasingly difficult for people to not know the end of a book or movie before it comes out. As for myself, I can only hope I don't hear about the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before I read it (hopefully next week sometime).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Ongoing Fantasy Movie Cycle

Like any other medium, the movies go through cycles. That is, at any given time movies of a particular genre or certain types of movies are going to be more popular than others and as a result more of that sort of movie will be made. To put it simply, a cycle is a trend or direction towards certain types of films. Examples of cycles are the one towards the action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties (which gave birth to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) and the cycle towards torture chic horror movies (which included Hostel and Saw) which has, fortunately, ended just recently.

Another example of a cycle in movies was a fantasy cycle that began in the late Fifties with movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Hercules. I rather suspect that particular cycle grew out of the success of such popular sword and sandal epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. From Biblical and historical epics to fantasies set in a pseudo-historical milieu was only a short step. Another fantasy cycle began in the Eighties with Excalibur and Dragonslayer in 1981. Precisely what started this particular cycle is difficult to say. It could have been the continued popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the fad towards Dungeons and Dragons, although I don't think anyone can say for certain. Regardless, a lot of fantasy movies were made in the Eighties.

It seems that we are once more in the middle of a fantasy cycle. In this case the causes of this one aren't hard to find. In fact, it would seem the catalysts for this cycle both lie in the world of literature. One of these catalysts is Tolkien's classic fantasy novel Lord of the Rings. Published in the Fifties, by 1965 the novel (published in three volumes) had become an outright phenomenon. By the Seventies it had arguably become an institution. As early as the Sixties there were plans to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Big names such as The Beatles, Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman all considered adapting it into a motion picture. Animator Ralph Bakshi succeeded in bringing part of the novel to the screen in 1978. Unfortunately, Bakshi's animated adaptation left a lot to be desired, combining material from the first two books, Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It was left to maverick film director Peter Jackson to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Just as the novel was published in three volumes, so too did Jackson adapt the novel as three movies. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) not only did big box office (all three films rank in the top ten highest grossing movies worldwide), but they were critically acclaimed as well. With the Lord of the Rings movies an over all success monetarily and critically, it would seem to only be a matter of time before Hollywood would create more fantasy movies.

The other catalyst for the current fantasy movie cycle was a series of young adult novels centred on a young wizard named Harry Potter. Joanne Rowling (now known to the world as J. K. Rowling) sent her book to several British publishers, rejected every time until Bloombury at last bought it. In 1997 Bloombury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with little expectation for a huge success. American publisher Scholastic apparently saw something in the book that Bloombury did not. They made the unprecedented move of paying Rowling, an unknown at the time, $105,000 for the book's American rights. It was published in the United States in 1998 under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Despite Bloombury's doubts, that first book became a roaring success, having sold 70,000 copies as of July 1998 (before its publication here in the United States). The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was number one on both British and American bestsellers lists the first week it came out. As phenomenal as the success of Harry Potter was, it was natural that a film adaptation would be made. In 2001, the same year that the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out, the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released. It grossed $317,575,550 and started one of the most successful franchises of the Naughts.

With the success of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies it should then be no surprise that a new fantasy cycle would begin in the Naughts. In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that it didn't start sooner. It would be two years before another major fantasy movie would be released, and I don't think that the release of that film can really be attributed to the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl was based on the famous theme park ride at Disneyland. Regardless, it was a smash hit and no doubt fueled the new fantasy cycle.

For the next fantasy films of any importance it would be another two years, and even then not all of them would be huge hits. The Brother's Grimm was the creation of director Terry Gilliam. It was a fictional account of an adventure the famous scholars had in battling a supernatural menace in French occupied Germany in the Napoleonic Era. The film only grossed $37,916,267 at the box office and was poorly received by the critics. The next fantasy film to be released that year did not emerge from Hollywood, but from Canada. As a low budget film made outside the United States, Beowulf and Grendel did not receive a wide release here. It also received mixed reviews from critics. Regardless, it has a cult following of individuals who realise just how good the film really is. If The Brothers Grimm and Beowulf and Grendel had been the last fantasy films released that year, the cycle might have never begun. Fortunately, December of 2005 saw the release of Disney's adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The film grossed $291,710,957 at the box office and received generally good reviews.

Two thousand six would only see two fantasy films in the cycle, and one was definitely not meant for children. El Laberinto del fauno (known as Pan's Labyrinth in the States) dealt with the horrors of Franco's Spain, complete with the violence that accompanies a fascist government. Indeed, in some respects was as much a horror film as a fantasy film (it is perhaps best described as "dark fantasy"). Indeed, it is even unclear whether the fairy tale in which the main character finds herself swept up into is real or imaginary. El Laberinto del fauno did very well at the box, received some of the best reviews of any film released in 2006, and even won several Oscars. The other fantasy film of 2006 was Eragon, an adaptation of the hit novel by Christopher Paolini. Like the Harry Potter series, Eragon is a young adult book with a large following of grown ups. Despite the novel's immense success, the movie fizzled at the box office in the United States. It also received negative reviews from critics, who as a whole thought the film was both derivative and dull. Fans of the book perhaps reacted more negatively than movie critics--little wonder as it departed a great deal from the novel.

This year saw the adaptation of another young adult book considered a classic by some. Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Patterson and first published in 1977. It won the Newberry Award. With the success of both the Harry Potter movies and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was perhaps a natural for film adaptation. Despite being based on a novel considered by many to be a classic, the movie changed many points in the novel. One point it didn't change is that, like the novel, Bridge to Terabithia isn't a total fantasy. It is more about a fantasy world created by two children than a fantasy world per se. This could explain why the movie didn't do so well at the box office--from February to April it only made $120 million. For the most part the movie received good reviews from the critics, despite a lack of enthusiasm on the part of audiences.

Like Bridge to Terabithia, 300 is not strictly a fantasy movie. It is very loosely based on historical events (the Battle of Thermopylae), although in such a stylised way that it would certainly appeal to fans of fantasy. Indeed, of the movies released in this fantasy cycle, beyond the Lord of the Rings movies and Eragon, it could be the one that has the most in common with the fantasy films of the Eighties. It certainly isn't a children's movie, containing more violence than ten other movies and a sex scene.

While Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first full fledged fantasy movie released this year, it is hardly the last. In fact, the number of fantasy movies released the latter half of this year proves we are in the middle of a fantasy movie cycle. Next up on the big screen is Stardust, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's illustrated novel, centring on a young man who ventures through Fairie to retrieve a fallen star. I am a huge fan of Gaiman, so I am naturally looking forward to the movie adaptation of Stardust. Only a week or two following Stardust, The Last Legion will be released in America. Although based in part on history, the film looks as if it has some fantasy elements as well (the sword Excalibur plays a role, if that gives you a clue). This October will see the release of an adaptation of the second book in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. The film looks like it differs from the novel a bit, updating the story and changing a few things here and there. But from the trailer it looks like it will be a good movie.

This November will see the release of another adaptation of Beowulf. This version is computer animated and has some big names attached. Not only is it directed by Robert Zemeckis, but its script is written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (co-writer on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). While I have little doubt as to the talent involved in the film, I do have my concerns as to how loyal it will be to the classic poem. Finally, in December there is what I think will be the big fantasy movie of the year (aside from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, of course): The Golden Compass. The Golden Compass is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials series, originally titled Northern Lights in Britain, but retitled The Golden Compass here. The books are huge in the United Kingdom, nearly as big as Harry Potter. And it is easy to see why. Of the recent young adult fantasy novels, it is arguably the most original. Regardless, the trailer to the film looks spectacular, even if it departs from the book in one major respect (there is no mention of God or religion, pivotal points in the books).

Two thousand seven does seem to be the year in which this new fantasy cycle kicks into high gear. Aside from further installments in established franchises (Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on), there are several fantasy films being released in the coming years. Next year will see an adaptation of The Lions of Al-Rassan, the historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay. A new version of Masters of the Universe based on the Mattel toys and cartoon of the Eighties, is set for release in 2009. Two thousand nine and 2010 will see the release of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara respectively, based on the successful Shannara series by Terry Brooks. Of the various fantasy movies coming out, these are the ones I am least looking forward to. If the movies are as dull as the books, I pity anyone who has to sit through them.

At any rate, this decade's fantasy cycle does seem to differ from previous fantasy cycles a good deal. Both the fantasy cyle of the Fifties and the one of the Eighties more or less concentrated on heroic fantasy, whether in the form of sword and sandal movies (Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts) or more or less medieval fantasy (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Excalibur). While heroic fantasy movies have formed part of this cycle (the Lord of the Rings films and Eragon are examples), there are also other films which are definitely not heroic fantasy. The Harry Potter movies are based in the present day and concentrate more on wizardry than swordplay. The Golden Compass is set in a Victorian world that combines magic with steampunk technology. Today's fantasy films seem much more varied than ones in the past.

Another way in which this fantasy cycle differs is that many of the films of the cycle that took place in the Eighties were decidedly adult in nature. Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and some other films featured graphic violence, nudity, and even sex scenes. Graphic violence, nudity, and sex are lacking from many of today's fantasy films for the simple fact that they are based on novels written for young adults. One will not see a beheading in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, nor will one will see a sex scene performed in plate armour in The Golden Compass. Quite simply, the original works were written for people under 18, even if plenty of people over that age read them. In a way, this makes this cycle similar to the one of the Fifties, where there was very little objectionable for a child to see in the films aside from the occasional scantily clad woman.

It is hard to tell how long the current fantasy boom will last. As a fan of the genre, I hope it lasts awhile. Indeed, hard as it is to believe, there are still some classic fantasy works that should be adapted into live action, feature films, but have not been yet. My choice for what should be adapted would be the series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Disney adapted the first two books as The Black Cauldron in 1985, but I could see a more loyal, live action adaptation of the first book as a springboard for a new franchise. At any rate, there are many fantasy works out there, and almost all of them are better than the Shannara books. With any luck, this fantasy cycle will last long enough to see them adapted.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Crime Story

The Eighties is remembered for such police dramas as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, but there is one that has largely forgotten when it should not have. Crime Story was one of the most revolutionary television shows on the air in the Eighties, far more so than its sister series Miami Voice.

The executive producer of Crime Story was movie director Michael Mann. who was also the executive producer on Miami Vice. With the success of that show, NBC gave Mann licence to create a new show as he saw fit. Mann had an idea that he had considered doing as either a feature film or TV movie, but concluded it might be best done as a TV series. The idea was to follow a major crimes unit starting in Chicago in 1963 to Las Vegas in 1980, all of in the space of 20 episodes. Mann had gotten the idea from Berlin Alexanderplatz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic, German, 15 1/2 hour film which followed its lead character, Franz Biberkopf, through the ear of the German Weimar Republic. To develop the project, Mann brought in writers Gustave Reininger, a former Wall Street banker who had written L' Ordre et la sécurité du monde and episodes of Miami Vice, and Chuck Adamson, a former Chicago police officer who had acted in Mann's movie Thief. Adamson put Reininger in contact with police detectives in Chicago, who sent Reininger to talk with organised crime figures while wearing a wire. Mann's bold vision for a show that would span seventeen years was effectively quashed when it was figured that a budget would not permit the necessary changes in cars, fashions, and so on through the years. It was then decided that the series would be set in Chicago in 1963. That having been said, the show did move from Chicago to Las Vegas in its first season. What is more is that time seemed to past more swiftly on Crime Story than on other series. Starting in in 1963, by the end of the first season it was apparently early 1965.

As the head of the Chicago Major Crimes Unit on the show, actor Dennis Farina was cast as Lieutenant Mike Torello. Like Adamson (with whom he had worked), Farina was a former Chicago police office and had even worked in Chicago's Central Investigative Unit, the real life counterpart of the show's fictional "Major Crimes Unit." He had previously appeared in Mann's movie Thief and the movie Manhunter (the first adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, which introduced Hannibal Lecter to the world). Dennis Farina was not the only actor with real life experience pertaining to his role. John Santucci, who played archvillain Ray Luca's right hand man Pauli Taglia, had been a jewel thief at one time. Anthony Denison was cast in the role of Torello's archnemesis Ray Luca, a petty hoodlum who rose to the top of Chicago's crime organisation known as the Outfit. He was based on real life gangster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, who made a similar rise to the top of the Outfit and who would eventually find himself in Las Vegas (Spilotro was also the basis for Joe Pesci's character of Nicky Santoro in Scorsese's movie Casino).

When the show began Crime Story focused on the Major Crimes Unit in Chicago in 1963. It was the Major Crime Unit's duty to investigate major crimes, in particular those linked to organised crime. On the show the unit was headed up by Lt. Mike Torello. Torello was assisted by Sgt. Danny Krychek (Bill Smitrovich), who was also his best friend. The Major Crime Unit often went to lawyer David Abrams (Stephen Lang) for help with legal matters. On the opposite side of the law was Ray Luca, a street thief who rapidly rose to the top of Chicago's Outfit. Luca's right hand man was Pauli Taglia, a hoodlum who wasn't too bright but more than made up for his lack of intelligence with almost unwavering loyalty. With the episode "Kingdom of Money," which aired January 30, 1987, the show moved to Las Vegas. Ray Luca, anxious to take over casinos in that city, made the move by convincing the Outfit it could be a very lucrative venture. At the same time, the Department of Justice hired Mike Torello to head a team that would investigate mob ties in Las Vegas. Somewhat unrealistically, nearly the entire Chicago Major Crimes Unit made the move to Las Vegas (in the show's defence, it should be pointed that hiring an all new cast would have been very expensive for a show that already had a big budget). David Abrams went with Torello and the former members of the Major Crimes Unit as the new Justice Department team's lawyer. Many have assumed that the move to Las Vegas was made to increase ratings, although it appears to have been planned all along.

At the time Crime Story was a revolutionary TV series. The show was shot in a deliberately cinematic style reminiscent of film noir. Executive producer Michael Mann and his line producers went to great extents to capture the feel of the era. Music from that time period played an important role in setting the mood. In the latter part of the first season one might hear "The Last Time" by The Rolling Stones followed by "Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers. That having been said, Crime Story was even more revolutionary in having a serialised storyline, combining story arcs with stand alone episodes. Alongside Hill Street Blues (which debuted five years earlier) and Wiseguy (which debuted a year later), it was a pioneer with regards to such serialised dramas today as Lost, 24, and Jericho.

Despite being something relatively new on television, or perhaps because of it, Crime Story never did well in the ratings. Part of this may have been due to the fact that NBC constantly moved the show in its first season. First scheduled on Friday following Miami Vice, it was moved to Tuesday nights after only a few episodes. There it aired opposite the then popular show Moonlighting on ABC (for those who are wondering, it was the show that gave Bruce Willis his big break). It was moved back to its original Friday night time slot, right after Miami Vice, well before the season's end. This probably had the effect of preventing the show from developing a large enough following to guarantee good ratings.

Throughout its run Crime Story featured guest stars who would later become famous. David Caruso appeared in a few episodes of Crime Story, well before finding success with N.Y.P.D. Blue and CSI: Miami. Future movie actor Gary Sinise appeared in a first season episode, as did Ving Rhames. Also in the first season, Soon to be movie star Julia Roberts appeared as a sexually abused teenager. In the first season comic Andrew Dice Clay was a semi-regular on the show. In the second season Kevin Spacey guest starred as a crusading Senator. David Hyde Pierce also appeared in the second season, as did Billy Zane. Of course, some of the guest stars on Crime Story were already famous. Pam Grier, most famous for her Blaxploitation movies, appeared in five episodes throughout the show's run as an investigative journalist. Deborah Harry, only recently after Blondie has split up, appeared in the penultimate episode of the first season. Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner appeared in four episodes of the series.

By the second season the time frame was pretty much 1965. The setting also remained Las Vegas, albeit with forays into Mexico and Latin America. The show also became even more larger than life than it previously had been. At one point Luca and Pauli, on the run from the law, take refuge at an atomic testing site and must survive an atomic bomb blast. This puts them afoul of the Atomic Energy Commission. In other episodes Torello found himself dealing with spies and a corrupt judge. Through it all, however, the focus of the show remained Torello's struggle with Luca.

For its second season NBC moved Crime Story to Tuesday night and left it there. While this made the show easier for viewers to find, it also meant that once more it was airing opposite Moonlighting. More so than many shows on the time, getting good ratings was pivotal for Crime Story. The show was a period piece, which meant that it needed period cars and period fashions. It was also shot on location in Las Vegas, which further increased its budget. Finally, Crime Story had a larger cast than most shows. Much of the time the show followed as many as ten characters, usually more. By the second season its episodes could run upwards to $1.4 million. Without high ratings, this ultimately spelled the end for Crime Story. The show was cancelled at the end of its second season. For fans this was frustrating as the show ended with a cliffhanger, in which Torello, members of his team, Luca, and Pauli, were all trapped in a plane without a pilot. Since the show was cancelled, the cliffhanger was never resolved.

Crime Story would be rerun on both the USA Network, A&E, and AmericanLife after its run. Both seasons are also currently available on DVD. Ever since its cancellation, Crime Story has maintained a following. Sadly, it still has not quite been recognised for its place in television history. Well before 24 and Lost, Crime Story featured serialised storylines. And well before many other shows, Crime Story featured a cinematic style. Although many don't remember it, this is one show that shouldn't be forgotten.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the movie)

It is often the case with movie franchises that as they go along the quality of the movies deteriorate. The Harry Potter franchise seems to be an exception to the rule. In my opinion, at least, each movie has been better than the last one. I have to say that I can't even say that about the books.

I must say that I had my doubts as to how good Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix would be. Quite simply, I didn't know if David Yates was capable of handling a big budget feature with a good deal of special effects. After all, Yates had previously directed a few shorts, TV movies, episodes of TV series, and one feature film (The Tichborne Claimant), not exactly the resume of a director one would expect to direct a big budget summer blockbuster. That having been said, David Yates has accomplished something that only a few directors have seemed capable of doing this summer. He has not only directed a big budget, special effects laden movie in a well established franchise, he has done it well.

Oh, the movie does leave a great deal of the book out, something about which I imagine many sticklers will complain. Even so, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix captures the spirit of the novel perfectly. Like the book, the movie is very dark. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are all three growing up, and the challenges they face are darker and deadlier than ever. Yates has given the film a good pace. It neither unfolds too swiftly, nor does it drag for long periods of time. Like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire before it, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is very, very British, as any Harry Potter movie should be. The movie also benefits from what could be the best climax of any Harry Potter film.

As usual, the performances are as good as ever. This is to be expected, as Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, and Michael Gambon have been playing their roles so long they must know them inside and out. That having been said, Gary Oldman delivers a stellar performance in his third outing as Sirius Black. Newcomers Evanna Lynch, as the rather strange Luna Lovegood, and Imelda Stauton, as Ministry official and teacher from Hell Dolores Umbridge, both capture their characters perfectly. James and Oliver Phelps deliver some much needed comic relief as the Weasley twins in what is otherwise a fairly dark film. Although she appears only briefly in this film, Helena Bonham Carter plays Sirius Black's cousin Bellatrix Lestrange with convincing madness.

Over all Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a bright spot in a summer movie season that has only had a few. And it is good to see that the Harry Potter franchise is continuing on the right course. Too many franchises seem to have stumbled of late.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Jack Odell R.I.P.

Not many Americans probably recognise the name of Jack Odell, but they might well have played with a toy invented by him as children. Jack Odell was the inventor of the Matchbox car. Odell passed on July 7 at the age of 87.

Odell was born John William Odell on March 19, 1920 in London. Prior to World War II he had a number of different jobs. He drove a van, worked in a cinema as a projectionist, and worked as an estate agent. During World War II he served in Africa with the British Army. Following the War, Odell worked as a die casting engineer, the profession which would eventually bring him everlasting fame.

It was in 1947 that Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (who were not related despite sharing the same last name) founded a die casting company, which they named Lesney by combining their two first names. As a die casting engineer Odell found employment with Lesney not long after it was founded. By 1948 the young die cast company moved into the toy market with a die cast model car not unlike those put out by Dinky in the United Kingdom at the time. Although entering the toy market, Lesney continued to manufacture other die cast goods as well. It would be Jack Odell's daughter who, after a fashion, would take the company further into toy production. His daughter Anne complained to him that her school would only allow the children to bring toys to school that could fit in a matchbox. Odell used his skills as a die cast engineer to then build a matchbox sized model of the Aveling Barford that Anne could take to school. It was in 1952 that Lesney released the first series of Matchbox toys. One was the Aveling Barford, while the other two were a dump truck and a cement mixer. The toy vehicles were sold in boxes that resembled actual matchboxes and so Matchbox was adopted as the line's name. Eventually other Matchbox models were introduced and the series saw unprecedented success in Britain. With the success of the Matchbox toys, Lesney concentrated on the toy market and no longer manufactured other die cast goods. And by 1956 Matchbox toys would be sold in the United States, where the line repeated its success once again.

Jack Odell would eventually take over from Rodney Smith when Smith left Britain for Australia. Leslie Smith and Jack Odell divided their duties between them. Smith would handle the marketing and day to day running of the company itself, while Odell watched over the design and manufacturing of Lesney's products. By 1968 Rodney Smith and Jack Odell would be designated OBEs (Office of the Order of the British Empire). Lesney would hit hard times with the introduction of stiff competition from American toy manufacturer Mattel with their Hot Wheels line. Despite this, the company would continue and Matchbox models have been manufactured to this day. Jack Odell retired from the company in 1973.

Jack Odell would continue in the toy business, even returning to Lesney for a time. Until he developed Parkinson's Disease, Odell remained a supporter of the toy industry and even of toy collectors.

Matchbox toys were probably the first die cast toy cars I ever played with. At any rate, I remember owning Matchbox cars before I ever owned my first Hot Wheels. My first Matchbox cars were a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Dump Truck. My brother's first Matchbox cars were a Greyhound coach and a Volkswagen Beetle. Over the years we bought more Matchbox cars, even after we discovered Hot Wheels. What made Matchbox cars so enjoyable is that they were very detailed and very durable. This was largely due to Jack Odell's perfectionism. He always made sure that every single model manufactured by Lesney was as good as it possibly could be. Jack Odell was a rarity in the toy business, perhaps any other business for that matter. He was a man who genuinely cared about the quality of his product.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Total Television (TTV)

By the late Fifties the television industry learned that there was money to be made from cartoons. Earlier in the decade many theatrical cartoons were released to television and these cartoons soon filled afternoon schedules. With the debut of Mighty Mouse Playhouse, a collection of old Terrytoon theatrical shorts, on Saturday morning in 1955, cartoons found their way to Saturday morning. With the profits to be made from cartoons, there was soon a demand for original cartoons made for television. As a result new studios, such as Hanna-Barbera arose.

Among those new animation studios to arise was one called Total Television Productions or more simply TTV. TTV would be active throughout the Sixties, producing some of the most memorable cartoons of that decade and at least one undisputed classic. Among the shows they created were King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and the classic Underdog. All of Total Television's cartoons were produced in conjunction with Leonardo Productions. The actual animation was done by Gamma Studios in Mexico, who also animated many of the Jay Ward cartoons.

The beginnings of TTV can be traced back to the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency in New York. In the late Fifties Dancer Fitzgerald Sample handled an account for General Mills. The account was largely the responsibility of three men. W. Watts "Buck" Biggers was the account executive for General Mills. Joseph "Joe" Harris was the supervisor of animation for General Mills (he created the Trix Rabbit for them). Chester "Chet" Stover was the copy supervisor on the account. The three men were approached by their superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. Biggers put Stover in charge of writing the copy for the project. He put Harris in charge of the art. To produce the new programme, they formed a new company called Total Television Productions Inc. or TTV for short.

From the beginning it was decided that their cartoons would be shot in colour. Even though the majority of network programming was still in black and white, Biggers, Harris, and Stover realised that the change to colour was inevitable and did not want their cartoons to become obsolete. The expense of animating a full season of a Saturday morning cartoon was one hurdle. In order to keep costs down, they went to Gamma Studios in Mexico, who had worked with Jay Ward's studio. Gamma Studios did not even have paint to do the animation cels, so they simply bought paint at a paint store and used that to paint the cels.

The first cartoon produced by Total Television was King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. The primary cartoon on the series centred on Leonardo, the king of Bongo Congo, who was constantly in danger of being over thrown by his evil brother Itchy and his gangster henchman Biggie Rat (who sounded a lot like Edward G. Robinson). Fortunately, their plots were always foiled by Leonardo's advisor, a wiley skunk named Odie. Another segment on the show was Tooter Turtle, a cartoon which centred on the title character who was constantly being sent to different setting by the lizard called Mr. Wizard. In the end Tooter would get himself into some trouble and beg, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" Another segment was The Hunter, which followed the adventures of the title character, a bloodhound detective out to stop a criminal fox. The Hunter was voiced by Kenny Delmar, who played the character Senator Claghorn on The Fred Allen Show on radio. It was for this reason that The Hunter sounds a lot like the Warner Brothers character Foghorn Leghorn, whose voice and personality was inspired by Senator Claghorn! Another segment was about Twinkies the Elephant, which was primarily an advertisement for General Mills' Twinkies cereal. This segment was removed when the show was syndicated.

King Leonardo and His Short Subjects debuted on NBC on October 15, 1960. It was a replacement for Hanna-Barbera's Ruff and Reddy. The new series became a hit, no doubt encouraging the networks to schedule more cartoons on Saturday morning.

Total Television's next series grew out of FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow's famous "Vast Wasteland" speech from 1961. Minnow not only announced that the television landscape was a vast wasteland, but that it should also seek to be of a higher quality and that it should seek to educate as well as entertain. To this end, Total Television decided that their next cartoon should be educational. Indeed, the main cartoon of Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales did seek to educate as well as entertain. Tennessee Tuxedo was a penguin whose best friend was a walrus named Chumley. Together they lived at the Megapolis Zoo, under the watchful eye of zookeeper Stanley Livingston. The series centred on Tennessee's various adventures at the zoo, as well the occasions on which he escaped. When in trouble the pair would go to Professor Phineas J. Whoopee (voiced by Larry Storch of F Troop fame), who would lecture the two on various educational topics (hence the educational aspect of the cartoon). Tennessee Tuxedo was voiced by Don Adams, the second such time he used his famed William Powell impersonation for a TV character (the first was for The Bill Dana Show, which debuted a week prior to Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales and featured Adams as hotel detective Byron Glick). He would later use the same voice for Maxwell Smart on Get Smart. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales was filled out by The World of Commander McBragg, which featured the voice of Kenny Delmar as a Munchausen styled world explorer, and Klondike Kat, a feline Canadian Mountie locked in constant battle with the criminal mouse Savoir Faire. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales debuted on CBS on September 28, 1963.

The next cartoon Total Television produced would be their greatest and most lasting success. The idea for Underdog emerged after Chet Stover had watched the episode of I Love Lucy on which George Reeves had guest starred as Superman. At one point, fearing Superman would not show up for a kid's party, Lucy dressed up as the Man of Steel herself. The next day Stover suggested to Biggers and Harris that they create a superhero who was a dog. The end result, scripted by Biggers and Stover and animated by Joe Harris was Underdog. Underdog was Shoeshine Boy, a mild mannered boot black who whenever he took a super energy vitamin pill (contained in a ring on his finger) became the super powered Underdog. A romantic interest was provided in the form of Sweet Polly Purebred, a canine reporter for station TTV. Underdog had no shortage of enemies to overcome. His archnemesis was mad scientist Simon Barsinister, voiced by Allen Swift in his best Lionel Barrymore imitation. Perhaps his second greatest opponent was the lupine gangster Riff-Raff, voiced by Allen Swift in an imitation of George Raft. Underdog's other opponents included the superhuman Overcat, the Electric Eel, and the planet of Zot.

Like the other Total Television shows, Underdog also included other segments. The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were reused on the show. When Underdog made the move from NBC to CBS, The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were replaced by Klondike Kat and a new cartoon, Go Go Gophers (with The Beagles, the last TTV production). Go Go Gophers centred on a Native American tribe of gophers constantly at odds with a cavalry made up of two coyotes. Underdog debuted on NBC on October 3, 1964. In 1966 it made the move to CBS where it aired for two seasons (one on Sunday mornings) before returning to NBC in 1968. In its second run on NBC, all four parts of an Underdog episode would be shown in one half hour, with the only other segment being The World Of Commander McBragg). In all, Underdog ran for nine entire seasons on network television. It was by far Total Television's biggest success. Much of its success may have been because with Underdog TTV was a bit ahead of the time. Underdog was the first superhero created for Saturday morning television. Within two years of the show's debut, Saturday morning would be filled with superheroes, from Birdman to Super Chicken.

The success of TTV's cartoons naturally meant that their reruns would be syndicated. For instance, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects entered syndication as soon as it left the air in 1963. In the mid-Sixties, then, Total Television combined episodes of Underdog (which was still airing on network television), Tennessee Tuxedo, and The World of Commander McBragg to create the syndicated package called Cartoon Cut-Ups. Many of the elements that would eventually find their way into the syndicated version of Underdog originated on Cartoon Cut-Ups. This included a brief outro in which George S. Irving would intone, "Looks like this is the end, but don't miss our next Cartoon Cut-Ups show (when Underdog entered syndication, this would be redubbed to say 'our next Underdog Show' instead)" and the Cartoon Cut-Ups closing music. Many of the Underdog shows which aired in syndication in the Seventies and Eighties originated, in fact, as Cartoon Cut-Ups shows.

Total Television's next original cartoon would not be nearly as successful. The Beagles were a musical duo composed of two dogs, Stringer and Tubby. They were managed by Scotty, a Scottish terrier whose love in life was cold hard cash. In fact, it was generally Scotty who got The Beagles involved in their adventures by having them perform increasingly dangerous publicity stunts! With The Beagles TTV was one again slightly ahead of the times. Each episode would incorporate one of their British Invasion style songs into the action. In this respect, The Beagles was a precursor to such cartoons as The Archie Show, The Groovy Ghoulies, and similar cartoons that aired in the early Seventies. Like previous TTV shows, The Beagles featured additional cartoon segments, in its case The World of Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat.

The Beagles debuted on CBS on September 10, 1966. An album of their songs entitled Here Come The Beagles was released on Columbia Records in 1966 (another way in which the show presaged The Archie Show). It was Total Television's first failure and its final original production. It ran only one season on CBS. ABC picked the series up for the 1967-1968, but it aired on Sunday instead of Saturday. Sadly, it seems that much of this series is lost. Joe Harris in a message to the Toon Tracker web site told how when the editor on the show, who had the masters, died and his wife threw The Beagles masters out. Harris inquired of Golden Books (who then owned the TTV characters) about any possible masters for the show and they found nothing. More recently, however, black and white copies of The Beagles opening and part of an episode have surfaced on YouTube.

While it was their last original production, The Beagles was not TTV's last show. Go Go Gophers graduated to its own show on CBS on September 14, 1968. This series was apparently made up entirely of reruns of the Go Go Gophers segments from Underdog. On its own Go Go Gophers aired for only one season.

Total Television was working on yet another show in the late Sixties, one that never aired. The Colossal Show would have centred on a family in an ancient Rome which had Roman equivalents of modern day technology. In effect, it was a Roman version of The Flintstones, a concept which Hanna-Barbera used in the 1972 cartoon The Roman Holidays. The Colossal Show would never air, although Gold Key put out a comic book based on the series dated July 1969.

The reason that The Colossal Show never got beyond the planning stages was simply that General Mills, who sponsored Total Television, pulled the plug in 1969. Without General Mills to provide it with money, Total Television simply could not continue. Regardless, Underdog would continue to air on Saturday mornings until 1973, after which it would have a healthy syndication run. The King and Odie (the syndicated title of King Leonardo and Friends) and Tennessee Tuxedo would continue in syndication. Only The Beagles would fade into obscurity.

One rather strange footnote to the history of Total Television is that it is often confused with Jay Ward Productions. Indeed, I have actually seen Underdog, TTV's most popular creation, credited to Jay Ward! In some respects the confusion is understandable. Both Jay Ward Productions and TTV were sponsored by General Mills. As a result, segments of Jay Ward cartoons might appear in TTV shows in syndication and vice versa. In one instance a TTV cartoon appeared as a segment in a Jay Ward cartoon in its first run! The Adventures of Commander McBragg sometimes appeared on episodes of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper when it aired on ABC from 1964 to 1967. In syndication Jay Ward's Aesop and Son and Fractured Fairy Tales would appear in episodes of Tennesse Tuxedo, while TTV's Tooter Turtle and The Hunter would turn up on episodes of Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right Show. It must be pointed out that Jay Ward Productions and Total Television also had similar house styles, due largely to the fact that both relied on Gamma Studios for their animation.

While there appears to be some confusion between Jay Ward Productions and Total Television, there are some significant differences. Nearly all of the Jay Ward cartoons feature a good deal of political and topical satire, something that is largely absent from TTV's cartoons. Indeed, Rocky and His Friends and its continuation The Bullwinkle Show were largely based around the Cold War. Jay Ward's cartoons also relied heavily on parody. An episode of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper parodied The Twilight Zone with an episode entitled "The Traffic Zone," in which the characters were turned into vegetables. An episode of Super Chicken (a segment of George of the Jungle) pitted the superhero against a parody of Robin Hood. While Jay Ward Productions relied on topical satire and parodies, TTV tended to rely more upon situations of the sort found in the old radio comedies. An example of this is Phineas J. Whoopee's overstuffed closet on Tennessee Tuxedo, reminiscent of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly. Indeed, The Hunter, voiced by Kenny Delmar, is more or less Senator Claghorn from The Fred Allen Show as a bloodhound. Another difference is that Total Television often designed their characters with a specific actor or character in mind. Tennessee Tuxedo was created around Don Adam's particular brand of wisecracks. Simon Barsinister was meant to sound (and to look a bit like) Lionel Barrymore. Although both studios created very three dimensional characters (let's face it, Bullwinkle and Underdog are remembered to this day for a reason), an argument can be made that TTV was more character driven. Finally, TTV's sense of humour was a bit gentler than that of Jay Ward's. While TTV engaged in its share of parody (Underdog is pretty much a parody of Superman), I can recall no instance in which it engaged in political satire.

Oddly enough, while they were often confused, there was apparently no love lost on Jay Ward's part towards TTV. General Mills was the sponsor of Jay Ward Productions beginning with Rocky and Friends in 1959, before TTV was even founded. Ward then felt that TTV was trying to get in on his action where General Mills was concerned. He also felt that they were copying his house style, something which could be attributed to Gamma Studios animating both Jay Ward and TTV cartoons. Eventually Ward would have all of his animation done in Los Angeles (where both The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper and George of the Jungle were animated).

Even though Total Television closed down in 1969, their cartoons have continued to be popular throughout the decades. Indeed, they have had a lasting impact on pop culture. Underdog ranked #23 on a list of the 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters put out by TV Guide a few years ago. A balloon based on the character would debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1965 and would be a parade regular for nearly 20 years. References to Underdog can be found in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to the TV shows Will and Grace, Friends and Scrubs. It is quite possible that the character Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show was named for the Underdog villain. In less than a month a feature film very loosely based on the cartoon will be released.

Although not as famous as Underdog, other TTV characters have also had a lasting impact. Tooter Turtle's line, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" is quoted in the movie The Matrix. Go Go Gophers was referenced in episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is a hip hop artist called Klondike Kat and an R & B artist named Savoir Faire (who even uses the mouse's catchphrase, "Savour Faire is everhwere!"); I don't know if they are sworn enemies... The Simpsons has made some references to TTV characters. In the episode "Lisa's First Word" Tennessee Tuxedo's line "Phineas J. Whoopee, you're a genius!" is paraphrased as "Homer J. Simpson, you're a genius!" Commander McBragg also made a guest appearance on in the episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story."

TTV's cartoons still air today and many of their episodes are available on DVD (albeit Classic Media has not yet seen to release them in complete season collections, totally uncut...*grumble*). It is safe to say that they won't be forgotten anytime soon. I doubt even a horrible, live action movie adaptation will ever ground Underdog.