Friday, July 29, 2016

The TV Activist, Pt. 1: The Day the TV Guide

No, I haven't suddenly gotten bored with the topic.  It's occasionally necessary to look at what happened to television over the same time period as what happened to movies over the last forty years, to put them both into context.  You just can't talk about one for very long without talking about the other.
TV and movies always seemed to be aware of their Shared Destinies, but back then we were more conscious of their being different animals.  We watched movies on TV, and they were more interesting than the shows, but the shows were on the rest of the time.  We knew which movies we wanted to go out to a theater and see, and which shows we wanted to stay home for every week; we were impressed by a show that looked like a movie, but we occasionally hated a movie for "looking like a TV show".  Each format served its own purpose in life.  
If we can look back at how we lost TV some time after the 80's or mid-90's, we might have a better enough parallel-example understanding of how we're losing movies now to be able to do something about it in time.

In the 70's and 80's, there was one magazine every house had to buy, and every social critic made us feel like moronic dirt because we had to read it.  It was the magazine with the largest circulation in the US.
It was not what might immediately look like interesting reading, and yet we would often pore over it at length, because it told us one of the most important things we needed to know every day:  What was on TV that week.  We had to, television stations managed their own programming, and we needed to be told ahead of time what shows and local movies were on when.
Every city had the magazine tailored for its own area--If you were in NY, you could buy an issue and take it back on the train to Boston, but it wouldn't do any good to read it there; the times, shows and channel numbers only meant something in the city and local stations where you bought it.

Because of TV Guide, it was in our heads to remember TV episodes as stories.  Not chapters of a serial arc, that never began and never finished until the season finale, and that never told you anything important but to string you out for the next one that would do the same (unless you maybe happened to be watching "Knots Landing"), but self-contained stories.  When we think of vintage reruns, we think of individual moments of the characters--We don't talk about "the series", we talk about, as Friends parodied, "The One Where" Lucy was on the chocolate line, or Radar announced the death of Col. Blake, or where Bob Hartley almost walked into an elevator shaft.  We knew one isolated hour or half-hour of TV programming, meant to fill out a series of 26 or 39, with the same familiarity that we knew a favorite book.
Debuting prime-time shows even had the guest casts listed, like a theater program.  Often we weren't just told what show would be on at 7:30, we were told which show:  Even the lowliest 9:30am local-station rerun of The Brady Bunch, we were told, was The One Where Marcia promised to bring Davey Jones to the prom.

The highest honor was to get a quarter-page Close Up, which called attention to a special event or episode that was must-viewing for that night, and would probably end up being TV history.

Sometimes, during Sweeps Week, so that the sponsors knew we were hyped enough to watch, the specific new episode would be enough of an event to merit a half-page network ad.

Wrapping the listings, on the slick pages, were the feature articles, usually one on the hit cover star interview or show of the week, but often going into what was then the big issue of the 70's:  TV's effect on our national culture, and its clashes with government, big business and news information.  The "important" articles were those pitched in the TV ads for the magazines on sale at newsstands now: 

As of current date, TV Guide is no longer the top circulating magazine in the US.  Leaving aside AARP's member magazines, Better Homes & Gardens is now the top circulating commercial magazine.  TV Guide, in its current format, is now 31st.
So, how did what was once the national calendar of our pop-culture, which united us as an entire nation of living rooms, become a splashy checkout-line sycophantic servant of entertainment publicists, to cultivate fandoms to keep hot-trending "binge" shows from cancellation? 
To draw some historical cutoff line, we must look back at a moment in time known as the J. Fred Muggs Awards.

TV Guide, which was becoming the main critical journalistic source analyzing the influence of the FCC and national networks, from '80-'81 tried spinning off Panorama, a short-lived conventional-format "prestige" magazine of articles and commentary on the growing national media culture (including the unpredictable rise of cable, VCR and home computers) and TV industry.  For its first and only year-end wrap-up, the magazine featured the "first annual" J. Fred Muggs Awards--named after Dave Garroway's chimp co-host on the 50's NBC Today Show--"looking back at the people and moments in 1980 TV that made monkeys of themselves":   Panorama Jan1981.pdf 

tad similar to Esquire Magazine's annual "Dubious Achievements", the wrapup featured humor-bites of the most embarrassing TV trends, moments, fails and quotes of the year, with humorously snarky headers.
Though well-written, the magazine's editorial ambitions turned out to be a little too prestigious for its readers, Panorama folded, and the JFMA was moved to a favorite running year-end feature of the standard TV Guide, the magazine that America did read.

In 1998, the magazine's ownership passed from Annenberg/Triangle, the founding owners, to News Corp., and then to United Video Satellite which was absorbed into Gemstar, a cable/electronics company that wanted to use the magazine in connection with VCRPlus+, a six-digit auto-programming code already being built standard into most new VCR's.  Although new revisions had shortened and condensed the TV listings (doing away with most of the weekday daytime-programming for a week-long grid), for a while this made the magazine more indispensable, since the magazine now delivered the shows, as long as you got your programming codes next to the listing.  But what was lost in the process was the controversy--The featured articles criticizing the FCC, censorship, networks and big-money sports were now replaced by pop-culture baby-boom lists of TV nostalgia and current hits.

For their first year-end crowd-dive into popularity, the new management took the JFMA label and turned it into a straight-up Esquire Dubious Achievements knockoff joking about the easy news and political-headline jokes that year.
Fans were....OUTRAGED.  It was heresy.  Letters poured into the editor asking what business did TV Guide have to do with the same old headline jokes as every other magazine, when nobody was there to "Muggsy" the real TV jokes that year?  Were the writers even interested in TV anymore?  What the new editors weren't interested in was reader outrage--It's our magazine now, the editor responded, and we thought this was funnier and a hipper reader draw on newsstands!

Finally, on July 26, 2005, the axe fell:  TV Guide was "restructuring" itself away from the couch-friend book format to a slick-paper large size magazine, focusing on entertainment articles, fandom and celebrity news.  The magazine would still feature TV listings, but only as a few pages of national-grid network/cable programming, as most were already getting their local listings from the cable provider.  (Which made sense:  Now that no local stations were showing "My Friend Irma" or "That Tennessee Beat" at 11pm or reruns of The Avengers, there was less and less need to describe individual movies or isolate local programming for every geographical area.)  
At one point in TV ads proclaiming the new format, one cheery female reader mentions the national-grid reduction, and says  "Now I don't have to go through all those boring TV listings to find the entertainment news I'm looking for!"
Er, ahem...(fiddles ear with finger)...Not sure I heard that correctly, care to run that one by us again?  I suppose the Wall Street Journal would be easier financial reading without all those boring pages of pages of stock prices?

United's other interest in acquiring TV Guide had been as owner of the Prevue Channel, which provided the program-scroll TV-listings channels for cable services--And previously, in February '99, had rebranded Prevue's top-half-of-the-screen entertainment as the new TV Guide Channel, focusing mostly on...celebrity interviews, fandom, and baby-boomer rerun-nostalgia countdown lists.

In the end, the real tragedy here?:  We have people to blame, but we don't ultimately know whose fault it really IS.  It's not all ours, but to see the new covers, we're reminded it's not all theirs.
With reruns and movies disappearing off of TV in the early 00's, replaced more and more by corporate network, syndication and cable, was it really just marketers thinking we "weren't as interested" in the shows as in the marketable stars?  Was it just cable channels giving us long interactive scrolls of the program listings for free?  Or was it just that there weren't as many listings on TV to write about anymore?

The lesson here is for movie fans as well as TV fans:  
When we stopped being told that TV was important to our culture, it stopped being important to our culture.  When our coast-to-coast living-room nation stopped believing we "had" to watch every Tuesday night, we stopped watching.  When we reduced TV to gushing binge-trend cults of fangirl audiences and celebrities, that became all the industry sold us.  
Like the saying you hear around election time, in the end, we got the TV we DESERVED.

It's a lesson to keep in mind when we give up just a little bit of loyalty for just a little bit of technological convenience.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Theater Roots, Pt. 1 - A Little Town Like Bedford Falls

In trying to pursue some goal of Movie Activism, I may have to veer briefly away into Personal Reminiscences, but there's a reason for that.  It's occasionally necessary for any of us to take a look at what we had, before we can even start to grasp a Big Picture theory of just where and when it slipped off its leash and got away from us while our back was turned.  Usually most of us find we had other things on our minds at the time, and just didn't notice.

My upbringing started about as iconically movie-fated as you could get:  The old hometown of Seneca Falls, NY, an upstate town of Finger Lakes scenery and Erie Canal mills, that now has a minor tourism industry in convincing the world it was the "real" inspiration for Bedford Falls from "It's a Wonderful Life".  And from the old Victorian houses and big iron bridge I remember from getting about town on my bike, I can't honestly say they're wrong--In fact, I think I passed the "Bailey house" on State Street every day on the way back from third grade.  (Of course, that didn't mean much to us at the time, since nobody back then had really heard of Frank Capra's public-domain movie until the 70's TV-remake with Marlo Thomas.)

It was a centralized small town, with my dad's college and Cayuga Lake a few minutes away by car, and we were lucky to have a house within five blocks of the main street--Middle school was two blocks away, and it was easy to pedal down to the library or hospital at the point where the town "started".  But it's the experience of walking downtown for a movie on Friday night or Saturday afternoon that sticks out clearly, probably because seeing movies I didn't have to depend on parents for represented the first 9-10-yo. image of independence.  I'm stuck to remember the names of any of my 5th-grade teachers, and yet I can name most of the movies, matinees included, that I saw at that little hundred-seater Strand between 1973 and 1976. 

That's not the theater, btw.  That's a 1915 picture of what was originally the Strand, a former stage theater that served as the town's main-street movie palace up through the end of the 60's.  I have dim memories of going to exactly three movies there--one was 2001, one was Disney, and one was a bizarre foreign kiddie matinee that someone must have done their own blog column upon by now--before it burned down in 1972.  I remember a balcony, and classic red-velvet curtains, and rumors of a bat up in the rafters.  I think I also remember hearing the new owners were playing a midnight-audience softcore when it caught fire.

The Strand theater I remember, I can't show you any pictures of.  I can dig up pictures of the Women's Hall of Fame Memorial Park that was built on top of the site shortly after our family moved away, as that's all that's standing in the spot now.  History and upstate-NY scenery became the town's main industry after a few longtime factories left, and I think I'd only been back once.
But the theater I remember was a little functional replacement Strand built in the vacant lot, just past the corner by the church and the hotel.  (The hotel's still there, btw.)  It was certainly a replacement building, as from the outside, it looked rather like a one-story industrial cinderblock bunker painted blue, with posters and marquee added.  The parking was what parking you could find in the remainder of the vacant lot, with a driveway out the back behind the laundromat on the corner, but the point of having a theater on the main street wasn't the parking anyway.

A local independently-owned downtown theater is not a cineplex--What downtown theaters you see today only have room for three or five movies, the one I went to had one.  They didn't have room to build twelve screens, and exile themselves out to the highway shopping-malls on the edges of town just for breathing room.  Each town had a little one to keep the local folks occupied--some were lucky enough to have two or three scattered around--you hoped that "your" movie would be the one or three playing, and if not, you took a jaunt to the neighboring town.  (Geneva, NY had one of those old-school movie-palaces with a skyline in the trim and "stars" in the ceiling.)  In the late spring, when it wasn't Friday-night-football season for the town, it was the gathering point for everyone you knew in school, for the weekly release ritual of No School-Night, and some hanging around the lobby afterwards for their parent-pickup.  You didn't wait to go to a movie, you waited to go to the theater, and saw anything goofy enough to strike your fancy if "your" movie wasn't playing there--You knew why you were waiting for the Friday afternoon bell, and you knew what would be talked about on Monday in school.
The lobby of the local theater was never the brightly lit blitz of corporate marketing that a cineplex theater is today (even the theater itself was the size of one cineplex screen, and no stadium seating)--It was more like someone's well-built home-theater den, with a popcorn machine and vintage posters, and curtains separating it from the seats.  If I remember movies from '74-'76, I remember them as the lobby posters on the wall, to Logan's Run and Silver Streak, Soylent Green and The Pink Panther Strikes Again.  Thinking "I have to see that here" attaches my memory to every movie I did see there, without having to leave the hometown comforts.

I remember my first whole Hitchcock, when Family Plot turned out to be a "safe" PG--Oh good, it didn't have those seagulls in it.  I remember having some actual stake in staying up late to root for the Oscars every year, since I had actually seen Murder on the Orient Express and All the President's Men.  I remember Blazing Saddles (my dad sneaked me in), Young Frankenstein and Monty Python and the Holy Grail on opening week, before any showoff audience member could quote a single line.
And because this was the Gritty Golden-Age 70's, when there was nothing for families to go see except Disney revivals, I remember local mom-and-pop theaters stuck to show something on Saturday afternoon, which meant the Kiddie Matinee.  There was a big industry for it back then--Christmas always meant those two strange Santa Claus movies from the 60's--and even major studios like MGM and Columbia got into the act, trying to get their back catalog going by selling 10-yo.'s on the Saturday thrills of Forbidden Planet and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  In those days, old movies were "unwanted" enough to show to kids, and our Management believed that old 30's comedies, with a few Stooges Shemp-shorts thrown in, would keep fourth-graders in their seats when there was nothing else syndicating to show.  I had heard old-Hollywood mention of people like the Marx Brothers and WC Fields, but it was $1.50 Saturday-killing matinees that first exposed me to "A Night at the Opera" and "The Fatal Glass of Beer"--At school, some of my friends actually did recognize jokes about nights not fit for man nor beast (ploof!).
One afternoon, since Mom had gotten used to me getting out of the house to keep up with her Saturday-cleaning urges, I decided to stay after the "kiddy" matinee to the 3pm showing of the "real" feature that day:  Airport 1975.  (And yes, like everyone else back then, I wondered why a "1975" movie was being shown in 1974, and whether it would be more proper to wait.)  It was...okay--I've only learned to look back on Airport movies with nostalgia, but back then they were a bit of an annoyance--it had Helen Reddy in a bit part, and planes were cool in those days.  But it felt almost like a dare; I mean, ten, that's "PG age" isn't it?  It felt like independence, not having to sell the parents on a big drive-out movie night, with the usual family-restaurant dinner, and trying to make the movie sound interesting to grownups.  This was my thing.  And like the bike I took to get there, I was actually a Me enough to have a My Thing.

Growing up in a small town taught me a lot of things, not just about how to save banks or how angels get their wings--It taught me that what you have in the center of a town is the identity of the town, and everything that happens in it shapes what people think of themselves as members of the town.  Corporate chains don't shape a town, a town decides just how much of the outside world it really needs in it, and how much it does nicely without.
Driving out to the big cineplex out in the strip-mall wilderness, or attached to the shopping mall, with its ocean of parking, makes the cineplex feel as if it's establishing its own sovereign domain--You must come to it, if you want to be granted your allotment of blockbuster from the Studio Powers on High, and you bring your nasty texting cellphone to keep from being cut off from civilization.  And yes, the first cineplex I discovered did feel like an airline terminal, which made the movie's "gate departure" feel more like an event.  But a Main Street (or, in Seneca's case, Fall Street) storefront is not out to conquer your expectations, but meet them, as just one of the regular folks who live there full time.  It's part of what you're there to do on a weeknight, even if it's not the season when strange out-of-town folk might come into town to do it.  Whatever was there, you'll take with you down the road when you ever have to leave.

Like the towns that look down on the invasions of Starbucks Coffee and Wal-Marts, some towns are still lucky to have locally-run downtown independent commercial theaters, left over as a bit of local pride from the days when, well, that was just what they had.  Most are a sampling of the big blockbusters, some still run a few midnight classics in the college towns.
If you're living in such a town, support that theater you've got, treasure it, and do everything you can to keep it alive as a community staple.  It may not be the same as striking a match at the drugstore for good luck, but years from now, you'll still remember it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Late-Hour Comforts of the Movie Loft

Activists aren't born that way.  There has to be some traumatic event that they spend the rest of their lives pursuing to avenge.

Way back when I first settled into a new apartment--sweet liberty with a rent check, the man-and-his-castle away from the dorms--and had that new improvised home-theater den, I found myself lured by that question...The one that just about everyone asked when they got their first place, their own TV to go with it, and were now their own parents to dictate their own bedtimes:  Great, can I stay up and watch late-night TV now?
The forbidden-fruit temptation we were told as school-night kids through the 70's and early birth-of-cable 80's was that rare movies and classic reruns, like elves, only showed during that magic time after the late-night talk hosts, when everyone else slept, and if you set your VCR, you could maybe catch one.  Grownups, who of course got to stay up all night, knew about them, but being grownups, either didn't think it was important, or kept it to themselves as one of their grownup-secrets.

The change to a new world without bedtimes never hit us until we got out of the college dorms and into our new solo places.
And then--after we got that new flatscreen that was going to change our apartment life forever--we lonely single guys set ourselves in the recliner, readied the remote, Coke Zero and microwave popcorn, surfed the channels and  World and national news.  News ALL night, on every network affiliate.  Straightforward important news on the CBS affiliates, and funny quirky news on the ABC affiliates, where the hosts and set crew were all chummy, laughed at the headlines and at each other's jokes.  And the independent UHF stations, which were now affiliates of Fox and CW, were showing infomercials, if they didn't have Seinfeld reruns to fill the void.  (Reruns from before 1994 had long since vanished off of free television.)  A few years earlier, before NBC jumped onto all-night news for its affiliates, we would have been able to watch antisocial-looking cowboy-hatted gamblers staring at their cards, for all-night championship sessions of Texas Hold-Em Poker that lasted until the 5am morning-affiliate news--We didn't know whether it was just one game, or a championship, whether they were just looping episodes at random, or whether they just didn't have homes or lives to go back to.

I knew something, whether it was progress or television, had forever betrayed my childhood:  What was the point of becoming a grownup if there was now no longer anything worth staying up past your bedtime for?
Growing up in the 70's, if you wanted to describe something Humphrey Bogart would do, you didn't talk about "old movies" or "classic" movies, you talked about "the Late Show" movies.  Because that was all they were--Pop-overexposed oddities from another time, that kept corny traditions of gangsters, cowboys, detectives, and bathing beauties diving into swimming pools alive as a cultural mythology, and that TV stations showed as an excuse to let local businesses pay the station bills, for lack of anything else to show at that hour.  And now that the VCR and Turner Classic Movies culture had hit in the late 80's, and these "silly" movies, once the stuff of Carol Burnett Show parodies, all had names, reputations and classic moments for us to take a second look at, there was no more need for stations to treat them as useless filler anymore.
When I started a blog, the first simple question I wanted to ask was "Hey, where'd they go?"  And I soon found the question was one it would take a year's worth of columns to answer.

Way back before TCM gentrified the old classic movie onto tier-cable channels and took it out of the hands of the common man, every city once made a deal out of their time-filling movies--It was the station's identity.
Those in the NYC/New Jersey area, on Sunday afternoons, prime time and late nights, would hear the Max Steiner strains of Tara's Theme, as WOR-9 would present the Million Dollar Movie.

And in Boston, there was the happy, comfortable theme and cozy cluttered hobby-den sets of the Movie Loft.

There were actually two Movie Lofts in 80's Boston, both hosted by local-celebrity Dana Hersey, back when local programming still created local celebrities.  WSBK-38, as the local UHF Red Sox station, hosted recent popular 70's/80's movies at during the 8pm prime time--While WCVB-5, as the ABC network affiliate, used its library of 30's-40's movies as late-weeknight pre-signoff filler, and would be more the place to find Ronald Colman in Random Harvest or Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.  
The movie host was the important part for any station, since most of us at that time in history just didn't know one old movie from another--Hersey, like TCM's Robert Osborne or Ben Mankewicz, was there to put a movie into context, and sell us on why it was unique enough or historical enough to spend two hours with.  Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show world of homemade stations putting on their own show, stations might have the local film critic moonlighting on movie-night introductions, or, like Hersey, just the station's voiceover announcer with a face, to give us that cool, comforting introduction to the alien world of Your Parents' Movies.  
Either way, it made old movies more democratic:  You weren't watching black-and-white late at night just because you might have been an insomniac or had no social life, you were watching because a few isolated people at the same dislocated hour had found that these things were actually pretty good, and now sought them out.  And to watch the station's announcer in a comfy turtleneck express some genuine enthusiasm about the hidden appeal of tonight's John Wayne western or Susan Hayward romance suggested that he had personally been converted in his moonlighting station-job along with the rest of us.  It can happen to anyone, and those of us who'd caught the disease knew how.

Of course, maybe nostalgia's making it better than it is.
It used to be the iconic image of the Lonely Single Guy, to be clicking channels in the late hours finding nothing but news and infomercials, because the mating females had passed us by in the herd.  But that was usually because there was nothing to find.
Local TV stations didn't have a higher purpose in airing movies, they just had to fill time or sign off early.  Most were used as an excuse for local businesses to buy time, if the more valuable 6pm news slot was too expensive--And to the 70's, the cliche'd joke image of the Late Show also translated as "Crazy local used-car salesmen making desperate fools of themselves"  Most fans raged at scenes cut or time condensed to give more time to the used-car hucksters, but that was a world before movies were preserved on disk, and it was less easy to shrug the tradeoff of "Whaddya want for free?"
But what late-nite local movies did do was UNITE the lonely people--the single guys, the desperate businessmen, the all-night firemen and ambulance drivers--in that time when the rest of the world was shut down, and give them some part-time dream to share the next morning.  If being up at 1 or 2am meant you could see Bogart or Cagney display the male image of the 30's or 40's, it was a sort of secret cult of those looking for enlightenment and searching through rare books to find it.  Like the Edward Hopper painting, it was an all-night cuppa joe and a story.

We don't have late-night movies anymore.  Movies are far too valuable corporate property to go selling to little stations, and most stations have long since abandoned local programming that doesn't make their news division look more competitive.  (WSBK-38, after being absorbed and orphaned by UPN, later brought their Movie Loft brand back in the 00's as a guy-manchild slob joke, with two slacker hosts introducing Adam Sandler "guy movies" from 90's Paramount, now that that was the reigning misandric/self-loathing joke about guys on couches with their loyal remotes.)
Late-night movie viewers are pretty much left to themselves to recreate those days from scratch.  We do, however, still have the three key ingredients:  We have couches and sets.  We have movies (on disk).  And we have nighttimes.

Whether it comes on disk, on cable or on streaming (if you can find it), a vintage black-and-white classic makes more sense after midnight.  The world isn't in Technicolor during the single-digit hours, that's something bright and happy and lit by sunlight.  Most people think their dreams are in black-and-white, or maybe they just remember them that way.
It's a bedtime story for those too old for Goodnight Moon, and for those no longer with anyone to tell them.  After the real world has gone to bed, like good responsible morning-people do, it's time for the Unreal world to spin some stories that are just a little larger than life, when you're in the right mood not to question it.

Don't believe me?  Try the experiment for yourself:  
Take the first 30's, 40's or 50's vintage movie off the library shelf that piques your fancy, and save it for midnight.  If you have a significant other, let them share it, and if you have kids, save it for that Magic Hour after bedtime...See if there isn't that extra bit of intimate emotional connection with the movie when the rest of the world isn't around to make its demands on your daily grownup life.
It may end up being just a little bit better.

Monday, July 11, 2016

What...Am I Even...LOOKING At??

Latchkey kids have it different today--They've got any number of all-day kids' channels to meet them fresh after school.  There's always Adventure Time to kick back with when they toss their books and take off their shoes.
When I was growing up in the mid-70's, cartoons, 60's reruns and the educational PBS block only came on the local stations between 3pm and the 6pm news hour; anything else before then, like the soaps and Mike Douglas, was to keep housewives from being bored.  Local PBS stations would take up most of the entire afterschool afternoon with Sesame Street at 4pm and Mister Rogers at 5 (which were for your little brother), but before then, between 2 and 4, would be time-filling encore reruns of whatever the station had aired in prime time.  And no kid was that into Upstairs, Downstairs.

One set of Tuesday afternoons before the educational block, WXXI-12 from Rochester, NY aired the afternoon encore reruns of "The Men Who Made the Movies", the film-documentary series where Richard Schickel interviewed the six or seven classic directors still alive in 1973.
Well, that sounded good.  Movies, cool.

At that time, film study was just that, study, for college-major students and intelligencia, or odd no-life hobbyists who worshipped old film stars the way early Woody Allen characters did.  With the 70's just starting to get into its Old-Hollywood renaissance, it seemed like a grownup thing to know that Citizen Kane or The Maltese Falcon had an actual plot, just in case someone made jokes about Rosebud or the stuff dreams were made of.
Most of it, unfortunately, was a little TOO grownup to follow--George Cukor, didn't know.  Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, weird names.  Frank Capra had the "It's a Wonderful Life" images we were just starting (yes, starting) to see on public-domain stations every Christmas, those Mr. Smith clips of Jimmy Stewart in the Lincoln Memorial that Bicentennial fever was starting to market, and his going hoarse and collapsing for some reason on the Senate floor.  Howard Hawks was mostly war movies and westerns, and those you could see anywhere on TV.

The Vincent Minnelli episode (now available as a bonus feature on Warner's "The Band Wagon") was...interesting, to say the least.
I didn't know many of the movies off the top of my head (wait, he's talking about Judy Garland in other movies besides Oz?), but everyone back in those cynical Watergate days knew that musicals were all Old and Happy and Technicolor, and Stuff, even if they could look a little strange and overproduced.  Fred Astaire in "The Band Wagon" was dancing around a penny arcade, and, now with the power of Hollywood musical numbers, winning every game, setting off a strange jackpot machine with just a kick of his new shined shoes.
Some of the clips from the Minnelli episode actually did look like dreams:  Gene Kelly dreams an American in Paris ballet, and Judy Garland daydreams him into a fiery Pirate ballet.  Spencer Tracy has a comic nightmare about his daughter's wedding, from "Father of the Bride".  Eddie Anderson in his bed hears the Devil saying "get up!", from "Cabin in the Sky".  Even little Margaret O'Brien's first petrified Halloween trick-or-treat from "Meet Me in St. Louis" was kids-POV enough to look familiar to those of us at that age.
Out of context--and Cliff Robertson as narrator had to explain the context, as few people back then readily knew the plots of An American in Paris or Meet Me in St. Louis--to a first-timer with not much film-school background at nine, the scenes made absolutely NO SENSE.  Very few dream scenes do.  But they'd stick themselves somewhere in your subconscious once you'd seen them, and gnaw at your brain until they did.

The next week, or maybe after, they aired the Alfred Hitchcock episode.  
Well, Hitch most everyone still knew in the 70's, from his cartoon parody on the Flintstones, if not the old 50's TV series or his self-aware ads for Frenzy and Family Plot.  Even I had his old ghost-stories record as a kid, and read the books where he helped out the three young detectives. 
The Master had enough camera presence to make an interview interesting, and his famous "Bomb under the railway seat" explanation of suspense was simple enough a film concept to be understood by even the youngest, um...nine-year-old.

If the out-of-context Minnelli images looked like isolated dream excerpts, the out-of-context Hitchcock icons looked like tapped-in images from random nightmares:  
Crows gathering on the playground to swarm onto children on their way home from school.  A county-fair merry-go-round spins out of control and crashes over.  The old woman in the basement rocking chair with her back to us, who won't answer.  The long, slow tracking shot pulling us away from a door where some unspeakable crime is taking place, and we can't get anyone to stop it.  And yes, that crop-duster that buzzes Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere...Why?  There never is a why.  (I've seen North by Northwest, and I confess I'm still not sure.)

It's Oscar-show cliche' to say that "Movies are dreams we get to see while we're awake"...But the particular punch that real dreams have at night is that we don't EXPECT the stories we get.  That's why scenes and images keep bugging us all through breakfast.
The other punch dreams have is that we're only shown the middle of a story--We find ourselves in the middle of a situation, some backstory instinct tells us "Wait, today's the day of the big finals test and I forgot!", we struggle to piece together what's happening, and wake up before an ending resolution can tie the whole story together.
When the afternoon or late-night movie left the local TV stations, we lost the same ability to watch the middle of a movie:  We could no longer click channels during an aimless lonely or bored moment and stumble into some sudden wild or dramatic out-of-context scene that teased our imaginations to try and find out the rest of the story, dig out the TV listings, and see what story had just taken us unawares.  Once we could attach a name to the image--sometimes going on film discussion forums to ask "What's that movie I saw as a kid, where the hero was battling skeletons with swords, or this catfish breaks out of a jar and turns into the Loch Ness monster?"--we immediately had to search out the rest of the movie in its entirety to ransom our brain from the imagination-trauma.
(I remember clicking into some unspeakably bizarre 30's musical number on a Sunday afternoon--And the one week there wasn't a TV Guide handy, it nagged at me for twenty years of my life to find out I had been watching Eddie Cantor's Technicolor finale to "Kid Millions", and I still wonder whether to track it down on Warner Archive.)

But what we also lost was that proliferation of loose dreams lying around, and the longterm random effects of everyone else stumbling over them, that warped them for life on the road to inspiration--The future special-effects technician who first saw those skeletons or sea monsters, just as the technicians who made them had first stumbled across King Kong.  The future robotics programmer who was fascinated with Robby on Altair IV.  The future senator who saw Jimmy Stewart think the Capitol building was neato.  A future dancer might see Astaire kick that prize machine, or a future comic might see Groucho Marx in the crowded ocean-liner stateroom, and the human flood that spilled out when Margaret Dumont opened the door.  None of them had expected to get what they saw.

A few years ago, the political buzzword of education was "No child left behind".  Which is a shame, as some of our generation were left behind with our afternoon "babysitters" to find our street education in the right back alleys of imagination.
And now we're seeing that leave every other child behind.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My New Regular Friday-Night Thing

When I moved out to a new apartment just within walking distance of the local Northampton, MA Forbes library, I discovered there are a few good advantages to Location. 

With many parents and impoverished college students in town, a constant demand for Friday movie-night titles, and no Blockbuster after the last one closed down some five or six years ago, I'd discovered that around 3-4pm, just before 5pm closing, there tends to be a "Happy Hour" of local browsing customers socializing at the Audio-Visual section on the third floor.

A corner section reserved for their DVD's.

Entire walls of DVD's.

Walls and walls of DVD's.

(This is just the feature-film section, by the way; the foreign, documentary, and TV-boxset sections were elsewhere on the floor, and the children's/family/teen titles were in the Children's section on the basement floor.)

One display showed the theme that month, Escape/Adventure movies, along with a few handpicked staff favorites:

The Great Escape (obviously).  Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Zulu.  The Man With the Golden Gun.  Cocoon.  Key Largo.  And a few staff-picked recommendations of Gold Diggers of 1935 and Evil Dead II.  
I'd been on a 70's Golden-Age kick for my last few visits, and since the first Godfather had been checked out, I settled for finally taking a look at Robert Altman's "Nashville", and two other lesser-known Warner Archive titles from '78 that some generous souls had tried to find a home for.  I decided not to rent the next volume of Columbo reruns from the TV section, as three hours of quirky semi-improvised tower-of-babbling 70's Altman had already put too much on my plate for the week.  
Being a library, their rental terms were reasonable:  7-day rental, with optional 7-day renewal online.  No deposit required.  Holds, special-orders and waiting-list titles available at the front desk.  Cost:  FREE.  (With $1/day late fee.)

Before the now-ancient days of disk-by-mail, there was just as much of a rush at the local strip-mall Blockbuster Video on Friday night, but it never had the welcoming feeling of being personal--Like the Starbucks coffee on Main Street or the Wal-mart, it was the corporate boot-footprint of mediocrity stamped upon the identity of your hometown, to make it no better or worse than a thousand others.  No matter how glitzy, modern or brightly lit the newest ones were, there was a dispiriting feeling of soul-crushing tackiness to it that said "Abandon all taste, ye who enter"...And the window-banner promises of "More copies of the hits you want, first!" rubbed your crowd trend-following in your face, and made your movie-night urges feel as if you were cattle in a production factory who were depended upon to be harvested to fatten starving studios.
Customers were strangers--and so were the movies, in blank uniform cases--and you saw your neighbor having to compromise his taste for the one recent-hit movie he didn't want, just because ten other strangers that day had taken the one he did.  You judgmentally grumbled that someone as philistine as him deserved to settle for watching The Day After Tomorrow, just because your own pride dictated that you had to go home without that copy of The Bourne Supremacy you'd hoped to pin your weekend movie-night on.
And if they couldn't rent you a movie, they'd rent you a game, darnit, sell you some merchandise, or even a box of popcorn, just to keep the overhead.  

The more that "Big Blue" began Wal-mart'ing the local community-hangout storefront rentals out of a town, the more a debate started to rise among renting film-buffs:  Namely, whether the brick-and-mortar DVD-rental industry "should" philosophically be an archive for curious film-buffs to look up old titles on demand, or a studio-serving second-run theater to give you your last chance to pay Fox a little extra money to see Titanic fresh out of the theaters, before it retires to cable.
Blockbuster, in their press, proudly sounded off that they were on the side of the studios, as it was home-theater's symbiotic duty to be--People wanted The Hits, and they'd pay for the company that brought them the current, hippest, hottest ones.  The library, OTOH, like the independent mom-and-pop store, had no choice but to be what it was...The repository, the wine-cellar where you went to look up a title you didn't know, where they kept it in case anyone should ask for it.  

Looking for movies at a small hardwood-floor library in the local town mansion is a different experience:  Most came there to look for a book, and are pleasantly embarrassed to see others there with the same inspiration.  And seeing movie spine titles on shelves is the same as searching for an old book--Colored titles, each promising a story, are in reach for you to grab one and take a chance, but now with the extra tease of a bit of movie trivia, daring "I know more than you do".  One chatty older woman, seeing me tilt my head and squint over the alphabetical shelf like two or three others, joked about having the same Friday-night hobby, and showed off the copy of Disney's live-action Cinderella she hadn't expected to be on the shelves so soon.  Browsing a town's library is something particularly local and by-the-people, which brings out sudden social instincts of being part of the Hometown Favorite--No two library collections are the same, and those who know where and what to look for go there because they have a sense of what is unique about their own town.
And one other advantage the library had over the old Blockbuster:  No running loop of loud trailers or employee-placating movies on the overhead monitors.  Libraries tend to emphasize courteously quiet solitude and reflection with their customer browsing.  Shh.

Our community library was lucky, being in a New England college-town--For 25 years, the local college-town arthouse theater on Pleasant St. had had the college-town Pleasant St. Video next door.  Passing by the corner past the theater meant seeing that big shop window selling the print posters of Breakfast at Tiffany's and La Dolce Vita, and displaying the foreign/cult films that were the hit renters with the largely 00's-hippie town demographic.  But in June '11, before the independently-run Pleasant St. Theater went the way of other college-town screens that couldn't upgrade to digital projection, the Pleasant St. Video store followed first. It was a turning point for the town, but by that point, everyone knew that brick-and-mortar video rentals couldn't last forever, as even Big Blue had been slain by Netflix-by-mail, and those looking for film-class titles wouldn't be caught dead going to the grocery store's Redbox machine.
All wasn't lost:  Northampton is a charity-cause town, and when the town's biggest supply of foreign and cult-classics was in danger, a movement started to help fund the entire collection's donation to the local library.  Just $8, tax-deductible, would save one orphan film from the used-film sale box, and keep it on a permanent shelf for the entire town.
As you can see, it was a success.  There's now a lot more to choose from.  

As viewers complain that Netflix and Amazon Prime's selections have been dramatically dwindling to a collection of low-rent activist documentaries, micro-horror, public-domain and original series, many still refuse to cancel the services because of the "convenience" of having movies and past TV reruns available as an alternative to cable and broadcast TV. But it also feels like being afraid to cross some last line that can't be uncrossed--We cut the cable cord for subscription, they worry, but when we finally cut the subscription cord, what DO we have left?  
What many aren't aware of is that for most of their working career, those same people's taxes have been paying for another viewing option that's nearly as convenient with greater selection.  And if not "greater", depending on your town, at least a lot more eclectic, with more titles they may actually recognize.  Some might be old, occasionally have scratches from customer use, but in how good condition were the disks you once rented from the shiny Blockbuster?  The point is, being physical disks, they're made to stay on a shelf, and they aren't going anywhere soon.

Which brings me to the reason I posted this on a Thursday, when a Friday might have been more fitting:  An upcoming weekend is a good excuse for impulse.  That's what it's made for.
You may not have checked your local library's DVD (with the odd isolated Blu-ray) movie section, or, like some I'd happened to talk with on the bus, even been aware your library HAD a DVD section.  Trust me, most do.  
Other libraries may probably not have been philanthropically stocked with an entire rental store by an idealistic town, but most probably consist of titles people wanted to get rid of, and donated to city for a nominal tax deduction, rather than throw out.  Each title has a guarantee of being a movie somebody at some point wanted to watch first--And it's a practice you find yourself wanting to pay forward with your own old discarded titles that have been replaced by Blu-ray, just in the hopes that someone else will be as equally surprised by your own discard.  (In the old days, when enthusiastic adopters used to binge-buy Blu-rays, they bragged of being able to sell their old DVD's back to Amazon.  And once the bottom fell out of that market, with a used title now fetching upwards of a dollar at best, they don't say that any more.)
It's serendipity:  You may not necessarily find the title you're looking for.  If you do, more power to you.  But more often, what you may find is the title you never knew you were looking for until you found it.  That's the thrill of the hunt.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Leave the Poor White House Alone! Blow Something ELSE Up This Weekend!

You'll see the question if you hang around enough forums, fan sites, or other hangouts where movies are a small handful of cult titles folks in their twenties or under remember from just past their own lifetime:
What's the ONE movie you have to watch every holiday?

Christmas, that's easy--Everyone says "It's a Wonderful Life" on reflex, except for the kids who were hypnotized by Ted Turner into believing "A Christmas Story" is a classic, and the smartaleck/doods who say "Bad Santa forever, woo!"
Thanksgiving has become our national observance of "Planes, Trains & Automobiles".  Valentine's Day will usually be the 90's romantic comedy Sleepless With Sally, or whatever that movie was with Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal where she did that thing in the restaurant, they chatted on AOL, and finally met on top of the building.  
Halloween?  You tell me.  And Memorial Day will be everyone's favorite war movie, until someone starts the argument about whether it should be for Veteran's Day.

And July 4?  "Well, duh--'Independence Day'!  Y'know, like Bill Pullman, when he makes that big speech in the climax!  It's totally symbolic of our American spirit!"  (Yes, and thank you for reminding us of all those Brexit politicians who thought it was now a political victory to quote the Pullman scene, just because the dopey sequel was opening in theaters the same day.  They thought they were being cool.)
Ah.  So, it's the title.  Good reason.  Of course, you'll also find those open-minded folk who say "No, that doesn't have to do with the holiday, like Mel Gibson in 'The Patriot', that's history!"  And then the showoffs who still remember Al Pacino in "Revolution"--that's real-looking history--despite the fact that the movie was considered unreleasably awful by its own studio when it almost didn't play theaters.

Here's an idea:  Remember that last post, that suggested "Surprise yourself" with a movie you haven't seen?  Those who have seen it are faithfully and ritualistically ahead of me on this one, with their July 4 pick that's almost considered as sacred as, well, The Ten Commandments is to Easter:
1776.  Directed by Peter Hunt, 1972, from Peter Stone's Broadway musical.  (Well, they almost had a bicentennial, there.)  Now available on Blu-ray and on digital rental from Vudu and Amazon.

You want history?  How about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin arguing over a "declaration of independence" in Philadelphia?  And singing about it.

It's history they don't usually tell you:  John Adams was a frustrated ball of irritation.  Thomas Jefferson's cool intellect heated up around his wife.  And Ben Franklin loved to live up to his reputations, bad or otherwise.  It's all good musical-comedy fun, until they start discussing the big British elephant in the room, and the debates among all thirteen colonies turn so tense, heated and divisive, a "United" States isn't starting to look all that likely.  But somehow, at the last minute, it happened.
Some, of an earlier generation, remember being shown it in school as history--like the great Schoolhouse Rock songs, we remember the names of the five men in the Declaration drafting committee by earworm song lyrics--and the infectious fun comes from the fact that many of the literate one-liners in the movie actually come from real-life quotes and letters by the real persons involved.  (Yes, the real-life Mr. Adams did reportedly say "History won't remember our achievements, it'll be 'Ben Franklin did this' and 'Ben Franklin did that'...'Ben Franklin struck the ground with his walking stick, and there arose George Washington, on his horse.'")  I remember the field trip of our fourth-grade class walking the four blocks to the corner theater to see it, but that's a story to be told later.

The musical's had a recent reawakening of popularity with a new generation of fans who've discovered the appeal of old-school Broadway musicals.  And to the reason they like them, I'll answer ahead of time the first question they'll always ask:
No, Alexander Hamilton is NOT in the movie.  He was nowhere near Philadelphia at the time.  QUIT ASKING, and watch other musicals!

For other history, Disney's Johnny Tremain (d. Robert Stevenson, 1957, now available on DVD and for rent on Amazon and Vudu) technically isn't July--it's July-ish, even though it captures the December event of the Boston Tea Party and the April events of Paul Revere's Ride and the Battle of Concord & Lexington, and converts them into family-friendly legend.
From the future Mary Poppins director who knew how to make 50's-60's live-action Walt-era Disney look classy and give them G-rated earnestness you could completely buy into at that age.

I confess I missed out on the Esther Forbes children's book growing up--Even though I lived in Worcester, MA at one point, that one day had a city-sponsored participatory reading of the book for the local-author-made-good day, that bit of Newbery summer-reading-list escaped me, and my middle-school class had gone for the musical version of the Revolution instead.

As a Disney fan, I remember talking with one European fan who wanted to visit Disney World and thought Frontierland would be the "American" experience.  I tried to explain that Liberty Square--which Walt wanted to add to his parks just based on the atmospheric Tremain sets of pre-revolutionary Boston--was "more" American than the Wild West everyone else knows for, but it's hard to explain why.
Here, as the young title apprentice wanders in and out of intrigue surrounding Boston's most successful silversmith (who's also pretty good on a horse), we get a basic Disney Version of the first three stories everyone knows, that somehow hadn't quite been filmed yet.  And you realize, why should our history not be a "legend" to other countries as much as a Hollywood French Revolution epic is to ours?
For all the Republicans' mythologizing of "the Tea Party" as an angry rabble-rouse, we see it historically recreated more or less realistically as the relatively simple business-minded bit of organized intimidation and protest that it was...Although I don't think we had quite as much of the clean-cut singing back then, though:

A little harder to find, but still available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive and for rental on Amazon is the one that made the AFI 100 list of Just Plain Darn Great American Movies to See Before You Die (and went up two points on the second list):
Yankee Doodle Dandy, d. Michael Curtiz, 1942.

Like the others, most will probably rent it for the title.  Or, because for those who do bad James Cagney impressions, the second most quoted Cagney trope behind "You dirty raaat..." will be "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dannn-dee..." Well, that one, at least, he did say.

Cagney was one of Warner's biggest house-brand stars as the gritty "Studio of the streets", but even as far back as 1933's "Footlight Parade", the studio knew they not only had the toughest mug who ever shoved a grapefruit in a moll's face or hit the top of the world, ma, they also had one incredible tap-dance hoofer.  Tough Guys Do Dance.
And a flag-waving big of mid-wartime WWII morale-propaganda for the studio brought Cagney back in a showbiz bio of song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan, who wrote just about every single July 4 song we remember, and put most of them into his big show "Little Johnny Jones":

It's not just that this movie sings patriotic songs, although the upbeat flag-waving by 1942 standards could dislocate an arm.  It's that this movie is like watching five showbiz bios rolled into one.
According to the movie, Cohan had a very long and colorful career from childhood vaudeville up until the 1930's, and the movie doesn't stop giving us colorful Hollywood songwriter-bio tropes about the days of variety shows and Tin Pan Alley.  There's some subplot or musical number going on every minute.  EVERY.
The framing device has old retired Cohan invited to the White House to meet...gosh, we'd swear it sounds like FDR, but we never see his face for sure!...and in the climax, on his way out the door, Cagney improvised one last happy bit of Yankee once-a-hoofer rebelliousness:

How anyone could make it through the holiday without these three movies, I'll never know.  There are many choices to go On Beyond ID4 (and just where the heck did the "4" come from, anyway?  Never could figure that out), but it's a question of whether you see the holiday as about history, or about a bit of picnic flag-waving and fireworks.

All I know is, it's not about the Old Jewish-Stereotype Guy, the Whiny Jeff Goldblum Guy, or the Crazy Crop-Duster Guy.