Sixteen Footprints of the New Wave

August 12, 2010

I. Mad Men is back on and I’m still a half-season behind, as usual.  But the critic Vadim Rizov has a good piece here called “The Antonionian Ennui of Mad Men,” which begins:

In 1962, Don Draper went to see La Notte and loved it. He’s up on his cinema, and that’s no surprise.  When someone asked if he’d seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, he responded, “I’ve seen everything, and I have the ticket stubs to prove it.”  Not that Don could assimilate Antonioni into advertising that quickly.  He’s much more likely to use Bye Bye Birdie as a starting point for his work; foreign innovations are, for now (the show’s up to 1964), just that.

I love that line about the ticket stubs, and I’ve always thought Don’s cinephilia was an important key to his character.  (Back in the second season, around the time of the Defenders episode, there was a scene in which Don slipped into a movie theater to catch an arty foreign film.)  It’s a signifier of Don’s secret discomfort with the status quo, and one that we media geeks in the Mad Men audience are likely to find especially resonant.

Rizov goes on to discuss how both Mad Men and the sixties advertising world it depicts intersect with the European New Wave films that Don Draper enjoys.  That caught my attention because it comes close to one of my pet obsessions: tracking the influence of foreign films, and the New Wave in particular, on the American television shows of the fifties and sixties.

*

II. I Love Lucy: “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (4/16/56)

The phyical comedy in the famous grape-stomping episode has been so often cited that one sometimes forgets that the episode spoofs the exotic films washing ashore from Europe.  Lucy is set to star in Bitter Grapes, a reference to Bitter Rice (U.S. release date: September 18, 1950), and the wine vat melee can be said to parody, in the vaguest way possible, a similar brawl in the Giuseppe De Santis film.  It is one of the first of many comedies (not to mention commercials) to use foreign films, or certain cliches about them, as the punchline to a joke.

III. The Dick Van Dyke Show: “4½” (November 4, 1964)
IV. F Troop: “La Dolce Courage” (November 24, 1966)

Neither of these episodes has anything to do with Fellini (, U.S. release date: June 25, 1963; La Dolce Vita, U.S. release date: April 19, 1961).  In the sixties, situation comedies rarely broadcast the titles of episodes, so the titles became, if anything, a sort of conversation between writers and story editors.  “I don’t know why we bothered,” Irma Kalish, the co-writer of “La Dolce Courage,” told me.  “I mean, they got put into TV Guide, but you don’t see them on the screen.”

But were there cases in which television writers engaged with sixties art films at a level beyond the industry in-joke?

*

V. Naked City: “Kill Me While I’m Young So I Can Die Happy!” (October 17, 1962)

Abram S. Ginnes’s tale of a bitter, dying middle-aged woman (Maureen Stapleton) was a distaff reworking of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (U.S. release date: March 25, 1956), filtered through Ginnes’s own obsessive Freudian preoccupations.

“I tried to buy it,” Ginnes said of the original film, which he first thought of adapting as a musical.  “I called Japan and I got Akira Kurosawa’s son, who spoke some English, and I offered to buy the story.  He got back to me and he said his father didn’t want to sell it.  I was so taken with it, I did it anyway.”

VI. The F.B.I.: “Ordeal” (November 6, 1966)

In this episode written by Robert Bloomfield, a group of criminals, plus an undercover federal agent, drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerine over a treacherous mountain path.

“Yeah, that was a rip-off of The Wages of Fear [U.S. release date: February 16, 1956],” agreed the director of the episode, Ralph Senensky.

VII. Lucan (May 22, 1977)

The pilot for a short-lived series, Lucan told the story of a young man who was raised by wolves and now seeks to acclimate himself to human company.  The writer, Michael Zagor, was inspired by Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (U.S. release date: September 11, 1970).

NBC executive Freddy Silverman “read the script and said he liked it a lot, but he said he thought that Lucan should be looking for his father,” said Zagor.  “I said, I can’t do that.  It [violates] the purity of the script.  I want to talk about the problems that he had in the world, and I want to do Francois Truffaut, and so on.”  Eventually Zagor added the father angle.

*

VIII. Route 66, “A Gift For a Warrior” (January 18, 1963)

Lars Passgård, the young man in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (U.S. release date: March 13, 1962), makes his only American film or television appearance as a German teenager in search of his American father (James Whitmore).

Passgård was not a star, even in Sweden, so it’s reasonable to surmise that someone on Route 66 (producer, director, casting director) made a special effort to hire him because he or she remembered the Bergman film.

IX. Channing, “The Face in the Sun” (February 19, 1964)

Leela Naidu, the star of James Ivory’s The Householder (U.S. release date: October 21, 1963), makes her only American television appearance as an exotic love interest for the protagonist of this series, college professor Joseph Howe (Jason Evers).

Naidu’s situation was similar: a relative unknown, she likely was imported on the strength of the Ivory film.  (The producer of Channing, Jack Laird, was a movie buff and a collector of film prints.)

*

X. The Defenders: “The Seven Ghosts of Simon Gray” (October 6, 1962)

This flashback-laden episode of The Defenders hit a post-production snag when the producer, Bob Markell, was denied funds for the requisite number of ripple dissolves.  In the manner of Hiroshima Mon Amour (U.S. release date: May 16, 1960), Markell put the show together using direct cuts between past and present.  “I was amazed that it worked so well,” he said of a technique that was not common on American television at the time.

Markell was a cinema fan who recalled attending the New York premiere of Tom Jones (U.S. release date: October 6, 1963) with two other Defenders staff members.  When I asked, he agreed that Tony Richardson’s film and others may have influenced the increasingly non-linear editing of The Defenders in its later seasons.

*

XI. “Are You Ready For Cops and Robbers à la Alain Resnais?” by Rex Reed, New York Times, July 23, 1967.

In July of 1967 it seemed like a good idea to both Daniel Melnick, executive producer of the police drama N.Y.P.D., and to the obliging Reed to sell the new series in terms of the European art house cinema.  Melnick believed that TV viewers “have all seen Antonioni and Fellini and Resnais movies.  They’re not dumb.  They don’t need old-fashioned dissolves to tell them that time has passed.  They’re ahead of us.”

Reed wrote that N.Y.P.D. filmed using “hand-held cameras, à la Godard or Agnes Varda.”  Melnick pointed out that the show’s cinematographer, George Silano, had some TV ads on his resume, “just like Richard Lester came out of commercials in Europe.”  Silano was shooting on sixteen-millimeter, under the supervision of directors imported from “the National Film Board of Canada and British TV.”  The series would be narrated using “fragmented thoughts, stream-of-consciousness.”  Melnick “got the idea from Hiroshima, Mon Amour and La Guerre est Finie.”

The producer of N.Y.P.D., unmentioned in Reed’s article, was Bob Markell.

XII. Most of Melnick’s claims were puffery, or were never implemented.  George Silano left the series after a few episodes, and N.Y.P.D. imported exactly one director each from Canada (John Howe) and Great Britain (John Moxey).  Markell remembered the camera operator, Harvey Genkins (who eventually replaced Silano as director of photography), as the person who did the most to establish the look of the series; and Alex March and David Pressman, both veterans of live television drama, as the most important directors.  The voiceover narration that gave Rex Reed his headline was dropped early in the first season; the actors, among others, considered it awkward.

XIII. So was there a European influence on N.Y.P.D.?  Yes and no.  “Everybody on that show was a cinema fan,” Markell told me.  “It was an erudite group.  We were all interested in Bergman and the Italian directors.  Danny was not incorrect, but we didn’t overtly go out and copy them.  We may well have been influenced by them subconsciously.”

But N.Y.P.D.’s formal decisions were determined first and foremost by the low budget and the compressed (three to three-and-a-half days per episode) shooting schedule.  The sixteen-millimeter film stock and handheld cameras were “a purely economic decision,” Markell said.  Only later, he explained, did the crew come to appreciate the aesthetic opportunities they offered.  Of course, many of the formal innovations for which Truffaut and Godard received credit were also motivated by limited resources.  The crew of N.Y.P.D. was not imitating them so much as making the same discoveries out of the same necessity.

*

XIV. The N.Y.P.D. article came to my attention via Lynn Spigel’s TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  Spigel cites the piece in the context of an argument that New Wave aesthetics entered television first through advertising.  She writes that “[t]elevision commercials of the 1960s were often extremely condensed versions of the techniques and ideas that advertisers gleaned (or in fact invented) through their associations with film culture, especially European new-wave cinema and independent, experimental, and structural films of the 1960s.”

XV. Which brings us back to Don Draper.  Perhaps Don could, if Mad Men lasts another couple of seasons, forge a new career as the executive producer of an arty TV cop show.

XVI. None of the above is meant as a substitute for a rigorous textual analysis.  It’s simply a set of clues arrayed to establish the idea that, yes, the makers of popular television programs during the sixties were paying attention to new ideas from foreign shores.

All quotations are taken from my own interviews unless otherwise noted.

About these ads

7 Responses to “Sixteen Footprints of the New Wave”

  1. Hal Says:

    Interestingly enough, F TROOP was one of the sitcoms that *did* show the episode title onscreen, every episode. Including “La Dolce Courage”.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    … even though a lot of them are cringeworthy enough to make you turn off the TV! Thanks, Hal. The F TROOP episode titles pun on a lot of other movies, too.

  3. Marty McKee Says:

    THE BIG VALLEY also did a 2-part ripoff of WAGES OF FEAR, the title of which escapes me now, but it was actually released on VHS, I believe by Goodtimes Video.

  4. Todd Says:

    Not really a French New Wave reference, but I get a kick out of the Gilligan’s Island episode “Castaways Pictures Presents” (1965) in which the stranded islanders produce a movie that wins first place at the Cannes Film Festival. Their effort is compared to Ingmar Bergman and Vittorio DeSica and is called an “ultra-modern example of surrealism.” At any rate, I love Jim Backus doing Mr. Howell as a ranting tyrannical director in that episode.

  5. Griff Says:

    I’m not unsympathetic to Michael Zagor’s assertion that he was inspired by Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD in creating LUCAN, but as I dimly recall the show’s pilot, the writer seemed to simply repurpose the French film’s themes and ideas; there wasn’t anything original or especially fresh about the show. It needed a director like Truffaut to bring out the values in the material. [The subplot involving the father was no help, of course.]

    The LUCAN pilot — I seldom looked at the series — was actually a little more interesting and imaginative than the previous year’s NBC telefilm STALK THE WILD CHILD. Written by Peter Packer, directed by William Hale, starring David Janssen (a dedicated psychologist), Ben Bottoms (a young boy raised by wolves) and Joseph Bottoms (the boy as a young man), some of the early part of this rather closely resembles the Truffaut film. Certain shots of the boy being chased through the forest almost seemed copied from Nestor Almendros’ compositions. Though the telefilm’s narrative departs from that of THE WILD CHILD after about the first half or so — it will be remembered that the Truffaut film follows the life of the boy for a relatively short time — I was surprised that neither UA nor Truffaut’s company made a legal issue of what seemed many deliberate similarities to the 1970 theatrical release.

    It would be interesting to know what the late director of photography Harry May thought of STALK THE WILD CHILD and LUCAN. He shot both the telefilm and the LUCAN pilot!

    I remember that IKURU-derived episode of NAKED CITY. It’s better than it might sound. Stapleton was quite good.

    For the record, I recall the tag of a episode of I DREAM OF JEANNIE in which Major Healey offered to take Jeannie out to the movies to see LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD…

  6. Patrick Murtha Says:

    American television in the Sixties demonstrated an awareness of international cultural trends that would be unthinkable nowadays. (Paradoxically, in the age of globalization, Americans have become increasingly and embarrassingly insular.) I remember an episode of The Donna Reed Show in which Donna and Alex Stone attend a play, and during the intermission Dr. Stone is asked what he thinks of “theater of the absurd” (if I recall correctly, there is an actual shout-out to Eugene Ionesco). Donna is much more informed on the subject than Alex, but no one seems interested in *her* opinion, which irks her in a proto-feminist way. It is a terrific scene.

  7. Larry Granberry Says:

    Another Quinn Martin show, “The Fugitive,” did an episode titled “Tiger Left, Tiger Right” that was reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” (itself based on a novel by Ed McBain).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 188 other followers

%d bloggers like this: