As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a former Angeleno, and I remain fascinated by Los Angeles locations in the movies and on television.  The film essayist Thom Andersen made a whole film, Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the schism between Los Angeles, the actual city, and Los Angeles, the cultural artifact constructed by its ubiquitous appearances in visual media.  Andersen prefers the real thing.  I’m not sure I agree.

One idea that I took away from Andersen’s film is that iconic locations, like the Bradbury Building or the Griffith Park Observatory, take on a slightly different meaning in the movies than the spaces only a native will find familiar.  The latter initiate a sort of private, privileged communication between filmmakers and a geographical subset of their audience.  Depending on how a location is depicted, it can add a layer of authenticity and familiarity for those select viewers.  Or it can be a trigger that leads those viewers to step outside the narrative, to confront the text as an industrial artifact and to contemplate how  reality has been manipulated during its creation.

For about a year I lived around the corner from the Sportsmen’s Lodge, a small hotel and restaurant in Studio City.  The Sportsmen’s Lodge is now undergoing extensive remodeling, but for nearly fifty years, it never changed.  For that reason it’s easy to spot in any number of movies and TV shows, particularly those made at Universal Studios, which lies only a couple of miles east along Ventura Boulevard.  (Columbo fumbled around the Sportsmen’s Lodge more than once.)  In its center courtyard the Lodge has a tiny pond, spanned by a wooden bridge, and its most infamous use as a movie location may be in the micro-budgeted fifties post-nuke opus The Day the World Ended.  That film used the Lodge’s little trout pond to simulate a real, outdoor body of water.

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Recently I was delighted to see the Sportsmen’s Lodge featured prominently in “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” a 1976 episode of The Rockford Files.  The Lodge doubles as the Delman Motel (allegedly in Santa Monica, on other side of town), which Rockford visits twice to meet his duplicitous client, played by St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels.  In the frame above, James Garner is standing underneath the carport outside the western entrance to the hotel’s parking lot.  The building to the right is a lobby leading, if I remember correctly, to both the lounge and the hotel.  The street behind Garner is Ventura Boulevard.  The structure in the background with the unusual windows is now a Ralph’s Fresh Fare; in the seventies, it was a different supermarket.

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Later in the same episode, Garner visits the Winslow Art Gallery to bid on an unusual art object.  The Winslow Art Gallery is also the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  It’s a different entrance at the eastern end of the hotel, perpendicular to the “Delman Motel” carport.  Below is a frame in which Garner stands just outside the Winslow Art Gallery (out of frame just to the right).  But in the background, minus its ersatz sign, is the  “entrance” to the Delman Motel.

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(At a time when many Universal shows, like Emergency! and the early episodes of Kojak, were still confined largely to a backlot that was growing ever more dated and threadbare, The Rockford Files – and Columbo as well – had enough clout to seek out practical locations nearly all the time.  But Universal’s  prop department still had some catching up to do.  In both of those series, the signage added to those locations always looked, well, like something that had just been slapped together by the prop department.  Realism came fitfully to television.)

Visible on the horizon in this sequence are both the Sportsmen’s Lodge’s own tiki-styled sign and (to the right of it in the frame below) another yellow, diamond-shaped sign in the background.  The latter is a revolving sentinel that towers over Twain’s, a twenty-four hour diner on the northwest corner of Ventura and Coldwater Canyon Boulevards.  Twain’s is another San Fernando Valley landmark that’s been there forever and is instantly recognizable to locals (and no one else).

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During my Studio City year, a co-worker described how Twain’s was a favorite hangout for her crowd when she was a Valley high schooler during the eighties.  Were Wendy to catch a rerun of “The Italian Bird Fiasco,” she would probably forget about the cat-and-mouse game being played out by James Garner and William Daniels on screen.  Her thoughts might turn back to her teenage memories – a reaction different from anyone else watching the same episode, and one wholly unanticipated (and possibly undesired) by the show’s creators.  But I suspect Wendy would find the experience pleasurable, as I do when The Rockford Files or some other show takes me back to my old neighborhood.

I have written this partly as an exercise in nostalgia, but also to illustrate the small point that TV shows reuse and disguise their locations and even their sets in all kinds of clever ways that most of us never notice.  I have a trained eye, but I’m sure I would not have observed consciously that “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s two key locations share the same architecture had I not already been familiar with the Sportsmen’s Lodge.  As spectators, our suspension of disbelief extends to spatial geography just as much as it does to storytelling.  We allow movies and television to pull all manner of trickery on us, just so long as the people behind the curtain aren’t so manifestly incompetent that they force us to notice the strings holding everything up.

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Here’s another example, also taken from a crime program of the seventies, of a very specific kind of visual sleight-of-hand that I often catch.  In this scene from “Betrayed,” a 1973 segment of The Streets of San Francisco, Detectives Keller (Michael Douglas) and Stone (Karl Malden) study a reel of surveillance footage and detect an important clue to a bank robber’s identity.

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Keller, the younger detective, operates the sixteen-millimeter projector.  “Move in on that,” Stone tells him, when they come to a crucial moment in the footage.

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Keller complies, both zooming in and freezing the frame on the bank robber’s wrist.

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Somehow Keller has accomplished a feat that lies beyond the technical capabilities of his equipment.  He has shifted the angle to a point of view different from that established for the surveillance camera moments before.

Movies do this all the time.  They depict cuts, zooms, camera moves, and other visual effects in films-within-the-film that are blatantly implausible, at least to the trained eye.  Lately I’ve seen a few movies (George Romero’s wily Diary of the Dead is one) that make extensive internal use of “found footage” and do adhere rigorously to the spatial limitations established for that footage within the story.  But often filmmakers find it too difficult to convey a desired expository point within the limited perspective that fixed-camera footage would offer in the “real” world.

I always notice this kind of cheating, and it always gives me a chuckle.  But I wonder if it registers with most spectators, or if it’s another example – like “The Italian Bird Fiasco”’s multitude of Sportsmen’s Lodges – of the generous suspension of disbelief that we grant to visual media that attempt to give us pleasure.

Another reason we might accept rather than reject this flaw is that it enlists us in a more active kind of spectatorship than television or the movies usually offer.  In the scene described above, Detectives Stone and Keller assume the roles of, respectively, a director and a cinematographer/editor.  Stone tells his collaborator the effect he wishes to achieve – a solution to a mystery – through the process of watching (making) a film.  Keller selects the camera angle and organizes the footage in a way that will deliver that result.  Unconsciously, the viewer participates in this process with them.

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In any episode of The Streets of San Francisco (or The Rockford Files), the writer, the director, and their collaborators construct a story for us by making the same choices.  The projector scene in “Betrayed” embeds this process (or an oversimplified version of it) within the narrative.  The spectator will either play along, or else detect the shortcuts and reject them as “fake.”  How do we make that choice?  Is it conscious or unconscious?  Is one response to this scenario superior, or more “correct,” than the other?  Personally, few things annoy me more than watching or discussing a movie with someone whose refrain is “Well, that could never happen.”  My own tolerance for plot holes (and consequently my indifference to “spoilers”) is quite high, because I consider plot one of the least interesting components of a film or television show.  But based on which television shows have achieved popularity in recent years – Lost and 24, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl – I think many spectators may hold the opposite point of view.  They prize narrative complexity to the exclusion of any other kind of complexity.

Hypothetically, let’s say that the director of “Betrayed,” William Hale, had opted for accuracy at the possible expense of clarity.  In that case, the scene might have played out with Keller and Stone stopping the film and then squinting and puzzling over the blurry image.  Perhaps they would have disagreed over the meaning of the clue.  Perhaps their ambivalence would have carried over into another scene; instead of knowing already that their suspect (played by Martin Sheen) was the culprit, they would have had to interrogate him, bluff him, to elicit a confession.  Perhaps Sheen’s character would have slipped from their grasp for lack of evidence.  Perhaps Keller and Stone would never have known whether he was guilty or not.  Perhaps the viewer would have been left with less confidence in the effectiveness of the police, less certainty about the likelihood of closure in general.

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Each of those possibilities is less likely than the previous one, at least for a mainstream television show from the seventies.  That single subliminal, impossible edit may seem like a continuity error.  Instead it’s a shrewd elision that tidies the narrative of “Betrayed” in a meaningful way.  Did some viewers, even in 1973, congratulate themselves for catching a mistake that the filmmakers missed?  Of course.  But the filmmakers had the last word.  They understood that sometimes a “mistake” is more satisfying than an uncertainty.

A Historian’s Dream

May 27, 2009

“By then I’d begun to do research, thinking – not realistically – that maybe I could interest someone who knew how to write nonfiction in taking on the project.  I’d gather the material and hand it off to a professional and in a year or two I’d have that book I wanted to read.”

- Stewart O’Nan, foreword to The Circus Fire: A True Story

While I’m working my way back from a vacation toward some more substantial posts, I thought I’d take a moment to draw attention to this Los Angeles Times piece on the Archive of American Television.

The Archive has done videotaped interviews with over 600 people who worked in early television in various capacities, so they’re obviously operating in the same wheelhouse as this blog.  Much of my own research in recent years has focused on oral history.  Since it began to emerge on Google Video, the Archive’s output has done a great deal to inspire me, and to validate the methodology that I’ve chosen to pursue. 

It’s obvious that the Archive is a treasure trove for historians like myself, but many of the interviews are enormously entertaining for the casual spectator too.  Often they achieve an intimacy that’s akin to the experience of attending a dinner party and listening to a veteran entertainer hold court with a lifetime of stories.  The segments with Andy Griffith, Ed Asner, the actress Maxine Stuart, the director Robert Butler, and the writer Ernest Kinoy all succeed in that way.

My own favorite is probably the interview with John Frankenheimer, who’s such a polished raconteur that I’m surprised he never enjoyed a sideline as a character actor, along the lines of his protege Sydney Pollack.  The next time you have fifteen minutes to spare, check out the long anecdote Frankenheimer tells at the beginning of Part 7 of his oral history.  It may be the ultimate live television disaster story . . . and it’s never failed to crack up anyone to whom I’ve recommended it.

What I’m Thankful For

November 27, 2008

All the usual things, of course.  Family and friends, as well as my loyal readers.  Assuming those two groups don’t overlap entirely.

But here’s something for which I’m even more thankful.  The Paley Center, the newest alias of The Museum of Television and Radio (f/k/a The Museum of Broadcasting) in New York and Los Angeles, now has its catalog online

The search software is a little crude – Boolean searches appear beyond its grasp.  Nevertheless, this is an enormously valuable research tool.  It’s likely to yield up television credits I didn’t know about for some of my favorite TV writers and directors, or at least confirm or disprove data gleaned from less reliable sources. 

More importantly, of course, it’s now possible to preview the Paley’s collection and plan ahead before making a visit.  It used to be incredibly frustrating to poke through the UCLA Film and Television Archive‘s search engine and know exactly what that institution held on a given series or person – but not be able to do the same for the Paley.  Finally, I can go through the videography of one of the writers or directors I’m profiling and know for certain how much of his or her work survives in an accessible venue, without leaving my desk.

(The Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin-Madison also have substantial collections of early television that can be browsed via online searches.  But since I’m regularly in New York and Los Angeles, UCLA and the Paley have always been the Big Two.)

Actually, it’s been so long since I’ve checked on this that the Paley Center could have had this feature on its website for years, but I just discovered it yesterday.  So I know what I’ll be doing while I eat tonight’s cold turkey sandwich!

I’m extremely skeptical of the Internet Movie Database for a number of reasons, most of them basic conceptual flaws: the complete lack of sourcing for any of its information; its failure to designate entries which may be incomplete or unverified; its labyrinthine and opaque process for accepting (or ignoring) corrections; and its disinterest in consulting experts in lieu of accepting unpaid “submissions” by people who must, like the old joke about people who can’t get out of jury duty, have too much time on their hands and no productive outlet for their knowledge.  But recently I noticed a practice that’s disturbing and wrong-headed even by the IMDb’s dubious standards.  On the IMDb page for most major recent American films, the acronym (WGA) appears in parentheses next to the film’s writing credits.  The “WGA” is clickable and leads to this page, which explains that since 1999 the Writers Guild of America “has been furnishing credits directly” to IMDb.  Following that are a handy explanation of both the WGA’s jurisdiction (which extends to “USA-controlled live-action film and TV projects, produced . . . by studios or major independent producers,” i.e., signatories to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement – the same companies that are being struck by the Guild right now) and its rather intricate process for determining those credits.

However, buried in the next-to-last paragraph of this lengthy document is a crucial disclaimer:

The IMDb will not accept uncredited writers for titles with WGA-determined credits.

In other words, for the past nine years, the IMDb has been colluding with the Writers Guild of America to suppress critical information about how some movies were written.

I guess I should step back a moment and explain the WGA’s process for determining screen credits.  It’s always been common, from the early days of the Hollywood studios up to the present day, for movies and TV shows to be written by committee – by a succession of different writers put on the project by a producer or director.  In the 1930s, the studios treated writers as interchangeable and disposable; weird on-screen credits like “adaptation by” or “additional dialogue by” proliferated, and it wasn’t uncommon for an unscrupulous producer to steal the writer’s credit for himself (or a flunky or nephew).  Outrage over these practices were part of what led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) in 1933.  Wresting control of writers’ on-screen credits from the studios was a major victory for the nascent Guild.

Today the WGA has, in its own words, a “strong feeling against a multiplicity of credits” on a film.  In other words, not every writer who contributes a few lines, or even certain major ideas, to a screenplay will receive credit.  When multiple writers have taken a whack at a troubled screenplay, only those who contributed substantially to the finished film will be awarded credit.  When a dispute arises, the matter goes to the WGA’s arbitration committee, a group of members who read all the drafts of the screenplay and issue a binding version of the final credits.  The arbitration process is viewed by most in the industry as essentially honorable and fair – albeit responsible on occasion for a perplexingly bad call.  In some cases even writers who “won” screen credit have opined publicly that they didn’t deserve it.

The problem is that while the WGA system might serve the interests of working writers, it’s counterproductive for historians.  Those of us who write about movies need, very obviously, as much insight into the production history of a film as possible.  If you’re writing about John Frankenheimer, for instance, you need to know that The Train was “really written” not by the credited team of Frank Davis and Franklin Coen, but by the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale. 

As it happens, the IMDb doesn’t record that tidbit about The Train, but for older films it does often list uncredited contributors to the script.  Its Ben Hur page, for instance, offers this breakdown of the film’s on-screen writing credits:

Lew Wallace   (novel) (as General Lew Wallace)
Karl Tunberg   (screenplay)

and then the following:

Maxwell Anderson   uncredited and 
Christopher Fry   uncredited and 
Gore Vidal   uncredited

The names of the unacknowledged writers (and the prospect of analyzing their work on the film) are far more tantalizing than that of the journeyman, Karl Tunberg, who received sole screenplay credit.  And that’s a relatively minor example.  How could anyone hope to untangle the creation of The Wizard of Oz if its list of uncredited writers were unavailable?  Again, a reproduction of the IMDb’s writing credits for the film:

L. Frank Baum   (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”)

Noel Langley   (screenplay) and 
Florence Ryerson   (screenplay) and 
Edgar Allan Woolf   (screenplay)

Irving Brecher   uncredited
William H. Cannon   uncredited
Herbert Fields   uncredited
Arthur Freed   uncredited
Jack Haley   additional dialogue (uncredited)
E.Y. Harburg   uncredited
Samuel Hoffenstein   uncredited
Bert Lahr   additional dialogue (uncredited)
Noel Langley   adaptation
John Lee Mahin   uncredited
Herman J. Mankiewicz   uncredited
Jack Mintz   uncredited

Or, to approach it from the other direction, anyone writing a biography one of Hollywood’s legendary “script doctors” – first-rank screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bo Goldman, or Alvin Sargent who have earned much of their living by punching up high-profile screenplays without credit – will have a tough time of it.  Such a figure’s involvement in a project is often a closely guarded secret, rarely reported in the press or the trades and disseminated only by word of mouth.  The IMDb could and should function as a repository to collect this data.

Of course, uncredited script revisions are “facts” that lie outside of a film’s official history, and should as such be treated cautiously.  And one of the IMDb’s major weaknesses is that one can’t evaluate the sources of its data; if, for instance, I managed to add Young’s and Dimsdale’s names to its page for The Train, you wouldn’t know that I gleaned their names from Frankenheimer himself, via his audio commentary on the DVD of the film. 

Still, there’s nothing to stop the IMDb from adding Young and Dimsdale to their page for the The Train.  But for any film made after 1999, that would be specifically forbidden. 

How important is this matter?  Essential, given that it’s still common practice for major blockbusters to be worked over by many (even dozens) of writers.  If the Los Angeles Times considered it newsworthy that such well-known writers as Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl, and John Lee Hancock took a pass at the screenplay (if you can call it that) for Bad Boys 2, then it’s inexcusable that this reporting cannot be archived somewhere in the one place that is (for better or worse) everyone’s first stop for information about movies.

And, since this is a blog about classic television, consider what triggered my musings on the subject in the first place: the fact that Horton Foote wrote a draft of Denzel Washington’s new film The Great DebatersBad Boys 2 might provoke a scoff, but Foote is one of the most significant television writers and playwrights of his generation.  Any project on which he labored, no matter how insignificantly or futilely, is of interest to historians.  Foote’s participation in The Great Debaters is not recorded on the IMDb, nor will it ever be under the IMDb’s current policy.

It all reminds me of the cringeworthy conclusion to the Guild’s otherwise laudable project to restore the credits of blacklisted writers who worked under the table due to political oppression during McCarthy era.  During the 1990s the WGA undertook a comprehensive review of movies known to have been written by blacklistees, and to restore those writers’ names to the official credits (credits that originally went to fronts or pseudonyms) in its records.  The research was rigorous and conservative, and for all the credits it amended, the Guild reluctantly denied many that could not be substantiated. 

A heroic effort.  But then the WGA somehow convinced the major studios to physically alter the onscreen credits of many of the affected films.  The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s title card “Screenplay by Pierre Boulle” – notorious because Boulle spoke no English – was optically or digitally changed to “Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman” on all new prints and home video editions.  Not only was this historical revisionism at its most Orwellian, but in a savagely ironic way it contradicts the purpose of the Guild’s project.  By effacing Boulle’s absurd screen credit, the Guild erased evidence of the bitter farce that was McCarthyism.  (Plus, it was unnecessary: Why not simply add a new title card at the beginning or end of the film, with the names of the actual writers and an explanation of their initial omission, similar to the preservation credits appended to films that have undergone restoration?)

According to Craig Mazin, a Guild member whose blog contains the only other discussion of this issue I could find on the internet, the WGA pushed for its relationship with the IMDb as part of a general preference for keeping its arbitration backstories confidential.  Fair enough.  But why should the IMDb roll over for a special interest group whose goals run contrary to its own?  All that’s admitted on its WGA page is that the Guild has now spared the IMDb staff the oh-so-arduous task of retrieving certain TV and movie credits from published sources.  Hmmm . . . I wonder if there’s anything else the WGA might also have offered to secure the cooperation of the IMDb (or its corporate owner, Amazon.com)?

I don’t really expect any better than this from the Internet Movie Database, and I realize it’s ill-timed to bash the Writers Guild when it’s fighting for its relevance in a critical strike.  But come on, WGA: you guys are my heroes, and you’re letting me down.

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