The Wasteland at 50

May 9, 2011

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Newton Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech.  That’s the manifesto in which Minow, President Kennedy’s newly-appointed FCC chairman, applied that term to contemporary television programming in front of an audience of sour-faced industry executives.  In the decades since, there have always been shows of such egregious awfulness, from The Beverly Hillbillies (which debuted the season after Minow’s epithet) to Jersey Shore, that the quote has remained in constant use.  Yours truly even adapted it as a snarky subhead for this blog.

To commemorate the occasion, James Warren has a good interview with Minnow, who’s still active at 85.  Also in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan offers an unfocused take on the speech, arguing that Minow motivated broadcasters, who “felt existentially challenged, and immediately pushed themselves to prove him wrong.”  Yeah, right.  Heffernan acknowledges that many classic TV shows work in defiance of Minow’s ideals (in other words, they’re great trash), but she doesn’t sort out exactly how that doesn’t render Minow irrelevant.

More insightful, and provocative, is Aaron Barnhart’s takedown in the Kansas City Star.  Barnhart calls the speech a “failure” and describes Minow’s plan for reform as ineffectual or even (in the area of local news) inadvertently counterproductive.

I have a lot of complicated ideas about the “vast wasteland,” and no time today to sort them out.  I’ve covered a lot of that territory on this blog already.  Barnhart calls Minow a “snob,” and argues that he was trying to impose his “patrician tastes” on a popular medium – an idea doomed to fail.  I agree with that, more or less.  Minow’s speech was very much of its particular moment, and so the term “vast wasteland,” potent as it is, is almost always used out of context. 

In 1961, there was reason to fear that television had (forgive the pun) gone down the tubes.  Paradigm shifts: live television and the dramatic anthology had abruptly died; the networks were aggressively cloning formulas (westerns and private eye shows) that were dumber, more violent, and more cynical than prime time had yet seen.  Minow denies nostalgia for Playhouse 90 and Studio One.  I think that’s a strategic misdirection, and that his speech is a clandestine eulogy for precisely that kind of programming.

But the fall lineup in 1961 included the debuts of The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Alcoa Premiere, and The Dick Powell Show.  Those were literate, sophisticated shows, and in no way created a response to Minow’s screed.  Also during the next couple of years, cloned Warner Bros. westerns (Cheyenne, Lawman) and adventure shows (77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye) would abruptly fade in popularity.  During the early sixties you could see, for the first time, how television would rebound on its own from periods of creative enervation and commercial pandering.  Minow was just a little too early to detect the pattern.  He was speaking from the dark before the dawn. 

Minow essentially advocated for staking out space for noncommercial television.  He wanted to force symphonies down the throats of people who would prefer to watch a western or, more charitably, to make sure that minority of symphony-lovers was never ignored.  (Minow used that example; the full text of the famous speech is here.)  Was that noble, or naïve?  PBS has practiced the Minow doctrine, with valuable results.  But I fall into the camp that prefers the thrilling highs and lows of commercial television.  For me, the excitement in watching television is not found in staid documentary specials, placed on a non-commercial pedestal.  It is the fight to save shows that are too smart for TV (like Arrested Development or Veronica Mars), the elation when one of them becomes a crossover cultural touchstone (The Sopranos), the secret pleasure when a mainstream show smuggles in subversive ideas (CSI).  I’m citing recent examples, but this tug of war has gone on since the beginning of television.  Minow had a great line.  But if television had really been a vast wasteland in 1961, we wouldn’t still be talking about it now, would we?

The Empty Envelope

March 28, 2011

UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog.  The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media.  Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management.  Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service.  You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use.  You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality.  Get lost, jerk.  Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).

So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!

Cheers,

Netflix

No, I didn’t actually receive that letter.  But I might as well have.  And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.

What am I talking about?  Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.

As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse.  Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.

As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.

How many of those films does Netflix carry?  Not one of them.

One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases.  But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.

(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance.  If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above.  Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)

Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff.  Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival.  So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.

Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department.  The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable.  The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion.  Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix.  That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.

Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them.  All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged.  And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory.  I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.

Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.

How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business?  Because of streaming video.  In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail.  “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.

Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future.  Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD.  Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases.  For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of seven seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.

But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare.  Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library.  In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.

What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards.  If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go.  But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone).  Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs.  So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.

In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given.  A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog.  But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess.  In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master.  And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.

As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them.  So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video.  Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf.  In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city.  But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.

Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies.  I’m not so sure.  I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century.  Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape.  Suddenly, no more Vestron.  I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming.  The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.

But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war.  What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard.  The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now.  Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required.  Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.

The disc will be dead on its own soon enough.  Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.

What It Was, Was Football

February 6, 2011

Superbowl, Superbowl, Superbowl … let’s see, that one’s football, isn’t it?

What I know, or care, about sports could fill a thimble, but even I understood the importance this week when the Wall Street Journal announced the discovery of a tape of the Superbowl I game that was telecast live on both NBC and CBS in 1967.  In an era when 2″ videotape was expensive and bulky, the television networks routinely reused the tapes or even tossed them out just to conserve space.  Most of the first decade of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show remains the most famous victim of this colossal short-sightedness, but the first Superbowl has always been right behind it on television’s “whoops, we maybe shoulda kept that, huh?” list.  As its curator, Ron Simon, points out in the Journal piece, the Paley Center for Media has had Superbowl I perched forlornly atop its most-wanted list since before it started calling itself the Paley Center For Media.

While I’m as delighted about this find as any sports fan, I can’t help but wonder about the real story behind this story.  Because the Journal‘s reporting raises just as many questions as it answers.

First of all, the reporters, David Roth and Jared Diamond, wait until their third-to-last graf before they mention that the Superbowl I tape is incomplete.  The half-time show and a “large chunk” of the third quarter are missing.  Since 80% of the first Superbowl is a lot more than the 0% of the first Superbowl we had until recently, maybe it’s a bit of a buzz-kill to dwell too long on that fact.  But we also can’t take Superbowl I off the missing list yet, either.  Anybody who’s been searching for the show for the last forty-three years will be searching for the missing quarter.  The “Holy Grail,” as executive Rick Bernstein calls it in the Journal, is now just a smaller and not-so-shiny grail.

The other fact that gets rather buried in the Journal article is that the tape’s owner realized its significance back in 2005 – almost six years ago.  It’s not clear exactly when the Paley Center, which “restored” the tape that had been stored in a Philadelphia attic since 1967, became involved, but evidently it was closer to 2005 than to now.  So why are we just hearing the news this week?  The opportunistic timing of the announcement to coincide with this year’s Superbowl is a little tacky.  Given the magnitude of this discovery, shouldn’t the folks at the Paley Center have felt some obligation to disclose it as soon as they knew it?

One reason behind the timing may be money, another critical issue that the Journal reporters don’t get into until the very end of their report.  At one point, Sports Illustrated estimated the value of a Superbowl I recording at $1 million.  According to a lawyer representing the tape owner (who has not been named publicly, I guess for fear of being descended on by thousands of sports fanatics), the NFL offered $30,000 for it.  If my between-line reading is correct, then the long delay, and the timing of the present announcement, stem from years of dickering between the owner of the tape and the copyright holder, neither of whom can benefit much from the Superbowl I tape without the other.  And until that stalemate is broken, no one can view the recording, apparently not even at the Paley Center.

I don’t know enough about the situation to take sides, but it does seem that someone who was smart enough to hold on to something that two entire television networks didn’t think was worth keeping deserves a decent share of whatever profits that recording might yield.

Screw, Sweetie

December 1, 2010

Last night I attended an event at the Paley Center for Media in New York City that promised to showcase a true television rarity.  As a tie-in to Stephen Battaglio’s new biography of David Susskind, the Paley Center planned to screen an unaired television pilot that Susskind produced in 1963: a videotaped adaptation of Edward Albee’s one-act play The American Dream, which was intended to launch a new anthology series called Command Performance.  Susskind hoped to adapt works by modern and avant-garde authors (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter) for the new show.  It would have been an important follow-up to the classics that Susskind staged on Play of the Week and The DuPont Show of the Month, a way of bringing that commitment to televised literature up to date at a moment when television needed as many infusions of contemporary ideas as it could get.

But, as all of the awkward tenses in the preceding paragraph suggest, very few of those things came off as planned.  Including, lamentably, last night’s screening of “The American Dream.”

After (and only after) members of the audience had bought their tickets and taken their seats, Paley Center curator David Bushman sheepishly announced that his organization had acceded to a last-minute “request” from Albee’s representatives that the Susskind program not be shown.  (The not-terribly-inspired substitution was the famous East Side / West Side episode, “Who Do You Kill?”)

The reason no one ever saw “The American Dream” back in 1963, and presumably the reason Albee still objects to it, stemmed from a colossal error of judgment and ego on Susskind’s part.  As a way of courting Albee (and, if the series sold, other important playwrights), Susskind offered him a Dramatists Guild contract for the show.  Among other things, that guaranteed Albee a right rarely afforded to television writers: full approval of any changes to his script.  During production, Susskind made some trims to Albee’s play (“several pages of dialogue and a few phrases,” according to Battaglio) which the author declined to approve.  Susskind shot the modified script anyway.  Albee watched the finished tape and refused to sign his contract.  Susskind’s show was now worthless, since he did not have the rights to the underlying material.  How could an experienced producer make such a rookie mistake?  According to associate producer Jack Willis (a guest at last night’s non-screening, which was redeemed by a lively discussion about Susskind that also featured Battaglio, actress Rosemary Harris, writer Heywood Gould, producer George C. White, and Susskind’s son Andrew), Susskind was such a consummate schmoozer that he presumed he could simply charm Albee into complying.  But Susskind was wrong.  “The American Dream” was shelved and Command Performance died an embarrassing death.

When I read this account of “The American Dream,” I felt that Albee emerged as the hero of the story.  Given an authority all too infrequently granted to writers, Albee exercised it in defense of his words.  He refused to compromise in the face of pressure from commercial interests.  The fact that the elisions made to his play may have been rather minor – a few years later, Albee expressed public approval for Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though it too made some cuts to shorten Albee’s play – only strengthens my admiration for Albee’s stubbornness.  My work as an oral historian, with its focus on oral histories with writers and directors, has turned me into a near-absolutist in the defense of artists’ rights.  Say what you will about Ayn Rand, but I’m on board with Howard Roark when he blows up those corrupted buildings.

However: 2010 is not 1963.  Susskind, when he cut Albee’s text, did so for commercial reasons, and he hoped to profit financially from “The American Dream.”  At the time, Albee’s play was relatively new.  His dismay at the idea of a large television audience being exposed to the work in an altered form was understandable.  But the Paley Center screening would have been in a historical context, not a commercial one.  The audience, unlike the television viewers of 1963, would have been made aware that Albee’s play had been altered without his approval.  Those alterations would have been fodder for a discussion among experts.  The issue of authors’ rights, in general and in the case of “The American Dream,” would have received worthwhile public scrutiny.

And after forty-seven years, “The American Dream” is not the same artifact it once was.  Then, it was a new, and arguably compromised, production of a work by a fashionable young writer.  Now, it is a rare recording of an early play by a legend of the American theater.  Botched or not, it has tremendous historical value.  It’s also a collaborative effort.  Albee, in suppressing it, buries not only his own work but the work of some gifted performers – Ruth Gordon, Celeste Holm, Sudie Bond, Ernest Truex, and George Maharis – and a talented director, David Pressman.  (All of whom Albee approved back in 1963, per the terms of that same Dramatists Guild contract.)  For Pressman, who is still alive at 97, “The American Dream” represented a comeback after ten years on the blacklist.  I cringe at having to point out the irony that, decades later, this work that Pressman finally did get to direct cannot be shown publicly, for reasons that are altogether different but no less objectionable.

It’s very difficult for an artist not to hold the high ground in an ethical dispute, but in my view, Mr. Albee has managed to cede it in this instance.   It’s an oversimplification, of course, but I’m willing to frame Albee’s 1963 showdown with Susskind as Art vs. Capitalism.  Last night, it was Art vs. History.  That’s a much tougher battle to take sides on, but here the latter trumps the former.  It’s time for Mr. Albee to consider the bigger picture.  And the Paley Center, which is an institution charged with preserving history, should have stood up to Albee and insisted on screening “The American Dream” – at its own legal peril, if necessary.

Last night, someone told me that “The American Dream” resides in the center’s permanent collection, which can be viewed by visitors in New York in Los Angeles.  I can’t find it in their online catalog, but I hope that’s true.  I’d sure like to see it someday.

The forty-third episode of Playhouse 90 aired on CBS on October 3, 1957.  It was a science fiction story called “A Sound of Different Drummers.”  It told of a totalitarian future in which books are outlawed (because they encourage people to think for themselves).  A squad of “bookmen” goes around incinerating books using mean-looking flamethrower pistols.  They torch the people who hide the books, too. 

Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job.  He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad.  He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion.  The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, Playhouse 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while.  Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits.  She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles.  They fall in love.  They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues.  They look for a way out, a permanent one.

The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well.  For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world.  I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing.  “A Sound of Different Drummers” was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.

*

“A Sound of Different Drummers” was written by Robert Alan Aurthur.  That’s the credit: read it for yourself. 

You’re thinking: But, but, but.  Yeah.  We’ll get to that.

*

Back in April 1951, suspected commie Sterling Hayden appeared in Washington and staged a public finkathon before a happy HUAC.  Six years later, someone with a diabolical mind thought of him for “Drummers.”  During the climax, Gordon is interrogated, asked to give the names of other readers.  “You mean I have a choice?” he asks.  Was “Drummers” a ritual of atonement for Hayden?  It’s fascinating to study his face during this sequence.  Not like it gives anything away: Hayden always made you guess what emotions were roiling behind that unblinking glare.

Gordon’s partner and pal Ben, an avid reader-hater who stands in for all humanity’s clueless sheep, is played by John Ireland.  For fans of fifties film noir, the idea of Ireland and Hayden sharing scenes is something akin to the famous superstar standoff between Pacino and DeNiro in Heat.  As in Michael Mann’s film, the event is anticlimactic.  Hayden and Ireland were the same kind of actor – angry and scary in ways that transcended the characters they played.  They’re a meal in which all the courses are the same.  Diana Lynn makes the better foil for Hayden.  She’s all Southern sweetness, open and genuine, and the contrast complements Hayden’s opacity.  Lynn clues us to Hayden’s subtext: she projects the sensitivity that Gordon can’t express, that he’s struggling to find beneath the layers of fascist-cop conditioning.

The director of “A Sound of Different Drummers” was John Frankenheimer.  It was a perfect match.  The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material.  Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace.  None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness.  The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out.  The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.

Frankenheimer was a madman.  “I’d never done more than six pages at a track and there I was with 127 pages and I was terrified,” said Sterling Hayden, who was making his live television debut, in a 1984 interview with Gerald Peary.  “Frankenheimer loved to move the camera so fast.  Christ, it was wild . . . . I went into one set to do a scene and there were no cameras! Then around the corner, like an old San Francisco fire truck, comes the camera on a dolly. And a guy comes along, puts up a light, and BANG, we go.

“I was so scared, but I roared through that goddamned thing.”

*

“Drummers” contains my new favorite on-air live-TV gaffe.  Sterling Hayden and Diana Lynn are making eyes at each other over a meal materialized by a Star Trek-style machine.  It’s a quiet, tender love scene.  From off-stage, there’s a loud “AHHHH-CHOO!”  Someone has sneezed into an open mike.  Hayden visibly loses his concentration, gets it back a second later, maybe blows a line in between.  The mood has been, shall we say, broken.  Up in the control room, Frankenheimer must have blown a gasket.

*

So: Fahrenheit 451.  “Firemen” instead of “bookmen” but, yeah, it’s the same story.  I had always seen “A Sound of Different Drummers” described as an adaptation (meaning, an official one) of the Ray Bradbury novel.  So when I finally saw the show and Bradbury’s name appeared nowhere in the credits, I was surprised.

Back in 1957, Bradbury had the same reaction.  He sued the shit out of CBS.

*

But first: Who was Robert Alan Aurthur?  He was perhaps the least well-known (and most misspelled) of the first wave of live television playrights.  A multi-tasker who died young (well, youngish), Aurthur was part of the Philco Playhouse gang, the group of gifted writers discovered and nurtured by Fred Coe.  Of that group, David Shaw was Aurthur’s best friend and probably the writer closest to him in sensibility.  Talented but impersonal, or rather all-purpose, Aurthur was a man of many genres and inclined to prefer adaptations over originals.  He won an Emmy for dramatizing “Darkness at Noon” for Producers Showcase, but he never found a niche like the ones that made Serling or Chayefsky or Horton Foote famous.  His best-known live TV script was “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall,” a story of union strife and interracial friendship that launched Martin Ritt as a film director (the movie version was called Edge of the City) and Sidney Poitier as a star. 

Other details: There was a brief marriage to Bea Arthur (who kept his name but spelled it wrong).  There were three plays on Broadway: they all flopped.  Aurthur scored high-profile screenwriting assignments (Warlock, Lilith).  As with all of the movies written by the live TV generation, except maybe Chayefsky, they weren’t as good as they should have been.  The Hollywood system diluted them.  Aurthur backed out of the job of writing The Magnificent Seven so that Walter Bernstein could do it and get off the blacklist.  (It didn’t quite work out that way, but that’s another story.)  A non-nonconformist, Aurthur ascended to executive jobs at Talent Associates and United Artists, a thing that Serling or Chayefsky would have spat upon.  As a VP of TV at UA, he had something to do with the creation of East Side/West Side and backed pilot scripts by Mel Brooks and Neil Simon and Woody Allen that CBS wouldn’t buy.  He became a (sympathetic) character in Only You, Dick Daring, Merle Miller’s scathing expose of a pilot undone by executive buffoonery.

After the plagiarism judgment, his path re-crossed with old compatriots from live TV.  Poitier let him direct a film, The Lost Man, and Frankenheimer hired him on Grand Prix (but had William Hanley rewrite Aurthur’s script).  Were they doing him favors or getting the better end of the deal?  After The Lost Man, there was a lost decade that I can’t find out much about (Aurthur taught at NYU for some this time), and then a final,  posthumous screen credit on a masterpiece, Bob Fosse’s All That JazzJazz has always been tagged as autobiographical for Fosse, but I’d love to know if there’s any of Aurthur’s life in it, too.

*

A book agent named Robert Kirsch blew the whistle on “A Sound of Different Drummers” even before the live broadcast went off the air.  Kirsch called Bradbury.  Bradbury watched the end of the show.  He blew his stack, right around the same time Frankenheimer blew that gasket.  He called his lawyer the next day.

Gene Beley’s Ray Bradbury Uncensored: The Unauthorized Biography! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years.  The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal.  CBS coughed up the proverbial “undisclosed sum.”  Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing Philco at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season.  Aurthur testified.  He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned Fahrenheit 451 in 1952.  But he denied having read the book itself.

Marks lobbed scorn at the idea that Aurthur had been willing to stage Fahrenheit 451 on Philco without actually reading it first.  Beley quotes Gerson Marks, in part, as follows: “Aurthur had stature in the industry, and he had to make a moral and legal choice – say nothing or expose himself to the consequences of using unauthorized intellectual work.  He made his choice on the witness stand . . . .”

My translation of Marks’s careful legalspeak: Aurthur lied under oath to save his ass.

It’s hard to imagine a time when someone could think of ripping off Ray Bradbury and getting away with it.  But “A Sound of Different Drummers” came only four years after Fahrenheit 451 was published, and before Ray Bradbury was Ray Bradbury

Michael Zagor, later a television writer himself, was working as a publicist at Universal in late 1961.  One of his assignments was to keep Ray Bradbury happy during the filming of the (non-plagiarized) Alcoa Premiere adaptation of Bradbury’s story “The Jail.”  It was less than a year after the suit was settled.  Zagor recently told me that

Ray Bradbury was such a nice man.  He said to me, “I don’t think Robert Alan Aurthur did it deliberately.  I think he just thought it up one night and thought it was his, and then wrote it.”  So he didn’t bear any visible animosity toward Robert Alan Aurthur. 

He said, “It’s an awful business to sue.  It takes a long, long time.”  But he said he had to do it. 

Though I love Fahrenheit 451, I’m less interested in Bradbury’s role in “A Sound of Different Drummers” and its aftermath than in Robert Alan Aurthur’s.  Was Aurthur a callous plagiarist or an unconscious mimic?  The latter sounds implausible, but live television moved fast, like Frankenheimer’s San Francisco firetruck camera, and I think every writer nurses a secret fear of disgorging some spontaneous nugget without realizing that it originated someplace else.  Whether he was guilty or not, or something in between, and whether he lied or told the truth on the stand, Aurthur must have been utterly humiliated by the whole affair. 

What personal and professional consequences did Aurthur suffer?  Why doesn’t he have a single film or television credit between 1969 and 1979?  Did he lose jobs and friends in the industry?  Did he feel that CBS had thrown him under the bus back in 1957?  If it’s true that Aurthur did lie: was no one else complicit in ripping off Bradbury?  Could Frankenheimer and the producer, Martin Manulis, really have staged a plagiarized version of Fahrenheit 451 without realizing it?  A Playhouse 90 show rehearsed for three weeks and employed scores, maybe hundreds of people – and none of them knew the Bradbury book?

One last thing I wonder about: Did Aurthur go to see the François Truffaut’s film when it came out in 1966?  Did he understand that his and Frankenheimer’s version of Fahrenheit 451 was better than Truffaut’s?  Did he ever dare say so?

Ray Bradbury will turn 90 on August 22.

Taboos

July 14, 2010

Update, 7/19/10: As if to underscore my point, the New York Times today has a report on an abortion-related episode of The Family Guy (yet another show I don’t watch) that both Fox and Adult Swim declined to air last year.  Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane refers to the topic as a “comedy red zone you just shouldn’t enter.”  It’s finally coming out on DVD, albeit separated from the rest of the season within which it was produced.

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Here’s an important New York Times piece, by Ginia Bellafante, about a recent abortion storyline on the (sort of) NBC drama Friday Night Lights.  Sort of, because these days Friday Night Lights airs first on DirecTV (and I don’t even know what the heck that is, exactly, except that I either can’t afford it or can’t get the landlord to install it on my roof) and only later creeps onto NBC as a summer rerun, an arrangement that may allow the show to fly under the radar a bit.  Important, because if Bellafante is right about Friday Night Lights (I’ve only seen the series’ 2006 pilot), it represents progress of a kind that I’ve been waiting impatiently for television to make.

Since most of the major taboos of the fifties and sixties are long gone, we sometimes assume that television has no more taboos.  That’s not true.  Yes, television can now depict all of the following things that it once could not, and in a variety of contexts, serious and humorous, positive and negative: violence; gore; graphic sexual talk; promiscuity; homosexuality; nudity (at least on cable); racism and other forms of discrimination; non-white characters and cultures (although stereotypes persist, and there remains a lamentable unwritten prohibition against minority leads, or all-minority casts, in certain types of shows); and all but the most colorful profanity.  And probably a lot of other once-forbidden topics that I haven’t listed.  Remember, no one could say the word “pregnant” even when Lucille Ball was visibly so, and they bleeped out “gas” anytime the gas chambers were mentioned in the Playhouse 90 production of “Judgment at Nuremburg.”

As a First Amendment absolutist, I’m all for this kind of progress, even when it doesn’t seem like progress.  Even when freedom of speech results in something like the xenophobic, torture-happy sludge of 24, there’s still a beneficial effect, because thinking people can see the ugliness in what’s being shown even if the show’s creators are indifferent.  But I wish more critics were doing the work that Bellafante has done with considerable insight, which is to point out some of the ground that we’ve lost during the same time in which it has become permissible for a “good guy” like Jack Bauer to electrocute suspects with a table lamp or slice off their fingers with a cigar cutter.

In an era where the oxymoronic phrase “liberal media” still does not provoke the guffaws it should, it’s gratifying to see the paper of record offer the blunt diagnosis that “[f]or years . . . television has consistently leaned to the right on the subject of unwanted pregnancy.”  Bellafante explains that the teenager in Friday Night Lights who decides to terminate her pregnancy is one of the first TV characters since Maude Findlay of Maude whose abortion is depicted, without much equivocation, as the right choice for her.  (That was in 1972.)  Bellafante mentions a 2008 Private Practice episode (which I also haven’t seen) that examined a woman’s decision to have an abortion “with all moral positions respectfully represented.”  I think that’s the key.  Every time I’ve seen a fictional character have an abortion, or confess to a past abortion, there seems to be an obligatory scene meant to undermine that character by implying she will be forever crippled by some vast chasm of remorse.  In the guise of objectivity, a kind of anti-feminist judgment is passed.  That’s a more insidious cultural chill on women’s reproductive rights than movies like Knocked Up or Juno (or a Sex in the City plotline cited by Bellafante which, yep, I haven’t seen either), in which a character’s decision to keep an unplanned child seems so out of character that it launches a productive debate as to the creators’ political agenda.

In an era where Roe v. Wade is in real jeopardy, I wish more of our artists would (or could, because many have probably been shut down) take the step into actual abortion rights advocacy or, at least, come up with some scripts that don’t tiptoe around the subject.  I’ve written elsewhere about an episode of The Defenders which presented a passionate plea for the legalization of abortion.  That was in 1962, and I doubt that as forceful a case for the continued legality of abortion could be made on a network series today.  I wish I could be more, er, fair and balanced, and call for the other side to make its case into compelling art too; but at the moment, I don’t think the Sarah Palins and Sharron Angles of the real world need a whole lot of help from Hollywood.  Or, perhaps, they’re getting it already: Bellafante points out that Bristol Palin managed to insert herself into The Secret Life of an American Teenager, a kids’ show that offers “didactic and soulless cheerleading for anti-abortion sentiments.”

Abortion may be the most taboo of the new taboos, but it isn’t the only one.  Sometimes I’m surprised by how much left-leaning and even anti-capitalist comment certain shows (namely The Wire) have gotten away with.  I think that’s because viewers are generally so ill-informed now that detailed political and economic talk goes over their heads, or else the censors think it will go over their heads, or else it goes over the censors’ heads.  But there is a limit: look at how much vitriol David E. Kelley attracted during the last few seasons of Boston Legal, which contained many impassioned, up-to-the-minute, name-naming tirades against specific officials and policies of the Bush Administration.  It’s true that Kelley was burned out by that point, and that some of this material took the form of lazy speechifying.  But I found it courageous, and cathartic, because Boston Legal seemed to be the only show on television willing to engage the headlines of the day.  And much of the criticism directed against Kelley seemed less interested in illuminating the dramaturgical weaknesses in his writing than in scolding him for being the guy at the dinner table who won’t shut up about politics.

It may also be impossible now for a television show to suggest that recreational drug use can be a positive, or even a neutral, component of an average person’s lifestyle.  The closest you can get is a defiant, curmudgeonly chain-smoker like Sharon Gless’s character on Burn Notice, or maybe the clownish potheads in the supporting cast of Weeds.  I’m not sure that’s a great loss, but I know a lot of intelligent people who don’t share my own anti-drug stance, and it would be nice to see a character on television who reminds me of them.

The drug issue is my favorite example of a topic where ground has been lost in terms of what you can say about it on television, and Exhibit A is another episode of The Defenders called “Fires of the Mind.”  In that show, which was made in 1965, Donald Pleasence plays a Timothy Leary-like LSD advocate who is tried for murder after one of his patients commits suicide.  What is remarkable about this show is its unwillingness to take as a given the idea that psychotropic drugs are harmful.  The father-and-son attorneys fall on either side of a generational split on LSD, with Lawrence Preston (E.G. Marshall) so disgusted that he drops out of the case and his son Kenneth (Robert Reed) curious enough to take an acid trip.  Ken is permitted to enthuse about his expanded consciousness without rebuke, and on the witness stand the LSD doctor demonstrates some of the positive effects that drugs have had on his perception and memory.

Bellafante writes that it is “not just the rise of evangelical Christianity” but also “the dramatic realignment of women’s priorities since the most active days of the feminist movement” that account for television’s current anti-abortion bias.  Indeed, but I think we can safely blame television’s equally timid and right-skewing depiction of religion on the networks’ (and cable channels’) fear of that loudmouthed evangelical minority.  Just as television is loathe to produce scripts about women who do not regret aborting their pregnancies, it is also unlikely to deliver many unrepentant, well-adjusted atheists into your living rooms.  Or even an unrepentant, well-adjusted agnostic; or a person who insists upon rationalism rather than superstition as a basic worldview; or a sympathetic character who mocks creationism.  (The only recent, partial exception I can recall is Boston Legal’s Alan Shore.)  This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s an absence that speaks volumes.  I know a great many atheists personally, so why do I see so few on television (or in public office)?

There’s a parallel here to the abortion issue: often when a character is identified clearly as a non-believer, there’s a corresponding scene suggesting that he or she is somehow empty or soulless or in need of enlightenment.  The Defenders had something to say on this subject, too, in a 1963 episode called “The Heathen,” in which a teacher is persecuted for his open atheism.  Ernest Kinoy’s teleplay for “The Heathen” equates atheism with rationalism and comes down solidly on the side of both.  “It’s so easy to demand the symbol and ignore the reality,” says the teacher (played by Gerald Hiken), in a scene meant to indict hypocrites who pledge a public allegiance to our dominant religion that does not reflect their private beliefs.  That seems more relevant now than ever, both in politics (yes, Mr. President, I am thinking of you) and on television, which couches Christian dogma in vehicles both obvious (Joan of Arcadia) and surreptitious (Battlestar Galactica).  Lost proposed its overarching narrative as a kind of dialectic between science and faith; in case anyone missed that, the writers helpfully titled one episode “Man of Science, Man of Faith.”   I always considered the show a lot less brainy than it fancied itself, but even I was a little surprised by the absence of nuance in the final act of the final episode.  Spoiler alert: Faith flattens science with a TKO.

I consider Christianity to be enormously destructive, but I grew up around many fine, principled people who were devout Christians and who insisted on crediting their faith for some of the qualities I admired in them.  I still struggle to reconcile their examples with my abstract views about Christianity, and to understand the distinction that they made (but that I cannot) between their Christianity and the anti-intellectual intolerance and hypocrisy which constitute the public face of that religion.  I wouldn’t bring that up here, except to say once again that characters who reflect any of those complexities have been mostly absent from popular television in my lifetime.  The only series I can think of that gazed upon religion or faith with an intelligent, ambivalent eye on a regular basis was Nothing Sacred, which made it through one shortened, controversial season in 1997-98.

The only contemporary drama I can think of that tries to engage with religion as a facet of its practitioners’ daily lives is HBO’s Big Love, a show that strikes me as a failure largely because   it doesn’t seem to have any of an idea of what it wants to say on that subject.  The Christians in Big Love are a rogue sect that even the Mormon church has disowned, and so the show can relish the hypocrisy and craziness of most of its characters without offending too many people.  Bill Hendrickson may drop to his knees and pray for guidance in trying times, but it doesn’t seem to occur to Big Love’s writers to try to explore why he does that and the ladies of Wisteria Lane do not.  With that piece missing, Big Love is just another sensationalist suburban melodrama, as tawdry as Desperate Housewives and a lot more leaden and self-important.

You might guess that I’d cheer on any show that equates religion with charlatanism, and gives us characters like Roman (the wily Harry Dean Stanton), a spiritual leader who’s really a despot and a crook.  But that’s the easy way out and it, like Big Love in general, gets boring in a hurry.  I wish Big Love had built itself around some substantive argument in favor of Christianity, because I honestly can’t understand why Bill Hendrickson, or anyone, falls for it, and as always I turn to art for enlightenment when I can’t find the answers in life.

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Also in the news: Matt Zoller Seitz, formerly a film reviewer for the New York Press, has penned some impressive television criticism at Salon lately, especially this detailed breakdown of a shift in Jon Stewart’s approach to the Obama Administration.  For people (like me) whose response to reality shows is to pretend they don’t exist, Seitz’s look at a crucial arc on the Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch is a reminder that the genre can on occasion approximate the form of legitimate documentary.  But I disagree with Seitz when he shrugs off the show’s cheesy, pumped-up music, arguing that “decrying it . . . would be as pointless as complaining water is wet.”  Not good enough.  If a work of art/entertainment hopes to transcend a schlock genre, then eschewing the baser conventions of that genre is precisely what it must do.  The obvious analogy is to sitcom laugh tracks: critics complained about them for decades and, finally, unlike the weather (or global warming), somebody finally did something about it.

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And lastly: This week in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten compares God to the Balladeer, the off-screen voice (actually that of Waylon Jennings) that narrated each episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s not so much a tongue-in-cheek joke as a clumsy metaphor.  In fact, the Dukes reference is such a non sequitur that I think Mr. Paumgarten may have outed himself as a fan.  The last time I remember seeing The Dukes of Hazzard cited in the pages of the New Yorker, it was when Malcolm Gladwell complained that the show (along with the likes of Dallas and Starsky & Hutch) made us all literally, scientifically, dumber.  I’m not sure how I feel about this shift but it’s an obvious testament to the durability of Dukes, which was my favorite thing in the whole world around the time I was four years old.  Where I come from, God was very big, and so was the Balladeer.

In the News II

June 22, 2010

Last hear I wrote about how Susan Gailey, a minor television ingenue of the seventies, figured unexpectedly in the Roman Polanski rape case and also in the 2008 documentary about that case, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.  Now I’ve noticed that one of last year’s major documentaries – the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar, as a matter of fact – also has a classic television connection.

If you’ve seen The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’s terrific expose of brutal Japanese dolphin fishing, then you already know what I’m talking about.  The protagonist of the film is one Ric O’Barry, a youthful sixty-something year-old whose full-time occupation is the fight against marine mammal fishing and, more broadly, against animal captivity in general.  O’Barry’s story contains a dramatic twist that’s the stuff of great drama.  When he was in his twenties, he was an animal trainer who worked on Flipper, the Florida-based, Ivan Tors-produced kids’ show about a boy and his dolphin.  In The Cove, O’Barry claims that he captured all five dolphins who played Flipper, and that he trained them while living in the dockside house that was a main Flipper location.  In 1970, one of the dolphins died in O’Barry’s arms (he describes it as a kind of suicide), and he began to rethink the ethics of keeping the mammals in captivity.

O’Barry is a controversial figure with a lot of enemies (especially in Japan) and some detractors, although I couldn’t find a well-sourced, bylined takedown of him.  Among other things, he changed his name at some point: when he worked on Flipper (and a number of other marine-related Florida movies and television shows), O’Barry was credited as Ric O’Feldman, which also sounds like a stage name.  Just who is this guy?  O’Barry may be guilty of some Hollywood-style self-mythologizing, and while his commitment to his cause seems genuine, I wish The Cove had offered a more balanced portrait of the man on whom much of its credibility hangs.  This profile adds some detail to O’Barry’s ideological transformation, placing it in the context of the hippie movement of the late sixties.  O’Barry hung around with Michael Lang and Joni Mitchell, and went to India on a journey of self-discovery after Flipper bit the dust in 1967.  When he came back, unlike a lot of hippies, he left behind his old life and set out to do some good.

Fans of caper narratives will also enjoy The Cove, because once O’Barry’s motley gang of activists plot to infiltrate the secret cove where the brutal dolphin slaughter takes place, the documentary plays out like an episode of Mission: Impossible.  (There’s even a dossier scene, almost.)  I’m not the world’s biggest lover of critters, but I defy anyone to see this film and not be sickened by the cruel and (because dolphin meat is too mercury-laced to eat) pointless slaughter of these beautiful, intelligent animals.

My only complaint about The Cove is the same one I lodged about Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired: that excerpts from older 4:3 material, like the Flipper series, have been cropped to matched the 16:9 aspect ratio of the new footage.  There is absolutely no reason not to pillarbox these clips so that they appear intact within the frame, and film buffs should continue to complain loudly about this practice until documentarians discontinue it.  Butchering Flipper is not acceptable, and neither is butchering Flipper.

Animal trainer Ric O’Barry (center, in the red trunks), then billed as Ric O’Feldman, also played on-screen bits in various Flipper episodes.

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