April 18, 2013
Lately I’ve been sleeping with bad boys.
Whoops, I mean I’ve been reading Sleeping with Bad Boys (Book Republic, 2006), novelist and Playboy centerfold model Alice Denham’s memoir of the fifties and sixties literary scene in New York. She crossed paths with most of the major American writers during that period and, as the title implies, bedded many of them. And even though she dishes on dick size now and then, the book is more of a literary memoir than a boudoir tell-all. Denham’s frankness about her drive to succeed as a novelist, and to be recognized as an equal by her male peers, is an appealing story, and she sketches a detailed, fascinating portrait of the boozy, thuddingly sexist Manhattan of the immediate pre-Mad Men era.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about this here, it’s because inevitably Denham also met (and, yes, bedded) a lot of people who were active in television in the fifties. The scenes overlapped; the literary crowd, including Denham, could make a quick buck in television (or on it, in Denham’s case, since she was cute enough to get hired for TV ads). Denham describes brief encounters with sometime TV scribes like Gore Vidal, Vance Bourjaily, and Barnaby Conrad. She had an intimate friendship with James Dean during his live TV days, and grew up (in Washington, D.C.) with Dean’s friend Christine White, an actress who played leads on The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents but disappeared by the mid-sixties. (Denham writes that White became a “Jesus freak,” recruiting converts on street corners). Denham dated Ralph Meeker for a while, and Gary Crosby – one of Bing’s balding, no-talent actor sons – once offered her a hundred bucks for sex. (Did she accept? Read the book.)
One of Denham’s most interesting brushes with television came just before the quiz show scandals. She knew Steve Carlin, the producer of The $64,000 Challenge, and Carlin hired her for a “test” broadcast of the show. Because it wasn’t “real,” Carlin told her which question to lose on, even though she knew the answer, and Denham did as she was told. Only after the scandals broke did she realize that Carlin probably did that with everyone. That’s an especially duplicitous method for rigging the shows that I hadn’t heard of before.
Finally there’s Gardner McKay, another of Denham’s fifties boyfriends. I knew that McKay left Hollywood to become a painter, but I’d always imagined him dabbing away at godawful still lifes on a beach somewhere. In fact, Denham’s sketch of the six-foot-five dreamboat portrays him as a serious artist, struggling to express himself as she was, and venturing reluctantly into acting out of the same economic necessity that compelled her to shuck her clothes. Maybe that’s why I always found McKay so fascinating on Adventures in Paradise. Beneath his woodenness, there was an aloof quality, a hardcore indifference that made him just right to play a footloose, beachcombing adventurer, unfazed by any of the trouble he encountered on the seas and in sketchy ports. Those other stiffs, the Robert Conrads and the Troy Donahues, were trying too hard. McKay, as they always used to say of Robert Mitchum, really didn’t give a damn.
Anne Francis was a more prominent and more ambiguous sex symbol than Denham, a creature unique to the fifties-sixties celluloid realm in which screen goddesses were either lushly available (Kim Novak) or coyly off-limits (Doris Day). More than anyone else, Francis mashed up both into a confusing package: she had Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark, adorning a bobbysoxer’s cute, dimpled smile. She was eminently feminine but, like the equally fascinating Beverly Garland, also a pants-wearing ass-kicker. Francis had her career-defining role in an action hero role that broke down gender barriers. Honey West was a terrible show, a condescending and brain-dead dud that producer Aaron Spelling dumbed down from a sparkling Link & Levinson premise. And yet so many of us bend over backwards to pretend that Honey West doesn’t suck, and that’s entirely because of Francis. She played the blithe, lithe private eye so confidently, so deliciously, that in our heads it morphs from cartoonish junk that pitted poor Honey against Robin Hood and guys in gorilla suits into a sophisticated show about a heroine who vanquishes serious bad guys (and sleeps with bad boys).
Francis was never quite an A-list star but she remains universally adored by movie and TV buffs, an object of desire for the men and of empowerment for women. That puts her in the category of performers who warrant book-length treatment, but only – and so often to their detriment – by semi-professional authors working for semi-professional trade presses like McFarland or Bear Manor Media. Francis’s turn came two years ago in a book by Laura Wagner.
Something of a minor cult figure herself, Laura Wagner has a loyal circle on Facebook, where she writes a de facto blog profiling Golden Age movie actors (many of them tantalizingly obscure). These “birthday salutes” are pithy, well-researched, and often enriched with revealing quotes from widows and children. But sometimes the real attraction seems to be the cathartic scorn that Wagner (who also writes for Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age) heaps upon readers who leave comments or ask questions without actually reading her articles. (You’d think people would stop making that mistake after a while, but they don’t.)
So I was disappointed to find that Wagner’s Anne Francis: The Life and Career (McFarland, 2011) has little of the energy or the inquisitive rigor of her short-form work. It’s a dutiful, conservative, and surprisingly incurious account of Francis’s eighty years, one that gathers enough facts to intrigue readers but ultimately fails to suss out whatever inner life fueled Francis’s ineffably perky-sexy screen personality. Francis had two early, failed marriages, one to a troubled filmmaker-poseur named Bamlet Price, the other to a Beverly Hills dentist; and she had two children, one by the dentist and the other adopted when she was forty. She was a single mother of two daughters when it was still uncommon (her adoption was one of the first granted to an unmarried woman by a California court), and also a flaky enlightenment-seeker of a uniquely SoCal stripe; there were associations with obscure metaphysical churches, forays into motivational speaking, and even a barely-published autobiography called Voices From Home: An Inner Journey.
But we learn little about any of that, or any deeper or darker stories in Francis’s life, apart from what was reported in the personality columns. Wagner rounds up hundreds of generic Francis quotes from impersonal newspaper interviews, and some livelier and slightly more introspective lines from the chatty and now sadly defunct website that Francis maintained in the early 2000s (an archive of which would probably have more value than this book). Here and there, the batting about of quotes works. If you’ve ever wondered why Francis has such a nothing part in William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Wagner stitches together a plausible explanation, and untangles the minor controversy of what complaints Francis did or did not lodge publicly against her co-star Barbra Streisand. But much of the book is perversely dry. Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen gives a somewhat juicier peek at Francis’s romantic life, citing flings with Buddy Bregman, actor Liam Sullivan, and director Herman Hoffman, all of which remain uninvestigated by Wagner. And Tom Weaver, a more incisive historian who knew Francis well and who should have written this book, has published anecdotes that portray her as youthful and down-to-earth:
My favorite day with her: Riding around Westchester County (NY) with her and my brother: Going to Ossining (where she was born), showing her Sing Sing (the Francis family physician was unavailable, so she was delivered by the Sing Sing doctor), finding her childhood home in Peekskill, going to some cemetery and finding the grave of her mother (or father? I forget), etc.
Then a whole bunch of us (two cars worth) got together at some steak house in Irvington for lunch. On the highway afterwards, I realized I’d brought along a couple VHS tapes to give to a buddy (a guy who’d been at the lunch), and forgotten. But my brother pointed ahead on the road and said, “Well, there’s his car.” Anne (riding shotgun) said, “Give me the tapes!” We got up to about 75 or 80 MPH to catch up with the other car, and she kinda got up and stuck her head and shoulders out the window and, at 75 or 80 MPH, she handed the tapes to the driver of the other car.
Why aren’t those stories in the book? Instead Wagner contents herself by weighing in on just about every Francis performance, which she does in two separate, consecutive slogs through the actress’s CV: a biographical narrative with a heavy emphasis on the work over the personal life, and then an arguably redundant annotated filmography (which comprises almost half of the book’s 257 pages). This tack does permit Wagner to highlight some overlooked performances and dig up some obscure odds and ends that any Francis cultist will covet. For instance, there’s Survival, the essentially unreleased experimental debut film (filmed in 1969, unfinished until 1976) by director Michael Campus (The Mack), which was written by the great John D.F. Black and seems to be unfindable today. There’s Gemini Rising, the only thing Francis directed, a short film set at a rodeo; Francis was a buff, and it’s unsurprising that she was at home in such an incongruously masculine environment. Then there was the unsold pilot for a syndicated proto-reality series in which Anne would have fixed up things around the house each week (“plumbing, carpentry, and electricity”!). Anne Francis, plunging a toilet: I would have watched that show.
Unfortunately, Wagner’s filmography double-tap also draws out a lot of self-indulgent stabs at criticism that are dubiously relevant and mostly devoid of insight. Here’s one of the strangest misreadings of The Fugitive that I’ve ever run across:
Week after week, Kimble would travel around, befriending strangers, all of whom were supposed to sense his innate goodness and innocence and allow him to move on to the next town to resume his search. The problem with this is quite apparent herein. Janssen played Kimble as brooding, mumbling, never making eye contact, always giving evasive answers. There was nothing attractive or honest about him.
And a review of an Alfred Hitchcock Hour that might have been written for a junior high school newspaper:
Anne gives a sympathetic showing here as a woman dissatisfied with her life and feeling trapped by her loveless marriage, turning to booze and boys to fill the void. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
The suspense is palpable in this episode, but it is almost ruined by Rhodes’ one-note performance and Strauss’ wildly fluctuating one. Physically the darkly gorgeous Rhodes, who was dating Anne at the time, is perfect for the part, and he is convincing in their love scenes, but someone should have coached him on his lines. Ah, the beautiful but the dumb…
Strauss is supposed to be childlike, overly possessive, and just a complete fool. Yet, Strauss’ leer and ominous intonations just about give the twist away. And what can you say about the supposedly unsettling twist ending? Sorry, but I laughed.
Meanwhile, Francis’s four-year battle with lung cancer and her death in 2011 are covered in exactly one paragraph.
The tragically missed opportunity here, of course, is that Wagner chose not to talk to any of the dozens of co-workers or relatives who might have offered a peek at the real Anne Francis. (There’s one odd and somehow appropriately irrelevant exception: novelist Gloria Fickling, the co-creator of Honey West, who had little to do with the television series). Francis’s Forbidden Planet co-stars (at least four of whom outlived her) and John Ericson, her Honey West leading man, are particularly important sources who go unqueried. The reasons behind Francis’s firing from Riptide are not explored, even though Jo Swerling, the producer cited as having given the pink-slip to her agent, is still around. And what about Rhodes – still living and working in Vancouver – or some of the other men Francis dated during the second half of her life? Francis’s daughters are not hard to find and, amazingly, Dr. Robert Abeloff still lives and practices in Beverly Hills. How could Wagner resist asking how a dentist seduced one of the most desirable movie stars of her generation?
Wagner does not make a case for her hands-off approach in her introduction but, whatever her reasoning, I think it’s a terrible mistake. I once complained that one of Martin Grams’s encyclopedic tomes wasn’t a book, it was a file cabinet. Less ambitious, equally flawed, Anne Francis: The Life and Career isn’t a biography; it’s just a clipping file.
April 12, 2013
Best remembered for his existential chase movie Vanishing Point (1971), Richard C. Sarafian remains one of the neglected figures of the New Hollywood era. Before he moved wholly into feature filmmaking in the late sixties, Sarafian spent eight years on the A-list of episodic television directors, starting with a brief stint at Warner Bros. A veteran of industrial filmmaking in the Midwest, Sarafian was thirty when he went to Los Angeles and directed his first television episode. He rotated through almost all of the Westerns and private eye shows that were the studio’s mainstay, but concentrated on Lawman, a half-hour horse opera starring John Russell and Peter Brown that still has a small cult following today. During his third year at Warners, The Gallant Men joined the studio’s roster; Sarafian directed nine of the twenty-six episodes. In a telephone interview last month, Sarafian shared his memories of working on the short-lived World War II drama.
How did you land on The Gallant Men?
I got a contract after having directed one episode of a Western called Bronco. They appreciated the fact that I was a first-time director and did well, and signed me to a seven-year contract. So I was a contract director at Warner Bros. at the time, and I did maybe sixty or seventy Westerns. Somewhere in the mix was The Gallant Men.
The pilot was directed by Robert Altman. I’m his brother-in-law, but that had nothing to do with it. I was just a good director. I mean, I considered myself a pretty hot TV director, and the network, ABC, really liked my work. And while I was doing Gallant Men, Robert Altman jumped onto Combat. Basically, I was in competition – it was unwritten, between Robert Altman and myself.
Who do you remember among the cast of The Gallant Men?
Richard Slattery was one. He was a hard-drinking Irishman. Bill Reynolds, he in every way I think fit the character in his personal life as well as in his role within the series. Robert McQueeney had the texture of someone that would fit that role. I can remember his face a little bit, in that he had acne.
What about Eddie Fontaine?
Eddie Fontaine fit the character, and he could sing. After work there was a place nearby where he would go and sing. He had a pretty good voice. But he was definitely “street,” and Italian, and had natural charm.
And Robert Ridgely?
Yeah …. He was a sycophant. He had his nose so far up Robert Altman’s ass that it was bleeding. So, naturally, after he did the pilot with Bob Altman, he remained loyal to him. None of that really meant anything to me, nor was I aware of – I knew that they maintained a relationship, and it wasn’t until [years later when] my sons were at a party where he was trying to undermine me to Bob, and because my children were there, Bob took offense at that and didn’t want to hear it and came and spent most of the time with my kids. Ridgely was a toady.
Did you have trouble working with him during the production of The Gallant Men though?
I never had trouble with anybody. Nobody ever gave me a hard time. I was too strong a director to be countermanded. I had earned the respect of all of them, because I credit myself as – I liked actors, and later on I acted myself, and I probably should have done it earlier on. But I was sensitive to their fears, their insecurities.
The Office of Army Information sent someone from the Pentagon to be an advisor, and I told my cast, I says, “Tell this guy that I was a Medal of Honor winner, that I killed thirty-four North Koreans with an entrenching tool after I lost my bayonet.” We were going to meet him in a local joint where we all gathered after a shoot. So he came down and I was introduced and he stood up erect and saluted me. Anyhow, he would put his hand over the lens if he didn’t think that the moment I was shooting was in the army rule book. Well, I stopped that very quickly. How dare he, you know, censor my work! That’s something you don’t do during a shoot. If you have the power, you might do it later, but not when I’m working.
Richard X. Slattery in “Signals For an End Run.”
Essentially you alternated episodes on The Gallant Men with another director, Charles Rondeau. What can you tell me about him?
He was a colorful, very competent director. He loved cars. I would see him with a new one every two or three months. Once I was sitting with him at a local bar where we went after work, and he said to me, “What is ‘debriss’?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said “Every time I read a script, it says, “The streets are covered with debriss.” I said, “Charlie. Debris! It means trash and broken buildings.”
Anyhow, Charlie was fun to be around, and actors felt comfortable with him. Charlie was a good director. He knew where to put the camera, and when to say cut. You had to know when you got it – when it was done, and you were able to yell out, “All right, let’s move the camera. That’s it. Print it.” He and I alternated, and competed in a way. I mean, we had no way of choosing the scripts. They were just handed to us.
In what way did the two of you compete?
I always wanted my shows to be the best, in terms of style and performance. But the cast carried it through. It was an interesting ensemble of people. One of the major contributors creatively was Bill D’Angelo. I think he helped orchestrated the quality of the scripts. He, and his superior was somebody by the name of Richard Bluel.
Bluel was the producer of The Gallant Men.
Bluel was the producer, but the real producer in terms of casting, and who had his thumb on the quality of the shows, was Bill D’Angelo.
That’s interesting, because William P. D’Angelo (later of Batman) wasn’t credited at all, except with a story credit on one episode.
He may have written some of them, but why he wasn’t credited was just the way things go. I don’t think he ever cared. But he was there, working with Richard Bluel, as his sort of sidekick and confidante and creative ally.
Were they good producers?
They were fun to be around. I liked anybody who liked me! That was the main qualification: if they liked me, they appreciated me, and they didn’t lean on me too hard, and I had gained their trust, that’s all I cared about.
There was always the pressure of not only making a good show, but bringing it in within the parameters of the amount of time and money. I remember asking Charlie Greenwell, the head of production at that time, “Charlie, if we took out all the special effects, if we took out all the extras, if we distilled the show down to its barest minimum, how much would it cost?” Because they complained that the budgets were too high.
He said, “$92,000 per episode.”
I said, “Well, strip it. Strip it of all the whipped cream.” Strip it of all the special effects, the construction, and whatever else goes into creating an episode. The basic cost would be $92,000. You couldn’t bring it in for any less than that. [Variety reported the show’s budget as $114,000 per episode – incidentally, $6,000 more than Combat, which arguably looked like the more expensive show.]
So I enjoyed the series, the cast, the production people, Hugh Benson, who worked as the associate with William Orr, who was the head of television production. Bill D’Angelo, I think, was my main ally and fan, and really appreciated my work. I was able to work on the show with the security of knowing that I was appreciated. I could pretty much resculpt the scripts if I felt there was the opportunity for further improvement.
Do you remember your directors of photography, Jack Marquette and Carl Guthrie?
Carl Guthrie sat in a chair and was able to instruct his electricians by hand motions. Never got up out of his chair. Never took out a meter. He was an old-timer.
How would you describe your visual style, early on, when you were doing the Warner Bros. shows?
Well … adding pace. I learned early on that I was a pretty good editor. When I was an embryo director, I was sitting in a bar, and there was a guy sitting next to me who had drank too much. His name was Bill Lyon. We got to talking. I told him I was a director and he said, “Oh, shit.” He said, “Let me give you a bit of advice, kid. When you cover a scene, move the camera. Move it a little bit. Change the angle.” That was, of course, good advice. And he said, “Second, let me tell you. Every time you make a cut, there’s got to be twelve reasons for making a cut. Either in terms of story, or nuance, or motion. But there should be more than just one reason, not just arbitrarily make the cut.” And this was advice given to me by an Academy Award winning editor [for From Here to Eternity and Picnic].
And one of my closest friends was Floyd Crosby. Floyd, early on in his career [shot] films for Murnau and was a cinematographer on a film called Tabu, and had worked also with Flaherty, the documentarian. He was the cinematographer on High Noon. I was able to get him to come to Kansas City and he guided me through my first effort in directing a movie that I wrote [Terror at Black Falls]. Floyd was my mentor and became like a father figure to me, guiding me if I had questions. The one main [piece of] advice, and the one thing that he hated was for me to shoot into the sun and flare the lens. Later on that seemed to be okay, and was a technique that some directors [used].
But everything had its own needs. What I liked to do was rehearse and then allow the actors to have a lot of leeway, and not have them worry about hitting their marks. I never restricted the actors to meeting chalk marks. So I gave my actors a lot of freedom, and I also was pretty adept at improvisation.
Did you have that luxury to rehearse even on the early Warner Bros. shows?
Yeah, pretty much, but not to the extent that I did later. Within every moment there’s an improvisational opportunity that comes up. I think back on Gallant Men when I didn’t take the advice of Richard Slattery, who had a thing that he wanted to do, and I said no. This was a moment where they were in some sort of tight situation with the Germans, and he ended up with the hat of one of the German officers, and as they marched away for the final moment, he says, “Can I throw the hat away?” And I said no. And to this day, I regret the fact that I didn’t allow him to do that, to let him throw the hat away and while it was still kind of shaking or wobbling on the dirt road, with the troops moving off into the distance, that the final moment was on the German hat. I mean, maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but it was a touch that I think would have been a much better denouement.
I remember the show and how much hard work I devoted to it to give it reality. I remember trying to get a child to cry, that Eddie Fontaine was holding in his arms, and telling the child not to cry, but to laugh. That was able to produce tears, because it unlocked him. That’s how I got lucky, in terms of finding the key to getting the emotion out of the child.
Eddie Fontaine and guest star Anna Bruno-Lena in “Retreat to Concord.”
Where was the show filmed?
It was all shot on the backlot. Some of them were shot in Thousand Oaks. We did some battle sequences there, where we needed more terrain. But as far as the “debriss,” all the debriss was on the backlot. There was one formation of rocks, part of it was called the B-52 rocks, and we were able to – we had a pretty good art director, I think his name was William Campbell – and he was able to create the illusion of being somewhere in the streets or in the trenches during that moment in history.
Were you able to get into the editing room?
There was nothing that could stop me! One of the editors that I remember was Stefan Arnsten. He had lost one leg in the Second World War. But I didn’t have the time, really, to spend as much time as I would [have liked with the editors]. You pretty much finished the show and jumped right on to another. You would look at the first cut, give some suggestions, and that’s it. But so much of the editing is driven by the way you shoot a scene and how it’s covered. It’s not like I gave the editor a lot of choices. You pretty much were locked in to my style.
Did you like The Gallant Men? Was it a good show?
Pretty much. Did I like it? Of course. I don’t see how I can say I didn’t like it. I thought that the show was pretty well-crafted, based on bringing reality to that period in time, in terms of the sets, the locations, and the details that we were able to bring to each episode. But in my early career, early on, I was scared to death most of the time. Not to the extreme that I just described, but scared that I could not deliver both quantitatively and qualitatively the show that I had envisioned. And bring life to the words.
So who won that rivalry with Altman?
I had to respect his style of shooting, and his cast. Vic Morrow was a friend of mine. Altman brought his gift to Combat, and I couldn’t compete with that. Altman knew how to shoot. Altman could should them himself – he could get behind that camera, and he could get into the editing room, and he had a free style of shooting. He was able to get the respect, the attention of all of his cast. So he did a hell of a good job. It was just two different types of shows. I think that Altman’s shows were better, more realistic, with a better cast.
And when The Gallant Men was cancelled after just one season, were you unhappy?
What I was unhappy [about] was that the whole studio was cancelled! It wasn’t just my show. It was The Roaring 20s, it was the Westerns. I had my ham hand in all of them. Jack Webb came in, and he was the broom. It was his job to cancel those shows. ABC was very unhappy with what Warner Bros. was doing. They had about eight to ten shows on the air but ABC didn’t like the quality, I guess, as a result of which the licensing fee for all of these shows was cancelled, and Jack Webb came in and took over. I was the last director to be fired. I was the last person under contract. I never had any physical contact with Jack Webb – never one word. Was I sad? Yeah, because it was work. Listen, I had three kids, then five, and I had to bring home the bacon. That was my home for so many years. It was my genesis. But as soon as I was let go, I went on to do Ben Casey and Kildare and Slattery’s People and some of the other episodic shows. I was in demand. Mainly because the networks felt, I think, from [what I heard], that my contribution as a director was a touch more than the others’, in terms of style and quality.
Another Sarafian composition from “Signals For an End Run,” with guest star Mala Powers at left.
April 2, 2013
Mud as a unit of measurement for a war movie’s authenticity: It’s a stand-in for blood, at least in shows made before actual gore became a possibility, and also a signal that the performers and the filmmakers were committed to putting themselves through at least a fraction of the hardships that actual soldiers endured. The Gallant Men, a World War II drama that ran on ABC during the 1962-1963 season, has mud in ample measure.
In particular, there’s a tactile set piece near the beginning of the pilot, where the hero, a somewhat overwhelmed journalist (Robert McQueeney), tromps through a foot of goopy muck to hitch a ride with the truckload of G.I.s that he’ll end up sticking with for the remainder of the series. The boxy compositions in this sequence, probably dictated by the constraints of the location (Los Angeles, remember, is a desert, and another reason that mud measured a film company’s commitment was the tempting expendability of a water truck as a line item on the budget), are defined with an appealing clarity: a tree-lined ridge on the left, a ditch on the right, a hill rising toward the background.
Robert Altman directed this hour, and like most of his early television work, it’s filled with the kind of details that make it stand out from more generic gung-ho action shows. The pilot – which has no on-screen episode title; some sources refer to it as “Battle Zone,” but that was more likely an early title for the series – is a platoon narrative, formulaic in its scenario and characters. But it has an unusually specific chronological-geographical progression, beginning with the soldiers’ amphibious landing at Salerno and then following them toward and through the battle of San Pietro. That particular conflict had already been immortalized in a famous film, John Huston’s startlingly frank documentary The Battle of San Pietro. And since the pilot (more than the subsequent series) shows us the war through the eyes of a hardened war correspondent, The Gallant Men also calls to mind The Story of G. I. Joe, William Wellman’s film about Ernie Pyle (a template for McQueeney’s character, Conley Wright). I’ll bet Altman was aware of those imposing cinematic touchstones, both of which privilege the dogface’s point of view over the rear echelon officer’s. (There are, in other words, no scenes of generals pushing toy tanks around on maps.) If the Gallant Men pilot never reaches the heights of its big-screen antecedents, it’s still a respectable entry in the genre, more interested in ideas and ambiguities than violence and spectacle.
There are several subplots, but the main narrative line in Halsted Welles’s script (adapted from a magazine story by James Merriam Moore) concerns Jake Miller, a member of the platoon with a secret. Conley recognizes Miller (William Windom) and gradually figures out that he’s actually an officer, a disgraced major who turned tail under pressure and is now hiding out under a dead enlisted man’s name. Miller beseeches Conley not to write about him, but Conley is noncommittal; he doesn’t think Miller is helping himself by ducking his past.
Working mainly through performance, Altman reduces this farfetched conflict to a series of crystalline emotional beats. A sort of second-rate Barry Sullivan, McQueeney was not a versatile actor, but he had a craggy, pock-marked, high-cheekboned visage, and a gravelly voice – all of which Altman knew how to align as a sort of stolid wall for Windom to bounce off of. And Windom has never been better than he is here. Windom was an actor who could go very big, and his most indelible roles had him doing that, quite literally clawing at the scenery both in his Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) and as the mad starship captain in Star Trek’s “The Doomsday Machine.” But Windom knew how to work at the opposite end of the scale, too, and his Gallant Men performance is entirely free of histrionics. He could have played his confrontation scene with Conley as abject, pathetic, but instead he’s matter-of-fact, laying out his case like a soft-selling salesman, with just a strain of desperation creeping in to let us know how desperate he is. Windom (and Altman) make it clear that Miller, coward or no, is hardened in a way that the other characters are not. They give the man dignity, which is the only reason that his rather contrived plight becomes moving.
A fairly complex psychological dynamic comes into focus in the second half, when the platoon’s new leader, Captain Benedict (William Reynolds), appears. Benedict is young, new to command, and unsure of himself. Again, there’s an avoidance of hysterics –Benedict knows that he’s green and scared, and he’s smart enough to be open to whatever help he can collect – and once again Altman teases out a limited actor’s most usable traits. In this case, Reynolds’s narrow range of expression approximates Benedict’s uncertainty; he plays the character as an alert but tentative man who’s afraid to commit or even express himself, for fear of revealing himself as unfit. Reynolds’s eyes flit around, looking for cover.
Of course, the obvious trajectory here is for Miller to step up and rescue the platoon by revealing his own fitness for command. The conclusion plays out as a fairly predictable ritual of bravery and sacrifice, but the situation is complicated by two factors: the fact that Benedict, the weak and potentially unsympathetic character, will remain with the show while Miller will not; and Altman’s utter disinterest in convention. Altman presents Miller’s hidden past not as a secret weapon, there to tidy up the plot, but as an existential tragedy. He has the skills and the knowledge to lead, but not the temperament. He can offer tactical advice that may save this day, but as soon as the burden of men’s lives falls upon Miller’s soldiers, he will crumble. Miller can’t take the pressure of command; Benedict can, but he hasn’t the experience to succeed. Each of them is half a man and Altman, I think, wanted to underline this idea that two halves don’t make a whole – that our limitations define us as much as or more than our good qualities – even though a fairly subtle change in emphasis could have turned this into a triumphal story of redemption and victory through teamwork.
The avoidance of emotional resolution in Miller’s arc extends into an evasion of narrative resolution elsewhere – a harbinger of Altman’s feature work. In the end, Conley allows his friend to be buried under his assumed identity, seemingly in keeping with his wishes. But unpack that uneasy moment: it means that the heroism of Jake Miller’s final hours will never balance the scales against the cowardice that closed the file on Major Robert Clinton. My favorite scene in the pilot is a brief touch of surrealism: suddenly the grunts’ jaws drop as a beautiful young woman (Sharon Hugueny) suddenly appears out of nowhere, running across the battlefield toward them, an oasis of beauty amid a landscape of destruction. Eventually there’s some exposition to explain this – somehow she knows the platoon’s resident ladies’ man, Private D’Angelo – but Altman cares so little about the literal explanation that the point remains muddled. (The suggestion is that D’Angelo has been carrying on with the girl while scavenging in San Pietro, but in Hugueny’s scene it appears that the platoon is coming upon the town for the first time.) After San Pietro has been taken, D’Angelo searches the rubble, calling out the girl’s name. Altman pans down to the cross that D’Angelo gave to Rosa in the earlier scene, concealed under a pile of concrete. D’Angelo does not see it. Miller’s identity remained a secret between Miller, Conley, and the audience; Rosa’s fate is an even more privileged moment, a bit of grim news that Altman shares only with us.
This kind of untied loose end could not survive in a weekly series in 1962 – nor, as it turned out, could any of the pilot’s other welcome ambiguities, or even the key players behind the camera. Halsted Welles – a skilled adapter of prose source material, with episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery and the classic Western 3:10 to Yuma among his credits – did not write for the show again. Altman left The Gallant Men to write, direct, and eventually produce a very similar series for ABC. Combat became a big hit, and Altman did some of his best early work there – biting anti-heroic, anti-war stories that expanded in triplicate upon the best ideas in his Gallant Men pilot, and got him fired before the end of the first season.
Meanwhile, working with lesser writers, the series’ journeyman producer, Richard Bluel, smoothed The Gallant Men out into a more standard-issue combat melodrama. (Something similar would happen to Combat after Altman left that show, too.) The greatest loss was the concept of Captain Benedict as an untested novice. In the pilot, he receives counsel not only from Miller, but from Conley Wright, who is even further outside the chain of command. He comes off as so inexperienced that he’s almost a danger to his men. War narratives about indecisive battlefield Hamlets who lead their men into disaster had already been done in the movies (see Robert Aldrich’s astoundingly pessimistic Attack!), but the suggestion that a platoon leader might be unfit for command would not fly in a weekly series. Captain Benedict became a steely, square-jawed hero, and Reynolds’s comforting blandness lost its intriguing subtext of mediocrity. In a less obvious way, Conley Wright’s identity as a war correspondent was also minimized. Although it was used as a plot device on occasion, the idea of his typewriter as his “weapon” (as he puts it in the first scene of the pilot), and the dynamic of Conley as an outsider, with an agenda distinct from that of the soldiers, was lost. In most episodes, Conley is simply the member of the squad who doesn’t happen to carry a gun.
Like many Warner Bros. shows of this era (as well as Combat), The Gallant Men was structured to split its focus between dual leading men, both to reduce the actors’ workload and to multiply the possibility of a launching a breakout heartthrob. But McQueeney and Reynolds (above) were so dull that the supporting cast carried the series to an unprecedented degree. Robert Ridgely, playing the tough-as-nails second-in-command, Lt. Kimbro, was probably always meant to dominate some episodes; it’s Kimbro who gets the booby prize of the obligatory psychosomatic blindness storyline, “Lesson For a Lover.” (Ridgely became a prominent character actor specializing in pompous suits and weasels – he’s perhaps best remembered for his films with Mel Brooks or his last role, as a pederast porn king in Boogie Nights – and it’s very difficult to reconcile that image with his stone-faced, deep-voiced performance here.) But jut-jawed Richard X. Slattery, as the platoon sergeant, and boxer Roland LaStarza, as comic relief hustler Lucavich, are occasionally front-and-center, and singer Eddie Fontaine (below, holding money), as the charismatic everyman D’Angelo, ends up almost an equal to the series’ putative leads.
Combat had a similar character, Private Kirby (Jack Hogan), who performed a similar function. Kirby got a bump in screen time any time the writers needed a character to do something unprofessional or unheroic, which was verboten for the static-heroic lieutenant and sergeant played by Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. But Hogan’s appealing, squirrelly trickster figured never shunted that show’s leading men completely to the side in the way that D’Angelo does in The Gallant Men. This was partly because D’Angelo spoke Italian, and was therefore essential to any storyline involving the locals, but mostly because Fontaine was the only cast member with any charisma. (Coincidentally, or not, his desultory career as a supporting player ended in 1984, when Fontaine was charged with trying to hire a hit man to kill his wife.)
“Advance and Be Recognized,” the only really interesting episode I’ve found other than the pilot, is a D’Angelo vehicle, in which he falls for a local girl who is quite clearly identified as a prostitute, censors be damned. A long, atmospheric sequence in a little cafe where the soldiers flirt with the Italian girls examines the G.I.s’ relative comfort level with women, and records the knowing looks of the town pimp, with an unusual empathy and eye for detail. As is often the case with failed TV shows, there are little crumbs that show you what might have been had the series reached its potential; this is one. “Advance and Be Recognized” was written by George and James O’Hanlon (yes, George Jetson and his brother), and directed by the twenty-five year-old Robert Totten, who is best remembered for a run of late-sixties Gunsmokes that I’m told are very good.
One pedantic game for bored TV historians might consist of attempting meaningful distinctions between The Gallant Men and Combat – two nearly identical programs that debuted simultaneously, a network television phenomenon that’s more common than it ought to be. (Think of the doctor doppelgangers – Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, Medical Center and Marcus Welby, ER and Chicago Hope – that all debuted in the same season, or the trifecta of alien invasion shows – Surface, Invasion, and Threshold – that canceled each other out in 2005.) Combat takes place in occupied France; The Gallant Men in Italy. The geography varies: The Gallant Men roamed the scrubby hills of the western San Fernando Valley, more often a home to plains Westerns like Rawhide, while Combat was shot in the more verdant Franklin Canyon, on the other side of the hill.
In general, Combat was more of a director’s show, initially thanks to the exuberant imaginations of Robert Altman and the first season producer, who alternated with him Burt Kennedy. (After the first season, replacement producer Gene Levitt kept the scripts toothless but allowed a handful of gonzo visual stylists, especially Sutton Roley and John Peyser, to execute some astounding action sequences.) Historians tend to identify Altman’s primary stylistic fingerprint upon Combat as the show’s restless camerawork, but that’s a lazy bit of shorthand that’s debatable on both ends. Combat’s documentary-inspired handheld camera doesn’t resemble the slow track-and-zoom aesthetic of Altman’s seventies films very closely; also, Combat’s cinematographer, the great Robert Hauser, took his signature shoulder-mounted long-takes with him to his next assignment, Peyton Place, thereby muddying the auteurist claims for Altman. In The Gallant Men’s pilot, the action sequences are surprisingly perfunctory, laced with stock footage and composed without a lot of variety or movement. Altman excels elsewhere, in the still moments and in particular with the performances; indeed, his most permanent contribution to The Gallant Men was getting regular or semi-regular roles for a few members of his early stock company, chiefly Ridgely and Robert Fortier.
If The Gallant Men had a “look,” it originated with Richard C. Sarafian, a young Turk who directed nine episodes (chiefly in rotation with Charles R. Rondeau, who did eleven). In contrast to the handheld, newsreel-influenced look of Combat, Sarafian favored forceful tracking and crane shots. Although restricted somewhat by budgets and schedules, Sarafian managed to consistently compose many shots that are boldly framed and lit. His finest Gallant Men hour is the otherwise undistinguished resistance story “Signals For an End Run.” Like many young directors of his generation, Sarafian was bewitched by the influx of foreign films that appeared in the United States, and his images of the stone-faced partisans, dotting a rocky cliffside and outlined against an expansive sky, suggest the influence of Italian neorealism (particularly the late neorealist work of Francesco Rosi and Gillo Pontecorvo, who made use of newer telephoto lenses and high-contrast film stocks). Although the visual pleasures of The Gallant Men are intermittent, to put it mildly, Warner Archive’s recent DVD release of this long-unavailable series does reveal that there are important exceptions to the general understanding of Warner’s early TV output as cookie-cutter dull and directed by hacks.
Postscript(s): On February 19, 1963, ABC announced that it would not extend The Gallant Men’s episode order beyond the initial 26 episodes. (Presumably a “back four” or “back six” would have extended the first season to a more typical length had the show been a hit.) Although the show’s ratings were not disastrous, The Gallant Men was in an odd situation at ABC, which was also home to Combat and to McHale’s Navy, a service comedy that had debuted in 1962. It’s likely that the three military-themed shows were always seen as being in competition with one another, and that at least one of them was doomed to die in 1963. Another factor may have been that Oliver Treyz, the ABC executive who developed all three series, had been fired even before their debut – and that afterward Treyz had gone to work for Warner Bros., home to The Gallant Men. Warners had built an empire of shoddily-cloned, cheaply-made Westerns and detective shows, almost all of them sold to ABC (with Treyz as the key middle man), and clearly the studio proceeded in the hope that The Gallant Men could spawn a third cluster of wartime dramas. Two of the twenty-six episodes, “The Leathernecks” (with Philip Carey) and “Operation Secret” (aka Avalanche, with Ray Danton) were backdoor pilots, but neither went to series – probably a foregone conclusion, given that ABC reportedly had difficulty in signing initial sponsors for both Combat and The Gallant Men.
The timing of the show’s cancellation also coincided with a seismic shift at Warner Bros. On February 25, the news broke that longtime Warners television vice president William T. Orr and his head of production, Hugh Benson, had been ousted in favor of actor-director Jack Webb. Webb carried out a clean sweep of both series and contract personnel, either orchestrated by or meant to appease ABC. (Whatever revival Webb might have had in mind for Warner Bros. Television did not come to fruition – a shame, since the shows he produced during that period, especially G.E. True and the final season of 77 Sunset Strip, were stylish and fascinatingly eccentric. Warners would remain a relatively minor player in prime time for years to come.)
One particularly intriguing tidbit in Variety’s cancellation announcement is this: “Warners had ordered additional scripts on the World War II series in anticipation of a pickup, and when notified of the [network’s] decision, immediately sought to sell the extra scripts to TV’s other war series, Combat, also on ABC-TV.” Did this happen? There are three episodes from the middle of Combat’s second (1963-1964) season credited to Gallant Men scribes who did not write any other Combat segments: “Gideon’s Army” (written by Charles B. Smith), “The Pillbox” (story by Gallant Men regular Ken Pettus, rewritten by frequent Combat contributor Don Tait), and “The Hostages” (written by Richard L. Adams). The timing is perfect, and it seems an odd coincidence that Combat (which tended to rely upon a small stable of prolific freelancers) would commission scripts from three individual Gallant Men writers, and then invite none of them back again. At the moment I have no way of verifying it (production files for The Gallant Men, housed at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives, might or might not yield the answer), but I’d wager that one or more of those episodes are repurposed Gallant Men scripts.
Correction (4/19/13): The original version of this piece referred to the primary setting of Combat as Germany, rather than France.
March 16, 2013
Three years ago I ranked Veronica Mars as the best American television series of this century – partly as a provocation, but also with the sincere belief that Rob Thomas’s teen neo(n)-noir belongs in the same pantheon as The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Mad Men. So I was as excited as anybody when Thomas and star Kristen Bell made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that, with the blessing of Warner Bros. (which owns the rights), the long-promised, long-in-doubt Veronica Mars movie would become a reality this summer if a $2 million crowdsourced fund was raised. Fans coughed up the two mil in under twelve hours, and they still have nearly another month to add to the budget. A torrent of think pieces have followed, probably far exceeding whatever press the series got when it was on the air (where were you when we needed you?). Critics who kvetch that fans are paying for the movie twice – once to make it and again to see it – and that Warner Bros. is exploiting a grass-roots system not meant to benefit a multi-billion-dollar media conglomerate have a point. But, as one guy on my Twitter feed said: “But me still want movie!”
The Neptune pledge drive was such an instant success that it didn’t take long for fans, critics, and still-sulking show-runners to wonder: what other shows can we bring back from the dead this way? Ace TV-beat journo Alan Sepinwall noted that Veronica was something of a perfect Kickstarter storm; you need “a very particular set of circumstances to pull this magic trick off.” Namely: a pre-existing property with a built-in cult; a creator and cast who care enough to come back, and also haven’t become megastars in the interim; and something that doesn’t cost a fortune. ($2 million was by far the biggest movie-oriented Kickstarter ever initiated, but that figure is less, by as much as half, than the budget of a single episode of most hour-long TV dramas.) Most of the other shows that have been eagerly advanced fail one or more of those tests. Everyone from Deadwood is an A-lister with major commitments. The effects-driven Firefly is too expensive. Terriers and Party Down might be cheap enough to fit the bill, but their fan base is smaller than Veronica’s.
I have another idea.
Let’s bring back Coronet Blue.
Think about it: This strange, existential mystery still casts a spell over some of the audience that saw it during its brief summer run in 1967. (It was shot two years earlier; the network had no idea what to do with it.) After The Fugitive, it was one of the first prime-time dramas to have an ongoing, underlying conflict (amnesiac Michael Alden searches for his identity, while being confounded by various sinister figures), but unlike The Fugitive, it didn’t last long enough to provide a resolution.
Let’s go over the Kickstarter checklist, shall we? The star, Frank Converse (above), and his sidekick, Brian Bedford, are both still alive and still active. The show’s creator, Larry Cohen, seems to look back upon Coronet Blue with affection – and he says he knows how the show would have ended. And as for costs, well, they made these for under $200K back in the sixties, and Cohen went on to become one of the great low-budget film directors of the seventies. He could shoot it in his backyard, just like he made his first feature, the terrific Bone (1972). One wonders how Paramount, which owns the show, would feel about all of this. But, hey, they love me over there after I reamed ’em about the music replacement on the original Fugitive DVDs. Just tell ’em I said this is cool and it’ll be all good.
Of course, there are only about twelve of us who still remember Coronet Blue, so we’d probably all have to kick in a hundred grand or so. But, y’know, details, right?
We could start kicking up a Route 66 reunion movie for the 50th anniversary of the end of its road next year. All you’d need are Maharis, Milner, and a vintage ‘Vette.
Let’s see: Buz comes out of the closet. Tod has been incapacitated by a stroke, but still manages a tear when Buz tells him what he’s known all along. Buz drives his old pal around to all the cities and towns they visited fifty-some years ago. Now they’re all paved over with Targets and Starbucks, and they all look alike. When they reach the Grand Canyon, the (old) boys end the movie by doing a Thelma and Louise….
Yeah, the coins are gonna come rollllllin’ in!!!
March 7, 2013
Last month, my old friend Stuart Galbraith IV and I compiled an instant message conversation for simultaneous publication on both our blogs. The subject was streaming video, but as we chattered back and forth, the topic broadened – inevitably – into the related subject of how lovers movie and television watch what they watch.
I worked with Stuart, a film historian (The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune) and a reviewer at DVDTalk.com for more than ten years, at USC’s Warner Bros. Archives in the late nineties. Now we live in opposite corners of the world – he in Kyoto and I in Manhattan – but we still correspond regularly about the media we enjoy and, more wonkily, the delivery systems that put it in front of our eyeballs.
As aficionados who both cover the subject in our own corners of the internet, we have for the past few years shared an urge to shout “You’re doing it wrong!” at the home video industry and its consumers. Specifically, we believe that the shift from physical media to internet streaming as a primary means of viewing film and television is playing out in some alarming ways – ways that may have a longterm negative impact on cinephiles and on a more general public as well.
One Facebook friend told me that taking on streaming video would be “like trying to stop the rain.” But Stuart and I feel that now – before the metamorphosis is complete, and before it’s too late to have any impact on the shape it takes – is the right time to initiate an urgent discussion of the subject. We hope that you will come to share some of our concerns, and that you’ll join in the conversation in the comments.
Stephen Bowie: Just to frame the conversation a bit: It seems like we’re at a sea change moment in terms of both theatrical & home video exhibition, with the digital switchover from 35mm to DCP, and then the apparent movement from physical media to online streaming. And yet, while I’ve read a lot of articles mourning the loss of celluloid, it feels like no one is talking about the latter.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, why is that? And why are people who love film taking it lying down, resigned as they seem to be to its inevitability?
Stephen Bowie: I feel like there was a little bit of a fight to preserve 35mm, but it started too late and was lost quickly, except maybe in repertory houses (which is still an important ongoing battle). But I think that while no one is really happy about striking a match to celluloid, the streaming thing has divided the cinephile community. Or seduced it, perhaps I should say.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I think partly there’s a misconception that every new technology improves upon the one in current use. But here, both with the demise of 35mm film in movie theaters and the trend away from physical media toward streaming and downloading, what’s driving it is actually something else entirely, namely studios wanting to eliminate distribution and exhibition costs.
Stephen Bowie: And everybody gets that about DCP – there’s no clear upside for the consumer – but streaming offers users “convenience,” or the illusion thereof. Shrewd of Netflix to brand its streaming as “Instant!” Also, not only can you watch a movie right now, but you can watch it on your telephone or your tablet.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Back around 2002, when I was working in the Technical Services Department at MGM, streaming and downloading was already, even then, viewed as a foregone conclusion, that even though DVD was a huge cash cow for the industry like never before, and far cheaper to manufacture than VHS and laserdisc, they were already ready to kill that golden goose. And Blu-ray was never seen as anything more than a niche or transitional technology like laserdiscs. And yet both have stubbornly hung on with Blu-ray doing extremely well worldwide. I mean, Blu-ray was never going to be “the new DVD,” but I imagine its success has exceeded expectations.
Stephen Bowie: Didn’t realize it went back that far! Wonder what they’re planning to do to us in 2025.
Stuart Galbraith IV: What Price, Hollywood?
Stephen Bowie: I mean, to be clear, I’m not totally negative about streaming, nor am I being a kneejerk Luddite here. But first, what are your own experiences with the technology?
Stuart Galbraith IV: I should preface this by saying while I’ve never found it difficult to hook up a VCR or DVD or Blu-ray player, for me streaming and downloading are another matter. I have very limited computer skills. I struggled mightily trying to figure out how to do firmware updates on my Blu-ray players, and heavily rely on more computer-savvy people, various friends and my wife, Yukiyo, to anything more involved. It was her, not me, who first became interested in streaming – I was happy to watch only Blu-ray and DVD content – but she ended up getting a Roku for her birthday last fall and later an Apple TV for Christmas. Though she managed to hook everything up with relative ease, the service has been extremely unreliable. Particularly whenever I wanted to watch anything. Partly this was due to us living in Japan yet much preferring to watch Hulu Plus content originating from America. That entailed routing everything through a dummy ISP (is that terminology right?), which complicated things.
Stephen Bowie: And have you actually succeeded in watching anything? How did it look?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Hulu Plus especially almost literally never, and I mean 99% of the time, works properly. Eventually, after Yukiyo spent a great many hours trying to figure out what the problem was, aided by a friend who is literally a computer expert employed by Nintendo, we determined that at least part of the problem was Yukiyo had a laptop that somehow deactivated everything every time she took it out of the house, which was most every day. But the problem still persists and I’ve largely given up on it. The only things I’ve managed to see on Hulu Plus are the first 20 minutes of Snow Trail, Toshiro Mifune’s starring debut (that I once owned on laserdisc, without subtitles) and an episode of Dark Shadows. Mind you, everything is hooked up to the small monitor Yukiyo, not me, primarily uses, which is only a 36” screen or so. Dark Shadows, shot presumably on 1” tape, isn’t a good title on which to judge, but the quality seemed OK. On the other hand, the signal caused the picture to jam several times, interrupting the flow of those narratives. I mean, if the selling point of streaming is convenience, the ability to instantly watch and choose from a wide selection of movies and television shows, well, then, for me so far it’s been a total failure. Between Yukiyo and I, not to mention our friend who spent maybe three hours, so far we’ve invested something like 20 hours resulting in probably less than three hours of viewing.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve sampled most of the streaming providers in the US – Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube – and I’ve gotten most of them to work, using my Blu-ray player to send the video feed to my plasma TV. But as you suggest, troubleshooting is like standing on shifting sands. If you have a problem, the streaming provider will blame it on your ISP, and your ISP will blame it on Netflix, and good luck figuring out what’s actually going in. You’re generally at the mercy of how much traffic there is over shared bandwidth in terms of image quality, and Netflix’s servers are notorious for going dead on Friday and Saturday nights. So even if I’m able to learn the technology up to an expert level, it seems like this leaves a lot outside my control. And a lot of what appealed to me about the evolution of home video over the early 00s was control: more movies available to cinephile than at any point in history before, and often in better condition. That’s one thing that feels like it’s being rolled back.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes, there is a feeling of complete helplessness that I find intensely irritating.
Stephen Bowie: Having to learn a whole new technology may be part of the game, and fine, I’ll do it. But I can make a Blu-ray player do what I want if I understand how it works; the same can’t be said of Time Warner Cable.
Stephen Bowie: I’m still worried that we sound like a couple of grandpas, so let me bring us up to what gave us the idea of starting a conversation about this: Over the long weekend last month, Criterion (which has a large, mouth-watering library of rare, streaming-only movies that it has never released on disc) did a promotion where they gave everyone free access to its “channel” on Hulu Plus. The catch was, there would be a few commercials embedded in each movie. And what surprised me was that I saw a lot of excitement about this offer in my “social media” world, which is mostly movie buffs. Now, the catch is, you can subscribe to Hulu for a month for EIGHT BUCKS. What blew my mind was, are there really cinephiles out there who will watch Bresson’s L’Argent with commercials just to save eight bucks?! I mean, the last time I watched a commercial was probably around 1995.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The same here!
Stephen Bowie: The fact that cinephile culture has not left them completely behind really floored me. You know, if a Colbert clip or something comes up with a commercial in front of it, I just close the window, immediately – I don’t care what I’m missing. I don’t object to paying for content – if there were a meter on my screen and I could pay, say, two cents for each Bill Maher monologue, I probably would. But you can’t have my time.
Stuart Galbraith IV: With DVD I think what happened was that the studios exploited all their A-list titles as far as they could, re- and re-re-re-releasing them ad nauseum. Cinephiles refuse to understand that deep catalog titles just don’t make anything like that kind of money. I think it was Mike Schlesinger who said Hudson Hawk sold 500 times as many units as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But, anyway, what with Warner Archive, Sony’s Choice Collection and whatnot, even the most obscure films anyone could possibly want are available somewhere, most in video transfers vastly superior to what used to be available on VHS and in 16mm TV prints, and now maybe the only way to market them as “conveniences” available on your iPhone with the press of a button.I mean, sure, if I was stuck on a Greyhound bus for 14 hours with nothing to do, watching a movie on my iPad would be preferable to twiddling my thumbs, but …
Stephen Bowie: At the risk of sounding like a snob, I feel like DVD was a semi-luxury product that went mainstream, and that streaming is a McDonald’s kind of product. (So far.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I agree. Blu-ray was released to the marketplace before it was really ready, hence the endless frustration of consumers who had players that wouldn’t play certain discs, even with firmware updates. Streaming to me is far worse, putting the onus on the consumer for absolutely everything.
Stephen Bowie: I mean, I always thought a great home theater was every movie fan’s goal, and it was just a question of whether his or her circumstances made that possible, or not.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Few of us, certainly not me, can afford to remodel our homes as elaborately as some of the incredible home theaters I’ve seen on-line, or afford the most expensive, top-of-the-line sound systems and players. But big, widescreen TVs got much better around the turn of the century and they became affordable. (I’m amazed what you can get in 2013 for less than $5,000, or even $1,000!) That, coupled with the low-cost, high-quality of DVD made building libraries and home theaters much more attractive.
Stephen Bowie: But now it feels like streaming, and the iPod, have proven that a lot of movie fans really don’t care how a movie looks. Is that true? How can that be possible?
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s like being at a movie theater where the film is out of focus but there’s no one in the booth, and booth is locked so that even you can’t fix it.
Stephen Bowie: And you’re the only one in the theater who knows it’s out of focus! Everybody else thinks it’s supposed to be that way! And that’s happened to me, literally.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Some years back, I was chatting with friends in the lobby of the restored Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, a beautiful 1,700-seat or so movie palace built in the late twenties. A teenager strolled in and saw all the unmarked doors leading into the auditorium, as well as the grand staircase leading to the balcony. Looking at us, totally confused, he asked, “Uh, which theater is the movie in?” I think the younger generation, my five year old included, are growing up watching everything primarily via computer screens, even iPhones. And, of course, TVs are now basically computers themselves, and becoming more and more computer-like with each model. Maybe 20 years from we’ll be nostalgically recalling putting discs into players the way older generations (gulp, myself included) recall affixing speakers to car windows at the drive-in.
Stephen Bowie: One thing we were discussing a while back is how the aspect ratio war was a sort of unexpected triumph – through a probably unreproducible series of events, the movie fans won that battle over the people who didn’t understand the “black bars” at the beginning of the DVD era. It sort of feels like we need that kind of unity and purpose now, not to defeat streaming, but to set some baselines to make it as acceptable for high-end home theaters as well as cellular phones. I don’t care about the medium so much as the file size.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, what drives any business is money. What’s so odd about what’s happening now is that Blu-ray is making a lot of money worldwide, and even DVD is hanging on. People like those technologies. They’re completely happy with them. How much money will Skyfall (2012) make this month worldwide in Blu-ray and DVD sales? Another $500 million? You’re in New York and I’m in Japan, and we’re seeing very different things. In Manhattan video rental shops are all but extinct but, seemingly, they continue to thrive here in Japan. Japan is always on the leading edge of new technologies, so why are people here still renting DVDs and buying Blu-ray discs if streaming is the wave of the future?
Stephen Bowie: And there are still some niche labels that seem to do okay with just physical media (Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory); they’re just not the same ones that were in the game 10 years ago. One factor that may be a tipping point is Warner Archive. If their new streaming service is a success, will they phase out burn-on-demand discs?
Stuart Galbraith IV: What, for instance, would your top baselines concerns be?
Stephen Bowie: Well, again, I can’t get into this too much technically, but it feels like we’re on a collision course in terms of bandwidth: the more people use streaming, the more we’re fighting for the same resources and the more our movies will get compressed or stuttered or cut off in the middle. I also can’t think of any good examples of content libraries that have remastered titles specifically for streaming. Everything – good (MGM’s good HD cable masters on Netflix), bad (Paramount’s atrocious old SD cable masters on Netflix), and mixed (Criterion’s leftovers on Hulu) – is basically an off-the-shelf data dump. That’s kind of scary.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, again, that’s the whole point: spend the least amount of money to make the most amount of money.
Stephen Bowie: Something else that doesn’t really exist in the world of streaming: bonus content. And the lack of an outcry, frankly, has been so deafening that it’s almost a repudiation of that aspect of the DVD era: Naaah, we never really cared about that “film school in a box” shit anyway!
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, to be honest, unless I’m reviewing the disc I doubt that I look or listen to even one-fifth the special feature content on the DVDs and Blu-rays anymore, even when it’s obviously good stuff. If I watch, say, a really great Melville film, instead of spending four or five hours looking at supplements accompanying that disc, I’d rather spend that time watching another Melville instead. Also, does the world really need to see deleted scenes and listen to an audio commentary to Barbershop 2?
Stephen Bowie: Which is hilarious, in a way. I don’t disagree, entirely. But: if I’m going to watch Barbershop 2, I want it to be a goddamn gorgeous transfer, even if it is Barbershop 2. Right?
Stuart Galbraith IV: The transfer, yes. That’s my whole point. The movie’s the thing. Going back to some of your original points, for me watching movies at home has always been about two basic things: recreating the theatrical experience and having access to the movies I want when I want to see them. I’ve no doubt that steaming technologies will improve over time and might even be fantastic and highly desirable within just a few years. But we’re a long way from there at the moment. As you point out, the quality is variable, with a lot of it VHS quality. It’s not reliable and when something is wrong the consumer better have a computer expert on 24-hour call otherwise he’s SOL. Can you imagine inviting a bunch of friends over to watch something this way only to lose your Internet connection three-quarters of the way into the film? Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: Right, and that will happen, the way things are now. I’ll use Netflix streaming as a sort of supplement – for documentaries or so-so TV shows – things I won’t care too much if they don’t look great or are interrupted. But the idea of that system, as it is now, becoming my primary supplier of cinema is terrifying. It could be the end of me as a cinephile, I think. That’s why I’m making a big deal now, while this tech is still in its formative stage.
The arrival of streaming has been a whole foundation-shaking process, for me, of realizing that many movie buffs – serious, intelligent, widely-published ones, in many cases – don’t agree with that, at least not passionately. They’ll watch it in whatever form is in front of them and that’s fine with them. There’s a great irony here, in that just as we’ve reached the point where you can have a great home video setup for a less than astonomical sum – a multi-region Blu-ray player and a 50” or 60” plasma TV for under $1500 total – it’s portability that’s become a more buzzworthy commodity. I know not just film fans but filmmakers (let me underline that, filmmakers) who don’t even own TVs; they watch everything on a 14” laptop. What a waste. I don’t even think there’s a lot of awareness of how much better suited the plasma technology is to cinema than LCD or LED TVs, and I worry that they’ll stop making the plasmas (in part because they’re less “green”). Am I wrong about this, or unfair?
Stuart Galbraith IV: No, it’s not unfair. Perhaps for them it’s a novelty that’ll wear off. I mentioned drive-ins earlier. Drive-ins were a really fun and novel way to watch movies on a cool summer night. Unless, that is, you really wanted to watch the movie. One or two visits each summer was my limit, so perhaps these misguided souls will come around in the same way. Yeah, being able to watch Citizen Kane (1941) on a tablet in the subway during one’s commute is amazing from a technological standpoint. But that doesn’t mean one ought to watch movies that way.
Stephen Bowie: It might be a novelty but for now “them” includes people like Roger Ebert, who used his TV show to explain letterboxing to a wide audience; now he seems to be shilling indiscriminately for whatever he finds streaming on Netflix. Or here’s a quote from Tim Lucas’s blog (Tim being the founder and editor of Video Watchdog, which remains an epicenter of videophile culture): “I watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (1973) tonight via Netflix on my Kindle Fire HD. It turned out to be an unexpectedly wonderful way of watching it, making it a more intimate and book-like experience.” Whaaat?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Well, Jess Franco may be the only director in the world whose movies might actually benefit from a poor bit rate and iPhone-size screen! Have either Lucas or Ebert been challenged about their allegedly uncritical support?
Stephen Bowie: Not that I’ve observed, although honestly, I don’t know to what extent it’s come up in Video Watchdog (although I should). And it may not be uncritical so much as uncontextualized – they’re saying “hey look, I found this” without the follow-up of “but wait, here’s a better way to see it,” which needs to be there. Consumer reports. Consider this – you write for DVDTalk.com. Where’s StreamingTalk.com? I can’t think of a single website or blog devoted to reviewing individual films for A/V quality on streaming platforms (and there are/were dozens for physical media).
Stuart Galbraith IV: I see streaming as basically HBO, geared for people who come home from work or maybe they’re sitting in a hotel room looking for something to watch. From what I can tell, a lot of these services rotate programming in and out of availability, like pay cable. Who’s to say the movie you’ve been thinking about watching the last three months will still be there when you’re ready to sit down and watch it? Who’s to say it’ll stream properly even if it’s there? Physical media is tangible. Streaming is like owning soybean futures.
Stephen Bowie: Absolutely. In fact, when I first editorialized about Netflix on my blog, I did give them credit for having whole runs of a few shows (Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel) that weren’t complete on DVD at the time. Now those are gone! There has unquestionably been a net loss of catalog titles on Netflix streaming in the three years since I’ve been paying attention. It’s a business model where they can take away anything at any time, which of course is exactly how the studios have wanted it all along. That alone should make film buffs very skeptical.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Of course, this actually discourages ownership of physical film collections. Forty years ago, people with private film collections, often composed of discarded prints found in the Dumpster, were prosecuted, and the earliest days of VHS saw a great debate over the idea of consumers actually owning a copy of a copyrighted work belonging to them.
Stephen Bowie: The idea of renting movies is also sort of a bubble market, without a direct equivalent in music. Without it, I would never have been able to afford to become a film buff. So I guess that’s an argument in favor of the all-you-can-eat $8 Criterion buffet. At the same time, I just hope people who start that way are educating their eyes, and that there are still Blu-rays being published when it dawns on them (as it eventually dawned on me, the teenager who first watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on a 13” TV in my bedroom) that you need to see movies in a better state than that. In other words, the conversation is not just about technology; it’s about how cinephiles (and everyone else) choose to watch movies. The tech is driving the discussion, but it should be the aesthetics that come first.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The thing is I’ve never thought of myself as a “collector.” Instead, over the years I’ve built a video library, a library in the classical sense of it being a resource for me to use in my work, and to be able to lend titles to friends, especially to introduce them to great films they may have never heard of. And it’s already a library I’m sharing with my five-year-old daughter who I hope will continue to use it for the next dozen years or more. Moreover, this library of a reflection of me: my tastes and interests. It expresses who I am.
Stephen Bowie: Yes, although in my case, even “library” is almost overkill. I got over the idea of wanting to own movies pretty early. That’s why it’s ironic that I’ve taken such an extreme stance on streaming, because I’m not married to physical media. So I feel like I’m a potential customer for streaming (or at least downloading in some form) who is being ignored. Because they gotta get it right, and there’s no market pressure to make that happen (yet). I’d be more than happy to let somebody store movies in the cloud for me, as long as it comes with some guarantees that (1) they won’t all evaporate and (2) they won’t look any worse than what I’m accustomed to on discs.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Perhaps subconsciously my determination to build my video library was for exactly the reasons you describe, a fear that what’s available to me now, and in a high-quality form, may not be available tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find working DVD and Blu-ray players 20 years from now. I feel a bit like Harlan Ellison stocking up on Remington Rand typewriters! But what happens if you build a massive personal library on a cloud and one day it vanishes?
Stephen Bowie: You couldn’t do anything, under the current parameters. This is interesting in terms of Netflix: One of the main complaints I see on blogs like HackingNetflix.com is that a movie someone wanted to see used to be there but “expired,” or a TV series disappeared before the watcher reached the end. But while this is seen as a negative, it doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker for a lot of users.
I’m thinking now about how many intangibles separate movie lovers on issues like this. I don’t revisit movies nearly as often as I think you do, so the question of having a library is less essential. We’re all aligned or opposed so unpredictably based on the different ways we watch and appreciate movies. Harlan’s typewriters will probably outlive him, but once I bought a few DVDs that were upgraded before I pulled off the shrinkwrap, that essentially cured me of needing to “collect” movies. They will slip through your grasp, one way or another.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s true to a point, but I also have hundreds of out-of-print movies that may never come back. And, when if they do, at least I’ll have the option to upgrade or not and still have the film in some form.
Stephen Bowie: Sure, but I just got tired of playing that game, worrying about whether I should buy something now or wait or…. I mean, this week, a critic named Bilge Ebiri wrote a piece about an obscure and supposedly magnificent Gillian Armstrong film called High Tide (1987), in which he said that it’s only available via Netflix streaming or an Australian DVD in the wrong aspect ratio. I knew – because I keep track of these things – that this was wrong and that Umbrella Entertainment had done an anamorphic special edition of the film a couple of years ago, with a commentary from Armstrong and other extras. But I looked again and now that version, which I never got around to buying, is out of print. There’s a newer one that looks suspiciously like a bootleg, so I’m left with taking a chance on that, spending a lot of time and/or money seeking out the good OOP version, or just caving in and slurping up the Netflix copy, which looks okay but lacks the extras. If you’re not completely obsessive about this stuff, you’re going to go for the last option, right?
At this point, we took a break, experimented a bit more with streaming video in the interim, and then reconvened a few days later.We exchanged links to a few rare films (Luigi Zampa’s To Live in Peace ; Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her So Well ; Claude Chabrol’s Alice ou la dernière fugue ) that one of us found on YouTube, which appeared to be unavailable for purchase legally – probably rips of foreign DVDs with added “fansubs.” In the end, neither of us felt like watching them in this form – at least not yet.
Stephen Bowie: Have you “streamed” anything since we left off? (And why am I using quotation marks? I just refuse to confront this without holding my nose, I guess.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: I watched a couple of cartoon shows with Sadie, both of which paused in the middle with no clear indication that they would resume, though eventually both did. I also sampled some of the YouTube material you recommended. I’d really like to watch those films … on DVD at least (Blu would be better) … but not on YouTube. It’s weird, I have this innate resistance to watching anything longer than a couple of minutes on YouTube. It’s okay to watch a 55-year-old clip from I’ve Got a Secret or a goofy number from some obscure Turkish musical. But I’d never want to sit through, say, Citizen Kane on my computer. With YouTube on a larger television the picture quality on most stuff is so mediocre, even on my wife’s 36” monitor, I’d rather wait and hope it turns up on DVD or Blu.
Stephen Bowie: I won’t watch anything on a computer monitor, except for cat videos. And if there’s an ad in front of it, I close the window; I just don’t care enough about that Jon Stewart bit, or whatever, to endure being advertised at, even for ten seconds. It’s likely that your AppleTV can play YouTube videos, but the question becomes, will they look like anything other than a pixilated mess on a TV that’s – what size? Probably bigger than mine.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Mine is 45-46”, I think. Exactly. Laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray have spoiled me. Like you said earlier, I can’t imagine watching a movie now panned-and-scanned (although amazingly a tiny handful are still getting released). PD releases from companies like Alpha Video I pretty much can’t look at anymore, except maybe on my laptop while on a 12-hour flight somewhere, where the PQ is about par with what airlines offer. Even regular primetime sitcoms. I watch everything on DVD or Blu these days. How do people stand all those ads and banners and watermarks and 20 minutes of commercials per 40 minutes of show? I’d go nuts!
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, there’s so much to choose from, I just reject a lot of stuff for image quality outright. Fox releases a pan & scan MOD disc? Screw it, maybe in five years somebody will have fixed that, and I have plenty to entertain me in the meantime. But I guess a lot of people make the opposite choice, for gratification now, even if the only option is deeply flawed? I dunno. Not me. (And I want to come back to the ads and banners and watermarks a little later; I have a theory about that.) But: That’s a learned behavior. In the VHS / pay cable era, for the most part, you only had one home video option, and it usually sucked. So if streaming is lowering our standards, it may represent a return to an old norm.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I recently made the decision to buy the British Blu-ray of The Devil Rides Out, the well-regarded Hammer film. As you’re aware, the release was controversial because about five seconds of special effects footage was altered, “improved” so somebody believed. Because of this many of the film’s biggest fans are “boycotting” this release. The same thing is happening now with another Hammer title, Dracula (or Horror of Dracula, its US title), for which absurdly anachronistic color timing was done in an attempt to make it look more “modern.” Obviously, both were stupid, short-sighted decisions oblivious to the basic tenets of film preservation and restoration. But what angry fans don’t realize is that, at least in the world of home video, boycotts either have no effect at all on commercially marginal titles like this — or they have exactly the opposite effect, which is that bean counters will look only at sales figures (do you really they’ve got the time to research comments on the Home Theater Forum or Classic Horror Film Board?) and never release it again because “sales were poor.”
Stephen Bowie: Personally, I can’t think in terms of the larger picture on this; I make the decision on whether to rent or buy the disc based on whether I want to watch the film in its compromised state. I wouldn’t have bought the British Blu-rays (or watched them if you gave ‘em to me). There are a lot of films and TV shows lodged in this personal twilight. I’ll never watch the first season of Kung Fu on DVD because it was cropped to 16:9 and, as a result, I’ve never gotten around to the subsequent seasons, either. It’s just another damn thing I have to track down the hard way before I can do anything with it. I’m still trying to figure out my relationship with streaming in this regard, too. There’s a basic instability to the image (ironically, it reminds me of VHS or cable noise) and I still haven’t quite figured out how I rank that against other technical flaws in deciding what edition of a film counts as the best available, or whether or not this is perhaps a dealbreaker any time I notice it.
On the other hand, I’m not as inflexible as you might expect. I’m pretty forgiving of good transfers of dodgy film elements. I have a tin ear so bad sound mixes usually get a pass. And I’ll never understand why you would boycott a foreign film because the subtitles are yellow instead of white – that drives some people nuts, but I’m totally neutral on it.
Stuart Galbraith IV: As both a consumer and someone once on the technical services side of things, I think polite, well-researched emails to project managers and others actually handling video transfers is probably the most effective approach. I’ve known project managers who were film buffs themselves, and who really went the extra mile to make something right. Conversely, I’ve also known project managers who have no idea what they’re doing. They don’t know squat about film history and for them it’s just a job; they might just as well be an assistant manager at The Gap for all the difference it makes to them. On the other hand, an angry email saying, “I SAW this movie in 1958 when I was five years old and it was 1.66:1, not 1.85:1!!!” isn’t going to persuade anyone. A trade ad or article in Variety from 1958 stating the film is 1.66:1 is a lot more convincing.
Stephen Bowie: They’ll either fix it when the first reviews come out because they care, or they’ll stonewall and ignore it. I think fan boycotts and letter campaigns do zilch, sadly. When CBS decided to fix the replaced music in The Fugitive TV series, it wasn’t because people like me moaned about it. It was either because Variety humiliated them in its pages, or because somebody there actually wanted to get it right, or both. As an aside, all these fights over the intermediate aspect ratios are absurd. There’s usually ample evidence of what the original projection ratio was, and yet there’s this handful of battleground films that draw out all kinds of magical thinking as to what the director or DP might have been composing for. I usually applaud completism but I really had a hard time caring about the Blu-ray releases of Touch of Evil and On the Waterfront in all the three ratios.
Stuart Galbraith IV: And because these are commercially marginal titles, it’s not reasonable to expect a home video label to spend $100,000 for home video rights on a ten-second music clip on a movie that’s going to generate $30,000 in revenue. I’d rather see, say, Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain with ten seconds of Beatles music removed than not at all. Conversely, in extreme cases, such as the removal/alteration of music from WKRP in Cincinnati, fans of that series are clearly better off recording uncut broadcast versions.
Stephen Bowie: There is a clear catch-22 with something like WKRP in Cincinnati, which was always doomed. Gut it with song replacement or don’t release it at all: it’s a no-win scenario. (When I interviewed Hugh Wilson, the show’s creator, last year, I could tell he was still pretty wrecked about it.) And it’s really not a conversation that consumers have a voice in, although it’s encouraging that a few labels have figured out that music clearance can be a marketable commodity. Shout! Factory put out a list of songs in each episode to promote its upcoming China Beach release.
Stuart Galbraith IV: One last comment about boycotting. I find it odd that certain people get so upset about relatively minor things while completely ignoring, or even approving, what I consider shameful alterations done in the name of political correctness. To wit: Via an agreement with the Writers Guild of America, credits on ‘50s and ‘60s movies – The Bridge on the River Kwai being one famous example – are being altered to acknowledge the authorship of various blacklisted writers who either worked without credit or wrote under a pseudonym or through a front. I’m all for placing a title card before the movie stating something like, “Pierre Boulle is credited with the screenplay of the film you are about to see but in fact it was written by uncredited Blacklist victims Carl Foreman and Michael G. Wilson.” But to physically alter the original film is like the altering of history books, the kind of thing we used to criticize the Soviet Union for all the time. It’s an injustice that should be acknowledged, not hidden away without comment. Why aren’t people complaining about that?
Stephen Bowie: The revised credits issue is infuriating. And it makes me think of another kind of Orwellian technical rewriting I think has been underreported: the replacement on Blu-ray releases of the optical opening and/or end credit sequences with new, digital credits in films where the original background plates can be located. Usually it’s a really close match, but last year this came to light last year when Universal released Hitchcock’s Frenzy on Blu and bungled the new credits badly, even misspelling some names. But I sometimes see Blu-rays of older films where the credits a little too crisp and I worry that this is happening more often than you’d think, and not being documented. With Frenzy, Universal fixed the misspellings after the review copies were widely mocked – but that’s almost not the point, because if you look at the two sets of credits side-by-side, you can see that the font and the size of the type are not really that close a match. If someone in post thinks it’s worth it to alter a movie this substantively just to scrub some optical debris or avoid some unsightly edge enhancement around the original lettering, then they’re in the wrong job.
Then you have more obvious instances where Blu-ray provides a temptation for directors or DPs (like the notorious Vittorio Storaro, with his demented crusade to reframe all his old films in a new aspect ratio) to rewrite their work and then discard, or actively suppress, the original versions. George Lucas has been flayed by the fanboys for this, but William Friedkin and Michael Mann also like to brag about subtly tweaking every new transfer of their films. And I really think Criterion’s indulgence of Michael Cimino, who radically altered the color palette of Heaven’s Gate for their recent Blu-ray, is a bad precedent. Yes, we have an earlier DVD that’s more accurate, but as of now the only High Def edition is the one Cimino repainted. You talk about compromises and when they become self-defeating – well, honestly, I would have preferred that Criterion insist on including an alternate transfer that attempted to replicate the original release prints, and walk away from the deal if Cimino vetoed that.
Stephen Bowie: After we talked last, to make sure I wasn’t being unfair, so I ran a few episodes of Glee via Netflix Instant. This is a show that’s on Blu-ray, and looks great on Blu-ray, so presumably it was sourced from a competent HD master. And when the image had no movement, like a CU of someone’s face, it looked very crisp, like a frame grab from a Blu-ray. I think that’s what people are thinking of when they argue that streaming in HD is superior to standard-def DVD. But at times the image seemed to break down and display a lot of prominent digital “artifacts.” Usually when there was a lot of motion (like in a dance number), but sometimes just at random, it seemed. Sort of like shots of ocean waves or wheat fields in an early DVD! It was like setting the image quality clock back to 1999. So I have summoned the rest of this season of Glee(the third) on Blu-ray, which, thankfully, Netflix still provides – for now.
Plus, just as you experienced, the transmission froze up twice during the six episodes I watched, and each time I had to shut down the device and reboot it. That’s “only” two three or four minute interruptions, but they both came in the middle of dance numbers – really big-time breaking the spell of the show.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Exactly. Who needs that?
Stephen Bowie: But, people are going to read this and laugh. It’s probably anachronistic to even expect, or try, to watch something without interruptions. It takes a real effort, even for a purist like me, to shut out all the phones and the social media. But we have to do it, and encourage young cinephiles to do it. If you slice up La règle du jeu into ten minute bits, you’re just not going to get much out of it. I don’t care how rigid or old-fashioned that might sound: you are doing it wrong. And, of course, if we have technology that normalizes the interruption (like the dropped call as an accepted feature of cell phone culture) then it becomes harder to argue against conceptually.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I got into a very bad habit with my iPad. I’d watch something then want to look up an actor on the IMDb while I was watching, and then, Hey, let’s check email, and I wonder if that Blu-ray is still on sale? Pretty soon I had completely zoned out of the film. Now I keep the iPad in a different room so I’m not tempted.
Stephen Bowie: Pause the movie for a bathroom break, and hey, might as well check Facebook while I’m up. Bad habit. You’re degrading your own pleasure. Although, you remind me: when I was a teenager and every movie actor was a new face, I had to make myself quit stopping tapes to look them all up in Halliwell or Katz! So ADD is not purely technological.
Stuart Galbraith IV: How do you watch movies? I’m particular to the point where I know I drive certain people crazy. For instance, I can’t watch movies with the lights on. When I have guests over, I make ’em turn off their cellphones before we start. Admittedly, I’m extreme. I once stopped going to movies with one friend because he made a slight whistling noise breathing through his nose that drove me crazy!
Stephen Bowie: Oh, I remember, once I went to your house and we ordered dinner in the middle of the movie, and you got mad when I turned on a lamp just to eat for five minutes. I’m like, do you really want half this pizza in your couch? But, yes, for the most part, I’m pretty intense about stuff like that. My biggest problem now is noise pollution from some sources around my apartment – I have to watch most things at night (as in, weekend all-nighters) and that issue by itself is enough to have me contemplating a move! And incidentally, there’s a nose-whistler who frequents the repertory theaters in New York – could be the nicest guy in the world, but I still get up and move over to the other side of the theater whenever I see him come in.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I often quote the late Gene Siskel who made a great point about spectatorship: “You can only see a movie for the first time once.”
Stephen Bowie: Essential quote from Siskel (so much so, I thought I’d coined it myself!). Particularly since I won’t ever go back to most movies – not out of some Kaelian contempt for the idea but just because my tastes are broad and life is, literally, too short. I still cringe over first viewings ruined in years past. Sweet Smell of Success: 35mm print with a horrible scratch on the audio track for four reels. Still have never managed to “recapture” that film for myself. Just the other day, I got a migraine, the kind where you can’t see properly for a while, right in the middle of Guillermin’s Rapture. I’ll watch it again, of course, but it won’t be the same.
Stuart Galbraith IV: The circumstances in which one watches a film can profoundly impact the experience, much more than people realize. I’d seen House of Wax (1953) in 35mm and 3-D probably seven or eight times through the years. Then the American Cinematheque had a 3-D screening on the Paramount lot (oddly enough) with director Andre de Toth in attendance. The screening was arranged by hardcore 3-D preservationists who knew what they were doing, and it was the only time I had seen the film projected on a silver screen, as was done in the fifties. Although the movie was by this time very familiar, the experience was completely different. Similarly, I first saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 35mm on a medium-sized screen. It wasn’t until I saw it again in 70mm, with six-track magnetic stereo sound, on a 70-foot screen, that I finally “got it.” And of course, it’s not just the print. I’ve had “first time only once” experiences totally ruined because of chatty people sitting next to or near me. My good pal Ted Newsom does this and sees nothing wrong with commenting throughout in a normal voice, even at a repertory theater. But, for me, his yacking yanks me rightout of the experience. Regardless of whether it’s a good movie or a bad one, I want to be sucked right in. That’s where the best movie-watching experiences happen, whether it’s Seven Samurai or Lawrence of Arabia or Wild Strawberries or Night of the Living Dead or Singin’ in the Rain or Jason and the Argonauts or whatever.
Stephen Bowie: And I feel like these points are obvious, but you need to make them once in a while. Nobody’s born a viewing-experience zealot. Somebody has to teach you about aspect ratios and stuff. In my case, it was a slightly older film nerd I met at the library when I was about 15, who wrote laserdisc reviews and explained widescreen and pan & scan to me. Until then I’d never understood how badly TV and VHS butchered some movies. So I think it’s worth it for us to be doing this, even if readers feel like they’re being lectured at (although I hope that’s not the case).
And yeah, I don’t go to first-run movie theaters any more; I finally gave up on fighting rude audiences when texting became prominent. I really miss it. Oddly, when DCP came along, instead of grief, I felt a backward sense of relief, because now I wasn’t missing anything any more! That’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome or something, I realize.
Stuart Galbraith IV: My daughter’s five, and when we sit down to watch, say, Disney’s Cinderella (1950), I make it a point to buy the Blu-ray and, as closely as possible, recreate an idealized movie-watching experience for her. Now, I know a lot of parents out there are more than happy to plop their kids in front of computer to watch the film downloaded from somewhere, or (here in Japan) to buy a 500-yen public domain version of Cinderella that looks like dog meat. My daughter, of course, has no awareness of what I’m doing, yet I’m confident introducing movies to her the way I am, it’s making a subtly lasting impression different from what a lot of other kids are experiencing. Add to that, by running Max & Dave Fleischer Popeye cartoons and Our Gang shorts and Buster Keaton silent films, I’m also getting her acclimated to the concept of black and white.
Stephen Bowie: This is the point where someone will smugly remind us that in the 30s-50s, it was customary to wander into theaters in the middle of the movie, and probably audience manners were appalling, if not enhanced by disruptive technology. Respectful audience behavior is probably another learned behavior (a boon of the film culture movement of the 50s-60s-70s) but it, too, is not something I’d like to see slide back into the muck, which seems to be happening.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Audiences in Japan are much more polite. In ten years my worst complaint was when someone knocked over a beer bottle and it comically rolled slowly down toward the screen over several minutes. Conversely, seeing movies theatrically is now obscenely expensive, yet we’re still subjected to a mountain of ads easily bypassed on home video. And, frankly, home video is rapidly approaching, even surpassing the theatrical experience. On the other hand, I miss the communal viewing experience that, though rare, made certain screenings truly special shared experiences.
Stephen Bowie: Being a child of the home video era, I never really had that. I prefer to watch alone. The presence of other people always distracts me at least a little bit, even if they’re behaving. This is theoretically contrary to the original idea of how movies are “supposed” to be experienced, but I’ll make an argument for it. Plus, TV (and I’m a TV specialist, of course) complicates that; the magazine ads always showed the whole family gathered around the set, but of course TV made private viewing possible.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s learned behavior. Neither of us grew up watching silent movies. We had to learn how to watch and appreciate them. These days I’m game for just about anything, but 30 years ago the idea of watching a four-hour reconstruction of Intolerance was a daunting proposition. In a way I feel part of my mission as a film critic and historian is to introduce people to giving old movies a chance. I mean, I’ve probably gotten at least two dozen co-workers and acquaintances over the years to watch Casablanca, which in most cases was probably the only black & white movie they’d ever seen, with the possible exceptions of It’s a Wonderful Life and maybe Miracle on 34th Street. Yet without exception these same people always respond, “That movie was great! Where can I find more stuff like that?!”
Stephen Bowie: I’ve found that my openness to movies has only expanded. Stuff I never cared about at one time suddenly seems intriguing, because I have a context for it, or just a growing curiosity (starting with “furrin” films in film school). DVD, incidentally, came along at the right time to open a lot of doors for me – the technology drove, or fed, my exploration in a really great way. I like your DVD reviews because you’re interested in things I don’t really care about – Three Stooges shorts, singing cowboys, British TV detectives – but you make them sound like fun; you’re laying the groundwork for me to go there someday. I get really impatient with film/TV “fans” (and this includes some of my readers) whose boundaries are already proscribed.
Stuart Galbraith IV: It’s certainly true that it’s easier to “lose oneself” watching movies (or TV shows) alone. But, conversely, there is also something magical about experiencing a movie with a receptive, like-minded audience. I regret that audiences can never again experience Star Wars as I did, with an audience that had no idea what they were getting, who by the end was literally cheering at the end. Or evenings in Ann Arbor, Michigan at their “Top of the Park” 16mm screenings of old movies outdoors, in the cool summer air, movies like Double Indemnity and The Band Wagon. I really miss that.
Stephen Bowie: I’ve had that from time to time, but not enough to make me crave it. Conversely, I’ve gone perhaps in the opposite direction…. I’ve gotten interested in the idea of curation – “programming” a weekend, or an evening, or a year of movies or TV shows. Picking up specific ideas (a director, an actor, a national cinema, a widescreen process, an era or movement) and exploring them in depth, or from start to finish. Combining or cross-matching those things: Jean Harlow at MGM or Richard Fleischer in the ‘70s or French ’Scope crime films from the 60s.Or creating ideal double or triple features.Figuring out which movies complement each other; creating flow from one to another.Sort of like ikebana, or fengshui, but with movies. I’m not really interested in having a physical collection, but this might be a sort of equivalent to it.
And of course, to do that is a form of asserting control – of being active rather than passive in what you choose to watch – and one of my instinctive reactions against streaming platforms is that they seem to encourage the opposite. Watch what we throw in front of you, not what you seek out. (Netflix’s famous $1 million recommendation algorithm is based on that principle; conveniently, it’s designed to conceal the big gaps of what movies they don’t stream, and it appears to accomplish that goal very well.)
Stuart Galbraith IV: You have to be open to, if not everything, at least a willingness and curiosity to want to experience the best-regarded examples, if only to further your education about movies. For instance, a lot of hardcore Western fans would never sit through a B-Western, i.e. Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Yet the Bs probably outnumber the A-Westerns ten to one. I often take you to task for sitting through eight seasons of Harry O without ever having experienced I, Claudius or The Singing Detective or even Cracker. If I were to ship you a box of DVDs of that stuff would you commit to spending three hours a week with it?
Stephen Bowie: Honestly, no, but I promise I will get to those one day. Part of my “zen” curation idea is waiting until you’re ready to be open to something to watch it. No “eating your vegetables” viewing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: That’s what good movies do. When, nearly 30 years ago now, I stumbled up Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, I immediately tracked down VHS copies or scanned TV Guide of every other Sturges film out there. (I’m still looking for The French They Are a Funny Race.)
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, I feel like I have a road map (and lots of unwatched acorns tucked away for harsh winters), but I hope there are more surprises I don’t know about yet. And I’m lucky enough to live in a city where you can still see prints of a lot of obscurities that you can get on home video (or stream!). Plus, I haven’t turned my back on the new, unlike a lot of movie & TV buffs, so there’s the knowledge that more stuff I’m going to dig is still being made.
Stuart Galbraith IV: But you have to push yourself a little, or you’ll never get around to it. I avoided Last Year at Marienbad for years but when a cheap Blu-ray turned up, I made sure I watched it that night, to ensure it wouldn’t end up in the great unwatched.
Stephen Bowie: It’s a marathon, not a race. I program for maximum “variety,” so that I don’t use up, say, all the French New Wave movies now – or all of those Harry O episodes, since there are, alas, only TWO seasons – or get burned out by watching too much of the same thing.
Stuart Galbraith IV: I do the same thing these days, and take a certain pride watching, say, Pierrot le Fou and Hoppy Serves a Writ on the same evening. Indeed, last night I watched William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which, coincidentally, also turned out to be a Richard Johnson double feature.
Stephen Bowie: Yeah, exactly. Or go in the opposite direction of being a completist. You can take some obscure ‘40s studio director and assemble a dozen of his movies all in a row now, thanks to Warner Archive and the other MOD lines. Or, just to pay the devil its due, watch 35 films (!) by Kinoshita on Hulu that Criterion will probably never get around to releasing on disc. Although that’s very much the exception rather than the rule for deep catalog via streaming.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Again, I’m old enough to remember that if you wanted to watch, say, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, your options were limited to scanning TV Guide each week and hope one of the six or seven channels available back then might run it. Then you had to sit through commercial interruptions, awkward edits made to fit the film into a particular timeslot, all kinds of crap. My cup ain’t half-empty, it’s a dam burst! Who’d have guessed 30 years ago that one day you could watch This Is Cinerama in Smilebox format, in multi-track stereo sound, on a 50-inch TV in high-definition? Or a restored Metropolis? Or Lawrence of Arabia? Or Snow Trail, an obscure Japanese film I had wanted to see for three decades?
Stephen Bowie: Huge generational shift. I feel like we’re making an “It gets better” video for our teenaged selves. And yet, Dave Kehr always complains that we’re losing films with each technological shift, that lots of stuff that could be rented on 16mm in the 60s-70s never made the transition to VHS or DVD. I think that’s myopic (it emphasizes American studio films over everything else) but it’s a point worth keeping in mind. And it may also apply to US TV – certainly for classic TV buffs there were shows that aired in syndication just before the VHS era, and thus still remain tantalizingly out of reach. You could see them in 1975, but not now.
Stuart Galbraith IV: Kehr has a point. I mean, it’s weird if not criminal that, say, practically every Jess Franco movie is out on DVD while, say, there’s not one by Tadashi Imai with English subtitles. On the other hand, Kehr’s list can’t be very long now, not in 2013. I sometimes refer to DVD Savant’s “wish list,” published on his site, and I’m always amazed how, every year, a big chunk of it disappears.
Stephen Bowie: Bringing this back to streaming: I haven’t found this on my own Netflix platform yet, but last August some users reported that Netflix was minimizing the end credits of TV shows and some movies, to prompt viewers toward the next episode. There was a lot of negative reaction to this, as intruding upon the experience. And you know what it reminds me of? TV. My prediction is that streaming, which is replacing cable (i.e., cord-cutting), will just become cable once it moves everyone over. As soon as everyone’s hooked, you’ll get watermarks, crawls on the screen, shrunken or talked-over credits and, finally, ads (only now you won’t be able to fast-forward through them).
Stuart Galbraith IV: Oh I think you’re absolutely right. I guess there are some people out there who still turn on HBO and say to themselves, “Hey look at that, Kindergarten Cop! I think I’ll watch the last 40 minutes of that.” But I can’t see that lasting much longer. The idea of a primetime network schedule of comedies and dramas seems to be dissipating into other media, and pay and even free cable don’t seem too far behind.
Stephen Bowie: Which may offer more choice in the short term (the much-vaunted House of Cards marathon option) but not necessarily in the long-term (if ads are embedded and recording for a personal library is blocked). It’s easy to go too doom-and-gloom when a paradigm shift looms (dig my rhyming!), but I do feel like we could be brontosauri, happily chowing down on our physical media while the giant asteroid is hurtling toward us. Ever watch Cinemania? That documentary about obsessive movie fans who will only watch films on 35mm? Well, they were the dinosaurs that got wiped out by the DCP meteor. Are we next?
Stuart Galbraith IV: Yes and no. Physical media may not be an option for, say, my daughter by the time she’s an adult. But the reality is no matter how hard they try to kill it, people around the world are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, and especially in second- and third-world countries, I don’t see streaming replacing DVD in places like Cambodia or Panama anytime in the near future. There are millions of us over 35 that, while hardly the ideal demographic, still represent billions of dollars of revenue to the home video industry, who aren’t confident about our computer skills, and I just don’t think it’s inevitable like the transition from records to CDs or VHS to DVD because the benefits are countered by an equal or greater number of deal-killer problems even average consumers aren’t going to accept.
Stephen Bowie: I would like it not to be so generational – I’d like for younger people to insist on Blu-ray (and then 4K!) as a niche, sort of like has happened with vinyl, and for some mainstream insistence on better image quality and selection via streaming to get some traction. But still, that’s a more optimistic note to end on than I was expecting.
Also posted on Stuart Galbraith IV’s Cineblogarama.
February 27, 2013
Her father played the organ to accompany the silent The Phantom of the Opera at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. She watched Howard Hughes filming miniature dogfights for Hell’s Angels in a lot behind her house. The “big sister” who showed her around campus when she started at Hollywood High was Lana Turner. Orson Welles hypnotized her in his magic act at the Hollywood Canteen. Gerry Day, native daughter of Los Angeles, child of Hollywood, and a fan who parlayed her love of the movies into a career as a radio and television writer, died on February 13 at the age of 91.
A 1944 UCLA graduate, Day got her start as a newspaper reporter, filing obits and reviewing plays for the Hollywood Citizen News. A radio writing class led to spec scripts, and Day quickly became swamped with assignments for local Los Angeles programs: The First Nighter; Skippy Hollywood Theater; Theater of Famous Players. The transition to television was natural, and Day became a regular contributor to the half-hour anthologies that tried, anemically, to ape the exciting dramatic work being done live in New York. Frank Wisbar, the expatriate German director, taught her how to write teleplays for his Fireside Theater, and then Day moved over to Ford Theater at Screen Gems, working for producer Irving Starr.
A gap in her credits during the late fifties reflects a year knocking around Europe, drifting among movie folk. Back in the States, Gerry’s mother was watching television, writing to her daughter that she’d like these new horse operas that had sprung up: Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train. Ruthy Day meant that her daughter would enjoy watching them, but of course Gerry ended up writing them instead.
A city critter who loved horses and yearned to be a rancher, Day was fated to collide with television’s glut of Westerns. In 1959 she connected with Howard Christie, the genial producer of Wagon Train, who gave her a lot of leeway to write what she wanted (and used her to doctor other scripts beyond the seven or so she’s credited on). Her other key relationship was with Richard Irving, producer of the comedic Western Laredo. Day loved doing the oaters: the light-hearted romp Here Come the Brides; The High Chaparral, with its Tucson location; Tate; Temple Houston; The Virginian; Big Valley; The Outcasts; finally, fittingly, Little House on the Prairie.
Although she specialized in Westerns, Day wrote in all genres, and notched credits on some respectable dramas: Medical Center; My Friend Tony; Judd For the Defense. Peyton Place was not a particularly agreeable experience, nor was Marcus Welby (puckishly, she took a male pseudonym, “Jon Gerald,” for her episode); but Dr. Kildare and Court Martial were treasured memories. It was for Court Martial, a forgotten military drama, that she wrote her favorite script, a euthanasia story called “Judge Them Gently.”
As for the name: It wasn’t that her parents wanted a boy. It’s that there were venerated Southern family names to be preserved, and so the little girl became Gerald Lallande Day. It fit the tomboy she grew into, even though there were draft notices from the Marines and invitations to join the Playboy Club that had to be gently declined.
Gerry lived with her parents for most of her adult life, in an old bungalow in the heart of Hollywood that – apart from the traffic blasting past the tiny lawn on busy Fairfax Avenue – hadn’t changed much since her father bought it in 1937. Gerry already had cancer when I looked her up there in 2007, although it was in remission and she was feeling peppy. When I first dropped by, Gerry was wearing a pair of white slacks that Dan Dailey had picked out for her – Dan Dailey, the song-and-dance man who died in 1978.
The reason Dan Dailey had been Gerry’s personal dresser back in the day was that for a time Gerry wrote with a partner, the actress Bethel Leslie, who was Dailey’s romantic companion toward the end of his life. Day was good at writing for women, and managed on a few shows to write parts for her favorite actresses – Barbara Stanwyck, Vera Miles, and Bethel, who starred in an African Queen knockoff that Day wrote for her on Wagon Train. Day found out that Leslie was working on a memoir, and thought she had talent. They began writing together, on shows like Bracken’s World, Matt Helm, the new Dr. Kildare and the new Perry Mason, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Barnaby Jones. On her trips out from New York, Leslie lived in Gerry’s studio. They would split up the work: Gerry wrote in the mornings, Bethel in the afternoons, then they meshed the work together. For two years, they were staff writers together on the daytime soap The Secret Storm. “For our sins,” said Day, who detested the executive producer so much that she wouldn’t utter his name.
Day’s love for horses led her to the track. She was an unofficial bookie for the Wagon Train clan, and eventually a part owner of a racehorse, which led her into a variety of adventures that would’ve made great subplots on David Milch’s racetrack opus Luck. A devout Catholic, Day became a Eucharistic minister in her church; she also raised foster children and supported equestrian causes. And remained ever under the spell of the movies. “The other night,” she told me during my first visit, “I stayed up late to watch Rio Grande. Talk about your romance, between John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That was a really good film . . . .”
February 19, 2013
Leverage is the kind of modern show that people who don’t like modern television tend to like. It’s old-fashioned: formulaic, familiar, minimally serialized. It’s a genre show – a weekly caper, Mission: Impossible retrofitted for an era where capitalists, not communists, are the bad guys. Usually I hate contemporary TV shows that try to be like old TV shows. But Leverage is special. It’s a lot of fun. And it kept getting better as it went along – I have to switch to the past tense now, because its cancellation was announced while I noodled with this piece.
The heroes of Leverage are a quintet of criminals who do the Robin Hood bit: they use their skills to avenge the little guys who have been wronged, usually by some legally untouchable corporate fatcat. It’s a show about the 47% versus the 1%, and although its politics are smart and topical, it doesn’t ram them down the viewer’s throat. The secret to Leverage is that although the plots are intricate, the show is – in a way that Mission: Impossible always resisted – totally character-driven. The leader of the gang, Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), is a former insurance investigator driven toward vengeance by the death of his son at the hands of, yes, his corrupt employer. His team is composed of likable misfits, each with a useful set of skills: actress/grifter Sophie (Gina Bellman), who has an (initially) unrequited affection for Nate; computer hacker Hardison (Aldis Hodge), a fast-talking nerd; muscle man Eliot (Christian Kane), who has rage issues; and thief/pickpocket Parker (Beth Riesgraf), a blithely adorable sociopath.
Although Nate remains a moody, tormented soul, Leverage is essentially light-hearted. A breezy, improvisational performance style shifts the show away from its angry center, and makes it more of a romp. The actors are all winners, complementing each other in a way that reminds me of the original C.S.I. ensemble. Their camaraderie is joyous – it’s clear that both the actors and their characters are having the time of their lives. It’s touching to see these misfits form a makeshift family, even as the actors are shrewd enough to remind us it’s a dysfunctional one. Kane, in particular, has a compact, subtly Southern, and very authentic sense of tightly contained violence, and yet it informs a funny kind of comic timing. Particularly during Eliot’s banter with Hardison, whose geekiness drives him up the wall, Kane’s short-fuse is hilarious. Riesgraf, too, never lets go of her character’s fundamental oddness. She’s like a robot learning how to be human.
When good actors get the chance to build their characters from the ground up, and stay true to them over the course of a long-running show, magic happens. By the fourth season, some of the characters have coupled romantically in ways that are touching (and also plausible, unlike some of the “shipping” on C.S.I.). Nate’s functional alcoholism remains a fascinatingly unresolved issue. Just the fact that Leverage doesn’t feel the need to scold or cure him is itself impressive, but the way the other characters dance around it, how they have to find ways to deal with their concern and cover for their leader’s shortcomings without trying to fix him, adds a layer of uneasy tension. A lot of good shows wither because the writers can’t generate realistic conflicts between the main characters – famously, Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that everyone on a 23rd century starship should get along swimmingly drove the writers of Star Trek nuts. On Leverage, the five protagonists have needs and values that are varied and clearly demarcated, so conflicts arise organically. While it’s impossible not to root for the bonds between these vulnerable people to last, there’s a constant awareness that they’re all fundamentally loners, that they could fall out and go their separate ways if things really went sideways.
(The brains behind the show are writers Dean Devlin, John Rogers, and Chris Downey.)
Leverage’s episode orders approached network-size – eighteen in the fourth season – and that was probably too many. Each season had its share of filler – Leverage goes to Nashville! Leverage goes to coal country! – and there was the occasional ambitious flop. The half-century-spanning lost-loot mystery “The Van Gogh Job” fails because guest star Danny Glover is thirty years too young to play a World War II veteran. But the best episodes, particularly towards the end of the run, were crafted to fit the characters’ skills and vulnerabilities like a glove. “The Cross My Heart Job” glances off Nate’s buried grief for his son; it’s guaranteed that he’ll plunge the team into a twisty spur-of-the-moment airport heist to intercept a cooler carrying a purloined heart to a dying robber baron. “The Gold Job” explores Hardison’s resentment over being taken for granted and puts him in charge of a con for the first time; the outcome depends on whether control freak Nate will undermine or support his colleague. “The Radio Job,” a nifty locked-room con with the unlikely setting of the U.S. Patent Office, brings back Nate’s kryptonite, his low-life petty criminal father (Tom Skerritt), and again divides the team leader’s loyalties as their gambits cross purposes. The fourth-year finale goes a bit astray, indulging in a macabre climax that discards the team’s moral code too cavalierly. But how can you quibble with a television hour that unites the great character actors Leon Rippy and Saul Rubinek (below) in chortling villainy?
Then there’s “The Office Job,” which is one of the most complex and rewarding television episodes I’ve come across during the present decade. In it, Nate and Co. infiltrate a greeting card company, the cubicle-farm headquarters of which is also being filmed by a documentary crew. “The Office Job” is a double parody, of both the comedy series The Office (a joke everyone will get) and the ouevre of the gloomy German filmmaker Werner Herzog (one for the cognoscenti, even though Herzog is a star of the art cinema world). At first the Herzog spoof seems one-note – Peter Stormare’s performance is unsubtle – but once the bombastic director is drawn in as a confederate, the show has fun with his childlike enthusiasm for the con. With regard to The Office, Leverage mocks not only its content but its form. Just as we, along with Nate and company, realize that Stormare’s crew is recording everything, “The Office Job” switches from the expected filmic grammar to the handheld video aesthetic of a single-camera sitcom. It’s a jarring, daring cut – one of the ballsiest edits in the history of television.
Mockumentary becomes a strange and somehow newly urgent way to frame a Leverage caper. The gag pays off over and over again, as the crew suddenly has to grapple with the constant presence of a snooping cameraman while they carry out a con. The show can make stylistic leaps like this because it has that bedrock of well-defined characters, all of whom reveal new aspects of themselves in response to the new stimuli. Parker’s inability to understand metaphor, for instance, sets up funny gags in which the others’ efforts to talk in code while on camera fail completely. The direct-address segments – in which the Leverage characters, like their counterparts on The Office, comment upon the events taking place – morph from snark into something really startling, as Nate and Sophie air some raw, nasty gripes about each other. It’s a bracing, uneasy payoff to a simmering resentment that has festered throughout the season, and a reminder of how rarely TV shows are willing to present their popular characters in a truly unfavorable light.