Saturday, 31 December 2005

Goodbye and Good Riddance, 2005

Tonight is New Year's Eve. I must say that it can't come a moment too soon. This year has not been kind to me. I've written in this blog about the loss of a friend to suicide earlier this year. I also lost one of my aunts by marriage to cancer. I won't bother you with the details of the other tragedies that have happened in my life in 2005. I guess it is sufficient to say that late in the year it seems to me that I lost any chance I had for happiness. In fact, I fear that I might never be happy. There are some things that time simply cannot heal, and there are some situations in which replacements simply will not do. I guess it's too bad that I am not Christian, as then I could enter a monastery. I suppose there is always the French Foreign Legion. *LOL* At any rate, I am really looking forward to 2006. With any luck it will be a better year and my fortunes will change.

With regards to movies, 2005 was a strange year. The entire year saw the box office in a slump, with fewer people going to the movies in 2005 than had in 2004. Quite frankly, I find this curious given many of the films released this year. Some of them were highly anticipated, among them Batman Begins, King Kong, Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and, most of all, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. One would think with that many blockbusters released in one year that the box office would be booming. Of course, I guess the year saw quite a few turkeys as well--just witness the movie adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard (moral of the story--bad TV shows make for bad movies...).

Television seems to have been a bit disappointing in 2005. With the success of a unique and original show like Lost, I would have thought the networks would have rushed to develop more unique and original shows. Instead what we got this season were more derivative series--two shows about alien invasions, a Medium ripoff, and yet more reality shows. I suppose I underestimated the average network exec's lack of originality. At least the year saw some short lived, yet very good shows finally come out on DVD. Profit, the brilliant series that ran briefly on Fox in April 1996, was released on DVD this August. At last people beyond its cult following would get to see the revolutionary series. Just a few days ago, on December 26, 2005, the cult show Nowhere Man was finally released on DVD. The show ran for one season in 1995 on then fledgeling network UPN. A cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner, there hasn't been a series like it before or since.

It seems to me that if 2005 is remembered for anything in entertainment, it may be for the loss of a number of television legends. Indeed, a number of sitcom stars died, some of them the biggest names in television history. This was the year that saw the deaths of Eddie Albert (Green Acres), Bob Denver (Gilligan's Island), and Don Adams (Get Smart). A number of well known supporting actors from sitcoms died as well, among them Elisabeth Fraser (The Phil Silvers Show), Barney Martin (Seinfeld), Frank Gorshin (Batman), Leon Askin (Hogan's Heroes), Pat Morita, and Louis Nye (The Beverly Hillbillies). Among the television legends to pass on were Johnny Carson, James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek), Skitch Henderson (the first bandleader of The Tonight Show), Paul Henning (creator of The Beverly Hillbillies), Ralph Edwards (creator of This is Your Life and Truth or Consequences), and Peter Jennings. The movies lost nearly as many stars as television did: Virigina Mayo, Ruth Warrick, Ossie Davis, Sandra Dee, Theresa Wright, Ernest Lehman (the screenwriter who wrote North by Northwest), Sir John Mills, Anne Bancroft, Barbara Bel Geddes, director Robert Wise, and Richard Pryor. Literature also lost quite a few big names: Evan Hunter (better known by his nom de guerre, Ed McBain), Hunter S. Thompson, Native American activist Vine Deloria Jr., playwright Arthur Miller, and Saul Bellow. Where the art world is concerned, Native American artist R. C. Gorman died. In the field of animation, Disney veteran Joe Grant and Pixar veteran Joe Ranft both died in 2005. As far as comic books are concerned, they lost their biggest name. Will Eisner not only created The Spirit, the superhero Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, The Black Condor, and The Ray, but he also revolutionised comic books, advocated the recognition of comic books as an art form, invented the graphic novel, and made far too many contributions to the art form to be listed briefly. Even in a year which saw the loss of Paul Henning, Johnny Carson, Bob Denver, Evan Hunter, Arthur Miller, and Anne Bancroft, Eisner may arguably have been the most legendary figure to have been lost.

Anyhow, here's hoping that 2006 is a better year than 2005 was. And here's wishing all of you a happy New Year!

Friday, 30 December 2005

The Nostalgia Wave of the Seventies

Those of you who grew up in the Seventies might remember the wave of Fifties nostalgia that swept that decade. To a large degree this was nothing unusual. The Fifties had seen a wave of nostalgia for the Twenties that produced such TV shows as The Roaring Twenties and The Untouchables. The Nineties also had its own nostalgia wave for the Seventies. I suppose that every decade sees some bit of nostalgia for another decade.

In this case of the Seventies, it must be pointed out that Fifties nostalgia had been bubbling under the surface for some time before it became an outright fad. Fifties revival group Sha Na Na was formed in 1969. They even performed at Woodstock, resulting in a recording contract for the group. In February 1972 the musical Grease opened off Broadway, moving to Broadway later in the year. That same year Fifties rock legend Chuck Berry had his only number one single, "My Ding-a-Ling." Given these events, it would seem that a fad towards Fifties nostalgia was inevitable. It only needed a movie or song to turn it into an outright craze. Ironically, it would be a movie that was not set in the Fifties that would achieve this.

Directed and co-written by George Lucas, American Graffiti almost never got made and, once made, almost didn't get released. United Artists, who had released Lucas's first feature THX 1138, rejected the script for American Graffiti. It would not be until after Lucas's friend Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from the success of The Godfather, stepped into produce the film that Universal agreed to greenlight it. The movie was shown at a preview at the Northpoint Theatre in San Francisco, where audience reaction was fantastic. Despite a great reception from the audience, Universal executive Ned Tanen thought that the film was "unreleasable." It was only after Coppola offered to buy the film for $1 million (it had been made on a meagre $777,000) that Universal decided to release it. The movie proved to be a smash hit, proving to be one of the highest grossing films of the Seventies. Much of its cast, who were then largely unknown, went on to be stars. Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, and others all went onto stardom. And, of course, it established George Lucas's career and allowed him to go on to make Star Wars.

Of course, as stated earlier, American Graffiti does not take place in the Fifties. Instead, the film is set in 1962. There are a few songs from the Fifties on the soundtrack (most notably by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry), but most of the songs come from the early Sixties ("Barbara Anne" by The Regents, "Surfin' Safari" by The Beach Boys, "See You in September" by The Tempos, and so on). And there is nary a ducktail or leather jacket in sight. Regardless, somehow this film set in the early Sixties spurred a craze for the Fifties.

As pointed out earlier, the Fifties craze was perhaps inevitable. While American Graffiti was drawing people to theatres in droves, another film was being filmed that predicted that craze. In the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise the music entrepreneur Swan (played by Paul Williams) is credited with the nostalgia craze of the Seventies, through his revival band The Juicy Fruits. Indeed, Phantom of the Paradise features a Fifties style song by the Juicy Fruits, as well as a beach music number that sounds like it could have come from the American Graffiti era.

With America Graffiti a hit at theatres, ABC-TV dusted off a pilot set in the Fifties that had aired as an episode of Love American Style. "Love and the Happy Day" featured Ron Winkler (perhaps the only famous person to star in American Graffiti) as Richie Cunningham, the son of a hardware store owner in 1950s Milwaukee. ABC initially rejected the pilot, but reconsidered given the rising nostalgia craze. The show that resulted, Happy Days, would become one of the most successful shows of the Seventies. The series would generate tons of merchandising, most of it centred around the character known as "Fonzie" or "the Fonz (played by Henry Winkler)." Happy Days proved successful enough to produce an equally successful spin off. Laverne and Shirley starred American Graffiti alum Cindy Williams and Penny Marshal as two young, single women working at a Milwaukee beer plant. For several seasons the two series occupied the top of the Nielsens.

With the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days, it was perhaps natural that revival group Sha Na Na, a group which had existed prior to the Fifties craze, should get their own TV series. Their show debuted in 1977 and ran until 1981.

Of course, not every bit of nostalgia in the Seventies was focused on the 1950s. Released in 1978, Animal House took place in the same year as American Graffiti--1962. But while American Graffiti centred on the car culture of California in that year, Animal House centred on the antics of the fraternity known as Delta House. Like American Graffiti, Animal House would also have far reaching impact. It started a cycle towards similar, low humour films (such as Caddyshack) that lasted throughout much of the Eighties.

Like Sha Na Na, the musical Grease predated the Fifties nostalgia craze. The nostalgia craze propelled the musical to even greater heights of success. For a time it would be the longest running show on Broadway. With the nostalgia craze under way, it was natural that it would be adapted as a movie. Released in 1978, the movie Grease featured Olivia Newton John and John Travolta in the starring roles, and included appearances by Fifties pop star Frankie Avalon and revival band Sha Na Na. It would go on to become the highest grossing movie musical of all time.

Grease appears to have been something of a last hurrah for the Fifties nostalgia craze. While nostalgia for the decade has never completely gone away, the fad itself slowly petered out towards the beginning of the Eighties. Both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley declined in the ratings. Sha Na Na's show went off the air. It is difficult to say why the fad ended. I suspect part of it may had to do with the fact that many people coming of age in the early Eighties were not born until the Fifties had ended and didn't see anything in the decade about which to be nostalgic. I must admit that while I enjoy the music of the decade (Chuck Berry is hard to beat) and I love the cars they made then (tailfins just add something to a car), I have always hated the fashions of the era (poodle skirts and saddle shoes--*bleh*). Perhaps that is why I was never a fan of Happy Days and I have always hated Grease (although the lack of any good songs might have to do with that, too....).

Of course, much of the reason the fad ended may have had to do with why it began as well. In 1973 the United States was still deep in the Vietnam War, a war that was very unpopular with many Americans. The current president, Richard Nixon, was also unpopular, particularly as his administration was racked with controversy due to the Watergate scandal. Many Americans may have felt the need to escape to what they perceived as a simpler time. This was perhaps especially true of those who came of age during the Fifties. As a result, an industry for nostalgia started to grow, with the formation of Sha Na Na and the debut of the musical Grease. The movie American Graffiti tapped into this need to escape to another era and simply turned this need into an outright craze. By the end of the Seventies, the United States was no longer in Vietnam, Nixon was no longer president, and things were perhaps looking up for many people. As a result, many people may have no longer felt the need to escape to another decade.

Perhaps the main reason the Fifties nostalgia fad ended was that it may have simply run its course. By their very nature, fads are transient phenomena. One day coonskin caps are hot sellers; the next day they don't sell at all. Quite simply, many people may have simply tired of being nostalgic about the Fifties.

Regardless, the Fifties nostalgia craze of the Seventies did have some lingering consequences. Many rock stars from the Fifties and early Sixties saw their careers revived and their sales increased. The fad spurred interest in cars from the period, interest which has lasted to this day among automotive enthusiasts. A market was also created for nostalgia movies. From Diner to Dazed and Confused, all of these films owe something to the wave of nostalgia that swept America in the Seventies. Perhaps the most curious result of the nostalgia wave of the Seventies was a brand new phenomenon--people being nostalgic about American Graffiti, Happy Days, Sha Na Na, and so on. For the first time in the history of man, it seems that people are now able to be nostalgic about nostalgia....

Wednesday, 28 December 2005

Two Movies Set at Yuletide

When people think of Yuletide movies, they usually think of It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story. I can think of two movies set at the holidays that are rarely mentioned when the subject of Christmas movies come up. Both are two of the funniest comedies ever made, while one of them is perhaps the most romantic movie (short of Casablanca) of all time (indeed, I have to say I do identify with its hero...).

The first is The Man Who Came to Dinner, the 1942 classic. The movie was in turn based on the classic play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. the play debuted in 1939 and became an instant success. Both the play and the movie centre on Sheridan Whiteside, radio host, aurhor, lecturer, and insufferable curmudgeon. Visiting a small Ohio town, Whiteside breaks his leg and must stay with one of the upper middle class families there. He then proceeds to turn the family's lives upside down.

The plot takes place from shortly before the Yuletide to Christmas day. That having been said, there is little in the way of holiday sentiment in the movie. Instead it is one of the all time great comedies, with nonstop jokes and gags. Indeed, for those who think that Generation X invented pop culture references, this movie is proof that we didn't. There are references ranging from Sherlock Holmes to a very early reference to Superman. The screenplay, written by Julius and Philip Epstein (best known for Casablanca), is one of the funniest ever written. This is perhaps why, even though the movie is set at Christmas time, it is rarely mentioned with regards to Yuletide movies. People tend to think of it more as a laugh out loud comedy than a holiday film.

The other holiday movie not often mentioned with regards to Christmas is The Apartment. Released in 1960, The Apartment was Billy Wilder's masterpiece. Indeed, it won several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a clerk at the huge Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a unique problem. Becuase he once lent his apartment to someone who needed to change for a wedding, he now finds himself lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendevous. This puts him in good with his bosses, but makes his life miserable otherwise. His life is complicated even further by the torch Baxter carries for elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who in turn carries a torch for the head honcho, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, playing a heel for a change).

The Apartment takes place roughly from late November to New Year's Eve (the end of When Harry Met Sally draws a bit on The Apartment. In fact, one of the pivotal points of the plot takes place at Christmas. Despite this, it is rarely mentioned with regards to Yuletide movies. This is perhaps because Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond blended comedy, romance, and drama in the movie's screen play. Indeed, the movie realistically deals with the compromises made in the business world as well as the dysfunctional relationships (such as the one between Sheldrake and Kubelik) that sometimes get in the way of real love. It is not only one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, it is also one of the most romantic movies I have ever seen. One has to have sympathy for C. C. Baxter. Not only has he pined for Miss Kublik for literally ages, but he has the worst romantic rival in the form of his own boss (the vile Mr. Sheldrake). Indeed, it is easy to identify with Baxter. I think a lot of us guys have had the misfortune to stand by helplessly while the women we love get involved with absolute jerks...

It seems odd to me that neither The Man Who Came to Dinner nor The Apartment are often counted among Yuletide movies. In both films the holidays play a part in the plot--Whiteside must prepare for his annual Christmas Eve broadcast, the Consolidated Life Insurance Company's Christmas party has some important plot develoments. Still, they are rarely counted alongside It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story. I can only figure it is because they do not deal with holiday sentiment (although the same can be said of A Christmas Story as well...). At any rate, for me they count among the great holiday films of all time.

Monday, 26 December 2005

The Day After Christmas?

Today is the day after Christmas. Radio stations will stop playing Yuletide carols today. TV stations will stop airing holiday oriented programming. Many will take down their Christmas decorations. In effect, many will behave as if the holidays are over.

It wasn't always this way. There was a time when the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed. I am not sure when this changed. I seem to recall that in A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, Dickens makes reference to Twelfth Night. At any rate, it seems to me that at some point the Twelve Days of Christmas ceased to be observed, and I think I know why. In America, at least, it became conflated with the Christmas shopping season. While the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Yuletide proper, ran from the evening of December 24 (Christmas Eve) to January 6 (Twelfth Night), the Christmas shopping season runs from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Day.

None of this happened over night. Before the Christmas shopping season could overrun the Christmas season, many things had to fall in place. Indeed, prior the War Between the States, America was sharply divided when it came to the subject of Christmas. The Puritans were highly suspicious of Christmas. No less than Oliver Cromwell considered Yuletide customs to be "heathen traditions." Since New England was largely settled by Puritans, Christmas was not a major holiday there. Indeed, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts actually banned any observance of Christmas beyond attending church! Perhaps because of this, Christmas would not become a federal holiday until 1870. There was a very different situation in the American South. The South had largely been settled by Royalists (indeed, my mother's family came here to flee the Cromwellian dictatorship), who had no objections to the festiveness of Christmas. In the South, Christmas was the social event of the year. Indeed, the first states to recognise Christmas as a legal holiday were all in the South--Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838!

Before the Christmas shopping season could develop in America, Christmas first had to become a holiday that was celebrated nationwide. This happened gradually, as New England lost its Puritanical attitudes over the years and American merchants learned that there was money to made out of Christmas. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, sweet shops and candy stores in New York City began to capitalise on the holiday. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus's headquarters. The Christmas shopping season may well have already been in existence by 1870. It was that year that Macy's created its first Yuletide window display and also the first year that they had their first instore Santa Claus.

Another factor that had to fall into place to create the modern American Christmas shopping season was the creation of the holiday of Thanksgiving. In the beginning, Thanksgiving was largely a holiday observed only in New England and a few other states. In the South it simply was not celebrated--no doubt becuase of its Puritan origins. As early as 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national, legal holiday. Her fight to have the holiday legalised eventually paid off, with Abraham Lincoln signing it into law in 1863. With Thanksgiving now a legal holiday, American merchants could now capitalise on the day after that holiday as the first day of the Christmas shopping season.

I am not sure precisely when the day after Thanksgiving, now called Black Friday, became the first day of the Christmas shopping season, but it must have in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. At any rate it must have been well established by 1924. It was in that year that Macy's held its first parade in New York City, then called the Macy's Christmas Day Parade, even though it was held on Thanksgiving! Then as now, the parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. As further proof that the Christmas shopping season was well established by the early to mid-Twentieth Century, consider that in 1939 Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday of November at the request of business leaders who wanted a longer holiday shopping season. Eventually public pressure would force the President to move it back. At any rate, it stands as proof that the Christmas shopping season was already established as beginning with Thanksgiving.

If the Christmas shopping season was well established by the 1920s, then it should be no surprise that concerns over the commercialization of the holiday were already being expressed. In 1938 author and Christian minster J. Harold Gwynne preached that "spiritual values" were being buried by "commercial activity." The classic 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street was essentially a protest against the commercialization of the holiday. A similar protest againt such commercialization was expressed in A Charlie Brown Christmas, which debuted in 1965.

Whether the commercialization of Christmas is a good or bad thing I will leave to others to decide, but one thing I do believe--that the Christmas shopping season obliterated the traditional Twelve Days of the Yuletide from people's minds. Consider that as late as 1843, when A Christmas Carol was published, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a thriving tradition, but by 1943 they were only a memory recorded in a popular Christmas carol. Indeed, not only do people fail to recognise the Twelve Days of the Yuletide, but they tend to think of the Christmas season as the Christmas shopping season. They think of it as beginning the day after Thanksgiving and ending with Christmas Day. I have observed over the years more and more people putting up their holiday decorations on Thanksgiving and taking them down the day after Christmas. Often the airwaves are filled with Christmas movies and specials on Thanksgiving Day. This year I saw the first holiday themed commercials of the year one full week before Thanksgiving!

Now I suppose some people might ask why any of this matters. Indeed, some might ask why it matters to me, as I am not Christian (I celebrate Yule, not Christmas per se). Well, I think it matters for three basic reasons. First, it seems to me that Thanksgiving is in danger of losing its own identity. It seems to me that it is becoming less and less its own distinct holiday and more and more a part of the "holiday season." Given that I can see a need for Thanksgiving in the American landscape, given that I think it is generally a good idea to have a day set aside to give thanks to whatever gods one worships, I do not think it is beneficial for Thanksgiving to be absorbed by Christmas. Second, the Twelve Days of Christmas were preciesly that--twelve days. They were twelve days during which people gave gifts, partied, and enjoyed themselves. While the Christmas shopping season is technically longer (nearly a month long), it is also less festive. Much of it is spent shopping and worrying about preparing for the holidays. It is hardly as enjoyable as the Twelve Days of Christmas must have been. In modern day America, when people work more than they ever have, I think it is a good idea to have a long period when people can simply relax and enjoy themselves. Third, there is something to be said for tradition. The Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated before there even was a Christmas--the twelve days of the holiday known as Geol among the Anglo-Saxons (Yule is the modern word)and observed by nearly all the Germanic peoples. After the conversion to Christianity, many of the customs of Yule were absorbed by Christmas and the Twelve Days of Christmas as we knew them were born. And they were celebrated for centuries before dying out just recently. There is something to be said for the solace and enjoyment given by traditions which have been handed down for ages.

Unfortunately, I don't think any of this is going to change soon. Not only has the day after Thanksgiving long been established as the beginning of the holiday shopping season (and hence the holiday season in many's minds), but retailers are putting out Christmas goods earlier and earlier. At one time it was thought bad form to display any Christmas merchandise or decorations prior to Thanksgiving. Today it is standard procedure. Given that, I don't think we will be returning to the Twelve Days of the Yuletide sooner or later. For better or worse, the Christmas shopping season is here to stay.

Sunday, 25 December 2005

Yuletide TV Specials

About a year or two before my mother's death, she asked the question one December, "Why aren't they showing any Christmas specials?" I must admit that she wasn't the only one to notice that since the Eighties the American networks have not shown much in the way of Yuletide programming. Indeed, it seems to me that the only Christmas specials to air of late have been the perennial Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman.

It wasn't always like this. I remember that when I was growing up the networks would fill the airwaves in December with holiday special after holiday special, instead of reruns. Even regularly scheduled TV series would have their holiday episodes. In fact, I daresay that in the weeks leading up to December 25, not one night of primetime television did not have at least one holiday oriented show.

I have no idea what the first Christmas TV special was on television, but it seems to me that it may well have pre-dated the start of regular network broadcasts in the late Forties. At any rate, the networks started showing Christmas specials very early in the history of American television. One of the earliest was Amahl and the Night Visitors. In 1951 NBC commisioned composer Gian Carlo Menotti to write a Yuletide opera. The result was the tale of a handicapped young man who lived along the way to Bethlehem. They had difficulty finding a sponsor until Hallmark cards stepped in. Amahl and the Night Visitors became the very first Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

Of course, in the early days of network programming, Amahl and the Night Visitors was an exception to the rule. Most Yuletide specials were not dramatic presentations, but usually variety shows hosted by the biggest celebrities of the day. Bob Hope did his first Christmas special on NBC in 1954. His last one would be in 1993. Not to be outdone, Hope's comedy partner/rival Bing Crosby also had his fair share of Christmas specials. Beginning in 1955, Crosby began an annual tradition that would continue until 1977, the year that he died. A short list of the celebrities who had Christmas specials at any given time would include Andy Williams, The Carpenters, The Muppets, Judy Garland, and many others.

Among the earliest of these sorts of TV speicals was one aired December 25, 1950 on NBC. One Hour in Wonderland marks Walt Disney's first entrance into television, as well as one of the earliest examples of a major studio cooperating with the TV industry. The special was essentially a one hour promo for Disney's animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The basic concept of the special was that ventriloquist Edgar Bergen took his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd to a Christmas party held by Disney. There they got to see clips of Alice in Wonderland and other goodies. Disney followed this special up a year later, on December 25, 1951, with The Walt Disney Christmas Show, which was essentially a one hour promo for the studio's animated version of Peter Pan.

For the most part these Christmas specials engaged in the usual sentimentality associated with the season, although they could sometimes have some truly surreal moments. Among the strangest was in Bing Crosby's final, 1977 Christmas special, in which the crooner sang a duet of "The Little Drummer Boy"/"Peace on Earth" with glam rocker David Bowie! Stranger still was Mel Torme's appearance on Judy Garland Show Christmas Special from 1964. Garland refers to Torme as "Mort" and it seems all too clear that the two weren't getting along at the time. Perhaps even more surreal is the fact that Andy Williams' former wife, Claudette Longet, continued to appear on his specials long after they divorced. Longet was later convicted of her lover's murder.

The nature of Christmas specials changed dramatically in 1962 when NBC aired Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special produced for American television. Created by animation studio UPA in 1949, Quincy Magoo was a bullheaded and near sighted old curmudgeon who was constantly in out and of trouble. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Magoo was at the height of his popularity. It was then logical that Timex would sponsor a holiday special featuring the old coot. The concept of the special was simple--on Broadway Magoo played the role of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. The special proved popular enough to result in a regular series for Mr. Magoo, which ran for one season on primetime in 1964. The special itself became an annual event on NBC for several years.

Despite the success of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, it would not be the special that would create a stampede towards animated holiday shows in the Sixties and Seventies. That would be left to Rankin/Bass and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph was created in 1939 as part of a Montgormery Ward advertising campaign. He became even more famous in 1949 when Johnny Marks immortalised him in song. After Rankin/Bass produced the stop-motion animated series of shorts Tales of the Wizard of Oz, Arthur Rankin Jr. approached Marks about turning the hit song into a TV special. Marks was reluctant at first, but eventually gave in. The result was the most enduring Christmas special of all time. It has aired every year since its debut on NBC in 1964--a total of 41 years!

The success of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would lead Rankin/Bass to produce other specials, many for Christmas and other holidays. Among the Yuletide specials they produced were A Cricket on the Hearth (1967), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), and The Year Without Santa Claus (1974). Most of their output consisted of stop-motion animation, just as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was. Ironically, their second most famous holiday special would be done in cel animation. Frosty the Snowman, debuting in 1969, was not their first special done in cel animation, but it may be the most famous. It was based on the hit song and retold the story of the snowman come to life. Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, it has aired every year on one of the American networks ever since.

With the success of Rankin/Bass's holiday specials, many others entered the field. By the mid-Sixties and well in the Seventies, December was filled with animated Christmas shows. Besides Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the most successful may well be A Charlie Brown Christmas. In the mid-Sixties, the comic strip Peanuts was at the height of its success. Indeed, the Peanuts gang first appeared on television in 1960 in commercials for the Ford Falcon. In 1964 Lee Mendelson began a never to be completed documentary on Charles Shultz, the creator of Peanuts. It was not long after that Coca-Cola approached Mendelson about doing an animated Christmas special featuring the Peanuts gang. Animator Bill Melendez, who had produced the Ford Falcon ads and provided animated segments for Mendelson's documentary, was hired to do the animation. Despite the popularity of Peanuts at the time, A Charlie Brown Christmas very nearly did not make it on the air. CBS executives hated the special and worried about the show's religious content (for those very few of you who have never seen it, at one point Linus quotes the story of Jesus' birth from the New Testament). Fortunately, it was too late for CBS to change their schedule and the show went on as planned. It debuted on December 9, 1965 and has aired every year ever since. It aired on CBS for over 30 years before ABC outbid CBS for the rights to air A Charlie Brown Christmas and other Peanuts specials.

Another holdiay classic was brought to us courtesy of the greatest children's author (and the greatest poet) of the 20th century and arguably the greatest animator as well. In 1957 Dr. Seuss published How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the tale of how a holiday loathing individual (the Grinch) attempted to take Christmas from the innocent inhabitants of Whoville. The book became a bestseller and Seuss's best known work. Animator Chuck Jones (best known for his work with Warner Brothers) and Seuss had worked together on the Private Snafu training films for the U.S. Army during World War II. It was perhaps inevitable that Jones would approach his old friend Seuss about turning his best selling book into an animated Christmas special. Seuss provided the script for the special, an expanded version of his book. Boris Karloff, famed monster star, narrated the special, while Thurl Ravencroft (best known as Tony the Tiger) provided the vocals for the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Jones gifted the special with his usual over the top animation style. How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted on December 18, 1966 to critical acclaim. It even won a Peabody award. It was a holiday tradition for many, many years.

If there was a golden age for Christmas specials on American television, it was probably the mid-Sixties. At this time several major celebrities of the era hosted their own specials, among them Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Perry Como, and so on. It must also be pointed out that the three of the most famous Christmas specials debuted within a three year period in the mid-Sixties: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1964, A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966. I don't think any three year period before or since has produced as many holiday classics as the years between 1964 and 1966.

Sadly, as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies and the Seventies to the Eighties, fewer and fewer Christmas specials aired on the networks. I rather believe that part of this may be because much of the old guard had died--Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Jack Benny, and so on--and younger celebrities didn't seem much interested in doing television. At the same time the price of animation (both cel and stop motion) went up, so that animated holiday specials were more expensive to produce. At any rate, it seems to me that by the time I graduated high school, the Christmas specials of old had largely given way to reruns of regularly scheduled TV series in December.

Even as someone who celebrates Yule rather than Christmas, this seems very sad to me. As a child much of the Yuletide spirit was generated by those old holiday specials. Indeed, I got a good deal of enjoyment out of them. I can remember looking forward to seeing Rudolph... and A Charlie Brown Christmas each year. I can even remember the night Frosty the Snowman debuted--it was a Sunday and we had just visited relatives that afternoon. It saddens me that many children today will miss the enjoyment of the old holiday specials, having to make due with only the three perennials: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman (even the Grinch has disappered from network airwaves). The old holiday specials were certainly better than reruns...

Saturday, 24 December 2005

Holiday Rock

For many of you out there today is Christmas Eve. For me it is otherwise signficant, as it was on this day that someone dearest to me and closest to my heart was born. I do hope that she has had a very happy Yuletide so far and that she has an even happier birthday. I have often joked that she was my Yule gift when I was six years old (even though I wouldn't know about the gift until years later) and I honestly believe that.

Anyhow, with today being what it is, I thought I would write about a holiday topic. When it comes to rock 'n' roll Christmas songs, most people's knowledge goes ony so far as "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." And while the genre has never produced many classic holiday tunes, it has produced its fair share.

Indeed, the first Christmas rock song not only pre-dates "Jingle Bell Rock," but even pre-dates the term "rock 'n' roll." In 1947 Charles Brown releasead "Merry Christmas, Baby." As proof that the song is indeed rock before that term even existed, consider that it has been remade by everyone from Chuck Berry to Bruce Springsteen, often with very little change from the original. The song breaks from many traditional carols in being openly romantic, even erotic in subject matter.

For that matter, Elvis Presley beat "Jingle Bell Rock" when it came to making a rock 'n' roll holiday tune. "Blue Christmas" was released in 1957. The song is one of the first of many holiday rock songs that dealt with the idea of someone being without their loved one during the holidays. It breaks with many traditional songs and standards in being openly melancholy about the holidays.

This is certainly not the case with Chuck Berry's "Run, Run, Rudolph." The song is a joyous celebration of Santa's most famous reindeer. The song was supposedly written by Marvin Lee Brodie and John D. Marks--the latter having written the original "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." That having been said, the song has the signature sound of Chuck Berry, clearly four bar blues. It doesn't sound that different from "Roll Over Beethoven" or "Johnny B. Goode." One has to wonder if Berry wasn't denied a composer's credit on the song.

While "Jingle Bell Rock" was not the first holiday rock song, that does not reduce its siginificance. It was arguably the first song that made a point of mixing rock with Christmas. It was originally released by Bobby Helms in 1957 and re-released in 1958. There are those who argue that it is not a rock song at all, but utter pop, although I have to disagree. Although a bit watered down when compared to the songs of such acts as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the song is clearly rock to me.

Perhaps the second most famous Christmas rock song was also written by Johnny Marks of "Rudolph..." fame. Released in 1960 and performed by Brenda Lee, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was a smash hit and became a standard. It has been remade many times since, by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Jessica Simpson.

It would be left to Phil Spector, however, to produce a truly great Christmas rock song. In 1963 A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector was released. The bulk of the album consisted of such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" treated to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production and turned into rock 'n' roll. The only original song on the album was also the single greatest Christmas rock song of all time, perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all time, period. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," performed by Darlene Love, is the plea of a woman without her beloved at Yuletide. The song turns the conventions of Christmas on their head. The snow falling is not a sign of joy, but serves the same purpose of rain in other songs, that of illustrating the singer's sorrow. Even the bells ringing are indicative of the loss the singer feels. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" is not only the saddest Christmas song of all time, but also one of the saddest rock songs of all time. It is a powerful evocation of what it is like to be without the one you love at the Yuletide (something I sadly have experience with...). It has become Darlene Love's most famous song. Indeed, it is an annual ritual that she performs it each year on Late Night with David Letterman right before Christmas.

Rock has not produced many classic Christmas songs. Indeed, even no less than The Beach Boys failed to produce a classic holiday tune. In 1964 they released The Beach Boys Christmas Album. The album featured songs that came close to classic--the originals "Little St. Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys," but for the most part consisted of rather standard treatments of such standards as "Frosty the Snow Man" and "White Christmas."

The Beatles never released a Christmas song to the public (although they did do so to their fan club), but a Beatle would eventually create the greatest Christmas song short of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home." John Lennon meant "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" to eseentially be propaganda. It was a part of Lennon and Yoko Ono's campaign for peace and protest against the Vietnam War. The song went far beyond its creator's intended purpose, however, to become a Yuletide classic. It has been covered many times since, from artists ranging from The Corrs to The Alarm.

Of course, rock 'n' roll originally started as a music of rebellion, so it should be no surprise that artists sometimes took skewed views of the holidays. It was the British Invasion's court jester, Ray Davies of The Kinks, who wrote just such a song. Released in 1976 by The Kinks, "Father Christmas" is not about holiday joy, but about a poor bloke playing Father Christmas who is robbed by street punks. The chorus "Father Christmas, give us some money...:" is about as far as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as one can get. Another skewed view of the holidays was given to us by AC/DC on their 1990 album The Razor's Edge. "Mistress for Christmas." The title sums up the song. It is simpy one man's wish for sex on Christmas. Leave it to AC/DC to create the first holiday sex song....

Sex also plays a role in Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again." For the most part the song focuses on the cyclical nature of the holidays, addressing such traditional imagery as ringing bells, shopping, fires in the fireplace, et. al. It also contains its share of eroticism, however, making reference to the custom of kissing under the mistletoe with the lines "And Christmas is a rockin' time, put your body next to mine/Underneath the mistletoe we go, we go..."

Of course, rock artists have remade their share of the classics. As mentioned earlier, A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector featured adaptations of many standards, including a classic rendition of Parade of the Wooden Soldiers by The Crystals. Bruce Springsteen added electric guitars to the Gene Autry classic "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," while John Mellencamp gave "I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus" the rock treatment. In fact, where holiday songs are concerned, I daresay that more rock artists have remade standards than written original tunes.

Rock 'n' roll has been around now for over fifty years. The holiday season, if one counts the Yule celebration of the Germanic peoples and Saturnalia of the Romans, has been around for thousands of years. I think it safe to say that more rock artists will continue to write rock songs for the holidays, as well as remake standard Yuletide tunes. Only time will tell if any of these become classics.

Friday, 23 December 2005

A Musical Interlude for the Holidays

Okay, in anticipation of what is for many a very important day this Sunday, I thought I would provide some links to some holiday rock 'n' roll....

"Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley

"Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee

I have to apologise about not having a link to "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available online. It is the greatest Christmas rock song of all time and arguably one of the greatest rock songs of all time, period. And it does describe the way a lot of us feel at the holidays at times....

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

O Tannenbaum

One of my fondest childhood memories is going out with my father and my brother to pick out and cut down our Christmas tree. We fortunate enough to live on a farm filled with cedar trees, so it wasn't very hard to find one. We never took the best trees, leaving those to grow to adulthood. Instead we selected trees that would look pretty in the house, but probably would not make it if left in the pasture or the woods. My father was apparently born a conservationist.

The origins of the Christmas tree are largely unknown, although there are no shortage of claims as to the origin of the custom. Some look to the pagan religions of pre-Christian Europe for the origins of Christmas trees, while others look to Christianity for explanations of the custom. It is safe to say that most of these claims are largely apocryphal.

One of the most popular Christian explanations for the origin of the Christmas tree centres on St. Boniface (also known as Winfred), who lived from about 675 CE to 755 CE. According to legend Boniface cut down an oak (held sacred by both the Celtic and Germanic peoples) in front of some newly converted Christians. The oak stump then split into four pieces and a fir tree sprung up in its place. This seems unlikely to me, if for any other reason than the fact that evergreens may also have been held sacred by the pagan peoples of northern Europe (see below).

Another Christian explanation is that Martin Luther found himself impressed by a woodland that he cut down a fir tree, took it home, and decorated it. Given that Luther lived from 1483 to 1546 CE and the first reports of the Tannenbaum are from only a few decades later, this too seems unlikely.

A much more likely Christian explanation for how the Christmas tree originated may be found in the morality and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. Among the most popular of these dealt with Adam and Eve, and it was often performed on December 24. Central to the play was "the Paradise Tree" or "Paradeisbaum." In the summer this would naturally be an apple tree, but in winter they would simply use an evergreen decorated with apples and holy wafers. Eventually people started bringing evergreens into their houses at Yuletide and decorating, perhaps in imitation of the Paradise Trees of the plays. Supposedly in parts of Bavaria, trimmed firs are still called "Paradeis."

Of course, Christmas trees have been condemned as a pagan custom by many Christians. No less than Oliver Cromwell condemend many Yuletide customs as "heathen traditions (this perhaps explains why my mother's ancestors were Cavaliers...)." And not surprisingly, some have looked to paganism for an explanation for the origin of Christmas trees. Some look to ancient Rome for the origin of the Christmas tree, pointing out that they would decorate their houses with clippings from evergreen shrubs during Saturnalia and that they would decorate trees in honour of the god Bacchus. This explanation doesn't seem too likely to me, as the first reported Christmas trees occur in northern Europe in areas that never fell under the sway of Rome. Yet others look to the Druids, who reportedly held trees sacred, for origins of the Tannenbaum. This too is problematic as the first reported Christmas trees appeared in Latvia and Germany, not areas occupied by the Celts.

A more likely heathen explanation for the origin of the Christmas tree may lie in the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples themselves. From Roman sources we know that the Germanic peoples had holy groves where they would worship their gods. The Laws of the Lombardic king Luitprand from the 8th century CE condemns the practice of worshipping trees and springs. Now there is little evidence that the Germanic peoples actually worshipped trees and springs, although there are instances in ancient sources where they did leave offerings for gods and nature spirits at trees and springs. An instance of this may be seen in the Life of Barbatus (a 7th century bishop), in which the Lombards are said to hang a hide from a tree and then hurl spears at it as part of a religious rite.

Indeed, central to the cosmography of Norse myth is the World Tree, which either contains or supports all the Worlds. That the idea of the World Tree may have been found among other Germanic peoples may be seen in references to the Irminsul. It is first mentioned in the Annals of Frankish Kings from the 8th and 9th centuries. Archbishop Hincmar of Reims (who lived from 806 to 882 CE) later described precisely what the Irminsul was. It was a large tree trunk which the Saxons held sacred. He tells us that in Latin it was called the "Universal Column," as if it supported everything. Indeed, the word Irminsul would appear to mean exactly that in the Germanic languages. What is more, it is an apt description for the World Tree of Norse myth.

What is more, it is possible that the World Tree of Germanic myth was seen as an evergreen. In the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, the World Tree is described as evergreen, although it also has characteristics of fruit trees. In The History of the Bishops of Hamburg, Paul the Deacon describes a large tree that stood outside the temple at Uppsala, Sweden, which was green in both summer and winter. It may not be too far fetched to assume that in parts of Germany individuals may have continued to leave gifts at evergreen trees (standing in for the World Tree) long after they had been converted to Christianity. Eventually, they may have even started to bring such trees inside.

Indeed, it seems to me that the origins of the Christmas tree could be both heathen and Christian. On the one hand it seems to me that people may have continued leaving gifts at trees in Germany long after the conversion to Christiantiy. Indeed, it seems possible that people may have held some reverence for trees long after they became Christian. This could be born out by the central role that the Paradise Trees played in the moraltiy plays, which seems to be a bit out of proprotion to the position occupied by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. I guess I don't have to point out that the Paradise Trees were evergreens decorated with fruit while the World Tree of Norse myth may have been seen as an evergreen with characteristics of a fruit tree. On the other hand, it seems to me that the idea of bringing an evergreen in doors and decorating it probably does stem from the Paradise Trees of the morality plays. It could well be that the similarity between Christmas trees and Paradise Trees is due to more than just coincidence. And both seem to have largely been German in origin. At any rate, it seems possible to me that the Tannenbaum could have been a result of the confluence of ideas both pagan and Christian.

At any rate, it seems to me that we will never know the origins of the Christmas tree. We can only offer theories as to its origins. What we do know it that the custom is first reported in the 1510 CE in Riga, Latvia. In 1521 the German Princess Helene of Mecklembourg brought the Tannenbaum to Paris after her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Thereafter there are references to Christmas trees as being a custom among German families. The custom of the Tannenbaum was brought to America by German settlers and to England by Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert (originally from Germany). Despite their popularity today, there have been those who condemned the custom of Christmas trees. The preacher Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio became the first man to place a Tannenbaum in an American church in 1851. This act brought howls of protests from some parishoners, who thought it a pagan custom.

Regardless, the Christmas tree soon became a part of the American holiday celebration. Indeed, songs mentioning Christmas trees date back to the 16th century in Germany. Perhaps the most famous Christmas tree song of them all is indeed German. "O Tannenbaum" was written by Ernst Anschütz of Leipzig in 1824. Since then there have been dozens of carols either about or mentioning Christmas trees--"The Littlest Christmas Tree," "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," and so on.

As an adult I celebrate Yule rather than Christmas (keep in mind I am not Christian...). And every year I put up a tree. Alas, these days it is an artificial one, although I still have fond memories of seeking out that special cedar that would occupy a central place in our living room. To me, it just isn't the Yuletide without a tree.

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

A History of Kong

Peter Jackson's King Kong topped the box office this weekend. It is little wonder why. Beyond being the product of the Oscar winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong is the remake of the classic 1933 movie that long ago became a part of Anglo-American pop culture. I don't think it would be exaggerating to say that Kong is one of the pivotal characters in cinematic history.

Indeed, today we take the original 1933 King Kong for granted. Most people do not realise that it was the Star Wars of its day. It was easily the biggest box office winner of 1933. People would literally stand in line to see it. The movie originated in the mind of Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was quite a character--he was an adventurer, aviator, documentary filmmaker, and movie producer. Indeed, the character of Carl Denham was in a large part based on himself! The roots of King Kong go back to Cooper's childhood, when he became fascinated by gorillas when reading a book on exploration.

Of course, to bring his giant ape to life, Cooper would need to find a way of creating a 25 foot gorilla. He found the way in the form of special effects technician Willis O'Brien. O'Brien had provided the stop motion effects for The Lost World, one of the biggest movies of the silent era. At the time O'Brien was working on a project called Creation, another movie about dinosaurs. Cooper persuaded O'Brien to give up on Creation to work on King Kong instead. For the time King Kong's effects were mind blowing. It made many innovations in stop motion animation and rear projection.

It would seem to be the movie's plot, however, that made it a classic. Contrary to popular belief, King Kong was not the first "giant monster on the loose" movie, although it is arguably the most influential. I rather suspect the first "giant monster on the loose" movie was The Lost World, in the climax of which a dinosaur rages through London. But Kong was not a mere mindless beast intent on destroying New York City. Kong was a thinking, feeling creature who had fallen for beautiful actress Ann Darrow. Finding himself in a strange atmosphere, Kong naturally acts out of fear and seeks out the one thing that means anything to him--Ann. Like the Frankenstein monster of Universal's classic films, Kong is not so much a monster as an intelligent, emotional creature who has no place in modern, human society.

One little known bit of Kong history is that there exists a novelization of the original movie. The novel King Kong was published in December 1932, shortly before the movie's release, and is credited to Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace, although it appears to have been ghost written by Delos W. Lovelace. The novel follows the movie closely, although it includes the spider pit sequence in tact (the sequence was cut from the movie because Cooper thought it was too frightening) and it does not include the scene in which Kong destroys a subway train (reportedly added because Cooper did not want the movie to run 13 reels).

The success of King Kong virtually created the genre of "giant monster on the loose" movies and inspired many imitators, among them Cooper's own Mighty Joe Young. The success of King Kong immediately spawned a sequel. Made in a rush and released the same year, Son of Kong has always suffered in comparison to the original movie. This having been said, it is a fine movie that stands quite well on its own. It realistically portrays the aftermath of Kong's rampage through New York, in which Denham must flee the city and finds himself back on Skull Island. And while the original was a horror/adventure movie, Son of Kong plays as a comedy/adventure. O'Brien's stop motion effects are still impressive. Although I am not sure I would call it a classic, it is a very good movie on its own.

Kong would not be seen on screen again until the Japanese Toho Studios decided to pit the most famous American giant against the most famous Japanese giant. Released in 1962 Kingukongu tai Gojira or King Kong vs. Godzilla pitted the giant ape against the giant lizard. Contrary to popular belief, the movie did not feature an American ending in which Kong wins and a Japanese ending in which Godzilla wins. Instead, the movie ends in a draw between the two. It must be said that the Japanese Kong is very different from the Kong we know and love. He is bigger and not hardly as lovable. Although quite rightly famous, King Kong vs. Godzilla is not a particularly good movie. Indeed, Kong looks like a man in an ape suit(which he was).

Kong's fame made him a natural for Saturday morning cartoons and in 1966 the animated series King Kong made its bow on ABC. The cartoon featured Professor Bond and his two children befriending the big ape on Mondo Island (he apparently did not die atop the Empire State Building). Kong would battle such villains as Dr. Who and the hunter Ulrich von Kramer, not to mention various giant beasties. This cartoon is historic in that it marks the first time that Japanese animators worked on an American cartoon. It is also historic in being the first Saturday morning cartoon to debut in prime time. It had an hour long special on September 6, 1966 on ABC. I really don't remember much about the animated series, so I have no idea if it was any good or not. It has been released on DVD, so I might soon have the chance to find out.

Kong appeared in another Japanese movie from Toho Studios, in this case Kingukongu no gyakushu or King Kong Escapes as it is know to English speakers. The plot has a group of explorers who encounter Kong, who then takes a liking to a member of the expedition, Lt. Susan Miller. Unfortunately, Kong is captured by the evil Dr. Who and must later battle Mecha-Kong, a robotic version of the great ape. Naturally, Kong rampages through Tokyo, as would be expected. Unfortunately, King Kong Escapes is bad even by Japanese monster movie standards and is probably best avoided. Beyond King Kong vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes, Toho had intended to do another Kong film. Fortunately, the movie became the Godzilla movie Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster instead.

Through the years there were attempts at other projects centred on Kong. At one point Hammer Films, famous for their horor movies, had wanted to remake the film. They dropped the project after they failed to get the rights from RKO. Some of the test footage they shot did find its way into a Volkswagen commercial. In the Seventies Universal wanted to make a big budget version of the classic, set in the Thirties. Sadly, they backed out of the project when producer Dino De Laurentiis announced his plans to remake the film.

Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 remake of King Kong is one of the most notorious remakes of all time. Originally, De Laurentiis has intended to use a giant, life sized robot of Kong throughout the movie. As it turned out, the robot proved not to be functional and appears in less than a minute of the film. What we see instead is Rick Baker in an ape suit. And sadly, that is what it looks like--Rick Baker in an ape suit. Indeed, when Kong walks, he walks more like a line backer than a gorilla! The film's shortcomings don't stop there. Skull Island boasts no dinosaurs and even looks downright pleasant (hardly the terrifying place of the 1933 and 2005 versions). In fact, the only other beastie is a rather fake looking giant snake. While the script boasts some humour and a few great observations (such as Jack Prescott's observations about the fate of the natives of Skull Island), it is ultimately very poor in quality. Indeed, the climax atop the World Trade Center (not the legendary Empire State Building--a decision which actually caused protests), is about as anticlimatic as possible. The great ape is brought down not by planes, but by helicopters! Jessica Lange, although unarguably beautiful, had yet to hone her acting skills. Her performance is uneven at best. Given how bad the film is, it is easy to forget that it was one of the most anticipated movies of 1976. There was a lot of buzz around the movie. Indeed, it made $7,023,921 in its opening weekend. That might not sound like much now, but in the Seventies, that was a lot of money.

Amazingly enough, there was a sequel to this turkey made. King Kong Lives was released in 1988 and has Kong given an artifical heart transplant and paired with a giant, female gorilla. And, yes, the movie is as bad as it sounds.

In 1998 an animated musical version of the classic story, titled The Mighty Kong, was released straight to video. It featured Dudley Moore as the voice of Carl Denham. While set in the 1930s, the animated movie does take some liberties with the plot. Basically a kid's film, it is not highly regarded.

That brings us to Peter Jackson's 2005 remake. I have already reviewed the film, but I think it is safe to say that it is the first film since the original to capture Kong as he was first envisioned. Indeed, the film is a masterpiece. I know many purists will howl at this, but I honestly think it surpasses the original in quality.

Kong is one of the characters who have found found a place in Anglo-American pop culture. He has appeared in numerous commercials and even in a Beatles movie (behind one of the many doors in The Beatles film Yellow Submarine is Kong reaching for Fay Wray in a New York skyscraper). Like the Frankenstein monster and Superman, he has become part of the collective unconscious of modern society. Kids who have never seen the original movie even recognise him. I think it is safe to say that he will continue to fascinate people for many years to come.

Sunday, 18 December 2005

King Kong (2005)

"The beast looked upon the face of beauty. Beauty stayed his hand, and from that moment he was as one dead."
(Carl Denham, King Kong 2005, paraphrasing a quote from King Kong 1933)

"There are only four questions of value in life..What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love."
(Don Juan De Marco, from the film of the same name)

It is a rare thing when a remake surpasses the original film upon which it was based in quality. In fact, more often than not the results are disastrous. A few examples of this are the 1997 version of Psycho, the 2001 version of Planet of the Apes, and a 1976 Dino De Laurentiis movie entitled King Kong. It would seem, then, that Peter Jackson has accomplished, if not the impossible, then at least the highly unlikely. He has made a remake that is actually better than the original.

I realise that many fans of the 1933 King Kong probably read my last remark with disbelief. Not a few probably are accusing me of blasphemy. After all, the 1933 King Kong is an unabashed classic. It is one of the most influential movies of all time, inspiring filmmakers from Ray Harryhausen to, well, Peter Jackson. Its iconography is part of Anglo-American pop culture--who can't look on the Empire State Building and not think of the great ape? And I must confess that the original King Kong is one of my favourite films of all time. Indeed, I wore out my VHS copy from watching it too often and I bought it the moment it came out on DVD. But I cannot lie. I honestly think Peter Jackson has taken a masterpiece and created an even greater masterpiece based upon it.

Indeed, it is hard for me to know where to even begin. I suppose the most obvious place to start is the film's astounding special effects. Kong looks real. This is not a stop motion puppet as in the original film (which was state of the art for the era and still holds up fairly well) or a man in a monkey suit (as in De Laurentiis' mammoth piece of garbage). This a CGI creation superior even to Gollum of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is not enough that this Kong battles T. rexs and climbs the Empire State Building, this Kong emotes as well as the best actors. He displays a wide range of emotions through his facial expressions, from rage to jealousy to love. The state of the art FX wizardry doesn't end with Kong. There are dinosaurs and other beasties, not to mention an incredibly accurate, realistic creation of New York City circa 1933 that involves CGI, miniatures, and a four block set. It cannot be said that Jackson and his crew did not do their research. His New York City of 1933 looks like the real thing, right down to the streetcars.

Despite its state of the art technology, Jackson's King Kong feels very much like an old time movie. Many films today would have us on Skull Island within the first ten minutes. Not so with Jackson's remake. It is nearly an hour before we even see Skull Island and its best known inhabitant. That hour is spent setting up the milieu of Depression Era New York and developing the characters. By the time the viewer reaches Skull Island, he or she will feel as if he knows actress Ann Darrow (the exquisite Naomi Watts), flashy producer Carl Denham (Jack Black), and screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) as well as his or her next door neighbours. That character development is made all the easier by the performances of the actors. Indeed, I believe it would be a grave injustice if Naomi Watts does not receive an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Her Ann Darrow is beautiful, sexy, funny, and smart. It is easy to see why Kong falls for her. Jack Black does well as Denham as well, a flamboyant character who is one part Darryl Zanuck, one part Merrian C. Cooper, and one part P. T. Barnum. Kudos must also go to Andy Serkis, whose movements provided the model for Kong. Indeed, Serkis even provides the roar for the big guy!

What makes Jackson's King Kong so great goes beyond its state of the art FX and the performances of its cast. At the heart of the film is the work of Peter Jackson, who not only directed the movie, but co-wrote the screenplay with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Jackson has captured the heart of the original King Kong. Neither the 1933 version nor the 2005 version are giant monster movies. Instead they are both stories about love. And it is the love that Kong has for Ann Darrow that Jackson brings to the fore of the movie. Taken not only with her blonde good looks, but her spunk, intelligence, and sense of humour as well (she seems to be the only woman who ceased to fear him after a time), Kong is literally willing to die for Ann. To protect her he faces giant lizards and even an entire family of Tyrannosaurus rexs. Indeed, one gets the feeling that he even climbs the Empire State Building because of Ann. Here Kong is, the inhabitant of an ancient island facing 20th century technology. He knows that he will die in the end, but he must protect the one he loves. After years of living alone, Kong at last found a reason to live for and to die for.

Indeed, it is the climax atop the world's most famous skyscraper that makes Jackson's King Kong superior to the original. It is not simply the advanced FX technology, it is the scenes between Ann and Kong. Both know what is going to happen. Both know that in the end the biplanes will win. Yet neither will give the other one up. It is arguably one of the most tragic and most romantic endings of any film.

If the original film continues to be popular with grown men long after they have ceased to be boys, perhaps it is because we can sympathise with Kong, even identify with him. I know I do. Peter Jackson's remake increases the sympathy for Kong and identification with him. Forget that he is a giant gorilla. He is Everyman.

Here I must point out that despite the fact that it is a tragedy, Jackson's King Kong does have a sense of humour. There are some hilarious scenes between Denham and Ann, between Driscoll and Ann, and even between Kong and Ann. And there are a number of injokes for fans of Merrian C. Cooper and the original King Kong, not to mention one injoke that only long time fans of Peter Jackson will get (and it doesn't have to do with Heavenly Creatures or LotR).

I realise that there are those who will scoff, that there will be doubters who read this review. But Jackson's King Kong is a truly great film. It is an old time adventure story and a story about love that will bring out the kid in any adult wiling to be a kid again. Forget Brokeback Mountain and Pride and Prejudice. King Kong is the best film of this year.

Saturday, 17 December 2005

John Spencer R.I.P.

John Spencer, best known for playing Leo McGarry, the chief of staff on The West Wing, died suddenly from a heart attack on December 16. He was only 58. He would have turned 59 on December 20.

John Spencer was born John Speshock around Patterson, New Jersey. At age 16 he attended the Professional Children's School. By 1963 he had a recurring role on The Patty Duke Show as cousin Cathy's boyfriend Henry Anderson. He attended Fairleigh Dickenson University, then New York University. He never finished college, dropping out to return to acting.

Much of John Spencer's career was spent on the stage. Early in his career he worked in regional theatre and New York, appearing in Lakeboat and The Glass Menagerie. He appeared on Broadway in such shows as Boom Boom Room (1973), Execution of Justice (1986), and The Day Room (1988). In 1981 he won an Obie for his work in the off Broadway play Still Life.

Spencer made his film debut in the movie Echoes in 1983. He went onto play in such films as War Games, Black Rain, Presumed Innocent. But it was on television that he would have his biggest impact. In 1988 he landed a role on the soap opera Another World. In 1990 he joined the cast of L.A. Law. He would go onto appear in the short lived series Trinity before being cast as Chief of Staff McGarry on The West Wing.

I must say that I am saddened by Spencer's death. While I have not been a regular viewer of The West Wing in ages, I watched L.A. Law loyally and, of course, I remember him from The Patty Duke Show. He always impressed me as a consumate professional, an actor who did his job and did his job well. It is sad that he had to pass on at such a young age.

Thursday, 15 December 2005

Son of Kong

In 1933 King Kong was the blockbuster of the year. People lined up to see it. According to IMDB, the movie grossed $1,700,000--this at a time when the average movie ticket cost about 25 cents! King Kong was pretty much the Star Wars or Titanic of its day. Such success naturally demanded a sequel. Son of Kong was rushed into production and released the same year. Sadly, it did not do as well at the box office as the original Kiong Kong.

Much of this is perhaps due to the fact that Son of Kong is simply not as good as King Kong. It does not have such iconic scenes as Kong's battle with the t rex, let alone his final moments atop the Empire State Building. And there is not nearly as much as action or excitement. That having been said, it is not a bad film. In fact, it is a rather good one that holds up well today.

Indeed, the movie is rather realistic in portraying the aftermath of Kong's romp through New York City. Filmmaker Carl Denham finds himself burdened with dozens of lawsuits and about to be indicted by a Grand Jury. Going into the shipping business in the East Indies, he eventually finds his way back to Skull Island where he encounters Kong's offspring.

If the film's reputation has suffered over the years, it is perhaps because of comparisons with the original King Kong. While King Kong moves the viewer swiftly to Skull Island, Son of Kong takes a while to get there. And while King Kong is nearly ninety minutes in length, Son of Kong is only about an hour long. Worse yet, while Kong occupies the screen for much of the first movie, his son only gets a little screen time in the second. Finally, while King Kong is definitely an action/adventure/horror movie, Son of Kong is played largely for comedy.

Here I should point out that it is unfair to compare Son of Kong to King Kong. The movie does stand up on its own. The movie moves at a fairly good pace and involves the viewer. Once the plot reaches Skull Island, there is no lack of excitement. Perhaps the movie's biggest flaw (besides the son of Kong being on so briefly) is that its ending is rather abrupt. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are exciting, but they bring this movie to an all too abrupt end.

Son of Kong is a must see for any fan of the original movie. It is also a good film (although I am not sure I would grant it "classic" status) that any fan of old movies should see.

Tuesday, 13 December 2005

In Dreams

I won't go into the reason why, but today I am not in a particuarly good mood. I find myself in the mood for Roy Orbison songs again. One of my favourite Orbison songs is "In Dreams." The song went to #7 on the Billboard charts upon its release in 1963. It was also featured prominently in the movie Blue Velvet.

The concept behind the song is fairly simple. A fellow has apparnetly lost the woman he loves; henceforth, he can only have her in his dreams. It is one of the most depressing songs I think Orbison ever recorded (which is really saying something). It is also a song with which anyone who has lost someone can identify; I know I can.

My only caveat about the song is the reference to the Sandman as a "candy coloured clown." Maybe I've read too many Neil Gaiman Sandman comic books and listened to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" one too many times, but I never have pictured the Sandman as candy coloured...

"In Dreams" by Roy Orbison

Saturday, 10 December 2005

Richard Pryor R. I. P.

Comedian Richard Pryor died this morning at age 65 from a heart attack. He had been suffering for many years from mutiple sclerosis.

Richard Pryor was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois. He claimed to have grown up in a brothel run by his grandmother. He dropped out of school early and served for two years in the United States Army. Following his military stint, Pryor started doing stand up comedy in comedy clubs. He made his first appearance on television in 1964 on On Broadway Tonight. This was followed by several apperances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Pryor also made guest appearances on such series as The Wild Wild West and The Mod Squad.

Although most of Pryor's material seems tame by today's standards, Pryor's routines were sometimes considered shocking in the late Sixties and early Seventies. He sometimes used obscenitites and even made free use of the "N" word. Much of his material focused on racial inequality.

It was in the Seventies that Pryor came into his own. He was a regular on The Kraft Music Hall in 1966 and in the Seventies appeared many times on The Tonight Show. Beginning with The Phynx in 1970, Pryor started appearing in movies as well. By the mid-Seventies he was one of the most successful comedians in the United States and made a series of hit films, from Silver Streak to Brewster's Millions. In 1977 Pryor had his own short lived variety show on NBC, killed because his material often offended the network's Broadcast Standards department.

In addition to acting and appearing on various variety shows, Pryor was also a screenwriter. He wrote for both The Flip Wilson Show and Sanford and Son. He collaborated with Mel Brooks on the screenplay for Blazing Saddles and wrote the story for Bustin' Loose.

Pryor's life was often complicated to say the least. He was married six times and had three children. By his own admission he was a "junkie." In 1980 he caught himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Not surprisingly, he incorporated the incident into his routine. In 1978 he was sentenced for failing to file income taxes. In 1978 he allegedly fired at a car in which there were two of his wife of the time's friends. Eventualy he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

For all his personal failings, I always did like Richard Pryor. He pushed the envelope in his early performances and refused to tone down his act even when he became famous. In 1977 he preferred for his show to go off the air rather than be cut to pieces by NBC's censors. He also focused on racial injustice at a time when the Civil Rights movement was well underway. Most of all, however, Richard Pryor was funny. As offensive as his language could be at times (I have never liked the "N" word), he could also be absolutely hilarious. He definietely had an influence on many comics who followed him, from Robin Williams to Chris Rock. I don't think he'll soon be forgotten.

Friday, 9 December 2005

When Harry Met Sally

It seems to me that since the Sixties, truly great romantic comedies have been few and far between. Aside from the films of Woody Allen, I can only think of two off the top of my head. One is rather recent--Down With Love from 2003. The other is from all the way back in 1989. When Harry Met Sally has numbered among my favourite films ever since I first saw it.

If When Harry Met Sally is one of the truly great romantic comedies, much of it is due to Nora Ephron's screenplay. Ephron created two charming characters in Harry and Sally, each saddled with his or her own neuroses. Indeed, the progression of their relationship from acquaintances who can barely tolerate to each other to best friends to soul mates may well be one of the most realistic portrayals of a relationship on film. What is more is that the film also features some of the wittiest and sharpest dialogue of any film in recent memory.

Of course, Nora Ephron's script would have been worthless without a cast to breathe life into her characters. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan make Harry and Sally flawed, yet charming and loveable (indeed, I think if my mother had her way, I would have married Meg Ryan...). Their performances are very subtle, with both conveying emotions with a single glance or gesture. Kudos must also go to the supporting cast. Bruno Kirby as Harry's friend Jess and Carrie Fisher as Sally's friend Marie are wonderful.

I must also point out that When Harry Met Sally is definitely a movie for movie buffs. There are a number of references to classic films throughout the movie. Indeed, movies figure prominently in the lives of Harry and Sally. They share a love for Casablanca. When Harry is mourning the loss of Sally, at one point he has It's a Wonderful Life on the telly. And there are references to The Lady Vanishes, Pillow Talk, Planet of the Apes, Annie Hall, and other films. Even the climax, on New Year's Eve, is remniscent of The Apartment (perhaps the greatest romantic comedy of all time).

When Harry Met Sally centres around the truly simple question of whether men and women can ever truly be friends without sex getting in the way. It must be pointed out, however, that it never truly answers this question. Harry and Sally do become friends, but it seems clear to me that they were in love almost from the beginning. Indeed, after seeing Sally at an airport for the first time in five years, Harry goes out of his way to talk to her. Even once their friendship commences, it is clear that they are something other than friends--in everything from the way they look at each other to the way they speak to each other. When Sally gets angry at Harry after they have sex for the first time, I suspect it is not because she thinks he took advantage of her, but rather because she was forced to confront the feelings they had both repressed for so long. Quite simply, When Harry Met Sally fails to answer the question of whether men and women can be friends simply because Harry and Sally were in love all along. That having been said, it does point out something very important. At the root of every successful romantic relationship there must be friendship. Every relationship Harry and Sally have fail, until they finally get together. In real life, I fear all too often people forget that to be lovers, they must be friends as well if the relationship is to succeed. Too often I think they are blinded by mere physical appearance or other unimportant matters. Given that, I think it is perhaps little wonder it took Harry and Sally a while to finally get together....

For me this is one of the reasons When Harry Met Sally is so great. It does not create a simple boy meet girl plotline with all the traditionally romantic elements plugged in. Instead, it presents us with a realistic relationship in which two friends sadly will not admit how they truly feel about each other until years have passed. That they do finaly get together perhaps is hope for romantics everywhere.

Thursday, 8 December 2005

Days in a Life: John Lennon Remembered

"All you need is love." (John Lennon, "All You Need is Love")

"Instant karma's gonna get you..." (John Lennon, "Instant Karma")

It was 25 years ago today that John Lennon was shot and murdered. It is perhaps a measure of Lennon's importance that many can remember where they were when they heard the news. I know that I certainly can. The morning of December 8, 1980, I was in the midst of a particularly vicious bout of the flu. I had no intention of getting out of bed, let alone going to school. It was a bit after 6:30 AM CST that my brother awakened me with the words "John Lennon is dead. He's been shot." My immediate reaction was to tell him that was BS--he was lying. I stumbled out of bed to the living room where Today was already on the air. Jane Pauley looked as if she had been crying. Tom Brokaw looked as if he was in shock. It was true. Lennon, leader of The Beatles, was dead.

For the next few days it seemed as if news coverage was devoted only to the life and death of John Lennon. Outside the Dakota in New York City, 5000 people gathered to mourn the man's passing. On show after show, those who knew him remembered him. Lennon's image appeared on both the covers of Time and Newsweek. And in many, perhaps most cases, Lennon's murder was described as an "assassination," a word usually used of the murders of politicians and heads of state. It would seem that John Lennon was not merely a musician in a rock band.

While it is clear that Lennon was mourned immediately after his death and is still being mourned today, it is more difficult to measure his legacy. Clearly as one of The Beatles he changed the shape of rock music. The Beatles expanded the parameters of the genre in ways that no other artists have before or since. They utilised chord progressions that had never been heard before in rock 'n' roll. They had the audacity to start songs off with the chorus ("She Loves You" was one of the first songs in which this was done). I don't know that they invented the concept album, but they did create one of the earliest and arguably the most influential one( Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). They revolutionised recording methods. They introduced instruments never before used in rock music--the sitar, the mellotron, and so on. Indeed, they were absolutely fearless when it came to their music. They could just easily perform a simple rock tune with George on lead guitar, John on rhythm guitar, Paul on bass, and Ringo on drums, and then turn around and perform a song complete with a full symphony orchestra. Among the firsts that The Beatles can claim is that they were the first band to perform in stadiums, although this was due more to their enormous popularity than anything else. Quite clearly, The Beatles changed rock music in ways than no other person or band has. And they may have changed it more than anyone else, too.

As a solo artist Lennon's career never quite measured up to his career as a Beatle. This was not unusual, as it it is also true of the other Beatles. Still, Lennon had an impact in a way that other rock artists never did. "Give Peace a Chance" became an anthem for pacifists everywhere. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" has become a Yuletide regular. Perhaps no other song Lennon wrote has had the impact of "Imagine." It came in at #3 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs and has ranked high on other "greatest songs" as well. Indeed, it is perhaps the only solo song by a Beatle to have the impact of a Beatles song.


While it is hard to gauge Lennon's impact as a musician, it is even harder to measure his impact beyond his music. He was certainly an activist, but he was not the first singer to be such. Folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and others preceded him in that regard. But arguably he brought such activism to a wider audience than any other musical performer before him. And he did so in such ways that were more outrageous than any performer before. John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged "Bed-Ins" to protest the Vietnam War. On the Mike Douglas Show he urged viewers to call people and tell them that they love them. Of course, this may point to a more important part of Lennon's legacy than his activism. Pegged as a Beatle from early in his life, Lennon was the first Beatle to break free of the Beatle image. He insisted on being himself, no matter how outrageous that may be. Earlier singers--indeed, most celebrities--insisted on protecting their images. Not Lennon, he didn't seem to care about his image that much. He posed nude with Yoko Ono on an album cover (Two Virgins). He retired for five years to raise his son Sean. No matter what happened, Lennon insisted on being himself.

Of course, it is important to remember that John Lennon was not a perfect person. As much as many of his fans might regard him as a god (and I must confess that I am guilty of that myself), he was a mere mortal. His treatment of his first wife Cynthia could quite aptly be described as abusive. His marriage to Yoko Ono was not always smooth. He was by his own admission an inadequate father to his son Julian. He was a heroin addict. Although there can be no doubt of his brilliance, Lennon could also be reprehensible. On this however, we must consider two things. First, how well would many of us appear to the public if every single thing about our lives were made open to everyone? In life and death Lennon's life has faced close scrutiny, both the bad and the good. Second, it often seems that genius is accompanied by deep personal flaws. Byron, Mozart, Kubrick, and many other brilliant people were often flawed human beings. It is perhaps the curse of being a genius in an otherwise mediocre world.

Regardless of his faults, I find myself mourning Lennon today as I do every year. I don't know what the first song I ever listened to was, but chances are it was a Beatles songs. Their songs were constantly played on the radio when I was young and my older sister (17 years my senior) owned their albums. There was even a Beatles cartoon on Saturday mourning. Even if the first song I ever listened to was not a Beatles song, they were the first group I ever got into. I have been a Beatles fan since early childhood. Their breakup was big news when I was in first grade. I continued to listen to Lennon's music even as a solo artist. Arguably, he has had more impact on me than any other musician, perhaps more than any artist in any medium. Given that, I do owe John Lennon a great debt for in part making me who I am today. And it is a debt I fear I can never repay. I don't know that anyone could.

Saturday, 3 December 2005

Why I Hate Best Buy

Today I went to Columbia to Best Buy to pick up a CD-RW drive for my old computer. I suppose for many this would be a simple enough task. For me, on the other hand, it is something like an alcoholic walking into a bar. Or maybe a choocolate fanatci walking into a sweet shop. I have this unfortunate addiction to DVDS.

Who ever set up the layout for Best Buy must have been a genius in selling DVDs. The computers and computer supplies are all the way in the back. This means that one has to walk past the DVDs, which are at the very front of the store. On top of that there are usually several displays for hte latest DVDs. I remember seeing one today for The Polar Express (go figure, it's right before Yuletide). One cannot enter Best Buy without having hundreds and hundreds of DVDs staring one in the face, saying, "Buy me, buy me!" It isn't bad enough that the CDs are right on the other side of the DVDs (fortunately, I'd picked up a copy of a Knack compilation, so I didn't need any CDs...). At any rate I did well not to go into DTs right there in the store.

Fortunately I made my way to the computer section without buying a single DVD or even a CD. Of cousre, I still had to walk past all those DVDs on my way to the checkout counter. And that was not the end of it. At Best Buy you have this little aisle you have to stand in to wait for check out And guess what lines that aisle? DVDs. And junk food. At least there were no CDs. I have to wonder if whoever designed the Best Buy stores hadn't bugged my house years ago (I'll have to start looking for hidden cameras and microphones...). They apparently know what at least two of my addictions are. Fortunately, I was able to make it out with out buying any Reese's Peanut Butter Cup Minatures or candy bars. And I was really fortunate to make it out without buying any DVDs.

Ultimately, it is a good thing that Best Buy is all the way in Columbia. All we have here is WalMart and a Sam Goody store. I fear if I went to Best Buy too often, my paycheque might wind up going totally for DVDs. And CDS. And junk food. I guess there are worse addictions.....

Thursday, 1 December 2005

For Sale: One Slightly Used Jail

Well, for those of you in the market for a jail, the Randolph County Jail is now on EBay. From what I recall, it does need a little bit of repair, but it could make a good home, office, or museum. It's at Historic Randolph County Jail, Huntsville, MO


In other news, we had a very light dusting of snow last night. It wasn't enough to be significant. Despite this, this morning still finds me in a poor mood. "Hazy Shade of Winter" by Simon and Garfunkel keeps going through my head. I have to say it fits the way I feel.

Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Another Musical Interlude

Before anything else I should mention that the old Randolph County Jail is going to be auctioned on EBay. They haven't put it on EBay yet, so I don't have a link for you, but it is supposed to be up for auction by the end of the day. The auction has even made the national news. There is an AP story about it and I guess it made it to TV. That's not bad at all for a medium sized county in the middle of Missouri.

Beyond that today finds me a bit blue. I won't go into the reason here (let's just say my hopes and dreams seem farther away than ever), but today I just feel down. Right now I am in the mood for depressing music. In this case, it is "Turn to Stone" by the Electric Light Orchestra. The song is from their album Out of the Blue. I do believe it was one of the singles off that album and even made the Top Forty. Anyhow, here it is:

"Turn to Stone" by ELO

Tuesday, 29 November 2005

Black Sabbath Makes It into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Yesterday the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced the latest bands and individuals to be inducted on thier March 13, 2006 ceremony. Among the indcutees are legendary heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Gruops and individuals become elgible for induction into the Hall of Fame 25 years after their first record. In the case of the 38 year old Black Sabbath, they were rejected seven times beofre finally being accepted into the Hall of Fame this time around.

Black Sabbath was formed in Birmingham, England in 1967 by Ozzy Osbourne, Terence Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi. Originally named the Polka Tulk Blues Band (later shortened to Polka Tulk) and later renamed Earth, the group changed its name to Black Sabbath after the song of the same name (possibly inspired by an old Boris Karloff movie). Black Sabbath combined blues style hard rock with elements of the European folk song and power chords. Their lyrics generally dealt with darker themes than other groups around at the time. The result was some of the earliest heavy metal music to ever be recorded. While Led Zeppelin is sometimes classed as heavy metal, it can be argued that they were a hard rock band who occasionally recorded heavy metal songs. On the other hand, there can be no dobut that Black Sabbath was a heavy metal band. In fact, they may have been the first heavy metal band to find success. Their first album, Black Sabbath, brought them a good deal of attention, although it was their second album, Paranoid, with the song of the same title and "Iron Man," that established them as a success. Among other things, Black Sabbath was one of the first groups to deal with fantastic themes in their songs. Besides their horror movie influenced early work, they also recorded such songs "Iron Man (about a man transformed into a creature of metal)" and "Spiral Architect."

Personally, I am a bit shocked that it took seven tries for Black Sabbath to make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. More than any other group, they helped shape the subgenre of rock music known as heavy metal. Their songs are still played to this day. And the band established the career of Ozzy Osbourne, who would later become a successful solo artist in his own right (not to mention a TV star). Of course, it must be pointed out that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has not been particularly favourable to heavy metal in the past. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one other heavy metal band to make it into the Hall of Fame--Australian band AC/DC.

As to the other inductees, Lynyrd Synyrd made it after seven tries as well. I cannot say that I am overjoyed with that, not being a big fan of the group, but I suppose that they did have an impact on creating southern rock (a subgenre I really don't care for). Among the inductees are also The Sex Pistols. As a Sex Pistols fan, I must say that I am happy about that. They were the first punk band to achieve any sort of prominence. And like Black Sabbath, I am surprised that they were not inducted sooner. Blondie has also made it into the Hall of Fame this time around. I really don't think Blondie had any impact as far as influencing rock genres, atlhough I have always been a Blondie fan. They produced some of my favourite songs from the late Seventies and early Eighties. Of course, I must admit that I had a bit of a crush in high school on Deborah Harry....

Over all I am pleased with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's latest inductees, particuarly Black Sabbath. They have been one of my favourite bands since I was a kid. And I don't think it can be argued that they did not have a lasting impact on rock music.