Saturday, 24 July 2004

Lord of the Rings

Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies based on the novel Lord of the Rings have introduced a whole new audience to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. I discovered them at a fairly young age myself, when I was still in grade school.

In 1937 Tolkien's classic children's story The Hobbit was published for the first time. The Hobbit proved somewhat successful, successful enough to warrant a sequel. Encouraged by his publisher, Tolkien started work on the sequel to The Hobbit almost immediately, although it would not be until 1949 that it was finished. Quite simply, the sequel became something other than the children's story The Hobbit was. The Lord of the Rings was an epic in every sense of the word. Tolkien meant for Lord of the Rings to be one novel, published in one volume. Due to post-war paper shortages, however, it was published as three books between 1954 and 1955--Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King. Initially, the books did not meet with a great deal of success. All of this changed in 1965. International copyright laws were somewhat looser in the Sixties. As a result paperback publisher Ace Books was able to publish unauthorised editions of the books in the United States. Lord of the Rings not only saw success for the first time, it became an outright fad on college campuses across America. Alongside Stranger in a Strange Land, it was perhaps the most popular novel among America's hippies. Eventually, Lord of the Rings ceased to be a fad and became an established part of Anglo-American culture.

It is perhaps for that reason I do not remember a time when I did not know who J. R. R. Tolkien was. By the time I was able to read, I had already heard of him and his works. For that reason when I was in either fifth or sixth grade I first read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Initially, I preferred The Hobbit. However, when I re-read Lord of the Rings once I was older, I decided it was the better of the two works. By that time I could better appreciate the complexity of Tolkien's world, not to mention the way in which he drew upon philogy and Germanic and Celtic mythology.

Of course, in those intervening years the phenomenon of Lord of the Rings had grown. There were calendars, artwork, and numerous other items related to Lord of the Rings sold throughout the Seventies. Naturally, there were efforts to film Lord of the Rings. The Beatles had discussed doing a movie version, but nothing ever came of it. Stanley Kubrick investigated bringing the novel to the screen, but decided it would be too difficult to film. John Boorman of Excalibur fame wanted to make films based on the novel, but found the project too expensive. Rankin-Bass, known for such seasonal television specials, as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, adapted The Hobbit as an animated television movie in 1977. In 1978 there would be a Lord of the Rings animated movie. Ralph Bakshi directed J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In some ways, I suppose that the project was doomed from the start. I remember watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and people were actually booing the float promoting the movie! At any rate, it seems to me that the movie had always received mixed reviews from fans. Part of the problem is that the film combines both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. As a result it leaves a great deal of material from the books out. A greater problem is perhaps that it is uneven in quality, despite having Bakshi at the helm. Some of the animation is quite good, while some of the animation is very poor, especially for a feature film. A second film, based on Return of the King was planned, but Bakshi was never able to get it off the ground. As a result, in 1980, Rankin-Bass did an animated television movie based on the book, The Return of the King.

Of course, since that time, Peter Jackson has directed three movies based on the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings. A few die hard fans have criticised the movies for altering the stories and omitting parts of the novel (the most common complaint I have heard is the omission of Tom Bobadil). Fortunately, critics, film goers, and most fans I know appreciate the movies. In my opinion, while the story was altered, the movies remain faithful to Tolkien's vision in the books. The films are also an incredible achievement in and of themselves. The characters are well developed. The plot involves the viewer. And the special effects are impressive without being obvious. The movies have received more than their share of acclaim, among which is the Academy Award for Best Picture for Return of the King.

I recently re-read Lord of the Rings a few years ago. Now that I am yet older I can appreciate the books even more. I can understand how Lord of the Rings became the cultural phenomenon that it is. Indeed, the books have inspired countless imitators. There is perhaps an entire subgenre of Tolkienesque fantasy that emerged in the novel's wake. And, of course, there are movies, comic books, and role playing games that owe a great deal to Tolkien as well. Indeed, Lord of the Rings was at the top of three different polls conducted in the United Kingdom of the greatest books ever written! It is hard to argue with that. I have often thought that very few novels from the Twentieth Century will be remembered. I rather suspect that Lord of the Rings will be one of them.

Friday, 23 July 2004

Led Zeppelin

Among the rock groups to which I listened when I was growing up was Led Zeppelin. I suppose this should come as no surprise, as they were among the biggest rock groups of the Seventies, if not the biggest. Indeed, they released their first album when I was only five years old and disbanded (after the death of their drummer, John Bonham), when I was 17.

Led Zeppelin arose from the ashes of The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page had been among the guitarists who played with The Yardbirds. In 1968 The Yardbirds broke up. This created a bit of a problem for manager Peter Grant and Jimmy Page, as the group had contractual agreements for a small tour of Scandinavia. Page then had to form a new band out of necessity. Session musician and bassist John Paul Jones became part of the new group veyr early, having played with Page on various recording sessions throughout the years. Page still had to find a vocalist and drummer. Terry Reid directed them to a young, unknown singer in Birmingham, England named Robert Plant. Robert Plant brought with him to the group one of his friends, drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham.

Initially, the new group played under the name "The New Yardbirds." As they toured Scandinavia, however, it was obvious that they were different enough from The Yardbirds that they really needed a new name. They named themselves "Led Zeppelin" from a remark Who drummer Keith Moon had made years ago when Moon, Who bassist John Entwistle, Jimmy Page, and Steve Winwood were joking about forming their own band. Moon cracked that they should name the group "Lead Zeppelin," as it would go over like a "lead balloon." They used "led" instead of "lead" in the name to avoid any mispronunciations. Their first album attained Top Ten status in America in May of 1969. It remained in the Billboard Top 100 for literally ages. The rest, as they say, is history.

I really don't know when I was first exposed to Led Zeppelin, but I suppose it was very early. From the very beginning, Led Zeppelin was huge in the United States. Their first album had achieved Top Ten status. Their second album displaced The Beatles' Abbey Road for the number one spot on Billboard's album chart. A song from that album, "Whole Lotta Love," became a hit on FM radio. In fact, it may well have been the first Led Zeppelin song I ever heard. Led Zeppelin III also performed well, although the band's peak was probably with the unnamed fourth album (usually called Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso). It was on the fourth album that what many consider the band's signature song, "Stairway to Heaven," appeared.

For myself the appeal of Led Zeppelin was twofold. First, there was the fact that Led Zeppelin was one of the hardest rock groups of their time. While it might not be entirely accurate to describe Led Zeppelin as "heavy metal," many of their songs could certainly be characterised as such. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Led Zeppelin was one of the first groups to make extensive use of fantasy imagery in their lyrics. They had certainly felt the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the song "Ramble On' from Led Zeppelin II drew its inspiration directly from Tolkien. The song makes references to Mordor, the home of the evil Sauron, and Gollum, the creature who possessed the ring before Bilbo Baggins. Other Led Zeppelin songs also made use of fantasy or medieval imagery. "The Immigrant Song," one of my two favourite Led Zepp songs of all time, centred on Viking raids. "The Battle of Evermore" drew is inspiration from the Scottish border wars and Old English poetry. "No Quarter" returned to the Viking theme. "Achilles Last Stand" was based on The Illiad. Even their signature song, "Stairway to Heaven," drew upon folklore and legend for its lyrics. At the time Robert Plant was fascinated with the works of folklorist Lewis Spence. The lady seeking to buy the Stairway to Heaven is then inspired by such mythological and literary figures from Rhiannon to Spenser's "Faerie Queen." Of course, while "Stairway to Heaven" may be Led Zeppelin's most popular song, I have always preferred "Kashmir" myself. Led Zeppelin's preoccupation with fantasy and mythology even showed up in their concert film, The Song Remains the Same. In the movie, concert footage was interspliced with fantasy sequence, many of which had a medieval theme.

Of course, not all of the songs dealt with medieval imagery or fantasy imagery. "A Whole Lotta Love" was the prototypical, heavy metal, love/lust song. "Living Loving Maid" was about a woman who refuses to act her age. "Rock and Roll" was the quintessential rock anthem. "D'Yer Mak'er" was an odd parody of Fifties rock 'n' roll fused with reggae.

Regardless, of their musical achievements, Led Zeppelin was a controversial band. They were the very stereotype of rock stars who lived to excess. Drinking. Drugs, Groupies. The band did have some less than desirable habits that were very much a part of the Seventies rock scene. A less legitimate source of controversy have been claims that Led Zeppelin was linked to Satan. An early rumour was that the group, except for John Paul Jones, had sold their souls to the devil. After the band had broken up, there was a rumour that when "Stairway to Heaven" was played backwards a Satanic message could be heard (I've tried it--there is none). I really don't know how the rumours linking Led Zeppelin to the Devil emerged, as none of the band's songs deal with Satan or Satanism. I suppose it emerged in part due to Jimmy Page's fascination with notorius English "magician" Aleister Crowley and in part due to the sterotype, at least among Fundamentalist Christians, that all heavy metal or hard rock musicians must be devil worshippers.

Following the death of their drummer John Bonham, Led Zeppelin disbanded. By that time they had secured their place in rock history. Throughout the years a number of rock performers have displayed influences from Led Zeppelin, among them Aerosmith, Heart, Billy Squier, Def Leppard, and others. The medieval and fantasy imagery displayed in many of their songs became part and parcel of the heavy metal genre. To this day their albums still sell well and their songs still receive radio play. I think it is safe to say that Led Zepp won't be forgotten soon.

Wednesday, 21 July 2004

Kronos

A while back I watched Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (Kronos was its original British title) again. This movie was a little gem released in 1973 by Hammer Film Productions. The conventional wisdom is that in the Seventies Hammer released very little in the way of worthwhile films. After all, in the Seventies, Hammer is perhaps best known for the "nudie lesbian vampire" movies known collectively as "The Karnstein Trilogy (The Vampire Lovers, Lust for a Vampire, and Twins of Evil--hardly Hammer's best)" and attempts to update their monster movies (Dracula A.D. 1972, Horror of Frankenstein). Some horror movie fans even dismiss Hammer's Seventies films entirely. Kronos stands as proof that even in the Seventies Hammer could produce starkly original films.

Of course, while Kronos was produced by Hammer, it was actually the work of Brian Clemens and other veterans of the cult TV show The Avengers. As he says on the DVD's audio commentary, Clemens basically stood Hammer's vampire conventions on their heads. The protagonist is not a vampire, as in the Dracula films, but a vampire hunter. Kronos travels the 17th century countryside, with his aide de camp Professor Grost, conducting an endless war on the undead. While they both hunt vampires, Kronos is about as far removed from Peter Cushing's Van Helsing as possible. Kronos is a master swordsman, capable of killing multiple opponents in a matter of seconds. He smokes an "herb from the Orient" and practises meditation. He even makes love to beautiful gypsy girls. The vampires Kronos faces in the movie are no more typical than the film's protagonist. Among other things, they can go out in the light of day. And rather than blood, it is youth they drain from their victims. What is more, Kronos resembles both John Ford's Westerns (which Clemens intended for it to) and swashbuckler movies more than it does the typical vampire film.

It is not simply the twists on the traditional vampire film that make Kronos such an enjoyable film. The plot is full of twist and turns, with more than one red herring as to who the actual killer is. The dialogue has the cleverness and witticism that made The Avengers such a hit. Best of all are the fight scenes. They are so well choreographed that they don't look as if they were choreographed at all. Kronos contains some very realistic swordplay. Even Clemens' direction (this was his first film) is quite good, drawing upon John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock for inspiration.

Kronos had the misfortune to be released on a double bill with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and received very poor distribution, both in Britain and the United States. As a result, it did very poorly at the box office. Of course, the movie's set up is perfect for a TV series. Clemens wanted to do a TV series based on the movie, but he failed to sell it due to a lack of interest in period pieces. Television would insure that the movie would be remembered, however, as horror fans on both sides of the Atlantic discovered the film in afternoon and late night viewings. From a pop culture perspective, Kronos is the predecessor of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marvel Comics' Blade, and Stephen Sommers' upcoming Van Helsing. Before Blade was wielding a sword and Buffy a stake against the undead, Captain Kronos was battling vampires in one of the best Hammer films released at any time.

Monday, 19 July 2004

Too Much School

There are times I really, really wish I still lived in the country. Yesterday, for whatever reason, the neighbourhood kids had to run around and scream. And I do mean scream. Worse yet, they did it for literally hours.  Usually the kids around here are very well behaved.  I guess it was the fact that yesterday was very cool for a July day. Too school starts in about a month and I suppose that maybe they are just sowing their oats while they can.  

Not that I blame them. As an adult I tend to hate summer because of the heat and humidity, but as a child I always looked forward to it. Summer meant one thing: freedom. I always did well in school. I got A's in nearly everything except math and science. But I never liked school. I did not like being confined to a room all day, forced to study subjects in which I might not be interested (to this day I hate math), and confined to a building for most of the day. Even though summer meant hot and muggy weather, then, I always looked forward to it. Okay, it may be hot and muggy, but then there was no school either.

I do feel sorry for children today. When I was in school, we let out for summer vacation around May 15. Now they do not let out for school until May 25. Worse yet, it seems to me that they start back to school earlier in August than we did. And their Christmas vacation is shorter too. That means that kids today are attending more school than I did when I was a child. The sad thing is that I don't think the longer school year does children that much good. I know a lot of people seem to be believe that the more school a child has, the more he or she is going to learn, but I don't believe it. I remember when I was a kid. At the start of the school year I learned a good deal. But as time passed, I would grow bored with it. My attention span would decrease. By May I would be learning next to nothing. I have no reason to believe children today are any different.

Besides which, it seems to me that the more time a child spends in school, the less time he or she spends with their parents. And I really think kids need to spend more time with their parents today. It's no secret that a strong parent/child relationship will usually keep kids out of trouble. Children with a strong relationship with their parents are less likely to do drugs, become involved in crime, and so on. It seems to me that the longer school year decreases the amount of time a child spends with his or her parents.

Don't get me wrong. I think school is important. Children need to learn. And as much as I hated math, I have to admit that I needed to learn it to function as an adult in today's society. But I do think it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Kids need time to spend with their parents, not to mention time to spend just being kids.

Sunday, 18 July 2004

Sunday Night Television

Growing up in the late Sixties, I think that Sunday night may have been the best night for television.  Back then Sunday night not only boasted shows that were good, these were shows that were classics. And in some cases, the shows were institutions.
 
This was particularly true of the granddaddy of all Sunday night TV shows, The Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivan Show debuted on Sunday, June 28, 1948 as Toast of the Town (it was named for its host with the 1955-1956 season). The show was hosted by newspaperman Ed Sullivan and its format was simple--it was a true variety show. On that first telecast there was the comedy team of Martin and Lewis, composers Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, concert pianist Eugene List, singing fireman John Kokoman, ballerina Kathryn Lee, and other guests.  Nearly every episode of The Ed Sullivan Show was as varied as the first. Over the years,  the casts of such Broadway shows as Oliver! and My Fair Lady, ballet troupes, acrobats, ventriloquists, puppets, performing animals, and rock groups ranging from The Beatles to The Lovin' Spoonful appeared on the show. The Ed Sullivan Show was a variety show a kid could actually appreciate.  Never mind that there might be a boring (at least to a kid) soprano on one minute, the next minute there might be dancing bears or trapeze artists or the latest rock act. The Ed Sullivan Show was neither high brow or low brow,  as it catered to both crowds. The show was cancelled in 1971, not becuase its ratings had slipped, but because CBS thought its audience had grown too old.
 
Another show that was arguably an insitution was Disneyland,  which premeired on ABC on Wednesday nights in 1954.  The show moved to Friday nights in 1958 and underwent the first of one of its many name changes--this time to Walt Disney Presents.  In 1961, the show moved from ABC to NBC and to its familiar Sunday night time slot. It also received its new name: Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  The name change also indicated a major change in the show, as from that time forward it was aired in colour. In 1969, when colour TV shows were no longer a novelty, its name was changed to The Wonderful World of Disney.  Despite the name changes, the format of The Wonderful World of Disney was consistent througout its run.  It was an anthology series which might air classic Disney cartoon shorts one week, an orignal live action adventure show (such as the famous Davy Crockett episodes) the next week, and a nature documentary the week after that.  I have very fond memories of many of the series' episodes, namely Davy Crockett (reran several times throughout the series' run) and The Scarecrow of Romney MarshThe Wonderful World of Disney had good ratings for most of its run, although it began a slow decline in the Seventies. In 1980 NBC cancelled the series. It was picked up by CBS in 1981. Unfortunately, it only lasted two seasons there. The series was revived in 1986 and lasted for a few seasons. It was revived once more in 1997 on ABC (now owned by Disney) and has been on the air ever since.
 
I am not sure that Lassie could be considered an insitution, although it is a show that is well remembered.  Lassie debuted on CBS in 1954 on Sunday night, where it remained for its twenty year run. Originally the show was about the adventures of a dog (Lassie) and her boy (first Jeff, then Timmy), but by the time I discovered the show Lassie was owned by forest ranger Corey Stuart.  Once the actor who played Stuart, Robert Bray, left the show, Lassie came under the care of two more forrest rangers, Scott Turner & Bob Erickson. Indeed, as a child I remember being surprised to learn that Lassie's original owner was not a forrest ranger, but a boy! Not having seen Lassie since childhood, I really do not know if the show was good. I know that I enjoyed it as a child and apparently others did too. Lassie ran twenty years on CBS and then a few more years in syndication.
 
The final Sunday night standby on television in the Sixties was Bonanza. Bonanza was the first Western broadcast in colour and one of the first regular series to be broadcast so. It debuted on NBC in 1960 on Saturday night. It was only after the move to Sunday night in its second season that Bonanza really took off.  Bonanza centred on Ben Cartwright and his three sons--Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.  Adan was the eldest, level headed son. Hoss was the middle son, none too bright but kind hearted and big as, well, a "hoss." Little Joe was the youngest son, impulsive and prone to romance. Ben owned the enormous Ponderosa ranch, which was just outside Virginia City, Nevada.  Within its Western format, Bonanza could be a fairly flexible show in its plots. One episode might be a traditional Western with the Cartwrights facing outlaws. Another episode might be a legal drama, with one of the Cartwrights forced to defend an innocent man. Yet another episode might be a romance in which one of the boys might fall in love.  I am not sure, but I think Bonanza might have been my parents' favourite show. They watched it every single night and even watched it when it was reran in syndication.  I remember watching it loyally as a child. As an adult I have come to a couple of conclusions about the show. First, I think the show went into a slow decline after its first six or so seasons.  On the one hand, having been able to see much of the series again,  I have to say I was impressed with many of the earlier episodes.  On the other hand, I have to say that I found many of the later episodes positively dreadful (particulary an episode with Angel Tompkins as a pyromaniac).  Second, the show did have a definite formula. It semes to me that in many episodes one of the boys fell in love, only to have the girl die from some disease, accident, act of the gods, or other misfortune. It seems the Cartwrights had no luck with women! Bonanza was the number one show on television for several seasons in the Sixties. It was still getting respectable ratings in 1973 when Dan Blocker, who played Hoss, died.  Hoss was easily the most popular character on the show, so that the loss of Dan Blocker seriously crippled the show. A move to Tuesday nights certainly did not help the situation. After 14 seasons on the air, Bonanza was cancelled in mid-season.
 
I remember growing up, a typical Sunday night's TV viewing would begin with Lassie at 6:00 PM CST.  At 6:30 PM CST, we would switch channels and watch Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.  At 7:30 PM CST, we would switch channels again and watch the last half of The Ed Sullivan Show. At 8:00 PM CST it was time for Bonanza and we would switch channels again (keep in mind we did not own a TV remote either...). I have no idea what my parents watched at 9:00 PM CST, as my brother and I had to go to bed.  At any rate, I have fond memories of Sunday night television in the Sixties. I suppose much of it has to do with the fact that it was time spent with my parents as it does the TV shows themselves.  I don't think I have enjoyed watching TV on Sunday nights ever since.