Saturday, 7 August 2004

Rewriting History

A few days ago I checked a book out called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies from the library. It is a collection of essays on specific historical movies and how well they jibe, or don't jibe, with the history they purport to portray. So far I have found it a very interesting read.

Anyhow, when it comes to historical movies, I have always had a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, I have loved history since I was a boy. I also happen to be one of those people who feels that when someone makes a historical movie, it should be as loyal to the events it is portraying as it possibly can be. There are exceptions to this rule of mine. I have little problem with pirate movies, swashbucklers, costume dramas, and Westerns playing fast and loose with the historical record, as these genres are well known for not following the historical record with the utmost regard for accuracy. I think most people realise that. When it comes to more "serious (for lack of a better term)" historical films, however, I do expect some degree of accuracy. If a movie is about Abraham Lincoln, I expect it to accurately reflect his life. Unfortunately, most historical movies stray from the historical record in some way, often they stray very far indeed.

The perfect example of this is Braveheart. I have often heard my friends who know a good deal about Scotland complain that the Scots were not wearing kilts in the 13th century, but this is the least of the movie's problems. For one thing, no such custom as "prima nocte" or "first night," in which lords are allowed to sleep the brides of their inferiors on the wedding night, ever existed among the English or the Normans, and Edward I (also known as Edward Longshanks) never made such a decree. In fact, this so-called custom was never practised in northern Europe; it is to be found only as a motif in Celtic folk tales. For the movie to claim that Edward I would even entertain such a notion amounts to slander to me. But then to me the movie's potrayal of Edward I is unfair over all. Edward was indeed a hard man. He was very well known for his temper. And he did indeed sanction the use of atrocities against the Scots. But he was hardly the petty tyrant that the movie makes him out to be. He enacted government reforms and revised both English law and the court system. He was also the first king to regularly hold Parliament. He always kept the welfare of the English people at the forefront during his reign. In fact, contrary to the portrayal of Edward as a dictator, Longshanks believed that a king could only rule with the consent and advice of his subjects. Of course, just as the movie paints Edward I as a petty villain, it also whitewashes William Wallace. According to some sources, Wallace's career began with an argument between Wallace and English authorities which ended with Wallace killing a young constable named Selby. And just as Edward I committed atrocites against the Scots, so too did Wallace commit them against the English. Braveheart ignores the fact that both Edward I and William Wallace were remarkable men who each had their own virtues and their own faults. Neither was completely a hero nor completely a villain. I won't even mention the movie's portrayal of Robert the Bruce...

Of course, even when a movie is not as wildly inaccurate as Braveheart, it can give the viewer a skewed view of historical events. An example of this is Quiz Show. Quiz Show centres upon upon Charles Van Doren, the contestant on Twenty One who became an overnight celebrity, and Herb Strempel, the previous champion who "lost" to him. It covers the events from Van Doren's "defeat" of Stempel on the show to the discovery that show (like many other quiz shows of the time) was fixed and Van Doren's final admission in testimony before the government that the game was indeed rigged. Insofar as I can tell, the movie remains fairly loyal to the events as they had happened with regards to Twenty One, Van Doren, and Stempel. Unfotunately, in focusing exclusively on Twenty One, the movie gives the impression that the quiz show scandal entirely concerned NBC. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The show which started the entire "quiz show" cycle of the Fifties was The $64,000 Question, which debuted on CBS in the summer of 1955. It was created by Louis G. Cowan, who based the show on the 1940s radio show Take It or Leave It. The $64,000 Question became a huge hit and sometimes drew better ratings than I Love Lucy. In its wake, other quiz shows debuted (among which was Twenty One on NBC). In a large part due to its success, Cowan became president of CBS. The quiz show scandal broke in May 1958 when an individual revealed that the CBS daytime show Dotto was rigged. Other quiz show contestants came forward to reveal that other shows were rigged as well, among them The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, and Twenty One. While there is no evidence to suggest Cowan knew that the The $64,000 Question and other shows were rigged, he was forced to resign as president of CBS. Unfortunately, none of this is mentioned in Quiz Show. Indeed, at no point is any other network than NBC even mentioned in the movie. This could lead to individuals unfamiliar with the quiz show scandal of the Fifties to believe that the scandal only affected NBC, when in fact CBS had even greater problems becuase of it. It seems to me that it would have been simple enough to add a few lines of dialogue to Quiz Show indicating that CBS was also affected by the scandal and that it was not something peculiar to NBC.

Of course, there are many more examples of movies that either wholly disregard history (like Braveheart) or give a wrong impression of historical events (like Quiz Show). I suppose it can be argued that the purpose of movies is not to educate, but to entertain. The problem I have with that idea is that many, many people, perhaps most people, will see these movies and assume that because they are purportedly based on a true story, then they must be true. Whether their makers intend it or not, these movies are then teaching history after a fashion. How many people honestly believe that Edward I decreed that lords should have a right to sleep with their inferior's wives on their wedding night? How many people honestly believe that the quiz show scandal only affected NBC? One would be too many for me. Besides which, often I have found that the actual events of history are more interesting than a movie based on them. An example of this is Titanic. I find the romance between the two fictional lead characters to be much duller than the actual stories of real people that took place aboard the ship. To me, then, Titanic was a wasted opportunity to tell the true (and much more interesting) stories of the people who sailed on the Titanic.

Unfortunately, I doubt that movies will become more historically accurate any time soon. As I said, the purpose of movies is to entertain. Another, perhaps more important purpose, is for them to make money. As long as movie makers are convinced that real history won't sell, I doubt we'll see too many movies that are absolutely loyal to history.

Friday, 6 August 2004

Books I Read as a Child

These days it seems to me that I don't get to read nearly as much as I once did. As a child I was a very avid reader. Like most kids I started out with Curious George and the books by Dr. Seuss. I am still very fond of both and if I ever have children, it will probably be those books that I start them out with. Indeed, I have often said Dr. Seuss is the greatest poet of the 20th century!

Of course, as I got older I read more sophisticated fare. I don't know what was the first book of any length I read. I think it was The Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. The title sums up the book very well, as Pyle followed the outline of the old legend very loyally. My fascination with Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Middle Ages began at a very early age, fueled to some degree by the old Adventures of Robin Hood TV series from Britian. In junior high I read another book by Howard Pyle based in the medieval era. Men of Iron followed a squire on his path to knighthood. I remember it being my one of my favourite books as a child. I cannot remember if I read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott or not, although I seem to remember I read it when I was fairly young. It does seem that it would be the sort of book that would appeal to me.

In addition to various books set in the Middle Ages, I also read books set in other historical eras. To this day, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of my favourite novels. And to this day I cannot deny a certain fascination with the Age of Piracy. I think that is true of many boys and I am not sure that we ever grow out of it! I also read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It wasn't the only horror novel I read as a child either. I also read Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. After dozens of movies, I don't think a lot of people think of Dracula or Frankenstein's monster as very frightening, but these books seemed pretty intense to me as a child!

Of course, I have always been drawn to fantastic literature. I have very fond memories of A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle. She wrote two more books in the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and An Acceptable Time, but both were published at a time when I felt I was too old for "kids' books." The folly of youth, I guess. I also read The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Lewis wrote the Narnia series as Christian allegory, although it is written in such a way that even non-Christians can enjoy the books as fantasy literature. Given my taste for fantays literature, I naturally read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. As a child I prefered The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings, although the latter grew on me. Both would rank in a top ten of favourite books of all time if I ever made one!

I read a good deal of science fiction as a child. Among these were the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. I read Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth when I was very young. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still one of my favourite works. Over all, I still prefer Verne to Wells, although I love Wells' books dearly. I read The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and War of the Worlds in junior high.

Of course, my childhood reading was not limited to the "classics." In the Sixties, Bantam had started reprinting the Doc Savage novels from the old Doc Savage pulp magazines. As a fan of superheroes and fantastic literaturee, Doc Savage was naturally right up my alley. I have probably read over 100 of the novels over my lifetime and I still read them to this day. In the wake of Doc's renewed success, other publishers followed suit and reprinted the adventures of other pulp heroes. As a child, then, I also read various adventures of The Shadow, The Spider, and The Avenger.

I think reading as a child did help me a good deal. It gave me a greater grasp of the English language, improved my imagination, and taught me things that I would not have known otherwise (although I don't know how much use knowing what a tesseract is would be in everyday life...). Indeed, I am a writer, even though I do not make enough money at it to make a living from it. I worry that the youth of today may not read enough, distracted as they are by video games, the internet, TV, and movies. The success of the Harry Potter series may be a good sign, so that they may actually be reading books as much as past generations. I hope so.

Wednesday, 4 August 2004

Reality Shows

I have heard that this coming fall TV season there will be a record number of reality shows debuing. I also have to admit that I will be very happy when the reality show cycle comes to an end. I figure that reality shows must be the lowest form of entertainment. Okay, maybe not as bad as the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, but still a low point for television nonetheless.

Of course, as I see it, many of the shows called "reality shows" aren't really reality shows in my eyes. American Idol and Star Search are often counted as reality shows, but I would consider them just another variation of talent shows--a genre that goes all the way back to 1934 when Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour debuted on radio. To me The Bachelor and Average Joe aren't reality shows either. While they have some elements of the reality shows, I think in truth they are just variations of dating shows typified by The Dating Game. These shows have a long history too, dating back to Blind Date with Arlene Francis in 1949.

Of course, even discounting the talent shows and dating shows, the reality genre has a fairly long history. I don't know if anyone can say what the first reality show was, but one of the earliest was probably People Are Funny. It was produced and written by John Guedel and hosted by Art Linkletter. It was more or less a game show, in which contestants were asked to do outrageous things. It debuted on radio in 1942 In 1954 it moved to television where it ran for many years. In 1944 another early reality show hosted by Art Linkletter debuted on radio, House Party. House Party featured segments in which Linkletter interviewed celebrity guests and segments in which he would he pull someone from the audience and put them in an embarrassing situation. Perhaps the most famous segment was "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," in which Linkletter interviewed children, often playing their straight man. The show moved to television in 1952 and ran until 1969.

Of course, many consider the first true reality show to be Candid Microphone. The show debuted in 1947, the creation of Allen Funt. Funt would use hidden microphones to catch people in ludicrous situations contrived by himself and his writers. The show moved to television in 1948 where it was swiftly renamed Candid Camera. It has ran on television on and off almost ever since.

I must admit that as a child I enjoyed People are Funny, House Party, and Candid Camera. To this day Art Linkletter is one of my favourite people. But People are Funny, House Party, and Candid Camera still seem to me to be innocent, good, clean fun. They were like April Fools pranks on film. Today's reality shows either possess a mean streak or appeal to the baser aspects of human nature. The whole point of Survivor seems to be to see people backstab each other. Extreme Makeover sends the message that appearance is all important. Fear Factor is just plain sadistic. In the Fifties there were critics who complained about the violence in TV Westerns. But those TV Westerns usually featured heroes who were good and had a strong sense of morality. The whole point of reality shows seems to be to de-humanise human beings. If ever there was a sign of moral bankruptcy on television, I would say it came with the debut of The Real World on MTV (didn't they used to show music videos?). As far as I am concerned, the reality show cycle can't end soon enough.

Monday, 2 August 2004

Obscure Cartoons

Today I am thinking about cartoons again. I have no idea how many cartoons have aired on Saturday mornings in the past forty years, but it seems to me that the average cartoon is forgotten as soon as it goes off the air. I have fond memories of many cartoons from my childhood that I seriously doubt most children would recognise today. In fact, I don't think I have seen any of them on cable in recent years, not even on the Cartoon Network.

This is especially sad of Beany and Cecil. I only have vague memories of the cartoon, although I know it was one of my favourites as a child (I remember I had a Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent jack in the box that was one of my favourite toys). From what I understand, however, the show is considered something of a classic in animation circles. That should come as no surprise, as it was created by Bob Clampett, the veteran animator who had worked at Warner Brothers making the early Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons. Among other things, he designed Porky Pig and introduced Tweety. After a stint at Screen Gems (Columbia's animation studio), he went into television with the puppet show Time for Beany. Given Clampett's past, it was perhaps inevitable that the puppet show would one day become an animated series. Beany and Cecil followed the adventures of Beany and his friend Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent as they travelled with Captain Huffenpuff aboard his boat the Leakin' Lena. A constant, but comical threat was the villain Dishonest John. Beany and Cecil was filled with Clampett's love for puns, song, parody, and satire. Through the cartoon, Clampett spoofed everything from TV production to New York to Disneyland (a particular episode which very nearly got Clampett in trouble...). Despite the fact that Beany and Cecil is recognised as a classic, I doubt many adults, let alone children have heard of it.

I remember Cool McCool better than I can Beany and Cecil. Cool McCool was the creation of Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman. Cool McCool was a bumbling superspy who dressed in a trenchcoat and an ascot, sporting a ridiculous moustache (I thought Matt Dillon in There's Something About Mary looked a lot like McCool). Like any superspy, he had an array of gadgets at his command, including the Coolmobile (which would come to him when he whistled) and his moustache radio. Unlike any other superspy, McCool fought supervillains such as Dr. Madcap, Hurricane Harry, the Jack in the Box, the Owl, and the Rattler. McCool also had his own slogan--"Danger is my business (picture Jack Benny saying that and you have an idea of how he sounded)." I have no idea if Cool McCool was any good, although I remember watching it loyally as a child.

Another cartoon from my childhood was The Super 6. It followed the adventures of six superheroes who worked for Super Services Incorporated. The six were the Brothers Matzoriley, Captain Whammo, Elevator Man, Granite Man, Magneto Man, and Super Scuba (I guess the Brothers Matzoriley counted as one member...). The Super 6 also featured a separate segment about a hero called Super Bwoing, which I remember as my favourite. Super Bwoing whose superpower was his guitar--he even flew around on the thing, riding it like a surfboard!

Another cartoon I remember also dealt with bizarre superheroes. The Mighty Heroes was probably one of the last original Terrytoons to air on a network. The series was the creation of Ralph Bakshi, who go onto make such animated features as Wizards and American Pop The Mighty Heroes were Cuckoo Man, Diaper Man (the leader of the group), Rope Man, Strong Man, and Tornado Man. Together they fought such villains as Enlarger, Frog, The Shrinker, and Toy Man. Unfortunately, The Mighty Heroes haven't been seen much since their series went off the air.

Of course, all of these cartoons aired in the Sixties when I was very young. In fact, I was only about four years old when both Beany and Cecil and The Mighty Heroes left the air. Oddly enough, I don't remember much about cartoons from when I was older. I think that this probably has to do with my idea that the Golden Age of Saturday morning cartoons ended in 1968. After that, the cartoons were pretty forgettable. If the Cartoon Network didn't insist on rerunning Scooby Doo, Where Are You? twenty times a day, I probably wouldn't remember it at all....