Saturday, 19 May 2007

The Simpsons Turn 400

Tomorrow night Fox will air the 399th and 400th episodes of The Simpsons. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this milestone, only five other American scripted shows outside of soap operas and serials have ever reached the 400 episode mark (Gunsmoke, Lassie, the syndicated series Death Valley Days, The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet, and Bonanza). Currently, only one other series is even close to 400 episodes, the original Law and Order (which hit the 393 mark this season). The Simpsons was already the longest running American animated series of all time and the longest running American sitcom.

The Simpsons originated when producer James L. Brooks approached Matt Groening about doing a series of animated shorts for The Tracy Ullman Show. Initially, they had wanted to adapt his comic strip Life in Hell for the shorts, but Groening not particularly wanting to sign away his life's work instead created rough sketches of a family for the pitch. The Simpsons made their debut on The Tracey Ullman Show in shorts aired before and after commercial breaks, on April 29, 1987 (which is another milestone the Simpson family reached this year--they turned 20). The original shorts were very crude and the Simpsons only vaguely resembled the characters they are now. Indeed, in some respects they looked very scary. As The Tracy Ullman Show progressed, however, the animation became more sophisticated and the Simpsons started to resemble themselves as we now know them. By the second season The Simpsons shorts had become popular enough that the Simpsons were now given credit in the opening titles of The Tracey Ullman Show. By 1989 The Simpsons shorts had become so popular that Fox decided to spin them off into their own show. The Simpsons debuted on December 17, 1989.

By 1990 The Simpsons had become an outright phenomenon. The Simpsons merchandise was flying off the shelves that year, with everything from action figures to t-shirts. At that time much of the attention was focused on Bart, who was then the most popular character on the show. Of course, this would change as time passed. Eventually Homer would out pace Bart in popularity, and the series would expand its focus from the family to the community of Springfield itself.

Amazingly, given the animated series that have come in its wake (South Park, The Family Guy), The Simpsons stirred up some controversy in its early days. Parent's groups and media watchdogs felt Bart was a poor role model for children. George Bush, then President at the time, even made the comment, "We're going to keep trying to strengthen the American family. To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons." His wife, Barbara Bush, said that The Simpsons was "the dumbest thing I've ever seen on television." The Simpsons T-shirts were banned from some schools. The controversy would eventually fade, but what the show's critics failed to realise was that, as dysfunctional as the Simpsons could be, in many respects they were one of the most ideal portrayals of a family on television. For all their faults, the Simpsons do love each other, to the point of sacrificing their own happiness for their others. Indeed, in my opinion the relationship between Bart and Lisa is one of the sweetest portrayals of a brother and sister's relationship ever on television. Quite simply, The Simpsons was not Married...with Children.

At the time I must confess that I did not think The Simpsons would last. While I loved the show, I believe that it had two things going against it. The first was that in 1990 it was shaping up into a fad show, and sadly fad shows do not last. At four seasons The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a long life for a fad show. Most fad shows don't even make it that long. The Sixties series Batman only lasted two and a half seasons. Twin Peaks had a briefer lifespan; it survived only a little over a year. It seems that once the fad burns itself out and people lose interest, a fad show is history. The second thing is that it is an animated series. Prior to The Simpsons, The Flintstones were the longest running primetime animated show, at six seasons. Most primtetime animated series didn't last nearly as long. The Jetsons, arguably one of the most popular animated series of all time, only lasted one season in primetime. So did the more serious Johnny Quest. Some didn't even make it that long. Where's Huddles ran only for ten episodes during the summer of 1971. It was not picked up for the 1971-1972 season. Between being what appeared to me was a fad show at the time and an animated series at that, I thought at most The Simpsons had three seasons of life in it, no matter how brilliant it was.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The Simpsons has not only lasted 18 seasons, but it has remained huge in syndicated reruns over the years. On July 27 of this year, they will finally hit the big screen in The Simpsons Movie. The show has changed a good deal over the years. I do think that it lost its way somewhere around season 12 and I have not regularly watched it since. Sadly, I do think it is one of those shows that has outlived its welcome. But in its prime The Simpsons was easily one of the most brilliant shows on television, capable of satire and parody no live action series had ever dared. Even having gone downhill from what it was, The Simpsons still ranks as one of the greatest shows of all time.

Indeed, perhaps there is no greater testament to The Simpsons than its impact on culture. While the word "D'oh!" existed before The Simpsons, it was that show which made it so popular that the Oxford New English Dictionary had to give it an entry. Naturally, the show had a huge impact on television. Since the Sixties animated series had been rare in primetime. This was understandable given the failure of so many primetime animated series in the Sixties. But The Simpsons showed that animated shows could be successful in primetime, thus paving the way for Futurama, King of the Hill, and a number of other primetime animated shows. The Simpsons even had an impact on live action shows. Ricky Gervais has admitted that The Simpsons was an influence on the original, British show The Office.

It is difficult to tell how much longer The Simpsons will last. The show has dropped from its peak in the Nineties, but it still attracts more people aged 18 to 49 than any other in its time slot, the age bracket Madison Avenue desires the most. It is quite possible it could become the longest running show of all time. Regardless, it has already made more marks in television history than most TV shows.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Bernard Gordon Passes

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon passed on May 11 after a battle with bone cancer. Gordon was 88. He had written screenplays ranging from Hellcats of the Navy to the sci-fi cult film Day of the Triffids.

Gordon was born on October 29, 1918 in New Britain Connecticut. He grew up in New York City and moved to Hollywood in 1940. Declared physically unfit for military service, Gordon started working in the film industry during World War II. He also joined the Communist Party, a decision which would have a lasting impact on his career. He quit the Communist Party when he learned about Stalin's atrocities.

Gordon's first screenwriting credit was for the film Flesh and Fury. Starring Tony Curtis and directed by Joseph Pevney, the film centred on a deaf boxer. Gordon would go onto write the screenplays for The Lawless Breed and Crime Wave. Unfortunately for Gordon, he was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954. Ultimately, he was never called before HUAC, but an acquaintance named as having been a part of the Communist Party. As a result, he was fired from his job and blacklisted in the film industry. Fortunately, he was able to continue working, although his career would never be the same.

In 1954, producer Charles Schneer hired Gordon. He wrote the screenplay to The Law vs. Billy the Kid (directed by none other than William Castle) under the psuedonym John T. Williams. He would go onto write several screenplays under the pseudonym Raymond T. Marcus, including Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Hellcats of the Navy, and The Case Against Brooklyn. He used his friend Philip Yordan (who wrote El Cid among other films) as a front to write the screenplay for The Day of the Triffids. With 55 Days at Peking, Gordon received his first screen credit in years. He would go onto write screenplays for Cry of Battle, the 1964 adaptation of The Thin Red Line, Battle of the Bulge (again using Philip Yordan as a front), and his final film Surfacing.

Gordon also wrote two books, Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist and The Gordon File: A Screenwriter Recalls 20 Years of FBI Surveillance.

Bernard Gordon was a gifted screenwriter, and it is sad that blacklisting forced him to much of his work in low budget features. Even then, many of the low budget movies Gordon wrote benefited from his skills. Despite the goofy title, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is actually a well done movie that is better than most Fifties sci-fi. And not only is The Day of the Triffids a cult film, but it is counted as a classic in some circles. His war movies such as The Thin Red Line and Battle of the Bulge could be inaccurate (as many war movies of the Sixties were), but they were always well written. I have to wonder what Bernard Gordon could have done with the support of a truly big budget production.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Cell

There are those of us who feared that Stephen King had lost his touch. It's not that his more recent books had been bad, they simply weren't up to earlier works. It seemed to us that he would never write another novel like The Stand or 'Salem's Lot. Fortunately, Cell, published last year, proved us wrong.

A review by George R. R. Martin stated that if a writer could write the Great American Zombie Novel, it would be Stephen King. But Cell is about as much a zombie novel as 28 Days Later, a film it greatly resembles, is a zombie movie. While Cell does owe a great deal to George Romero's Dead movies, it also owes a great deal to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, and even, to a small degree, Jack Finney's Body Snatchers and H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. It also bears a slight resemblance to King's earlier apocalyptic novel, The Stand. It would seem that with Cell that King has drawn upon a number of sources and made them all his own.

Cell centres around graphic novel artist Clay Riddell, who struggles to reunite with his family after an enigmatic signal (referred to as "the Pulse" in the novel) turns everyone who was on a cell phone at the time into something else entirely (the "zombies" many reviewers of this book have referred to) and leaving civilisation in ruins. Like many of King's earlier works, Cell cuts straight to the action and rarely does the action let up afterwards. The beginning alone is among the most frightening things King has ever written. And unlike many movies imitating Romero, King is not content to simply leave the world in ruins and infested by so called "zombies." King takes the novel's premise and runs with it, developing it to its logical conclusion. Although influenced by earlier works, with Cell King has created something original, imaginative, and all his own.

Many have complained that Cell resembles King's earlier work, The Stand. Cell does resemble The Stand in that both deal with an apocalypse. That having been said, the two are also quite different. The Stand is rife with Judaeo-Christian symbolism, something Cell lacks. At its core The Stand is essentially about a battle between Good and Evil. On the other hand, Cell is essentially a tale of survival set in a world that has gone totally downhill. It is perhaps for this reason that Cell lacks much of the optimism of The Stand. At its heart, Cell is a darker, more pessimistic, gamier novel than The Stand is.

Cell is a terrifying novel by a master of the horror genre. Once one picks up the novel, he or she might well find it very difficult to put down. I can honestly say that King has written one of the scarier novels of his career. It is perhaps worth noting, as noted at the end of the book, that Stephen King does not own a cell phone...

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Children of Men

Dystopic movies have been far and few between the past several years. Perhaps that is why Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, loosely adapted from the P. D. James novel The Children of Men, seems like so much of a throwback to the dystopias of the early Seventies and nearly the entirety of the Eighties. At the same time, however, Children of Men is definitely a movie that could only be made in the Naughts of the Twenty First century.

Children of Men takes place in the United Kingdom of 2027. Human beings all over the world have been infertile for 18 years, and it seems clear to most that humanity is on the path to extinction. Nearly government in the world has collapsed, leaving the United Kingdom the last government standing. The United Kingdom is not what once was, instead having become a fascist regime where illegal immigrants are persecuted. In this milieu civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen) finds himself with the task of transporting the first pregnant woman in literally years to safety.

Children of Men is an astounding piece of work, easily the best science fiction movie to come out in years. The characters are realistically presented. None of them are a cutout, and each one has his or her share of strengths and flaws. The plot is neither too hurried, nor too slow. Like an author writing a good book, Cuaron lets the film unfold at its own pace. The world presented in the movie is also terrifyingly real, from the violence that erupts all too often in the streets of London to the fascist style slogans the British government displays throughout the film. A government broadcast boasts, "Only Britain soldiers on." Signs read such things as "Avoiding fertility tests is a crime," and "Report all illegal immigrants. Suspicious? Report it."

Of course, even with a remarkable screenplay, Children of Men would not be as great if it were not for solid performances of its cast. Clive Owen is perfect as the typical Englishmen whose circumstances have made him a bit out of his depth. Claire-Hope Ashitey is convincing as Kee, the first pregnant woman in well over decade. Perhaps the best performance is given by Michael Caine, as the political cartoonist (and conspiracy buff) Jasper Palmer (a last name shared by one of his most famous characters, Harry Palmer, from spy movies of the Sixties). I honest believe that Caine should have received a nomination for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Perhaps the strongest points of Children of Men, however, are the film's look and its camera work. Curon told his art department that this film was the "anti-Blade Runner," rejecting overtly futuristic designs. Curon's thought was that all technological advancement would effectively cease by 2014. While the cars look much like the cars of today, looking only slightly futuristic. Video billboards are all over the place, as are computers, but there is nothing that really wouldn't be possible using only today's technology. Indeed, the world of Children of Men looks like one that virtually stopped a mere seven years from now. Buildings, houses, and vehicles are in disrepair. Bexhill, a seaside resort at this time has it has long been, is now a concentration camp for illegal immigrants with burnt out buildings and abandoned vehicles. The art design of Children of Men is remarkable in its portrayal of a world run down.

As great as its art direction is, the strongest part of Children of Men is its camera work. Indeed, the film features "single shot" takes that seem as if they would be impossible to achieve. The shortest of these takes measures in at a little over three minutes. The longest clocks in at over six minutes! Even when one of the long takes isn't on the screen, Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is simply amazing. The movie was nominated for the Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography. I can honestly say it deserved to win.

Children of Men is a great film with one of the most memorable climaxes in recent years. It is also a complex film which explores such themes as hope and faith, as well as issues which are relevant today. I rather suspect those who dislike depressing and dark films might not appreciate Children of Men, but those who enjoy well executed films that are intellectually challenging and entertaining, Children of Men is a must see.