Friday, 25 April 2008

Lawrence Hertzog R.I.P.

Lawrence "Larry" Hertzog, the television writer and producer best known as the creator of the cult series Nowhere Man, passed on Saturday, April 19, at the age of 56. The cause was cancer.

Lawrence Hertzog was born June 25, 1951 in Flusing. He grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. He moved to Los Angeles in 1977. In 1979 he broke into television writing episodes for Kate Columbo. He also wrote episodes of Hart to Hart. He wrote several episodes of Hardcastle and McCormick and was also co-executive producer of that show. He was also an executive producer on Stingray, for which he also wrote episodes. With Stephen J. Cannell he co-created the series J. J. Starbuck. He wrote three episodes of SeaQuest DSV and was a supervising producer for six episodes on that show.

Ironically, the show for which Larry Hertzog would become most famous did not have a particularly long run. The series originated from the soon to be launched UPN's need for programming. With only a few months to go before the new network would make its debut, UPN executive Michael Sullivan approached Hertzog about creating a series for the network. Hertzog created a show centred around documentary photographer Thomas Veil, who abruptly found his entire life "erased" and on the run from a vast, secret organisation which wanted negatives to a controversial photo he had taken. It was effectively a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner.

Nowhere Man was received very well by television critics, even getting a good review in The New York Times. And for a series on a fledgeling network, it got fairly good ratings. Unfortunately, there were those in leadership positions of UPN who simply did not like Nowhere Man. Worse yet, changes in the leadership of UPN would result in the decision to focus on urban comedies instead of action series as it originally planned. Nowhere Man was then cancelled after one season and 26 episodes. Despite this, through the years Nowhere Man has maintained a loyal following. It was even released on DVD on December 26, 2005.

Hertzog would go on to work as head writer on the series La Femme Nikita (which was similar in many respects to Nowhere Man in its "trust no one" premise). The final series on which he worked was the Sci-Fi Channel original Painkiller Jane, on which he was a writer and associate producer.

Lawrence Hertzog was not necessarily the most successful producer and writer in American television. With but a few exceptions, none of the shows on which he worked were smash hits. But he was arguably one of the best producers and writers in American television. Where Hertzog excelled best was writing (and in the case of Nowhere Man creating) shows that were different from almost anything else on television. Nowhere Man dealt with a man whose identity had been erased, ten years before identity theft became a common crime. La Femme Nikita combined Sixties style spy drama with the paranoia of The Prisoner and The X-Files (and Nowhere Man as well). Painkiller Jane (based on the comic book of the same name) dealt with an agent of the government with superhuman abilities who hunts others with superhuman abilities (Gil Grant of Covington Cross fame adapted the comic book into a TV series).

Of course, it was not simply that Hertzog worked on unusual shows. Quite simply, Lawrence Hertzog was also very good at what he did. Nowhere Man would not still be remembered, nor would it have been released on DVD, had it been a poorly written show. Hertzog did not simply have a knack for creating unusual situations, but also well developed characters to place in those situations. It is a talent that few television writers and even fewer television producers possess. It is then sad to know that he has been taken from us all too soon.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Earth Day Quiz

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers around the end of the month.

Since yesterday was Earth Day, I thought this quiz should have an environmental theme!

1. In what year did Smokey Bear first appear?

2. What was the name of the comic strip created by Ed Dodd and debuting on April 15, 1946, which featured a photojournalist and magazine writer as its hero and dealt with environmental themes?

3. What 1962 book is credited with launching the environmental movement in the United States?

4. In what year was Earth Day first celebrated?

5. What bird is the icon for the United States Forest Service's anti-littering campaign?

6. What Greek letter was used as a symbol for the ecology movement?

7. What President founded the National Park Service?

8. What year was the Endangered Species Act passed?

9. What 1990 carton aired on TBS featured an environmentalist superhero and his team of five youths fighting threats to the environment?

10. What 2006 film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film and dealt with global warming?

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Ratatouille

Director Brad Bird has always referred to animation as an art form, something distinct from live action movies, rather than simply another genre of film. It is his belief that animation can be used to tell any sort of story and that it can be used in such a way to appeal to any sort of audience, whether adults or children. It is perhaps for this reason that Bird's films have always been light years ahead of other animated movies. Quite simply, Bird's insistence that animation is an art is reflected in his movies.

One need look no further than his latest film, Ratatouille, released last year. Ratatouille centres on a rat named Rémy who is blessed with remarkable senses of taste and smell and, as a result, wants to be a chef. Rémy achieves his goal through the hapless Linguini, a young man who just happens to get a job at Gusteau's, the once great restaurant founded by the legendary chef Auguste Gusteau. In the hands of another director such a tale could have been simple children's fare, but in the hands of Bird it is a masterpiece of animated storytelling. In fact, I rather suspect Ratatouille might well appeal more to adults than it would the younger set.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that Brad Bird is one of the few true auteurs working in animation today. Each of his films (his previous two being The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) have been steeped in nostalgia and American pop culture. While The Iron Giant was based on the English novel The Iron Man, Bird took the film and made it entirely a thing of its own, drawing upon the old Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons, Cold War paranoia, and Fifties pop culture. The Incredibles was essentially a paen to Silver Age superheroes, with a family somewhat reminiscent of Marvel's Fantastic Four. Ratatouille follows in the same vein of nostalgia and pop culture, in this instance drawing upon the screwball comedies of the Fifties and Sixties. Even with a rat as the lead character, Ratatouille is a good compliment to such films as The Nutty Professor (the Jerry Lewis original, not the remake), Topkapi, and One, Two, Three.

It is for that reason that, like The Incredibles before it, Ratatouille is unlike any other Pixar film. There are no musical interludes of any sort, let alone songs by Randy Newman. No outtakes or bloopers play during the closing credits. Instead, Ratatouille is very much its own film, a Sixties screwball comedy separated from the rest only through its rodent hero and the fact that it is an animated film.

It is a mark of Bird's status as an auteur that certain themes do run through his films. In fact, the central theme of all three of his movies can be summed up in a line from The Iron Giant--"You are who you choose to be." Each of Bird's movies deal with indivduals struggling with their own individuality, their own need to be who they must be. In the case of Rémy, he must decide between being a traditional rat who simply takes what he wants for food, or a chef who creates culinary delights. As a character Rémy is very much in keeping with both the Iron Giant and Mr. Incredible in seeking a way in which he can be himeself.

Aside from its remarkably strong script, Ratatouille also benefits from some great vocal performances. Ian Holm is delightful as the villain of the piece, Gusteau's former suchef and now the chef at the restaurant. Brad Garrett is virtually unrecognisable as the late chef Auguste Gusteau. Perhaps the best performance in the entire film, however, is Peter O'Toole as dour food critic Anton Ego. It is arguably one of the best performances of an overall stellar career.

Visually, Ratatouille could well be Pixar's strongest film. The film's vision of Paris is lush and romantic--the Paris of many Hollywood films. And Ratatouille features some incredible sequences, from a complex scene set in a storm sewer to Rémy's flight through the kitchen and the restaurant.

Over all, Ratatouille could well be Pixar's best film, which given their oeuvre makes it all the more impressive. It is a truly amazing movie with a strong story line, memorable characters, great performances, and some truly amazing animation. It is also more proof that Brad Bird is truly one of the great auteurs of our time.