Friday, July 30, 2004

Spy Shows of the Sixties

I hope no one reading this minds me going back once more to the subject of television. It is a subject with which I am fascinated, particularly the television shows of my childhood. Indeed, I have to admit that I have a fascination for television history, particularly the cycles through which network television goes. Discussing the legal drama cycle which appears to finally be coming to an end got me to thinking of one of my favourite cycles of television history--the spy shows of the Sixties. I was far too young to remember most of them, although I did catch many of them in reruns.

The spy show cycle of the Sixties is interesting in that it is probably the only cycle that did not begin here in the United States. It started in the United Kingdom with two shows, The Avengers and Danger Man, both of which debuted within months of each other. Today most people think of The Avengers as featuring superspy John Steed and one of his female partners (in succession, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King), however, this was not the case in the series' first season (unaired here in the United States). In the first season the main character was Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry), a surgeon who set out to avenge his fiance's death. In the course of that first episode, which dealt with Dr. Keel's quest for vengeance, he encountered the mysterious superspy Steed (played by Patrick Macnee). Thereafter the two teamed up to fight crime and threats to British national security. A writer's strike immediately followed The Avengers' first season and Hendry decided that he wished to pursue other projects. John Steed then became the main character of the series and was teamed with a woman, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman). Blackman left after two seasons and was replaced by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. With the first Diana Rigg season the show made its way to the States; hence, Emma is the best known of Steed's partners here. The Avengers is my all time favourite series. It was played with its tongue definitely in its cheek. Throughout its run Steed and his various partners faced a plan to repeat the Gunpowder Plot (only this time with an atomic bomb), a plot to return the Stuarts to the throne of Britain, a sentient man eating plant, unstoppable robots, and a modern day Hellfire Club. And they did it all with wit and charm.

Danger Man featured Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a security specialist working for NATO. The series' flavour was more realistic than either The Avengers or the Bond movies. There were almost never plots that threatened the whole world and any gadgets that appeared were strictly within the realm of possibility for 1960's technology. Drake himself was also very different from other superspies. He never kissed a woman, let alone slept with one (McGoohan felt that doing so could teach children that promiscuity was acceptable). Drake also rarely carried or used a gun (McGoohan did not want to send the message that violence was an acceptable solution to problems). Danger Man aired briefly on CBS in 1961, making it the first spy series to air on American television in the Sixties. When it was revived as an hour long series in 1964, it once more gained a slot on CBS's schedule, this time under its American title Secret Agent. It also picked up a new theme song--"Secret Agent Man."

With the success of Danger Man and The Avengers, a spy craze built in Britain. Perhaps partially because of this spy craze and perhaps partially because of the growing popularity of the novels here in the States (due in part to John F. Kennedy's love of them), James Bond finally made it to the big screen in Dr. No in 1962. Dr. No was followed by the equally successful 007 movies, From Russian With Love and Goldfinger. With the popularity of the Bond movies, the spy craze that had begun in Britain arrived on American shores.

While the Bond movies brought the spy craze to American shores, however, the first American spy series of the Sixties, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was in development before 007 ever saw the inside of an American movie theatre. In the fall of 1962 TV producer Norman Felton asked Ian Fleming to develop a series loosely inspired by the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest. As Dr. No was not released in America until May 1963, the beginnings of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. occurred before the spy craze reached American shores.

Regardless, Fleming had to drop out of the project because of contractual obligations with Eon Productions (the producers of the Bond movies). In his time on the project, he had only come up with a vague outline dealing with a spy named Napoleon Solo, who resembled Bond a good deal. Felton then hired Sam Rolfe, creator of the classic Western series Have Gun--Will Travel, to further develop the series. Rolfe expanded Solo's character so that he no longer resembled 007 and created the character of Solo's partner, Illya Kuryakin. He also created the organisation called U.N.C.L.E., an international organisation which dealt with threats to the security of the whole world. Rolfe also created the international crime syndicate originally called WASP, but renamed THRUSH before the series hit the air. Like North by Northwest (in which Cary Grant's character inadvertently gets involved in an espionage plot), each week on the The Man From U.N.C.L.E., an innocent, ordinary person would get swept into a plot involving the U.N.C.L.E. agents.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted in September 1964 to decidedly less than spectacular ratings. In fact, as of December 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not even on NBC's tentative fall schedule for fall 1965! Fortunately, three things would save the series. One was the fact that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was developing a following on college campuses through word of mouth. Naturally, when these college students returned home for Christmas and spring break, they told their families about this cool new show they'd discovered. The other thing which saved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a publicity tour of particularly important television markets on which Robert Vaughn (who played Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (who played Illya Kuryakin) were sent. Often they would even shoot promos for the local affiliates in these markets. The third thing which saved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from extinction was the growing following David McCallum had among female viewers. He soon appeared in many fan magazines of the day and at every public appearance there would be scores of girls and young women waiting just to see him.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s ratings then began to rise until it essentially became a fad. During the Sixties, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. merchandise is perhaps surpassed only by Batman in the sheer numbers. Nearly every major magazine published at least one article on the show. Robert Vaughn appeared as Napoleon Solo on the sitcom Please Don't Eat the Daisies and in a cameo as Solo in the Doris Day vehicle The Glass Bottom Boat. McCallum had a cameo as a "Casino Patron (ostensibly Illya himself)" in the Bond spoof Casino Royale. Both men appeared on a number of talk shows. The series even produced a spin off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., with Stefanie Powers as U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer.

Unfortunately, the fad would not last. Ratings for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. declined and the show left the air in January 1968. In the meantime, however, it gave even more fuel to the spy craze on American television. Both The Avengers and Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent here in the States) would make the trip across the Atlantic to American television. Amos Burke, police detective and hero of Burke's Law would trade in his badge to become Amos Burke, Secret Agent.

Among the series which debuted in the wake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was The Wild Wild West. The Wild Wild West differed from any other series in that it dealt with two agents for the United States Secret Service, James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), assigned to the American West. Amidst the tumbleweeds and sagebrush the two spies faced opponents with definitely advanced technology for the 1800's: a man made almost entirely of steel, a crazed geologist who can create earthquakes, a crazed ex-army major with his own tank, and a mad doctor with a germ that causes instant paralysis. Their greatest opponent was Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), the Napoleon of the West. A midget in size, he was a giant in intellect. Again and again he squared off against West and Gordon. Among his plots were a powder which causes madness, a powder which can shrink people, and a chemical that can kill all life (plants, animals, people).

Another series which followed in the wake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was I Spy. I Spy was historic in featuring the first African American in the lead role of a drama, Bill Cosby as secret agent Alexander Scott. Scott and his partner Kelly Robinson (played by Robert Culp) travelled the world on espionage missions, all the while posing as a tennis player (Robinson) and his trainer (Scott). Unlike The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Wild Wild West, I Spy tended to be more realistic in its portrayal of espionage. There were no outlandish gadgets and no threats to the entire world.

Perhaps the series with the longest lasting success to emerge from the Sixties spy craze was Mission Impossible. Mission Impossible dealt with the Impossible Missions Force, a covert group headed initially by Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill) and for most of its run by Jim Phelps (Peter Graves). The IMF tackled situations which could not be resolved by traditional means, often using technology, disguises, con games, and so on to accomplish their ends. Unlike other spy series, Mission Impossible took its inspiration not from the James Bond novels or Hitchcock spy thrillers, but from such caper movies as Topaki and Rififi.

Very early in the spy craze, the genre was ripe for parody. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart followed the adventures of inept Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), agent 86 for CONTROL. Accompanied by his partner, Agent 99 (Barbara Felton), Max faced agents of KAOS, an international criminal syndicate. There were plenty of advanced gadgets in Get Smart, always played for laughs. Most often seen was Max's shoe phone. Smartly written and very funny, Get Smart outlasted many of the more serious spy dramas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the British series The Prisoner. On The Prisoner, a secret agent who resigns from the service (Patrick McGoohan) finds himself abducted to the Village, from whence there is no escape, and given a number rather than a name (Number Six). Precisely who runs the Village, its location, and even its primary purpose, is never revealed. Regardless, Number Six's keepers at the Village constantly seek "information" as to why he resigned. At the same time, Number Six seeks both to escape the Village and find out its true nature. The Prisoner was an intellectual spy drama, dealing with such themes as the importance of self, personal identity, democracy, the effects of violence, and other such topics. Throughout the series, the true identity of Number Six was never revealed, although many fans believe that he was none other than Patrick McGoohan's hero from Danger Man, John Drake himself! The Prisoner debuted in the UK in September 1967 and then in the United States on CBS in June 1968. It almost immediately became a cult series.

Between 1964 and 1968, around twenty different spy series, whether domestic or British, aired on American network television. I enjoyed them as a child, catching most of them in reruns over the years. In fact, I perhaps watched too many of them. As a young child I had a recurring dream that I was a superspy, often teamed with a beautiful woman as a partner. I suppose that is what happens when one watches The Avengers and The Wild Wild West too much. At any rate, I still love the Sixties spy dramas. In fact, I own the entire run of The Prisoner and much of The Avengers on tape. In my opinion, they never have quite matched those spy series of old.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Marvel Comics

Growing up, among the many comic books I read were those published by Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics pretty much revolutionised the superhero genre in creating superheroes who actually had problems such as the average person might have, the perfect example being Spider-Man.

I had not yet been born when most of the major Marvel Comics characters had been introduced. In fact, my first introduction to Marvel characters was not in the comic books, but on television. In 1967 cartoons based on both Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four debuted. I watched both cartoons regularly, so that when I was old enough to read, I naturally sought out Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comic books. Indeed, my brother and I inherited a good deal of comic books from our neighbours. Among them were several Marvel titles, including Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Thor, and others.

Of course, Marvel Comics was not a new company. Its origins lie in the pulp magazines that flourished in the first half of the 20th Century. Martin Goodman published pulp magazines under the "Red Circle" imprint. In 1939, with comic books growing in popularity, he decided to expand into comic books. Initially, the comics were published under the "Red Circle" format, although eventually they become known as Timely Comics. In fact, the company's first comic book, Marvel Comics, took its name from one of Goodman's pulps, Marvel Science Stories. It was in that first issue of Marvel Comics that two of their major characters debuted: The Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner. Their third major character, Captain America, would debut in his own magazine some time later.

Timely Comics proved successful during the Golden Age. In fact, the Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America were among the most popular superheroes of the Golden Age. Unfortunately, as the Golden Age came to a close, superheroes declined in popularity. Timely had ceased publishing even their most popular heroes by 1949. Timely changed its name to Atlas and stumbled along through the Fifties. An attempt to revive their superhero line in 1954 failed. In 1956 they had to cancel most of their titles and strike a distribution deal with rival National Periodical Publications (home of Batman and Superman) just to survive.

Fast forward to the early Sixties and another name change, this time to Marvel Comics (named for the first comic the company had published). Editor Stan Lee noted the popularity of The Justice League of America at National Periodical Publications. He thought that perhaps another superteam could prove popular, albeit this new team would be different from any before. The Fantastic Four primarily fought crime as a team, only rarely engaging in solo adventures. They eschewed costumes for team uniforms. And none of them had secret identities; their identities were publically known. Transformed during a space flight by cosmic rays, the Fantastic Four were: Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic, a scientist who had the power to stretch his body and the leader of the group; Benjamin Grimm, AKA The Thing, their pilot who had been transformed to a creature appearing to made of rock and possessing incredible strength; Susan Storm, The Invisible Girl (later called The Invisible Woman), who had the power of invisibility and the power to generate a force field; and Johnny Storm (Sue's brother), the Human Torch (a different one from the Golden Age character), who could burst into flame and fly.

What also set The Fantastic Four apart from other superteams before them is that they had problems similar to the average person. Teenager Johnny went through the usual crushes. Ben worried about the effect his montrous appearance might have on the average person. Despite facing such incredible villains as Dr. Doom (their archnemesis), the Fantastic Four existed in a world closer to our own.

The Fantastic Four proved to be a hit and soon Stan Lee was creating new heroes for Marvel Comics. The Hulk, Antman, Daredevil, and others soon joined The Fantastic Four. By far Lee's most successful creation was Spider-Man. Lee developed the idea of a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider who gains the powers of a spider. Unlike other heroes, Peter Parker was an outright nerd, picked on at school, unpopular with girls, and constantly beset with problems. Publisher Martin Goodman hated the idea, but gave Stan Lee the go ahead to write a Spider-Man story for the last issue of Amazing Fantasy. Sales for that issue went through the roof and several months later Spider-Man got his own title.

The lasting appeal of Spider-Man is easy to see. Peter Parker is an average person, in some ways a less than average person. For all his great powers, he is still picked on by bullies, he still cannot get a date for Saturday night, and he is still in constant danger of losing his job. On the one hand, the reader can identify with Peter. He is not a handsome millionaire like Bruce Wayne, nor is he a successful reporter for a major paper like Clark Kent. He is an average guy who just happens to have the powers of spider, as well as the problems an average guy would have. On the other hand, I suspect many readers can't help but think they would handle being a superhero better than Peter, that if they had his power they would not have his problems. Of all of Marvel's characters, Spider-Man is perhaps the only one who matches Batman and Superman in popularity. Indeed, there have been several animated TV series based on the character, one live action TV series, and two major motion pictures!

Of course, as a child I discovered other Marvel Comics characters than Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. Among these was Iron Man. Iron Man was millionaire industrialist Tony Stark. While in Vietnam he was hit by shrapnel, some of which lodged near his heart. To stay alive he created an armoured suit with magnets to keep the metal away from his heart. Naturally, being in a comic book, the armoured suit also allowed him to fly and could emit "repulsor" rays. I always loved Iron Man primarily because I loved the idea of an armoured suit that allowed its user to fly and fire "repulsor" rays.

I also loved the Mighty Thor (the Norse god of thunder), although by the time I discovered the comic book I had already read enough on Norse mythology to know that it was very inaccurate. For one thing, the god Thor was not a clean shaven blond, but a redhead with a wooly beard. In the comic book, Thor was also mortal Dr. Donald Blake. I can't recall how Thor became trapped in the body of a mortal man, although eventually Blake was dropped entirely and Thor was Thor full time.

Anyhow, I always tended to be more of a DC Comic fan than a Marvel Comics fan--after all, Batman and Green Lantern were my favourite heroes. But I have always enjoyed my time spent reading Marvel comic books. To this day, I am still a fan of Spider-Man. There will always be a soft place in my heart for Marvel Comics.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

Last week I discussed the movie Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and submitted it as proof that, even in the Seventies, Hammer Films could produce starkly original films. For me another example of this is Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is unlike any Hammer film one might ever see. Quite simply, it is perhaps the first kung fu vampire movie! Hammer Film Productions made the movie in conjunction with the Shaw Brothers, a Hong Kong studio best known for kung fu movies. It was, quite simply, the first kung fu vampire movie! Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires was also shot almost entirely on location in and around Hong Kong. As might be expected, it was released at the height of the kung fu craze of the early Seventies.

The plot involved a Chinese village which is terrorised by seven golden vampires, revived by Dracula on behalf of an evil Chinese warlord. One of the villagers learns that Dracula's old nemesis, Professor Van Helsing, is speaking in Chungking and enlists his aid. Van Helsing, his son, an heiress, and seven brothers and one sister, who are experts in kung fu, then set out to destroy the vampires. Originally, Dracula was not meant to appear in the film. At the last minute, however, it was decided that the Dracula name could bring in more money at the box office. Despite this, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is hardly a Dracula film, as the Count only appears on screen for all of six minutes!

Unfortunately, it does not even seem that Dracula could save Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires where the box office was concerned. The movie bombed. Had it been successful, its sequel would have pitted Van Helsing against vampires in India. As to why Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires failed in Britain, that is anyone's guess. Perhaps the combination of kung fu and vampires in the movie was just a bit too much ahead of its time.

Regardless, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires has a reputation for being a very bad movie, a reputation I do not think it deserves. I suspect that this is largely due to the American version of the film, 7 Brothers Versus Dracula. For its American release, the movie was cut from its 91 minute running time to 75 minutes. It was also heavily re-edited, with entire scenes rearranged and important plot points left out. Ironically, even though his name was on the marquee in the American version, Dracula had even less time in 7 Brothers Versus Dracula than he did in Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires! As a result of the cutting and re-editing, 7 Brothers Versus Dracula made little sense whatsoever. While the reasons for the failure of Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires in Britain may be debated, the reason for the failure of 7 Brothers Versus Dracula in America should be no secret--it was awful. Of course, the trailer for 7 Brothers Versus Dracula probably did not help it at the box office. It is quite possibly one of the worst trailers of the Seventies (which says something in and of itself).

In my humble opinion, it is a shame that Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was butchered for American release, as the film in its original form is actually quite entertaining. Visually, this is one of Hammer's best looking films. The exterior scenery (the hills and forests of Hong Kong) is quite striking. And the interiors, shot in hues of red, orange, and blue, look very good as well. The movie features some very impressive scenes, among them an army of undead attacking the village. The fight scenes are perhaps not as well choreographed as some of the other Shaw Brothers films, but are still nonetheless impressive. As to the story, it includes some interesting plot twists and a few real surprises. And the Seven Golden Vampires themselves are a nice change of pace from the vampires of Western horror movies. This is not to say that Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a perfect movie. With the possible exception of Peter Cushing, the performances are somewhat overwrought.

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is hardly a great film, but it is both entertaining and interesting. It hardly deserves the reputation it has of being a truly awful movie (a reputation I suspect is due almost entirely to the horrible American version). I would say that it is certainly well worth watching.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

When MTV Played Videos

Looking through the televison schedule, it seems to me that MTV simply shows The Real World, Road Rules, and Newlyweds over and over and over again. I can remember when MTV used to play music videos. Now it seems to me that most of their programming is reality series. I seriously doubt that they play much more than two to three hours of videos a day, and then only in the wee hours of the morning.

MTV opened for business on August 1, 1981. In those days it operated pretty much like a radio station on TV. They aired nothing but music videos, introduced by veejays (short for "video disc jockey," I suppose). Everyone I know complained a bit about MTV. A lot of the people I know thought it was overly commercial, just another promotional tool for the big record companies. And we all complained when they would put a video we didn't like on "Burn Out Rotation (that's when they'd show a video every hour on the hour)." But in the end, everyone I knew watched MTV. Or at least had it on in the background. That was one of the great things about MTV when it played videos. One could watch it like any other TV channel or one could simply have it on in the background like a radio station. It was the world's first ambient TV channel!

In those days, there were some pretty good videos on the air. Texas band Z. Z. Top had a complete series of videos, starting with "Gimme All Your Lovin'," that featured a vintage Ford and three beautiful women. The plots of most of the videos were pretty much the same. The women would show up in the car, help out some poor schmo, and then leave as mysteriously as they had arrived. Duran Duran was another group that had some interesting videos. Their video to "A View to a Kill" was a take off on Bond movies and was actually better than the Bond movie for which it was written (although that would not have taken much). Adam Ant was another artist who seemed to have been born to make videos. His video to "Goody Two Shoes" is a simple male fantasy, involving a beautiful, yet prim and proper reporter (well, she wasn't so prim and proper towards the end of the video...). Billy Idol also put out some good videos--especially "Cradle of Love," in which a mild mannered yuppie is driven mad by a beautiful woman dancing around his apartment. Beautiful women seem to have been a recurring theme in music vidoes--looking at "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne, I guess they still are! Of course, surrealism is another recurring theme in music videos. When it came to surrealism, The Eurhythmics' video for "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" maybe topped them all. I am still pondering why the cow was in the video...

Of course, MTV sparked a bit of a video craze and other channels debuted their own music video shows. NBC had Friday Night Videos. TBS had Night Tracks. USA had Night Flight. There were even video shows in syndication, the most successful of which was probably America's Top Ten with Casey Kassem. The video fad would eventually fade away and most of these shows would go by the wayside. Friday Night Videos perhaps lasted the longest, lasting for 11 years before NBC changed the show's format and changed its name to Friday Night.

As the Eighties progressed, MTV started airing material other than videos (I think the first may have been the game show Remote Control). As time passed, more and more time would be devoted to these programmes and less and less to music. In 1992 The Real World debuted. I suppose that was the final nail in the coffin of music videos. From that time forward MTV has devoted more time to their "original programming" and less to videos. I have to wonder why they still call themselves "Music Television" any more?

Of course, there is MTV2, which shows nothing but music videos. The problem is that it is not available on every cable outlet. VH1 is still devoted to music, although it appeals to an older crowd (at 41 I feel as if I am too young for VH1...). There is also Fuse, a video channel from Canada. Unfortunately, they are not available on all cable outlets either. For someone wanting to watch music videos, there are only a few places to turn. I suppose one can only pray that MTV wakes up one day and realise that they are Music Television and dump the "reality" series...

Monday, July 26, 2004

Animated Feature Films

Growing up, I did not see very many animated feature films. On the one hand, there were a lot fewer animated movies being released in the late Sixties and Seventies than there are now. In fact, is seems to me that during the average year, the only animated film that might be released would be Disney's latest outing. On the other hand, my parents never went to the movies. I really don't know why this was, but they simply did not attend the cinema. This means that I missed every single re-release of a Disney feature as a child and every new Disney movie as well. In fact, I didn't go see movies in theatres on a regular basis until I was about 12.

In fact, the only Disney animated feature film I remember from childhood is The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, which adapted both The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows. For whatever reason, they showed it on The Wonderful World of Disney from time to time. Why they showed The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but not the other Disney classics, I can't say. I have heard that Walt Disney did not particularly want his classic films shown on television. Indeed, insofar as I know, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has never aired on TV, not even on the Disney Channel. Regardless, I always loved The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows. The animation is superb and I still find the stories compelling, even as an adult.

Disney did eventually start showing the classic Disney films on television, but by that time I was a young adult. The first Disney feature besides The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad I saw on TV was either Dumbo or Alice in Wonderland. Both aired in the Eighties on The Wonderful World of Disney (or whatever title it was using at that time). I loved both movies and love them still. Of course, the Disney Channel has shown many of the classic Disney movies over the year. It was there that I got to see Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and a few others. And the advent of the VCR has allowed me to see nearly every classic Disney film. It was on VHS that I first saw Sleeping Beauty, perhaps my favourite Disney feature of all time. To me it is an absolutely beautiful movie, with great animation and a good plot. It even has a bit of swordplay! Of course, I did eventually get to see a Disney film in the theatre. On its 50th anniversary re-release I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I thought the movie was quite impressive in terms of story, music, and animation, particularly as it was the first major animated feature ever released. At the moment, I think the only Disney classic I have not seen is Pinnochio. That is a shame, as I understand it is perhaps the best one of them all.

Beyond The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the first animated feature I ever saw was Yellow Submarine (of which I have written in this blog earlier). As a child the movie captured my imagination. I was already a Beatles fan and the Sixties, Pop Art, psychedelic animation style appealed greatly to me. I also loved the story, a loose plot involving The Beatles journeying aboard the Submarine to save Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. To this day, Yellow Submarine is one of my favourite animated films, if not my favourite.

The first animated feature film I saw in a theatre was not suitable for children at all. I was 18 when Heavy Metal was released. Heavy Metal was based on the adult graphic magazine (somehow the word "comic book" just doesn't fit) of the same name. The magazine tended to be very adult in tone, with occasional doses of sex and violence. The movie was no different. Regardless, I was very impressed with Heavy Metal when it first debuted. I thought it was perhaps the greatest animated feature of all time (not that I had seen that many at that point). Having watched it recently, I cannot say that I am quite as impressed. The animation is still very impressive. And the music is still as good as ever. Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual stories, the movie is very uneven in quality. Some of them are quite good. Others are not.

Another animated feature from the same era is the cult film Rock and Rule. Rock and Rule was a Canadian feature that had poor distribution here in the United States. I saw it several times on HBO in the Eighties myself. Rock and Rule took place in a post-apocalyptic future in which an evil rock star/magician (Mok) kidnaps a singer (Angel) whose voice can summon a demon. To her rescues comes down on his luck singer Omar and his band. It has been years since I have seen Rock and Rule, but I recall that the quality of animation is slightly uneven. Some of the animation is quite good, with a real attention to details. Other times it is not so good. What Rock and Rule might lack in animation, it more than makes up for in story, dialogue, and particularly the music. Rock and Rule is essentially a rock opera, with Cheap Trick doing the songs for Omar, Blondie doing the songs for Angel, Lou Reed doing the songs for Mok, and Iggy Pop doing the song for the demon. The musical artists did some of their best songs for this movie, in particular Cheap Trick's "Born to Raise Hell" and the duet between Robin Zander and Deborah Harry, "The Signal." Rock and Rule is not yet available on DVD, although Unearthed Films is supposed to release it sometime. I am hoping that they will do so soon!

Of course, like any sci-fi/fantasy fan, I would eventually discover anime. For those of you not in the know, "anime" is simply the Japanese word for "animation." In English speaking countries, it simply used for any Japanese animation, from TV shows like Astro Boy to movies like Spirited Away. I must point out that to a degree the term is misleading, in that it implies anime is a genre of animation. This is not the case. Anime or Japanese animation has as many genres, if not more, as American and European animation. Anyhow, like most Americans, the first Japanese feature I saw was Akira. I was amazed. Here was a film with great animation, a complex story, and even philosophical implications. To this day I love Akira. It is one of the greatest animated films of all time in my humble opinion. Another great animated film and one of my favourites is Ninja Scroll. Ninja Scroll is a fantasy set in medieval Japan, in which a ninja is forced to cooperate with his archenemy in a plot to usurp the Japanese government. Ninja Scroll essentially plays out like a good action movie, complete with one of the most tragic romances of all time on film. The extreme violence of the film might leave some cold, but I suspect that there are many who would find it quite compelling.

Of course, the past several years have seen the rise of computer animation. Pixar is perhaps the king of computer animation. I have loved every Pixar film to come out. What makes Pixar great is that they remember that behind every great animated film is a great story with great characters. Indeed, the characters in Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc., and Finding Nemo are better developed than in many live action films. Of course, Dreamworks has given Pixar a run for their money. In my opinion, Shrek is one of the best movies to come out in years.

While I did not get to see many animated features as a child, I have become a bit of an animation aficionado as an adult. I can't name how many animated features I have seen--the movies mentioned here only scratch the surface. At any rate, I will continue to seek them out. Even with today's computerised special effects, animation can offer views into worlds that live action films could not possibly capture on film.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Radio Daze

Like most Americans, I grew up listening to the radio. I have no idea what the first radio station I ever heard was, although chances are it was KWIX, the AM station in Moberly. Now KWIX is an all talk station, although it wasn't always that way. When I was growing up, KWIX played elevator music for most of the day. At night they had the "Big Beat" programme, when they played rock and pop music. Needless to say, I didn't listen to KWIX much during the day, although I did listen to it a good deal when the Big Beat programme came on at 7 PM CST.

The station to which I listened the most when I was growing up was KFMZ-FM in Columbia, MO. I am not sure when KFMZ opened. I am guessing that it was somewhere around 1970. KFMZ was the rock station in the area. It was on this station that I heard my first Queen song, my first Cheap Trick song, my first Electric Light Orchestra song.... It may well have been where I first heard Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, for all I know. Unfortunately, as far as I know, KFMZ no longer exists. The FCC has a right to revoke a station's licence if it finds that its owner has a poor moral character. KFMZ's owner had been convicted of sexually assaulting children. As a result, KFMZ's licence, and those of stations he owned in Osage Beach, MO and Terra Haute, IN, were revoked. Personally, I have always thought this was a bit unfair. While I do not think someone who has been convicted of sexually assaulting a child should be allowed to operate a radio station, I also think that revoking that station's licence effectively punishes both the station's employees and the station's listeners for a crime they did not commit. I think it would have been better if somehow he could have been forced to sell the stations and then the money from the sale had been donated to charity. Unfortunately, I don't think that is the way the law works.

When the FCC shut down KFMZ, it left a bit of hole where rock stations are concerned in mid-Missouri. There is KZBK from out of Brookfield, MO. I listen to KZBK a good deal. They play "Today's Best Hits," which basically translates to a variety of rock and pop songs. On any given afternoon, one might hear Matchbox 20, The Rolling Stones, No Doubt, and Sheryl Crow all played on KZBK. The downside of KZBK's playlist is that I don't think I have heard any heavy metal ever played on the station. For heavy metal, one must turn to KCMQ. I also listen to KCMQ a good deal. KCMQ calls itself the "Rock Station" and the name is fairly accurate. KCMQ plays a mixture of hard rock and heavy metal. On any given afternoon, one might hear Metallica, Z. Z. Topp, Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin on KCMQ. The downside of KCMQ is that it seems to me that they tend to play older material more so than newer material. While one might hear classic Megadeath on KCMQ, one might not hear the latest song from, say, Matchbox Twenty. The other rock station in Columbia is KBXR. KBXR's slogan is "Columbia's Quality Rock!" From my point of view, I am not sure that slogan is entirely true. It seems to me that they play a lot of what I call "Yuppie Rock." That is, one will hear a lot of Bare Naked Ladies and Blues Traveller on KBXR, but not much of Metallica or even Fountains of Wayne.

None of these stations entirely take the place of KFMZ. I suppose if one crossed the playlist of KZBK and KCMQ, one might well have a close facsimile of what KFMZ once was. Still, both stations are farily good ones in my opinion. And I suppose the alternative is much worse. There are areas in the U. S. where there are no rock stations!

I don't know if kids today listen to the radio much any more. Radio has so much more competition these days, from music on the internet to cable television. As an old timer, though, I have pleasant memories of listening to the radio growing up.