Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Songs of Cole Porter

The 20th century having ended a few years ago, it is difficult to say which of its composers will be remembered. With over 1000 songs to his name, not to mention the most recorded song in American history ("White Christmas"), I think it is safe to say that Irving Berlin will be remembered. Having written many standards, among them "Rhapsody in Blue," I think that Ira and George Gershwin will also be remembered. As the leaders of The Beatles and the most successful songwriters in rock history, I don't think John Lennon and Paul McCartney (whether writing together or separately) will ever be forgotten. Among the composers of the 20th century whom I think will be remembered I can also number Cole Porter.

Cole Porter was born to a wealthy family in Indiana and proved to be a child prodigy. He learned to play the violin at age 6 and the piano at age 8. By age 10 he had already written an operetta. By the time he died in 1964, Porter had written literally hundreds of songs, many of them having become standards. As with many great talents, Porter was also a very complex individual. He displayed an open attraction to other men at a time when homosexuality was considered anathema, yet at the same time he was very happily married to his wife Linda for 35 years. Some psychologists have even theorised that Porter suffered from manic depression. Not only was Porter one of the most talented composers of the 20th century, he could also be described as one of the most unusual.

Indeed, if there is one thing (besides his complex sex life and his mood swings) that separates Porter from Berlin and the Gershwins, it is that he was never afraid to address taboo subjects in his songs. There are times when I swear that the number one topic of Porter's songs is, quite simply, sex--this at a time when the subject was pretty much verboten. On even a little examination it is apparent that his first big hit, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," isn't about falling in love; instead it portrays a world where every animal is intent on mating. "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" isn't Porter's only song in which he compares the human sex drive to that of animals. "Let's Misbehave" justifies a rendevous with the line, "We're men and mammals..." In both "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "Let's Misbehave," Porter treats sex with a light, humourous touch, but he could be more serious. "Love for Sale" is quite obviously about prostitution. While it was a hit in 1930, it was banned on radio for many, many years for precisely that reason.

As I pointed out above, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "Let's Misbehave" were both pretty much humourous songs. And humour is pretty much a hallmark of Porter's works. A perfect example of this is "Anything Goes," which celebrates a world in which nearly anything is permissable. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" has always sounded to me like a rather cynical celebration of the Electra complex. "Well, Did You Evah!" is another one of Porter's list songs, in this case a list of unlikely (and often funny events) which are simply too hard to believe.

It would be a mistake to think that Porter was capable of only sex and humour songs. He also wrote some of the most passionate love songs of all time. In fact, if I were to make a list of the most romantic songs of all time, both "So In Love" and "Everytime We Say Goodbye" might well rank near the top. In my mind both songs potray a love so strong that the thought of separation is nearly unbearable. "Night and Day" has become a standard, one of the most performed songs in American history.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that like the Gershwins and Berlin, Porter wrote primarily for Broadway. He was behind some of the best known and most successful musicals of all time: Anything Goes, DuBarry Was a Lady, and Mexican Hayride. In my humble opinion, perhaps his greatest work was the musical (and later movie) Kiss Me Kate. This was Porter at his best--"So In Love," "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare," "I Hate Men." Of course, Porter worked in Hollywood as well as on stage. Perhaps his greatest achievement on film was the Gene Kelly/Judy Garland movie The Pirate. Aside from stellar performances from Judy Garland and Gene Kelly (not to mention Kelly's amazing dance routines), the movie features some of Porter's best songs, among them "Be a Clown."

I don't think I need to say that Cole Porter was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He was also among the most prolific. Of the early to mid-20th century he was certainly among the most daring. Regardless, he will always remain among my list of favourite songwriters.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Monster and the Critics

J. R. R. Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. This nearly everyone knows. What many might not know is that Tolkien wrote a good many essays. Beyond being the author of two classic, 20th century novels (The Lord of the Rings actually being a novel published in three volumes, rather than three separate novels), Tolkien was also professor of Anglo-Saxon language (today better known as "Old English") at Pembroke College from 1925 to 1945 and professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College from 1945 to 1959, both colleges being at Oxford. Quite naturally, Tolkien wrote essays in his chosen fields.

Many of these essays were collected together and published in The Monster and the Critics in 1983, ten years after his death. The Monster and the Critics is a must read not only for Tolkien fans, but for anyone interested in the English language, English literature, and English mythology. Featured prominently at the beginning of the book is Tolkien's 1936 lecture "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics." With the exception of Lord of the Rings, this could well be Tolkien's greatest and most influential work. Prior to "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics", studies of Beowulf largely focused on the language of the poem and it was treated as a source of Anglo-Saxon history. At the time most scholars downplayed the poem's fantastic elements (such as Grendel and his Mother). Tolkien argued that these elements were pivotal to the poem and focused instead on the very poem itself. "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics" is widely seen as a turning point in the study of the poem. Beyond redirecting scholars' focus on the poem from its linguistic elements to the actual content of the poem, Tolkien established that it was indeed one of the greatest works written in the English language.

Although the other essays in The Monster and the Critics were not quite as influential as "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics," they are well worth reading nonetheless. "On Translating Beowulf" was written for the 1940 edition of Beowulf and the Finnesburg Fragment (J. Clark Hall and C. L. Wrenn) and focuses on the difficulty of translating the poem into modern English. It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the English language. Like "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics," "On Fairy Stories" has also had a lasting influence. This essay is Toklien's defence of the fantasy genre. He argues that the genre allows readers to look at their own world from the point of view of other worlds. In this way the assumptions one had always held about the world can be challenged and changed by yet another point of view. Tolkien further argues that works of fantasy (or as he terms them, "fairy stories") can be enjoyed as escapist literature. Finally, he argues that they can serve as a source of emotional reassurance, their happy endings offering hope to the reader. First published in 1947, "On Fairy Stories " has been used ever since then as a defence of the fantasy genre. The essay also contains Tolkien's thoughts and philosophy regarding the genre, thus letting the reader look into the mind of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

"Secret Vices," a lecture which Tolkien gave in 1930 at an Esperanto meeting, is on the construction of languages. It deals with the relation of languages and mythology. It also offers insight to the workings of Tolkien's mind regarding his own contructed languages (Quenya and Sindarin). "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is a study of that poem, written as an introduction to his own translation. "English and Welsh" was a valedictory speech that Tolkien gave to the University of Oxford in 1955, explaining the origins of the term "Welsh." It is important in giving us Tolkien's own thoughts on language and linguistics.

The Monster and the Critics brings together some of Tolkien's best and most important essays. They are well worth reading for any Tolkien fan, giving insight into the workings of Tolkien's mind and his thoughts on language, linguistics, mythology, and fantasy. They are also a must read for anyone interested in the English language and mythology. Beyond being one of the most influential authors of fictions in the 20th century, Tolkien was also one of the most influential scholars of English language and literature.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Seinfeld Curse?

With the debut of Julia Louis-Dreyfus's new sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine, there has been renewed talk of the "Seinfeld Curse." Supposedly, the Seinfeld Curse is a curse whereby none of the alumni of that sitcom can have another successful show. And, on the surface, it might well appear that they are cursed. Louis-Dreyfus has aleady had one attempt at another show--Watching Ellie, which lasted less than one season on NBC. Like Dreyfus, Jason Alexander has tried two shows since Seinfeld ended--Bob Patterson, which lasted but a few weeks during the 2001-2002 season, and the recently cancelled Listen Up , which at least managed to last a season and a half. Michael Richards' Michael Richards Show also lasted only a few weeks. Given the short lives of these shows, it is perhaps easy for many to conclude that the veterans of Seinfeld are under a curse. That having been said, I don't think this is the case.

Let's face it, there are only a few actors who have starred in more than one successful sitcom. Off the top of my head I can only think of a few. Following I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball saw success with both The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. Bob Denver had already starred in the hit The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis before being immortalised as Gilligan. Michael J. Fox had success with both Family Ties and Spin City, while Howard Hesseman went from WKRP in Cincinnati to Head of the Class. Of course, Bob Newhart had success with The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, although subsequent series failed. There are no doubt more actors who have had more than one successful sitcom (Ted Danson and Kelsey Grammer also comes to mind), but my point is that actors who have had only one successful sitcom far outnumber those who have had more than one.

Indeed, for a prime example of an actor who starred in a successful sitcom but never repeated that success, one need look no further than Maclean Steveson. Stevenson left M*A*S*H only a few seasons after it had become a hit series. Afterwards he never again played in a hit series, despite repeated attempts. The Maclean Stevenson Show, In the Beginning, Hello Larry, Condo, and the TV version of Dirty Dancing all failed, and miserably at that. Stevenson may be unique for having as many series failed as he did, but he is not alone in not being able to repeat his previous success. Don Adams played Maxwell Smart in the classic Get Smart. The show was critically acclaimed and even received Emmy awards. But Adams never repeated that show's success. His syndicated sitcom Check It Out ran three years, but it was never a ratings winner. A sequel to Get Smart, Get Smart Again, survived only a few weeks on Fox. If it wasn't for the animated Inspector Gadget, Get Smart would have been his last hit. Andy Griffith starred in one of the most successful shows of all time, The Andy Griffith Show, but did not have another hit series until Matlock, a mystery series rather than a sitcom.

In fact, one need look no further than the classic show Cheers for examples of how hard it is to have another hit. George Wendt failed with no less than three shows following Cheers. The George Wendt Show, The Naked Truth, and Modern Men all bombed. Shelly Long, who left the series at the height of its success, had no success with Kelly Kelly. Rhea Perlman struck out with both Pearl and Kate Brasher. Of the cast of Cheers, only Ted Danson and Kelsey Grammer were able to repeat their television success. And it took Ted Danson more than one try. His series Ink failed before he found some degree of success with Becker. Of course, Kelsey Grammer went onto success with Fraiser, one of the few spinoffs that was as successful as the original series.

The truth is that it is simply very hard to find success for a sitcom, or any other type of TV series, for that matter. Out of the many TV shows that debut each fall, only a few will survive to last a season. And out of those series lucky enough to last a season, only a few will survive more than one. In fact, I have read estimates that as many as 80% of all shows debuting in any given season will flop. Looking at these odds, an actors who have even one hit show under their belt should count themselves lucky! Quite simply television is a very competitive business in which the majority of shows simply will not last. Shows such as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and Cheers, which last for several seasons and then go on to be rerun ad infinitum are very, very rare. Given this fact, it is perhaps no surprise that none of the veterans of Seinfeld have met with success since that show left the air. It is simply the odds of having a hit show, not some curse, which has left them without a single hit series following the success of Seinfeld.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Star Wars

I must confess to one grave oversight I have made in this blog. I have never written much about Star Wars. Make no mistake, I have always been a huge Star Wars fan, ever since I first saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in the theatre in 1977. The complete saga is perhaps the greatest work of space opera ever acheived on film.

The first I ever heard of Star Wars was in the pages of a Marvel comic book. I don't even remember which comic book it was, or even if I read about it in the Bullpen Bulletin (remember those?) or in a letter column. What I do remember is reading about the new movie the director of American Graffiti, the soon to be very famous George Lucas, had in the works. It was titled Star Wars: From The Adventures Of Luke Starkiller. Of course, "Luke Starkiller" would eventually become "Luke Skywalker" and the movie would eventually be renamed Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

It would be quite some time before I heard anymore about Star Wars. In fact, my next exposure to Star Wars would be the novelisation of the motion picture. In an unusual move, the novelisation was published in December 1976, a full six months before the motion picture was released. The novel was entitled Star Wars: From the Adventures of of Luke Skywalker and was credited to George Lucas. In reality, it was ghost written by science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster, drawing upon Lucas's script. In early 1976 I happened to see the novelisation on my then brother in law's bookshelf. I remembered reading about Star Wars in a Marvel Comic book and I was intrigued by the cover, in which Darth Vader figured prominently. I borrowed the novel from my brother in law and immediately found myself drawn into Lucas's creation. There was no doubt about it. This was a movie I wanted to see.

While I was fascinated by the novel, it did not generate that much interest. Only 100,000 copies were printed. I think it is safe to say no one, not even George Lucas, expected the reaction to the film. It was released on Wednesday, May 22, 1977. And almost immediately it proved to be a phenomenon. People were standing in long lines just to see the movie. My brother and I did so when we went to see it at the matinee. I still remember the date. It was Sunday, May 29, 1977, only five days after the film had been released. Star Wars would go onto become the highest grossing film for some time.

Like many people I found myself fascinated by Star Wars. I bought the books. I bought the comic books. I bought the poster. I even bought the action figures, even though I was far too old for toys at that point. And like many I eagerly awaited the release of its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

It would turn out to be one of the few Star Wars movies to measure up to A New Hope. In fact, until the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, it was my favourite Star Wars film of all time. Like many I was somewhat disappointed with Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I thought Boba Fett died all too swiftly. Given the build up the character had been given, I'd thought he'd have a larger role in the movie. And like many I found the Ewoks a bit annoying.

For many years it would seem as if that would be the end of Star Wars on film. Initially, with the success of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Lucas had considered doing twelve Star Wars movies. By 1979, however, he decided to only do nine films--three would take place prior to the original (and techically second trilogy) and three would take place afterwards. Following the release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas decided that he would make no more Star Wars films. All of this would change in 1995, when Lucas announced that he would make three prequels (Episodes I-III). The first Star Wars film in 16 years, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released on May 19, 1999. Many people were disappointed in the first prequel, and the film was sometimes attacked by fans as well as critics. Perhaps the single most common complaint was that of the character of Jar Jar Binks, regarded by many as the single most annoying character in the Star Wars saga. Another criticism was directed at the idea that Anakin as a small boy could do such things as build C-3PO and pilot spaceships. Yet another criticism was the introduction of the idea of "midichlorians," mysterious organisms found in all living things that allow communications with the Force. I must admit that I was one of the fans somewhat disappointed by Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, particularly because of Jar Jar Binks...

Most fans found Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones to be an improvement over The Phantom Menace, although some were still disappointed. Personally, the only thing that really disappointed me about the film was the romance between Anakin and Padme. George Lucas's dialogue in the romance scenes simply seemed wooden to me. And in this film Natalie Portman (usually a very good actress) seemed to sleepwalk through her performance as Padme. This made the scenes between Anakin and Padme seem very unromantic to me. The romance aside, however, there is much I like about the film. Indeed, the fight between Yoda and Count Dooku (played by the great Christopher Lee) is one of the best scenes in any of the movies.

Fortunately, it would seem Lucas left the best for last. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is, in my humble opinion, the best of the films. Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid all give excellent performances. The love scenes are heartfelt and genuine. And the transformation of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is realistically handled. The action scenes are among the best in the series. In fact, the only real complaint I have is that the film could actually have been longer. In fact, there is enough material in there for two films!

Of course, Star Wars is not just about the films. Marvel Comics adapted A New Hope and the launched their own Star Wars series afterwards. They proved enormously successful, becoming the first comics to sell over a million copies since Batman comic books at the height of Batmania in 1966. Despite their success, I never really cared too much for Marvel's Star Wars comic books. They simply did not seem like the real Star Wars to me. Indeed, I seem to recall that they departed from the mythos a good deal. Since then Dark Horse has taken over the franchise and has done a much better job with it.

There have also been tons of Star Wars books beyond the expected novelisations of the movies. Indeed, the first sequel to A New Hope was not The Empire Strikes Back, but the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye written by Alan Dean Foster. Since then entire series based on the movies have been published, from the Jedi Quest series to The Clone Wars series to series centred on such characters as Boba Fett and Darth Maul. I haven't read near that many Star Wars novels, although I have a friend who I swear has read all of them (no mean feat, given how many books there are...).

Star Wars even made its way onto television. Many might remember the abomination known as The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired only once on CBS on November 17, 1978. It was so poorly done that George Lucas has largely disowned it. It is significant for one reason. It marked the first appearance of Boba Fett, in an animated sequence made by Candadian animation company Nelvana. There were also two made for TV movies featuring the Ewoks that aired in the early Eighties. There were even Saturday morning cartoons. Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks both debuted on September 7, 1985. Since then there has been The Clone Wars animated series which has aired on the Cartoon Network. Lucas even announced a planned live action TV series that would fill the gap btween Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

Of course, there have also been the action figures, video games, role playing games, collectible cards, and so on. Forbes Magazine in 2005 estimated that Star Wars had earned $20 billion in its history. Naturally, to do that Star Wars had to have a strong fan base. Late night comedians would sometimes have one believe that the average Star Wars fan is a socially challenged male living in his parents' basement, who has never kissed a girl (much less gotten laid). I have to wonder if they aren't confusing Star Wars fans with Trekkies...(I'm only joking; I am a Star Trek fan myself...). First, not all Star Wars fans are male. I probably know as many women who are into Star Wars as I do men. Second, I know of no Star Wars fans who have never kissed a member of the opposite sex and still live in their parents' basement. Fans of the franchise seem to come in all shapes and sizes. I know a happily married couple who are both Star Wars fans (my best friend and his wife--he's the one who's read every single Star Wars novel). I had another friend (now dead, sadly) who was a multitalented, professional artist. The absolute biggest Star Wars fan I know is a very beautiful, green eyed blonde with three children who runs an art gallery...hardly a nerd living in the basement!

I suppose the big question is why was Star Wars such a huge success on the release of A New Hope and has continued to be so successful nearly thirty years after the first film's release? I think much of the reason is that Lucas consciously drew upon folklore and mythological motifs in fashioning the Star Wars saga. It is well known that Lucas drew heavily upon the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell to create the films. Indeed, one need look no further than the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader for an example of a folklore motif at work--that of the Faustian bargain. Such motifs became motifs in the first place because they speak to the human condition. In metaphorical terms they portray many of the struggles and problems we human beings face in our lives.

It must also be pointed out that Lucas drew heavily upon pop culture. The influence of Akira Kurosawa's movies The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai, as well as Frank Herbert's Dune series, is well known. And, of course, Star Wars also draws heavily upon such previous space operas as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Star Wars is arguably the most successful film series of all time. Given that it drew heavily upon folklore, mythology, and pop culture, I think it is easy to see why. In doing so, the Star Wars series resonates more with people than, say, the Bond series or even Star Trek. Its characters have long become a part of pop culture--I doubt that there is an American alive who does not recognise Darth Vader. As to myself, it remains my favourite film series of all time. I must admit that I wish George Lucas would make yet another trilogy....