Thursday, August 3, 2006

Kurt Kreuger R.I.P.

Actor Kurt Kreuger died July 12, 2006 at the age 89 from a stroke. Kreuger was perhaps best known for playing both Nazis and film noir villains in several movies.

Kreuger was born on July 23, 1916 in Michenberg, Germany. He grew up in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Kreuger studied both economics and medicine, but ultimately chose acting for a career. Kreuger made his film debut in Mystery Sea Raider (directed by Edward Dmytryk) in 1940. In 1941 he appeared on Broadway in the drama Candle in the Wind. The next few years Kreuger would appear in various bit parts, usually as various German or Nazi military officers. His breakthrough role came in Sarhara in which he played Captain von Schletow, the German fighter pilot shot down and held captive by an American tank crew. Unfortunately, Kreuger found himself typecast as a Nazi in Hollywood films. He played Nazi officers in None Shall Escape, Hotel Berlin, and Paris Underground.

Fortunately, following World War II, Kreuger began to appear in parts other than Nazis and assorted German officers. Starting with The Spider in 1945, Kreuger would play a succession of bad buys in film noir movies. He played what could have been a break through role in the Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours. In the black comedy, Kreuger appeared as Anthony, a scoundrel who openly flirts with the wife of insanely jealous symphony conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (played by Rex Harrison). Unfortunately, Harrison's lover at the time, Carole Landis, committed suicide and Twentieth Century Fox, fearing a scandal, failed to promote the movie. It died at the box office and in doing so left his careers in the doldrums. After another role as another German officer in Spy Hunt in 1950, Kreuger left the United States and Twentieth Century Fox in hopes of a film career in Europe.

In Europe Kreuger appeared in such films as Die Blaue Stunde directed by Veit Harlan and La Paura directed by Roberto Rosellini. Unfortunately, none of the films he made in Europe were successes. Starting in 1955 with a guest appearance on Crusader, the majority of Kreuger's work was in television . He made guest appearances on such series as The Five Fingers, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Combat, Mission Impossible, The Wild Wild West, and Get Smart. Eventually he went into real estate, in which he literally made millions of dollars.

Kreuger's later film work included the role of U-boat navigator Von Holen in The Enemy Below, the sadistic Captain Marcheck in Legion of the Doomed, and James Clark in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. While at 20th Century Fox in the Forties he was their third most request male pinup.

Much over the years was made of Kreuger's blond good looks, although I think it was more important to note that he did have considerable talent. His performances in Sahara and Unfaithfully Yours were impressive. It is sad that he spent much of his career typecast as Nazi officers (a fact which he always resented), as he was capable of so much more. Er wird vermißt.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Annoying Commercials

Even if you haven't seen it, if you spend any time at all on the Web you have probably heard of the commerical for HeadOn, a headache relief product. The commercial itself is very simple. It features a model against a simple background applying Head On to her forhead and repeats the slogan "HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead" three times. The commercial has created considerable buzz in that many believe that it is the most annoying commercial currently on television. Personally, I don't find it that annoying, especially not compared to other commercials.

Indeed, when it comes to commercials for pain relievers, the ad for HeadOn is positively pleasant in my opinion. Historically, I rather suspect that the most annoying commericals of all time may well have been those promoting Anacin. Starting in the Fifties with commercials that portrayed headaches as sledgehammers attacking the brain, I swear that the Anacin commercials were designed to give viewers headaches. Not only were they often accompanied by annoying graphics (such as the tiny sledgehammers or, in other commercials, lightning bolts), but the loudest and most annoying sounds possible in a commercial. As a child I simply could not stand these ads. But even now I can't complain that they did not sell their products. Their commercials having induced headaches in viewers, a lot of people probably rushed out to buy Anacin for "fast relief."

Of course, when it comes to loud, annoying commercials, I suspect no one has mastered the form like the automotive industry. I am sure you have seen these various commercials over the years; they usually air during the local news. Most of the time the volume on these commercials is as loud as they can legally be. In fact, I swear that their volume is usually three to four times louder than the average television programme. I have never been able to watch one without turning down the sound on my TV set.

While the old Anacin ads and the average car commercials are annoying because of their volume, other commercials are simply annoying because they are either repetitive, they are aesthetically unpleasing (poor grammar, bad rhymes, et. al.), they are seen by viewers as just plain stupid, or all of the above. A case of a series of commercials that is most likely all of the above are the ads for Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel Pads. First, the ads are saddled with what could be the worst advertising slogan of all time--"Are you gellin'?" I have to wonder if Dr. Scholls' advertising agency did not think they were creating a catchphrase that would spread like wildfire and that "gellin'" would become an established part of American slang. If they did think so, then they were seriously mistaken. Most people I know seem to think the use of the word "gellin'" in any context beyond "to become a gel (which is a semisolid body...)" is just plain stupid. Second, as if the catchphrase itself wasn't annoying enough, they have to rhyme it in every way possible ad nauseum: "Are you gellin'?" "Like a felon;" Are you gellin'" "Like Magellan..." In the end I don't so much want to buy Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel Pads as slap the folks in the commercials upside the head...

Of course, Dr. Scholls isn't the only big advertiser who has been saddled with a bad catchphrase. I'm sure many of you remember Anheuser-Busch Budweiser's "Whassup" campaign from several years ago. The original commercial simply consisted of a bunch of guys talking on the phone and repeating "Whassup" over and over. I think what is even sadder is that, unlike the Dr. Scholls "Are you gellin'?" slogan, for a time "Whassup" actually entered Amercian slang of the time. It even became a bit of phenomenon on the Internet for awhile, with parodies appearing almost immediately. Why the "Whassup" commercials caught on I will never know, as I find them among the most annoying commercials of all time. Indeed, they grated on my nerves even more when it seemed as if every child in my life insisted on repeating "Whassup" over and over again.

I think annoying ad slogans can often be made worse by annoying music. A perfect example is the most recent Old Navy commercial. Running throughout the commercial is one of the worst rap songs I have ever heard (which is saying a lot considering how much I hate rap), repeating the line "We've gotta get our fash' on" (or variations thereof) over and over. Besides using a song that is just plain bad, the commercials are all the more annoying for the slogan "Get your fash' on." Now I have always enjoyed good puns myself, but "Get your fash' on" is not a good pun by any stretch of the imagination.

The sad thing is that the song in the old Navy commercial isn't even the worst piece of music in a commercial these days. That honour would go to that horrible "Woo-hoo" song in Vonage's commercials. The song is repetitve and shrill and simply downright unpleasant to me. In fact, I can't see how people can even think of calling the HeadOn commercial the most annoying commercial on television when those Vonage ads are so much annoying. Their commercials don't make me want to run out and subscribe to Vonage. They do make me want to mute the television everytime that they come on.

Of course, I do not think that there will be a time when there are not annoying commercials on television. The sad fact is that, as much we might hate them, irritating commercials can often accomplish their goals better than more pleasant ads. Prior to the notorious commercial for HeadOn, I seriously doubt that very many people had even heard of the product. I now rather suspect that the majority of Americans have. And at least some Americans probably will buy HeadOn when they need headache relief. In that respect, the ad for HeadOn has done its job in promoting its product. As long as annoying commercials succeed in creating product awareness, they will continue to be part of the television landscape.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I Want My MTV? Well, Not Anymore....

Today MTV turns 25 years old. It was on August 1, 1981 that the channel first went on the air. Curiously, MTV is holding no celebrations, no parties, to mark the ocassion. In fact, they are not even mentioning the anniversary. Of course, if you ask me, there really isn't much to celebrate.

For those of you too young to remember, there was a time when MTV showed videos. In fact, when the channel first debuted that was all it showed. MTV was the equivalent of a radio station on television. It would show music videos, interrupted only by commercials and the chatter of their veejays (that's "video jockeys"--the video equivalent of a "disc jockey" or "deejay"). The idea of MTV grew out of a show produced by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees in 1980. Capitalising on the growing popularity of music vidoes, Popclips aired on Nickelodeon throughout 1980. Warner Cable (now Warner Ammex), the parent company of Nickelodeon, took notice of the show and offered to buy the rights to it so they could create a cable channel that would show nothing but videos 24 hours a day. Nesmith and his production company, Pacific Arts, turned them down. It was then that Warner developed their own music video channel--MTV, short for Music Television.

It is hard today to imagine the impact that MTV had on its debut. It became one of the fastest growing cable channels of its time, bolstered a good deal by the "I Want My MTV" advertising campaign. It even sparked a video craze in the early Eighties. Soon cable channels and networks from WTBS (now just TBS) to NBC would have their own video shows. The videos themselves would even seep into pop culture. Z. Z. Topp's videos for "Gimme All Your Lovin'," "Sharp Dressed Man," and "Legs" would serve as the basis for a dream sequence on the series St. Elsewhere. Michael Jackson's video "Thriller" would be visually referenced in the movie Beverly Hills Cop. Robert Palmer's video for "Addicted to Love" would be endlessly parodied. There can be little doubt about it--MTV loomed over the Eighties like no other cable channel did.

Indeed, in those days it seemed as if everyone under thirty watched MTV. Oh, at the time my friends and I often mocked MTV as too commercial. We often complained about those times when MTV would place a video on what we called "burnout rotation (that is when it seemed as if MTV was showing a video every 15 minutes)." But ultimately we still watched MTV. In fact, I doubt that there were very many days in the early to mid-Eighties that I didn't have MTV on at some point on any given day.

Sadly, it was not to last. In 1987 MTV debuted the game show Remote Control. It was their first show that had absolutely nothing to do with music. And while the show would not last long (only about three years), it set a precedent for non-musical programming on MTV. Gradually, MTV would start showing more and more shows that had nothing or, at least, very little to do with music or music videos. The die was cast in 1992 when the channel debuted its reality series The Real World. It would be followed by other non-musical shows, such as Singled Out and Road Rules. At the same time MTV started showing fewer and fewer videos until, at last, the majority of their programming was made up of non-musical shows. Videos, the material which gave MTV its start, would become a rarity on the channel.

Indeed, MTV would show so few music videos that in 1996 they created a new channel, MTV2, just for showing music videos. MTV2 was essentially what MTV originally was--a cable channel devoted totally to music videos. Since then Fuse, the video channel from Canada, has gained a very firm foothold in America. It seems to me that people still want their MTV, but they don't want what MTV has become. At least no one over twenty five wants it.

Quite simply, I have to wonder why MTV even bothers calling itself MTV any more. On any given day, MTV only shows a few hours worth of music videos. And with few exceptions it is usually in the late night/early morning hours that they show them. The rest of MTV's time is devoted to regularly scheduled programming, only a very few of which are even remotely devoted to music. In my opinion, MTV, the channel which built itself on music videos, ceased to be "Music Television" long ago. I honestly think that the channel should change its name to something more appropriate (given that very little of what they air is worthwhile in my opinion, I would suggest JTV--Junk Television...). After all, other cable channels (Spike, the Hallmark Channel, and so on) changed their name when they changed their formats. And if MTV insists on still being called "MTV," then perhaps they should stop showing non-stop reruns of The Real World and Road Rules and start showing videos again. Until then, I don't really want my MTV...

Monday, July 31, 2006

Roy Orbison

Well, in case any of you are wondering, I am still unhappy. I feel as if my life has just ended and that now I merely exist for no real reason and with no real purpose. I certainly do not think I will ever be happy again. I guess this is what happens when one loses his hopes and dreams, when his fondest desires are utterly crushed. He becomes one of the living dead.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss a musical artist whose music I'll probably listening to quite a bit in the coming months: Roy Orbison. Orbison was a legendary pioneer in rock 'n' roll and a songwriter of some note. He was perhaps best known for his many, often sad ballads. Despite this, his biggest hit and best known song is purely rock, the classic "(Oh) Pretty Woman."

Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas on April 23, 1936. His family would eventually move to the town of Wink, Texas where he would spend much of his childhood. Orbison attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas and Odessa Junior College in Odessa, Texas.

Orbison became interested in music very early and he formed his first band he was all of 13. The Wink Westerners proved successful enough to have their own weekly show on Kermit, Texas radio station KERB. They would even appear on TV on shows that aired on KMID and KOSA, both in the Midland-Odessa area. In 1956, with the Wink Westerners renamed "The Teen Kings," Orbison headed to Memphis, Tennessee to try to break into the recording industry. Orbison signed with Sun Records, founded by legendary producer Sam Phillips. Today many of Roy Orbison's songs recorded at Sun are considered classics, but at the time he saw very little success. His only hit while he was at Sun Records was the song "Ooby Dooby," a minor hit from 1956. Orbison eventually moved from Sun Records to RCA. It was in 1959 that he was signed by Monument Records, where his biggest hits were recorded.

Orbison's first song, a rockabilly tune titled "Uptown," was only a moderate success. It would be the song"Only the Lonely" that would be his first major hit. Released in May 1960, the song would eventually reach #2 on the United States Billboard charts and #1 on the United Kingdom singles charts. The song displayed his signature vocal range and his practice of incorporating instruments usually reserved for orchestras (vioins, for instance) into rock music. His next single, "Running Scared," would go to #1 on the Billboard charts. For the next several years he would be among the biggest rock artists of the era, with several hit singles to his credit. Indeed, his best known songs, "Crying," "In Dreams," and "Oh, Pretty Woman" would all be included in Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2004.

Orbison's songs were characterised by his nearly operatic vocals. They were also often characterised by sounds that as of yet had not been heard in rock 'n' roll. His classic "In Dreams," with its nearly epic quality, eschewed the typical structure of a pop song of the era. While most songs of the era tended to repeat certain sections of their music, "In Dreams" progresses through different musical sections that are not repeated. Of course, Orbison is probably best known for the lyrics of his songs, which are often about lost love. "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "In Dreams" all paint portraits of men who have lost love and are not the better for it.

Of course, Orbison's biggest success would come with a happier song. "Oh, Pretty Woman" was released in 1964 and was the first American record to break The Beatles' stranglehold at the top of the Billboard charts. Indeed, the song not only went to the #1 spot, but sold more copies than any other single in its first ten days up to that time. Unfortunately, Orbison's career would virtually collapse following the success of "Oh, Pretty Woman." While his music was still popular throughout much of the rest of the world, the British Invasion insured Orbison remained hitless in his home of America. To complicate matters, the Sixties saw tragedy visit Orbison several times. His wife of 11 years, Claudette, died in a motorcycle crash in 1966. His home in Henderson, Tennessee burned to the ground in 1968, killing two of his sons.

Although Orbison would see success outside of the United States, his career would not be revived here until the Eighties. In 1980 he performed a duet with bluebrass singer Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." The song saw some success on the Billboard country charts. Nineteen eight six saw the release of the movie Blue Velvet, which included the song "In Dreams." With new interest in his early work, Orbison was once more in demand. He recorded a special for Cinemax, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night in 1988. The special featured such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and so on, performing as back up to the legendary Orbison. With its success Orbison would go onto record with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (of ELO), Tom Petty, and George Harrison as part of The Travelling Wilburys. The Traveling Wilburys were fairly successful and Orbison went onto record the solo album Mystery Girl. Sadly, just as his career was once more getting underway, Roy Orbison died from a heart attack on December 15, 1988. Shortly after his death, the song "You Got It" would become one of his biggest singles.

Roy Orbison was one of the greatest rock artists of all time. In fact, for the early Sixties, his songs were far more sophisticated rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically than other songs released at the time. His songs often broke with pop songwriting tradition and, listened to today, were obviously well ahead of his time. His voice spanned an impressive three octaves, perhaps making him the greatest singer in the genre of rock. Roy Orbison also proved to be an influence on other classic rock artists. He had an incredible influence on the British Invasion bands, particulary both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (in 1963, while touring in Britain, he encouraged The Beatles to go to America). Among other artists Orbison would have an influence were Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, lyricist Bernie Taupin, the Electric Light Orchestra, U2, and, most obviously, Chris Isaak ("Wicked Game" sounds as if it could have been both written and sung by Orbison). I rather suspect that if a top ten most influential artists of rock music was ever compiled, Roy Orbison would most certainly have to be included.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Good Night and Good Luck

Before there was Peter Jennings, before there was Tom Brokaw, even before there was Walter Cronkite, there was Edward R. Murrow. Murrow made his name reporting for CBS News from London during World War II. Following the war Murrow's reputation only increased. He anchored daily news reports on CBS Radio. With producer Fred Friendly he recorded a series of historical, spoken word albums entitled I Can Hear It Now. Those albums evolved into the radio show Hear It Now, on which Murrow and Friendly would tackle a number of controversial topics. The radio show would soon be adapted to the new format of television as See It Now, first airing on CBS in November, 1951. By the mid-Fifties Murrow was arguably the most respected journalist in America.

The movie Good Night and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, focuses on what many believe to be the most fascinating aspect of Murrow's long career--his famous See It Now broadcast on which he criticised Senator Joseph McCarthy. Director Clooney and his crew did a wonderful job of recreating CBS News circa 1953 to 1955. The movie evokes the spirit of mid-Fifites televison quite well. The sets look almost exactly like pictures of the CBS newsrooms from the mid-Fifties that I have seen. And the black and white photography only adds to the movie's authentic feel and look (indeed, I am not sure that Murrow ever appeared in colour during his career with CBS). My only complaint with the flm with regards to its authentic look is that there is one typographical error in the movie. The CBS logo displayed in the newsroom is in Helvetica, a font face which was not created until 1957!

What is all the more remarkable is that actor David Strathairn recreates Murrow to such a point that it is at times difficult to believe that it is not Murrow on the screen. Strathairn certainly deserved to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actor; not having yet seen Capote, I would say that perhaps he even deserved to win it. Strathairn's performance as Murrow is all the most amazing given that the actor does not even look like Murrow in real life. The rest of the cast do a great job as well, especially George Clooney as Fred Friendly and Frank Langella as CBS head William S. Paley, even though neither actor looks much like the men they are playing (both Clooney and Langella are considerably better looking that either Friendly or Paley were).

To its credit, Good Night and Good Luck is fairly even handed in its portrayal of Murrow. While the movie does portray him as a heroic figure, it sometimes shows the legendary reporter in a lesser light. In the film, as in real life, Murrow sometimes expressed doubts about using the medium of television to attack an individual, public figure like McCarthy. And, as in real life, Murrow is portrayed as a bit of a showman. While he hosts See It Now, Murrow was also the host of the CBS interview show Person to Person. The movie recreates an interview done on that show in which Murrow asks Liberace (for those of you too young to remember, he was a flamboyant, gay pianist) about his marital prospects. And while Murrow is not always portrayed as a saint, neither is CBS head William S. Paley portrayed as a base villain. While many filmmakers would portray Paley as a money grubbing executive who cancels See It Now simply because of the company's bottom line, Paley is portrayed as a responsible man who genuinely likes Murrow and admires the work CBS News has done, but also has concerns about retaining sponsors for the network and providing a living for its many employees. Paley is even allowed to get some blows in on Murrow, pointing out that Murrow did not correct McCarthy when the Senator claimed known Communist Alger Hiss was convicted of treason (he was convicted only of perjury).

All of this is not to say Good Luck and Good Night is a perfect film. Like Quiz Show (the film about the quiz show scandals of the Fifties), it does create some inaccuracies through omission. While the movies does point out that McCarthy was not the first person to engage Red baiting (the HUAC-Hollywood Ten hearing predated McCarthy by a few years), it does not point out that there were major figures who tackled McCarthy before Murrow went after him. Both columnist Drew Pearson and cartoonist Herblock both attacked the junior Senator from Wisconsin before Murrow did. And while the movie does make reference to Don Hollenbeck's failing health and the fact that his wife had left him, the movie could well leave some viewers with the impression that it was the attacks made on him by New York Journal American columist Jack O'Brian which was the ulitmate cause of his suicide (in truth it was probably a combination of many factors). Similarly, I think that Clooney could have done a better job of handling the bigger picture of the Red Scare. Let's face it. In the Fifties the U.S.S.R. presented such a viable threat to the safety of America that for quite some time fallout shelters were all the rage...

Even with its omissions, however, Good Night and Good Luck is a remarkable film. It recreates with a good deal of authenticity the look and feel of one of the most fascinating events in television history, and the man who was behind it all. Good Night and Good Luck isn't just for the television historian, but anyone who enjoys a well told story.