Saturday, September 9, 2006

Auto Focus

This week saw the release of Hollywoodland, a movie centred around the mysterious death of actor George Reeves. It was nearly four years ago that another movie centred around another mysterious death of an actor was released. That movie was Auto Focus. The actor was Bob Crane, best known as Colonel Hogan of Hogan's Heroes. It was on June 29, 1978 that Crane was bludgeoned to death while sleeping in his Scottsdale, Arizona apartment. With Crane's death, the messy details of his private life became public. It turned out that for literally years Crane had been engaged in videotaping sex acts with women he had picked up, aided and abetted by John Henry Carpenter (not to be confused with John Carpenter, the director). Crane and Carpenter had first met while Hogan's Heroes was still in production, while Carpenter was working for Sony (a result of which made Carpenter an expert in what was then the latest in technology--videotape). The Scottsdale police viewed Carpenter as their number one suspect in Crane's murder. It has been put forth that Crane wished to restart his career (which had been floundering for some time) and decided to cease his more unsavoury activities. Naturally, this would have meant breaking off his relationship with Carpenter, giving Carpenter a motive for the murder.

Auto-Focus centres on Bob Crane's personal life and to a lesser degree his relationship with Carpenter. Perhaps because of this, it is largely an actor's movie. The film is driven by Greg Kinnear's performance as Crane. And while Kinnear resembles Crane very little, he does give a convincing performance. Kinnear has Crane's facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocal patterns down to such a point that it is not distracting at all that the two men don't really resemble each other. What is more, Kinnear handles the task of playing a man who goes from being a popular DJ to the star of a hit TV sitcom to a man whose obsessions and addictions have nearly ruined him quite well. Indeed, Auto Focus shows both sides of Crane--a strict family man who disliked cursing in the media and a sex addict who films his encounters with women. Crane certainly led a double life.

The rest of the cast handles their parts quite well. As Carpenter, William Dafoe is appropriate creepy as a man obsessed with sex and perhaps Crane as well. Rita Wilson and Maria Bello both give solid performances as Crane's first and second wives respectively. Kurt Fuller not only looks like Werner Klemperer, but gives such a dead on performance that it is hard to believe that it is not Klemperer himself. Only Michael Rogers falls short playing Richard Dawson. While Rogers gives an acceptable performance, he does not really look, sound, or move enough like Dawson to be convincing to me.

As near I can tell from my knowledge of Bob Crane's life, Hogan's Heroes, and the history of video technology, Auto Focus is for the most part historically accurate. I only have one caveat. The movie makes it sound as if Crane did little more than the Disney film Superdad, a cameo in the Disney film Gus, and dinner theatre in the latter part of his life. No mention is made of the short lived 1975 sitcom The Bob Crane Show. While the series lasted only three months, it would still seem worth mentioning as the only other sitcom besides Hogan's Heroes to star Bob Crane.

Auto Focus is a dark, disturbing film. It is upsetting to watch Crane go from a firm family man who didn't swear, smoke, or drink (albeit one who enjoyed magazines like Gent) to a sex addict who has pretty much destroyed his own career. Director Paul Schrader pulls no punches in this film, with a graphic portrayl of Crane's descent (indeed, I must warn that anyone who is uncomfortable with sexual content in movies should probably stay away from this movie). Regardless, the movie is certainly worth watching for Kinnear's portrayl of an extremely talented, but extremely flawed man.

Friday, September 8, 2006

40 Years of Star Trek

Tonight it will have been 40 years since Star Trek debuted. At the time no one, not even creator Gene Roddenberry, could have guessed that it would have become a pop culture phenomenon. In fact, during its network run, that probably seemed like a very remote possibility. While it may have a legion of fans today, during its original run on NBC Star Trek was constantly plagued by low ratings. The show performed the best in the Nielsen ratings during its first season. Even then it only managed to rank 52 out of all the shows on the air. Towards the end of its second season, only a letter writing campaign by fans saved Star Trek from cancellation. Unfortunately, the show's ratings declined even further in its third season. It ended its network run in 1969.

To many at the time it must have seemed that Star Trek was simply a cult series with an extremely loyal, but small following. It would not surprise me if many thought that the show would simply fade away after its cancellation. But even while the series was still airing on NBC, there were signs that Star Trek was something more than a cult show. Indeed, for a show as low rated as Star Trek, it received quite a bit of coverage in the media. It was covered in such magazines as TV Guide (even receiving a cover featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy), Ebony, and even such teen magazines as 16 and Tiger Beat. Star Trek also received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Dramatic Series two years in a row--a remarkable achievement for a series as low rated as it was. Leonard Nimoy was nominated for a Supporting Actor Emmy three times for his role as Spock.

Indeed, the show was well known enough that the first pop culture references to Star Trek appeared while it was still airing on NBC. In the letter column of the December 8, 1967 issue of Time, a Time reader asked what was behind fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, "...Refugees from Star Trek maybe?" Leonard Nimoy was a guest on the December 4, 1967 episode of The Carol Burnett Show--I've never seen it, but this could be the purported episode in which Nimoy appears in full Spock regalia at the end of a sketch dealing with an invisible man. Nimoy also appeared in a February 26, 1968 episode of Laugh In. In a 1968 episode of Bewitched, "Samantha's Secret Saucer," Aunt Clara makes a reference to Mr. Spock (for you trivia buffs out here, I might also mention that because of Marion Lorne's death this was the last time Clara appeared on the show). It would seem, then, that Star Trek was somewhat better known than other similarly low rated series from the era. It must be noted that such shows as Iron Horse and Captain Nice didn't receive the coverage from magazines which Star Trek did. Nor were there very many pop culture references to them either.

If Star Trek and its characters were recognisable to a good number of Americans while it was still airing on NBC, it was probably largely due to its fiercely loyal following. The first fanzine dedicated to Star Trek, Spockanalia, appeared in 1967, while the show was still in its first season. Other fanzines would follow even as the show still aired on NBC. Of course, the letter writing campaign which saved the show for a third season is well known. While Roddenberry himself is believe to have instigated the campaign, it would not have succeeded had it not been for fan support. In fact, the network received so many letters that it even announced the renewal of Star Trek on the air.

Of course, the obvious question is that if Star Trek was well known even while it was still in its initial network run, if it had a fanatical following even then, why did it fail? There are those who have claimed that the show was ahead of its time, but I must vehemently disagree. Star Trek was a show very much of its time. In many respects, the format of Star Trek was similar to many other action shows of the Sixties. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, it featured a handsome, dark haired lead. In fact, Napoleon Solo, James West, and James Kirk look enough alike to almost be cousins. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, Star Trek gave its lead a sidekick who complimented him perfectly. Napoleon Solo had the quiet, cerebral Illya Kuryakin. James West had the inventive, sly Artemus Gordon. James Kirk had the cool, logical Mr. Spock. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Wild Wild West, Star Trek had plenty of action, with fight scenes that would be considered extremely violent by the standards of the Seventies and Eighties. And while Star Trek gave women a bit more equality than other shows of the era (Uhura and Nurse Chapel were, after all, lieutenants serving on a starship), women were still there primarily as window dressing or romantic interests for the male characters. Indeed, like other action shows of the era, there were many episodes in which Kirk would have a romantic interest (in fact, I am pretty sure he saw more action than either Napoleon Solo or James West...).

Indeed, another factor which identifies Star Trek as being of its era is the fact that it is essentially a show set in space. In the Sixties the American space programme was at the height of its popularity. Television naturally recognised this fact, giving viewers such space oriented shows as My Favorite Martian and Lost in Space. Many sitcoms had episodes dedicated to outer space in some form, from Bewtiched to Gilligan's Island. Space oriented toys were popular with children--this was, after all, the era of Major Matt Mason. If there was ever a time for the original Star Trek, it was the Sixties.

A more likely reason for the poor ratings performance of Star Trek is the fact that NBC consistently placed in time slots where it faced some strong competition. In its first season it aired opposite My Three Sons on CBS and Bewitched on ABC (Bewitched would rank #7 in the overall ratings for the year). In its second season Star Trek aired opposite Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS, then the #3 rated show for the year. In its third and final season, Star Trek was scheduled on Friday nights at 10:00 PM EST/9:00 PM CST, a time when the young viewers who were the show's biggest audience would either be out on the town or fast in bed. To make matters worse, it was against the highly rated CBS Friday Night Movie. Without a decent time slot for the entirety of its run, it is no wonder Star Trek did poorly in the ratings. It never had a chance.

Regardless, the show appears to have been well known even in its initial network run and even then it had a fiercely loyal following. That having been said, it should not be surprising that a show which performed miserably in its run on NBC would prove to be one of the biggest syndication successes in the history of television. Local TV station managers learned that when placed in a late afternoon, early evening, weekday time slot, Star Trek would draw legions of young male viewers. Word of the success of Star Trek in the ratings would spread among local TV station managers so that more and more TV stations picked the show up. Naturally, this increased the show's fan base beyond what it had been when it first aired. The first Star Trek convention was held in New York City in 1972. Naturally, there also grew up an entire industry around Star Trek. In the Seventies there were model kits, books, posters, record albums, the famous Mego action figures, and much, much more. Not bad for a show that only ranked #52 for the 1966-1967 TV season.

Of course, there was talk of the show's revival. And it was revived after a fashion in 1974 when an animated version of the show debuted on Saturday mornings on NBC. At one point Paramount had planned a new series, Star Trek Phase II, which would have debuted in 1978 as part of a new Paramount network. When Paramount decided against trying to launch a fourth network, plans for the series were scrapped and they instead decided to produce Star Trek: the Motion Picture. With the original cast reunited, Star Trek: the Motion Picture launched the Star Trek franchise. Since then there have been several more movies and four spinoff series.

As to the reason for the success of Star Trek, that is perhaps a difficult question to answer. As I pointed out above, in many respects it was a typical action series of its time. That having been said, it was also different from anything seen on television before. In fact, it was the first science fiction series with continuing characters which was largely driven by its characters and not its plots. If people who have never seen Star Trek can name several of the characters from the series, perhaps it is because they were much better developed than characters on any science fiction series before its time. And while the overall qualtiy of the show was uneven (the orignal Star Trek did produce some stinkers when it came to episodes), Star Trek produced some of the best television on the air in the Sixties. Its best episodes compare favourably to even the most critically acclaimed shows of that era.

Another factor in its success may be the fact that Star Trek offered an optimistic view of the future. Though those of us who came of age in the Seventies and Eighties often forget this fact, the Sixties were a tumultuous time in America. There was racial unrest, the Vietnam War, protests against the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution... It was a time of great change, when many people were uncertain of the future. The Seventies were not much better, particularly in light of the Watergate scandal. Despite all of this, Star Trek offered a world of the future in which not only are all races equal, but so are men and women. What is more, humanity even lives at peace with many alien species (Vulcans, Andorians, and so on). The very optimism of Star Trek probably appealed to many. Too, while Star Trek resembled action series of its era to a large degree, I must also admit that it was also a bit "edgy" for its time. Through the format of a science fiction action series, it tackled such issues as race relations, the Vietnam War, and so on. It was in the epsiode "Plato's Stepchildren" that the first interracial kiss took place on American television.

Ultimately, I don't know that anyone will fully be able to explain why Star Trek became the phenomenon that it did. Besides Gilligan's Island and I Love Lucy, it could well be the most successful show of all time in syndication. And the Star Trek franchise shows no signs of ending. Even though no Star Trek series are airing in first run right now, there are plans for yet another Star Trek movie--the tenth such film. I rather suspect that by the time the 23rd century does roll around, Star Trek will still be around in some form or another.

Monday, September 4, 2006

Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, R.I.P.

Steve Irwin, better known as "the Crocodile Hunter," was killed today by a stingray. Filming for a series called Ocean's Deadliest at the Batt Reef, off the coast of Queensland, Austrailia, Irwin was struck by a stingray's barb which penetrated his heart. He died only a short time later at the age of 44.

Born in a suburb of Melbourne, Irwin's parents moved to Queensland when he was only a few years old. His parents founded the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. It was there that Irwin became the reptile enthusiast that he was. As a child he took part in the care and maintenance of the animals. At age six he even had his own pet python. Irwin go on to become a crocodile trapper, capturing the animals, removing them from human populations, and placing them in the park. When his parents retired, Irwin took over the running of he park, by then renamed the Australia Zoo.

It was in 1996 that The Crocodile Hunter debuted on Animal Planet in the United States. It would prove to be a huge success in both the US and the United Kingdom. Its success resulted in such spin off projects as the Animal Planet special The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World and Tigers of Shark Bay, as well as series such as Croc Files and The Crocodile Hunter Diaries. Eventually there would even be a feature film based on the series, Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course released in 2002.

Despite his popularity in the U.S. and UK, Irwin was no stranger to controversy. At times in he was criticised by the media in his home of Australia for both his broad Australian accent and his unabashed enthusiasm for dangerous animals. A source of greater controversy occured in 2004 when Irwin took his infant son with him while feeding a chicken carcase to a crocodile. Many criticised his actions as placing his son in danger and some went so far as to call it child abuse. That having been said, many defended Irwin, pointing out that no only was he known to be a devoted father, but that he had years of experience in dealing with crocodiles and other dangerous animals. No charges were ever filed, although Queensland did ban children from ever entering enclosures containing crocodiles. That same year Irwin accused of getting to close to whales, seals, and penguins while filming Ice Breaker in Antarctica. The Australian Environment Department recommended no action be taken against Irwin for the incident.

Regardless of any controversy, Irwin remained popular and was famous not only as a zoologist and naturalist, but as a conservationist as well. His whole life he campaigned to save endangered species. He bought large pieces of land in Australia, Fiji, and the United States to use as animal preserves. He campaigned to keep tourists from buying items made from endangered animals, such as shark fin soup, turtle shells, and gorilla paw ashtrays. He encouraged people not to support poaching. Irwin aided in the International Crocodile Rescue and the Iron Bark Station Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. He also founded the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation, later renamed Wildlife Warriors Worldwide, an organisation dedicated to protecting endangered species.

Besides his work in television, running the Australia Zoo, and his conservation activities, Irwin also discovered a species of snapping turtle in Queensland, Elseya irwini or "Irwin's turtle."

Irwin received the Australian Centenary Medal in 2001 and was named Australia's Tourism Export of the Year in 2004.

Steve Irwin was often the subject of jokes and parodied on everything from The Simpsons to It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie. Despite this, I think there can be no doubt of his sincerity and enthusiasm when it came to the conservation of endangered animals. Much of Irwin's magic came from the fact that rather being preachy, he used his enthusiasm and love for such animals to promote public awareness of conservation. Indeed, children across Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who would never have sat through a dry lecture on the importance of saving endangered species, embraced Irwin as a hero and actually listened to what he had to say. In fact, I think Irwin is the first celebrity whose death actually moved my youngest great niece. Regardless of any criticism levelled at Irwin over the years, I think it could never be said that Irwin was not one of the best ambassadors the cause of environmentalism ever had.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

The Ever Changing Summer Movie Season

There was a time when the summer movie season began with Memorial Day weekend and ended with Labour Day weekend. Traditionally, it was during the summer movie when the studios would release their biggest movies. In 1957 Gunfight at the OK Corral was released on May 30, the traditional Memorial Day. In 1968 John Wayne's controversial film The Green Berets was relesed on July 4. And in 1939 The Wizard of Oz, then the most expensive film MGM had ever made, received its wide release on August 25, 1939. Of course, even then there were blockbusters released during the Christmas season (the classic Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Gone with the Wind are two early examples of this). And other big movies were sometimes released at other times of the year, but for much of their history, summer has been the season when the studios released the bulk of their major movies.

In many respects it would make perfect sense why Hollywood would look to the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day as the time to release their biggest movies. After all, the time period coincided with summer vacation in most schools. Indeed, as hard as it may be for most of us youngsters (I'm using the term loosely of anyone born after 1945) to believe, there was a time when many schools let out for summer in late April or early May and would not start again until the Tuesday after Labour Day. This probably had two major effects on the film industry. First, with school out parents would have more time to spend with their children. And, as today, it was probably true that among the activities parents would partake in with their children would be a trip to the local cinema. Second, even in the early days of film, teenagers formed a large bulk of the audience. With school out they would naturally have more time to devote to going to the movies.

Indeed, even today the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day would seem to be ideal for Hollywood to release their biggest films. While many schools are now still in session in late May and sometimes even June, and nearly all schools start in late August, it is still true that during much of this time period most children are not in school. Oddly enough, however, it seems to me that the summer movie season ceased to be the period between Memorial Day and Labour Day long ago.

Much of the changes in the summer movie season may well be due to one movie. It was in 1996 that Twister was released on May 10, over two weeks before Memorial Day weekend. The film proved to be a huge hit despite this. In its opening weekend it grossed $41,100,000. By July 21 of that year it had already grossed $230,255,000. I imagine for many Hollywood executives the writing was on the wall--they discovered that they could get a jump on the summer season by releasing films before Memorial Day. Since Twister many major motion pictures have been released before the Memorial Day weekend. The Mummy, Spider-Man, The Matrix Reloaded, and Troy were all released prior to Memorial Day. And while many of the blockbusters released before Memorial Day have bombed (for example, Troy), enough have been successful that the studios have continued to release blockbusters well before Memorial Day. This year both Poseidon (which bombed) and The Da Vinci Code were both released prior to Memorial Day weekend.

With the studios releasing many of their big movies before Memorial Day weekend (sometimes in early, early May--Spider-Man was released May 3, 2002), it seems to me that Memorial Day weekend has ceased to be the beginning of the summer movie season. For all practical purposes, I believe that it might be better to consider May 1 to be the beginning of the summer movie season. Indeed, since the release of Twister in 1996, there has also evolved a phenomenon in the movie industry my best friend has termed "front loading." Quite simply, front loading occurs when the studios release the bulk of their movies early in the summer. In recent years, it seems as if the majority of blockbuster movies have been released in May and June. Indeed, it seems as if in recent years the latest in the summer the stuidos appear willing to release a big movie is the weekend of July 4. Following July 4 it seems that comedies, a few smaller genre films (Snakes on a Plane is an example), and independent features are what compose the majority of releases. For all extents and purposes, then, I think that the summer movie season ends with July 4. Think of it, this year how many of the big blockbusters were released in the United States after July 4? Maybe my memory is failing me, but I cannot think of a one.

Of course, in conjunction with the shift of the summer movie season from its traditonal Memorial Day-Labor Day period to a new May 1-July 4 period, it also seems to me that the Holiday movie season has gotten bigger. Think of the major movies released in November and December the past few years. Some of the Harry Potter movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong were all released in the Holiday movie season. This year November will see the release of the latest Bond movie Casino Royale and the animated feature Happy Feet. December will see the release of Charlotte's Web and Eragon. Indeed, to underline the signficance of the Holiday movie season, consider how many times in the past few years the highest grossing films have been released in November or December? In some respects, it almost seems as if summer has grown less important to the movie industry and the Holidays have grown more so.

As to why the summer movie season has moved slightly from what it once was, I think in some respects it is due to two factors. The primary of these factors is money. With Twister the studios learned they could make a lot of money in releasing movies prior to Memorial Day. The success of Spider-Man simply underscored that fact. Of course, simple greed is also the reason for front loading. In order to get their movies out before anyone else, the studios release their films earlier in the summer in order to (theoretically, anyway) reduce any competition and maximise profit.

The other factor may be that going to movies simply is not a family activity any more. Most of the people I know who regularly go to the movies either do not take their children to the movies or do not have children. The only time they might take their children to the movies is when the latest Pixar or Harry Potter movie comes out. If going to the movies is no longer the family activity it once was, then the vagaries of the school year becomes insignificant. Why worry about whether school is in session if the kids aren't going to the movies anyway? This explains how films can be released before school is out and still be hits.

As to whether the summer movie season ceasing to be from Memorial Day to Labour Day and become from May 1 to July 4 is a good thing, I guess that is debatable. Personally, I am not real crazy about it. The past several years I have found myself going to the movies almost weekly from early May to early July. From early July into September it is not unusual for me not to see one single movie in the theatre for the simple reason that there is nothing I want to see. This year has been an exception. Both Snakes on a Plane and The Illusionist were released in August. I went to see Snakes on a Plane, but I probably won't get to see The Illusionist (the nearest theatre that's showing it is 30 miles away and this is a busy period for my job). Personally, I would prefer that the studios spread their major releases out over the summer as they once did, with a few released in June, a few in July, and a few in August. It would certainly make things easier on my schedule, and I suspect other people's schedules as well. Besides, what better time to go to the movies than in the deathly heat of July and August? Sadly, I don't think the summer movie season is going to revert back to its original time period any time soon.