Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer Passes

Controversial, quarrelsome, Pulitzer winning author Norman Mailer died today of kidney failure at the age of 84.

Mailer was born Norman Kingsley on January 31, 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey. At the age of 9 the family moved to Brooklyn, where Mailer spent the rest of his childhood. He attended Harvard, where he started out as an aeronautical engineering major and wound up a literature major. Following graduation he was draughted and served in the United States Army. He ended his military career as a cook in occupied Japan; however, he did see some combat, the experience of which provided the basis for his first novel The Naked and the Dead. The novel followed an American platoon facing Japanese forces on an atoll in the Pacific. It was published in 1948 to universally great reviews.

Mailer would never match the critical reception for The Naked and the Dead, although he continued to write the rest of his life. Immediately following The Naked and the Dead, Mailer wrote two more novels, Barnaby Shore and The Deer Park. Neither saw the success of his first novel.

Following The Deer Park, Mailer would not write another novel for ten years, In 1955, he founded The Village Voice with friends Daniel Wolf and Edwin Fancher. He also entered the field of nonfiction with the essay The White Negro. First published in 1956 in the magazine Dissent, The White Negro addressed the phenomenon of European Americans adopting African American culture as their own. It was reprinted in his book Advertisements for Myself in 1959. Arguably, Mailer had a greater impact as a non-fiction writer than as novelist. Along with Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, he was one of the pioneers of the genre called creative nonfiction. Although factually accurate, creative nonfiction seeks to apply the the artistry of fiction to nonfiction.

Over the years Mailer would write several works of nonfiction, including both essays and books. Among his more important works were The Armies of the Night (a Pulitzer prize winner about the October 1967 rally against the Vietnam War in Washington DC), Of a Fire on the Moon (about the Apollo 11 lunar mission), and Oswald's Tale, essentially a biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Perhaps his best known work was The Executioner's Song, which detailed the trial and subsequent execution of murderer Gary Gilmore.

Mailer did continue to write novels. In 1965, after an absence from the genre of ten years, he published the novel An American Dream, a work which came under harsh criticism from feminists for its portrayal of women. He would publish eight more works of fiction, including the Ancient Evenings, Harlot's Ghost, and his final work, The Castle in the Forest.

Mailer also worked in film. Several of his books provided the basis for motion pictures, including The Naked and the Dead and American Dream. He also wrote screenplays for the movies Beyond the Law and Maidstone. He tried his hand at directing with such films as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don't Dance.

I cannot say that I have ever been a huge fan of Norman Mailer. And I must disagree with many who believe he was the most influential writer of his generation (I think that title belongs to either Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller instead). Still, I appreciated much of what he wrote, even if I disagreed with many of his sentiments (he was a public opponent of feminism). And I think there can be no doubt that he was very influential. The Naked and the Dead is often counted, quite rightly, as one of the greatest war novels of all time. And I think there can be little doubt that The Executioner's Song is one of the best works of nonfiction published in the last fifty years. Mailer was certainly a colourful character, with multiple marriages, run ins with the law, and outspoken, often controversial opinions, but in the end I think it is his writing that will be remembered.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Writer's Strike 2007

I doubt very seriously that many of you remember the TV series Frank's Place. Frank's Place was a comedy created by Hugh Wilson (creator of WKRP in Cincinnati), starring Tim Reid as Boston professor Frank Parrish who found himself trapped in continuing the family business. That business was the restaurant Chez Louisiane, which Frank inherited and henceforth had to run. The series received high marks from critics, but unfortunately it also received low ratings. It only ran for 22 episodes on CBS in '87-88 season. My favourite episode of the show was "Frank's Place--the Movie," in which a movie is being shot on location at the Chez Louisiane. Among the subplots on that episode was one concerning a poor bloke, clearly connected with the production, who received no respect from the director, had difficulty in getting on the set, and was generally persona non grata with the film crew. In the end Frank strikes up a conversation with the fellow and learns that he is none other than the movie's screenwriter.

Sadly, writers get no more respect in Hollywood now than they did in 1988 when this episode first aired. In fact, I rather suspect that is the primary reason that the Writer's Guild of America has had to undertake its first strike in nineteen years. The last time the WGA went on strike was in 1988. That strike lasted from March 7 to August 8 of that year. The primary concerns of that strike were reduced residuals for reruns of TV shows overseas and reduced residuals for hour long television series. That strike ended the run of several TV shows, delayed the start of the new fall TV season, and forced the studios to postpone production of feature films. In the end the 1988 cost the film and television industries $500 million.

This strike has already had an impact on the television industry. As in the case of the 1988 writers strike, the late night talk shows have been the first to be hit. For the coming week both NBC and CBS announced that their late night talk shows will air entirely reruns. The majority of sitcoms have shut down production. The strike has even produced its first causality--Back to You, the Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton comedy, will not return from a planned hiatus. Hour long series have also been hit. The season debut of 24, which depends heavily upon its tightly plotted scripts, has been postponed due to the strike. Desperate Housewives has shut down production. Grey's Anatomy, ER, and other hit shows are running out of episodes. Lost, set to return in February, may not be able to resolve this season's plots, with fewer than 16 episodes in the can. What this essentially means is that reruns will start sooner and we could see many more reality shows. It will take longer for the film industry to feel the effects of the strike, although if it lasts as long as the 1988 strike, production on various films will inevitably be delayed.

The fact that there may be no new episodes of individuals' favourite shows and that major motion pictures may even be delayed may cause the average person to resent the WGA. I rather suspect that there are many out there who believe that writers in the film and television industries are overpaid people too lazy to get a real job. This is hardly the truth. The average person often hears about million dollar deals inked for screenplays, but this is hardly the norm. As little as $20,000 may be paid out for a screenplay, not a particularly large amount of money, especially if one is unlucky enough to only sell one screenplay a year. And work weeks for writers in Hollywood can vary from the 40 hour week to which the rest of us are accustomed to a stagger 80 hours a week. The average screenwriter is not a multi-millionaire. He or she is often an overworked individual with the same concerns about money that the rest of us have.

Indeed, it is money that is at the heart of this strike. Or rather, the fair distribution of money. Under the current WGA contract, writers only earn four cents out of every DVD and VHS tape sold. This contract was created in 1985 when VHS sales were not particularly great and DVDs were just a dream of the future. Since then things have changed and DVDs are a big business. While the studios are making money hand over fist, the writers are still just earning four cents out of every DVD sold. Of course, the other bone of contention between the writers and the studios is residuals from the Internet. Currently movie and TV show sales (through venues such as ITunes and AOL Video) over the Internet are less than that of DVD sales. And contrary to the belief of many pundits, I suspect it will always be that way (I think many are not savvy enough to download movies and TV shows from the Net and I also think people will always prefer a physical object, such as a DVD, to a digital download). Still, there is money to have from the Internet. As of March 31, 2007, Disney had already sold around 2 million movies and 23.7 million TV show episodes through Apple's iTunes (Disney and Apple had just signed their deal in October 2005). It seems only right that writers should get their fair share of the money that movies and TV shows generate on the Internet.

Indeed, even though writers have never been treated with any particular respect in the film and television industries, even though they don't enjoy the sort of celebrity that some actors and directors do, it must be pointed out that the vast majority of movies and TV shows would be impossible without writers. The vast majority of movies and TV shows must begin with the written word, a script. And for there to be a script there must be a writer to write it. What is more, writers many times have to expend an inordinate amount of time on a script, not simply writing it, but rewriting it and revising it even as a movie or TV show episode is being shot. They often work long hours for very little in return. Given their importance to the industry and given the fact that they are largely responsible for what we see on both movie and TV screens, I think it is only fair they share in the money made from the products created using their scripts.

It is for that reason that I am not going to gripe when there are no new episodes of 30 Rock and when Lost does not last its full 16 episodes. As a writer myself I not only sympathise with the screenwriters, but I can identify with them. They are only asking for what is fair, and if that means I miss new episodes of my favourite shows, then so be it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Screenwriter and Author Peter Viertel Passes On

Peter Viertel, who collaborated on the screenplay for Beat the Devil and wrote the novel White Hunter Black Heart died at the age of 86 on November 4 from lymphoma.

Peter Viertel was born in Dresden, Germany on November 16, 1920. His parents were writer Berthold Viertel (who wrote the screenplays for such films as Nora and Man Trouble and actress Salka Viertel (who appeared in the films Anna Karenina and Queen Christina). It was in 1928 that his parents moved the family to California. As a youngster Viertel was exposed to the rich and famous in Hollywood. During World War II Viertel served in the Marines in an office position and later worked with the O.S.S. in Europe.

Viertel broke into film as a screenwriter by co-writing the movie Saboteur, directed by Alfred Hitchcock himself. He went onto write or co-write the screenplays for The Hard Way, We Were Strangers, Decision Before Dawn, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, and The Old Man and the Sea.

Of course, Viertel also had a career as a writer of books. He sold his first book, The Canyon (a novel about youth in California) in 1940. He would go onto write such novels as Line of Departure, Love Lies Bleeding, Bicycle on the Beach, and American Skin. He drew upon his experiences on the movie The African Queen for his novel White Hunter Black Heart. The novel, like the 1990 movie based upon it, dealt with a director who becomes more obsessed with hunting than shooting the film upon which he was working. In all, Viertel wrote 9 novels.

Peter Viertel was a talented writer who produced classics in both the cinema and literature. His novel White Hunter Black Heart is a classic in 20th century literature. And there can be no argument that The African Queen and Beat the Devil are not classic films. He was a man who excelled in two different media, a feat only accomplished by a few. It is sad to know that he has passed.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cyrkle Co-Founder Thomas Dawes Passes On

Thomas Dawes, co-founder of folk rock group The Cyrkle, passed on October 13 from a stroke. He was 64 years old.

Dawes was born in Albany, New York on July 25, 1943. He attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was there that bassist Dawes met guitarist Don Dannemann. They formed a band called The Rhondells in 1961, mostly playing covers of Four Seasons songs and similar groups. They eventually changed their style and began playing resorts around Atlantic City. It was in 1964 that Nat Weiss, entertainment lawyer and partner to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, heard them at the Alibi Lounge. Weiss began booking The Rhondells' shows. The band was set for further success when Don Danneman had to leave for military service. In the meantime Dawes played bass for Simon and Garfunkel when they were on tour. It was while playing with them that Paul Simon played for Dawes his song "Red Rubber Ball."

When Dannemann returned from service, The Rhondells reformed. They found themselves managed by Brian Epstein. They also found a new name, The Cyrkle, the unusual spelling being suggested by none other than John Lennon. They would have a hit with "Red Rubber Ball," which climbed to #2 on the Billboard singles charts. The Cyrkle would eveb open for The Beatles on their last tour through the United States. Unfortunately, The Cyrkle would have only one more hit. "Turn Down the Day" went to #16 on the Billboard charts.

Their third single, "Please Don't Ever Leave Me," did not even break the top 40, only going to #59 on the singles chart. Following singles also performed poorly. The Cyrkle provided the soundtrack to the movie The Minx, but neither the movie nor the soundtrack album nor any songs from the album were hits. Their last single, "Where Are You Going" did not even chart. Tom Dawes had left the band in 1968. The Cyrkle disbanded not long afterwards.

No longer part of a rock group, Dawes turned to writing commercial jingles in the Seventies and Eighties. His most famous compositions may well be "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" for Alka-Seltzer and "7Up, the Uncola," He also wrote jingles for L'Eggs, American Airlines, MacDonalds, and Coca-Cola. His wife, Ginny Redington Dawes, was also a jingle writer when they met. Together they wrote several jingles (including the famous "Coke is It" jingle). Dawes also produced an album for Foghat in the Seventies and with his wife wrote the musical Talk of the Town, about the Algonquin Round Table. The Cyrkle briefly reunited in 1986 for one last time.

Although The Cyrkle turned out to be a two hit wonder, Thomas Dawes was a very talented composer and musician. The Cyrkle's music still stands up today. Indeed, "Red Rubber Ball" is still a standby on oldies stations everywhere. Dawes also contributed considerably to pop culture as a jingle writer. "Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz" is arguably one of the best known jingles of all time, a tribute to Dawes' skill as a writer. He will certainly be missed.