Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Credits Squeeze

These days I seriously doubt that most people pay much attention to the end credits of TV programmes or the end credits of movies shown on television. Let's face it, with only a very few exceptions, the end credits are squeezed either to one side of the screen or to the top or bottom of the screen, while some sort of promo occupies the other part of the screen. As if squeezing the credits to one part of the screen did not make them hard enough to read, in many cases they are ran at such speed that one would have to be The Flash to even find out who the show's set designer was.

It wasn't always this way. Those of you over the age of 25 probably remember the time when the end credits of TV shows occupied the whole screen. In those days shows actually had closing themes, although even at that time they were often obliterated by an off screen announcer reading a promo. It was a time when it was easy to read the end credits, thus allowing the individual to find out who made that particular guest appearance or who did the make-up on the show with little problem. For the television viewer, it would seem to be an ideal situation. You could read the end credits and even be treated to a catchy closing theme (my favourites were always Gilligan's Island and The Beverly Hillbillies).

All of this changed in the Nineties when the networks became concerned about the device known as the remote control. Now remote controls for television sets have existed in some form since the Fifties, but they would not really become commonplace until the infrared remote control was developed in the late Seventies. By the late Eighties, the majority of television sets sold would come with a remote control. Of course, the end result of this was that no longer did TV viewers have to get up from their easy chairs to change the channel. In theory, at least, this would make them more likely to change the channel. For the networks this seemed like a dire situation. Indeed, in the early Nineties NBC researched the "problem" and discovered that that 25 to 30% of viewers would change channels during the end credits of programmes. NBC then sought a solution to the "problem."

That solution was developed by an initiative by NBC called "NBC 2000." Called "the tease and squeeze" in the industry, but called "the credits squeeze" or "squeeze credits" by everyone else, credits on NBC shows were compressed to only a third of the screen, with the other two thirds of the screen being occupied by promos. Supposedly the credits were tested for readability, although given the complaints of most viewers I know, it would seem that NBC failed on that account. NBC introduced these squeeze credits in 1994. It was not long afterwards that ABC, CBS, and Fox developed their own "squeeze and tease." The cable channels would follow not long after that.

The format of squeeze credits have changed since they were first introduced. In the earliest days NBC would compress the credits to one side (I believe it was the left side, although I may be wrong). These days they compress them to the bottom of the screen, making them even harder to read. TBS has even taken to beginning one show on one side of the screen while the credits for the last show are still rolling on the other side of the screen. And often TBS runs the end credits by so swiftly that one could not read them even if they did occupy the whole screen. One would think that the credit squeeze, being such a bad idea, would never have spread beyond the States. Sadly, it has. The CBC has been using squeeze credits for some time. The BBC only recently started employing them.

I think I can easily speak for a majority of viewers in stating that I despise the credits squeeze. The simple fact is that there are many times I want to know who performed a particular song or whom a particular guest star was. I can remember that when I watched the first episode of the second season of Lost ("Man of Science, Man of Faith") I wanted to know who performed the song "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (I'd apparently forgotten it was Mama Cass). Had I not recorded the show (I worked nights at that time) and not had "pause" available on my VCR, I would have had to have looked it up on the Internet. As it was, I should not have had to use my VCR to simply read a song credit...

Of course, beyond the irritation of not being able to read the credits, there is also the fact that I miss the closing themes of TV shows. As I mentioned earlier, I always enjoyed hearing the closing themes of The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. On the second season of The Monkees, the closing theme was "For Pete's Sake"--one of my favourite Monkees songs. The closing themes on TV shows were an entertaining means of sitting and watching the credits roll by. They were certainly more entertaining than the network promos that now air beside the squished up credits.

So far I have simply spoken as a television viewer. The fact is that there is a much more important reason to do away with squeeze credits than mere viewer irritation. That is the simple fact that TV shows and movies are collaborative efforts. It takes more than a writer, actors, director, and producer to make even one episode of a TV series. TV shows require cameramen, make-up artists, electricians, and dozens of other crew. These people don't simply deserve to have their credits on the screen. They deserve to have their credits displayed on the screen in such a way that the average person can read them. That means the credits can not be squeezed to one side of the screen or ran at such a speed that you'd have to be Jay Garrick or Barry Allen to read them.

Sadly, I doubt the broadcast networks or the cable channels will do away with the credits squeeze for some time. It is an unfortunate part of television history that the networks, in particular, rarely listen to viewers. Of course, the bitter irony is that while the credits squeeze was developed to prevent viewers from changing channels, I rather suspect that they have had the exact opposite reaction. I know that I tend to change the channel during the end credits of shows more than I ever did in the old days when the credits occupied the whole screen. After all, why shouldn't I? I can't read the credits as they are all scrunched up on the screen, and there is no catchy closing theme to hold me there. I can only hope that some network does another study and finds out how much viewers hate the credits squeeze. Maybe then we won't see them any longer....

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Power Pop Quiz

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00. The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... By the way, I will provide the answers to the quiz at the end of the month.

Here then is the first quiz. Given that during the first week of the year I posted a series on the history of power pop, I thought that power pop would be a good theme for the first quiz. So here goes, a ten question quiz on the subgenre of rock called power pop.

1. On what television show was America first exposed to The Beatles (clue: it wasn't The Ed Sullivan Show....)?

2. Who coined the term "power pop?"

3. What mid-Sixties American power pop band even outsold The Beatles at times?

4. What was The Raspberries' first hit song?

5. What is Cheap Trick's hometown?

6. What was the name of the band to which Doug Fieger belonged before The Knack?

7. What was the name of Dwight Twilley's hit single from 1984?

8. What Posies song was featured in the movie Reality Bites?

9. The Fountains of Wayne song "Stacey's Mom" was a salute to what Seventies and Eighties band?

10. What do the titles of the parts of my "A History of Power Pop" have in common?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Nominations for the 80th Annual Academy Awards

As I said yesterday, I intended to comment on the 80th Annual Oscar nominations. I must admit that overall I am pleased with the selections. For those of you haven't seen them yet, without further ado here are the nominees....

No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Michael Clayton

Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Jason Reitman (Juno)

Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
George Clooney (Michael Clayton)
Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah)

Julie Christie (Away from Her)
Marion Cotillard (La vie En Rose)
Ellen Page (Juno)
Laura Linney (The Savages)
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

Supporting Actor:
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War)

Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There)
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)
Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)
Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone)
Ruby Dee (American Gangster)

Original Screenplay:
Michael Clayton
The Savages
Lars and the Real Girl

Adapted Screenplay:
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood
Away from Her
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

No Country for Old Men
The Bourne Ultimatum
There Will Be Blood
Into the Wild
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Art Direction:
American Gangster
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood
The Golden Compass

There Will Be Blood
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
No Country for Old Men
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Foreign Language Film:
The Counterfeiters (Austria)
Beaufort (Israel)
Mongol (Kazakhstan)
Katyn (Poland)
12 (Russia)

Animated Film:
Surf’s Up

No End in Sight
Taxi to the Dark Side
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

Costume Design:
Sweeney Todd
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Across the Universe
La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Original Score:
The Kite Runner
3:10 to Yuma
Michael Clayton

Original Song (song titles coming soon):
Once-- "Falling Slowly" (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova )
August Rush--"This Time" (Chris Trapper)
Enchanted-- "Happy Working Song" (Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz)
Enchanted--"So Close" (Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz)
Enchanted--"That’s How You Know" (Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz)

Sound Editing:
The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

Sound Mixing:
3:10 to Yuma
The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men

Visual Effects:
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
The Golden Compass

Documentary Short:
La Corona (The Crown)
Salim Baba
Sari’s Mother

Animated Short:
I Met the Walrus
Madam Tutli-Putli
Even Pigeons Go to Heaven
My Love (Moya Lyubov)
Peter & the Wolf

Live-Action Short:
At Night
Il Supplente (The Substitute)
The Mozart of Pickpockets
Tanghi Argentini
The Tonto Woman

As I said, overall I am pleased with this year's picks. That having been said, I am a bit puzzled that Zodiac was totally overlooked by the Academy. Quite frankly, if it had been up to me, Zodiac would have received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director for David Fincher, and Best Adapted Screenplay, at the very least. I can only suppose that being released so early in the year that most Academy members had forgotten about it by the time voting rolled around.

As to the actors' awards, I must say that I was surprised that Tommy Lee Jones was not nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in No Country for Old Men. I thought he did an excellent job in a role that is atypical for him--when I think of Tommy Lee Jones, I think of an actor who plays mostly uptight characters. Ed Tom Bell was anything but uptight. Speaking of No Country for Old Men, I must also say that I think Kelley MacDonald should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. I mean, here you have a classically trained Scottish lass who has played in Shakespearean plays, yet she very convincingly played a simple Texas girl!

If there is one category which I feel is a travesty this year, it is Make-Up. I must admit that I have no objections to either La Vie en Rose or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End being nominated. But Norbit?! Aside from quite possibly being one of the worst movies of all time, I don't think its make-up was that impressive. Let's face it, we have seen Eddie Murphy in a fat suit before...or did the Academy forget the two Nutty Professor movies? I also feel 300 was cheated in not getting a Visual Effects nomination. While I am apparently one of the few people who liked Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, I think perhaps its spot should have been occupied by 300 instead.

As to Best Song, I gave up on this category long ago. It is very rare that songs that truly deserve to be nominated get a nomination. And the Academy seems to have a love affair with any song from a Disney movie. I'll admit I haven't seen Enchanted or heard of any of its songs (they might be very good songs for all I know), but did it really deserve three Best Song nominations when not one of Eddie Vedder's songs from Into the Wild were nominated? Don't get me started about how "You Know My Name" by Chris Cornell, from Casino Royale, was not nominated for Best Song last year....

Anyhow, over all I must say that I am pleased with the nominations. Indeed, it is good to see the Coen Brothers getting some love from the Academy this year. And I can't complain too much about any of the categories except for Make-Up and Best Song (which, as I said, I gave up on long ago). It will be interesting to see how this year's Oscars will turn out. Will No Country for Old Men sweep? Will the big winner be There Will Be Blood? We'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heath Ledger R.I.P.

Well, I was going to write about this year's Oscar nominations, but it seems as if this January is set to break the record as far as celebrity deaths go. If you have not heard, actor Heath Ledger was found dead today in bed in a New York apartment, a bottle of sleeping pills at his side. At the moment it is unclear if his death was a suicide or not.

Ledger was born Heathcliff Ledger (named for the main character in Wuthering Heights) April 4, 1979 in Perth, Australia. At age 10 he received his first taste of acting, appearing in a production of Peter Pan. He attended Marys Mount Primary School and Guildford Grammar School, both in Perth. Ledger left school at the age of 16 to pursue acting. His first appearance on screen was in the Australian feature Clowning Around in 1992. He also appeared in the Australian TV series Ship to Shore and the popular Australian show Home and Away. Ledger eventually moved to the United States, where his first work was in the short lived TV series Roar in 1997. Cast in the Australian crime thriller Two Hands, he received his first big break in American in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You in 1999.

Ledger would appear in the Mel Gibson film The Patriiot before receiving another starring role in the cult A Knight's Tale in 2001. Ledger would appear in such films as Monster's Ball, The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Brothers Grimm and Casanova. He received an Oscar nomination for his role in Brokeback Mountain. More recently, he played Robbie Clark in the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There and The Joker in the Batman movie The Dark Knight.

I would assume that many people are like me, shocked by the death of an actor so young. I must admit that I am also saddened by the passing of Heath Ledger. Indeed, he starred in three of my favourite guilty pleasures--A Knight's Tale, The Brothers Grimm, and Casanova. And I do honestly believe that he was one of the most talented young actors around. He was certainly versatile. He played everything from bushranger Ned Kelly to Giacomo Casanova to Jakob Grimm, and did all of them very well. He also had an integrity about him that I suspect most young actors don't have. After the success of 10 Things I Hate About You, Ledger was offered other roles in other teen movies, often for a good deal of money. Ledger turned them all down, preferring to seek out more interesting and more difficult roles instead. Talented, versatile, and possessing Thespian integrity, it is sad to know that Heath Ledger is gone.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Kingston Trio's John Stewart R.I.P.

John Stewart, former member of The Kingston Trio and composer of "Daydream Believer," passed on Friday after suffering what was apparently either a massive stroke or brain aneurysm. He was 68 years old.

John Stewart was born September 5, 1939 in San Diego, California. He took up music early in his life, learning both banjo and guitar while still young. He composed his first song at the age of ten. Stewart graduated from Pomona Catholic High School. His first band was Johnny Stewart and the Furies, which toured southern California in the late Fifties. They would have one regional hit with the song "Rockin' Anna." Following the break up of The Furies, John Stewart would form the folk group The Cumerland Three with Gil Robbins and John Montgomery. Their most notable achievement would be a two disc album of songs from the War Between the States called Songs from the Civil War.

In 1961 founding member Dave Guard left the Kingston Trio. John Stewart was brought into the group to replace him. With Stewart as a member, the Trio began to perform more original songs, including songs written not only by Stewart ,but by such up and coming composers as Tom Paxton and Gordon Lightfoot as well. With folk music giving way to the British Invasion and then psychedelia, the Kingston Trio disbanded in 1967. It was that year that Stewart wrote what may be his biggest hit, "Daydream Believer," for The Monkees.

In the late Sixties and late Seventies, Stewart would continue to write songs and record. And while his albums did not sell well, they were released to a good deal of critical acclaim. His best known album, California Bloodlines, was released in 1969. His most successful album was arguably Bombs Away Dream Babies, on which he collaborated with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood, was released in 1979. The album produced the hit "Gold," which went to #5 on the Billboard singles chart. In addition to continuing to record for the remainder of his life, Stewart also composed songs for artists ranging from Rosanne Cash to Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Although much of his latter work was not always commercially successful, it was always critically acclaimed. There can be no doubt that John Stewart had an impact on the music world, both as a solo performer and as a member of The Kingston Trio. He saw the Kingston Trio through what can be argued were their most creative years. And he also left a legacy of solo recordings afterwards that are very well respected in folk music circles. While he may be best remembered as the composer of "Daydream Believer," the truth is that he did so much more during his career.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Suzanne Pleshette Passes On

Beautiful, dark haired actress Suzanne Pleshette, perhaps best known as Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show, died yesterday from lung cancer. She was 70 years old.

Pleshette was born in New York City on January 31, 1937. Given her family it was perhaps inevitable that she would go into show business. Her father managed both the New York Paramount and Brooklyn Paramount theatres during the Swing Era. Her mother had been a dancer. Pleshette attended the New York High School of the Performing Arts. She spent a semester each at Syracuse University and Finch College before attending the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. Pleshette first appeared on Broadway in 1957 in the play Compulsion. Initially she was cast in a bit part, although she eventually replaced Ina Balin in the part of Ruth Goldberg. That same year she made her first appearance on television, in a guest appearance on The Harbourmaster.

On the big screen Suzanne Pleshette's first big break came with the movie The Geisha Boy, in which she was cast as the love interest. In the Sixties her most notable film roles were perhaps that of school teacher Annie Hayworth in The Birds and Jeanne Green in Youngblood Hawke. She would also appear in the films 40 Pounds of Trouble, Fate is the Hunter, The Ugly Dachshund, Nevada Smith, and If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, among others. Her career in the Seventies was primarily spent in television, but she did appear in the movies Support Your Local Gunfighter, The Shaggy D.A., and Hot Stuff during that decade.

While Pleshette started out as a stage actress and appeared in several notable films, the majority of her work would be on the small screen. In the late Fifties she guest starred on such shows as Have Gun--Will Travel, Playhouse 90, and Black Saddle. In the Sixties she made many guest appearances on television, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, Route 66, The Wild Wild West, The Fugitive, and The Invaders. The Seventies saw her guest star in such shows as Love, American Style, Columbo, and Bonanza. The Seventies would also bring Pleshette her best known role, that of Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show. Sardonic and sexy, it was painfully obvious that Emily was a lot brighter than her husband, Dr. Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart).

Pleshette spent much of the Eighties playing in TV movies ranging from The Star Maker to A Stranger Waits. She had the starring role in the short lived series Suzanne Pleshette Is Maggie Briggs in 1984. In the Nineties she made what may be her most famous guest appearance, playing Emily Hartley in the final episode of Newhart. In the final scene of that show, it is revealed that the whole series had been dreamed by Dr. Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart's character on The Bob Newhart Show). Pleshette would also have recurring roles on the sitcoms Good Morning, Miami, 8 Simple Rules... for Dating My Teenage Daughter, and Will and Grace.

Pleshette had started her career on stage and she did return to it several times. She played Leah in The Cold and the Warm on Broadway in 1959 and Julie in The Golden Fleecing that same year. She replaced Anne Bancroft in the role of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker on Broadway. In 1982 she appeared in the play Special Occasions.

I must confess that I have had a huge crush on Suzanne Pleshette nearly my whole life, ever since I first saw her in The Ugly Dachshund. It wasn't simply that she was incredibly beautiful, although she was her entire life. It wasn't even that she was blessed with a splendid figure, although she was. For me the appeal of Suzanne Pleshette rests in the fact that in almost all of the roles she played, she brought an intelligence and vivaciousness to the characters that few other actresses ever have. And she was indubitably versatile. She could play glamorous, yet down to earth Emily Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show, giving one of television's all time great performances. Yet at the same time she could play tomboy Patience Barton in Support Your Local Gunfighter with equal aplomb. The one thing that most of Pleshette's roles had in common was that they were all intelligent, strong willed women who did not need to depend upon a man. Suzanne Pleshette was already ahead of most starlets in terms of talent. Her choice of roles and the way she played them put her far ahead of most starlets in terms of sex appeal as well. It is for those reasons that she will be remembered.