Friday, March 16, 2012

The Travails of a Classic British Film Buff

It is not always easy being a classic film buff. While such rubbish as all three Transformers movies and even slightly older rubbish such as Cocktail (1988) remains widely available on DVD and even Blu-Ray, many classic films have not even had their first DVD release. In these instances one can only wait for such films to be shown on Turner Classic Movies or show up on YouTube. The situation can be even worse for an American classic film buff if he or she loves classic British films. Even when a classic British film is available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the United Kingdom, it might not be in the United States. Worse yet, it might rarely, if ever be shown on Turner Classic Movies (the rights to show a British film can become very complex here in the United States).

Sadly, I have had a love of British classic films since childhood. When I was a lad, the local television stations would often show old movies on Saturdays and Sundays when there was no sport to broadcast. Most often these films would be American feature films, usually one of the many series Hollywood churned out (the Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and Blondie movies were very popular). There would be those times, however, when the local stations aired British films.  The British films local stations would show most often would fall into one of three categories: the films Sir Alfred Hitchcock made while he was still in the United Kingdom; the classic Hammer horror films, many of which received widespread distribution in their initial release in the United States; and any number of Rank Organisation films that also received widespread distribution in their initial release in the United States. More rarely one might see one of the Gainsborough melodramas (most often The Wicked Lady, albeit the bowdlerised American version), Ealing Studios films, or one of the many spy spoofs produced in the United Kingdom in the Sixties (Hot Enough for June and others).

In part it would be the local television stations that would give me my first taste for British classic films. The other source would be The Beatles. Now it might seem odd to some that a British rock band, even the greatest rock band of all time (British or otherwise), to lead one to love British film, but that it is the way it happened. As a young Beatles fan I watched A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine at an early age. As soon as I became aware that Richard Lester directed the first two Beatles movies, I sought out his other films. Among these was The Knack...And How to Get It. The Knack...And How to Get It led me to seek out other British films to the Sixties. This in the end would lead me to the kitchen sink dramas of the era and the British New Wave. The Sixties would become my favourite era for British film.

Unfortunately, my love for British film would become a bit of a burden with the passage of time. Despite the existence of specialised sport channels such as ESPN, sport would overwhelm the weekend schedules of local television stations, so they no longer showed old movies. And when there was no sport on a Saturday or Sunday, the local stations would fill their schedules with infomercials.  Even the advent of AMC and TCM would not solve these problems, as they would mostly show American fare, along with some of the better known Rank pictures.

One would think the advent of DVDs would have solved the problem of seeing my favourite classic British films, but it would only prove to be a source of frustration.  Various regions of the world are divided into region codes, a technique of digital management meant essentially to keep a person from one country from watching a DVD made in another country. Sadly, while Canada and the United States are in Region 1, the United Kingdom is in Region 2 (even though all three countries speak English and watch many of the same movies and TV shows). This would prove to be a source of frustration, as I would often see that a British classic was available on DVD, only to find out it was only available in Region 2 . This is still largely case for many classic British films and even classic TV shows.  In fact, unless a film was directed by a big name director such as Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell,  or Carol Reed, one can safely assume that it might not be available here in the United States. This is even the case with more recent films. One of my favourite films of all time is Quadrophenia. One would think that since the film is relatively recent (it was released in 1979) and is based around the music of The Who that it would never go out of print in the United States. Sadly, this is not the case. While it has been released on DVD several times in the States, it has always gone out of print. And unfortunately the surviving copies sold here in the U.S. tend to be very expensive (I've seen copies go for over $100 on EBay).

The advent of YouTube and other video services would alleviate the problem of seeing my favourite British films to a degree.  Classic films of all sorts would find their way onto the video service, including not a few British films.  Indeed, not only were some of these films not available on DVD in the United States, but they were not available in the United Kingdom either.  It is because of YouTube that I have been able to see several classic British films I had never seen before and many favourites I had not seen in years. Of course, even YouTube was not the best solution to the problem of seeing classic British films. Often a particular YouTube video would infringe on the copyright of a work and would be removed. And, on my old computer, at least, I might have to put up with the video buffering and the screen quality not being the best. Still, it was better than nothing.

Now one solution to my problem would seem to have been an all region DVD player. The problem is that all region DVD players tend to be very expensive. I have also read that they tend to be rather dodgy. I have read several horror stories of people who bought all region DVD players only to find that they did not work or they ceased working after a time. I could not see paying hundreds of dollars for a device that might or might not work. I also tried various computer programmes that claimed they could play Region 2 DVDs to no avail. My old computer simply refused to play them.

Fortunately, computer technology would come to my rescue. When I bought my new computer I stuck my Region 2 DVD of Quadrophenia (sold to me on the cheap by an Aussie who must have thought the U.S. was on the same Region as the UK) in my DVD drive. A screen then came up informing me that it was a Region 2 and asking me if I wished to set my computer's DVD drive to Region 2. Naturally, I clicked, "Yes." After all, I already had a Region 1 DVD player...

The end result is that I can now watch Region 2 DVDs. Now I not only  own Quadrophenia (which I can now watch), but The Wicked Lady, Bank Holiday, the complete run of Adam Adamant Lives, and so on. It has proven to be a godsend for me. Now the downside is that I cannot watch Region 1 DVDs on my PC, but given I own a Region 1 DVD player it does not really matter to me. I might add that this has not only benefited me. Both Amazon UK and HMV have seen business that they may not have seen otherwise!

My hope is that one day that the DVD region codes will be disposed of entirely or, at the very least, classic British films will become more available in the United States. There is definitely a demand for them. I know of several other classic film buffs in the United States who love classic films (in fact, I have one friend who would gladly own every film Sir Dirk Bogarde appeared in) and would gladly buy them if only they were available here. Beyond proving frustrating to someone who loves classic British films, I must say I've always thought it was silly that the English speaking world is divided between three different region  codes (Region 1 for the United States, Region 2 for the UK, and Region 4 for Australia and New Zealand).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pat Weaver: American Television Innovator

It was 10 years ago today that Pat Weaver died. Unless one is a television historian or a very avid television buff, chances are good that he or she has not heard of Pat Weaver. He or she has most likely heard of his daughter, actress Sigourney Weaver. Depending on his or her age, he or she may have even heard of his brother, comic Doodles Weaver. Despite the fact that both his daughter and brother may now be more famous than him, Pat Weaver would have a more lasting impact on most Americans than either of them. The simple fact is that if one has ever watched American television with any regularity, then he or she has seen first hand the impact of Pat Weaver's career.

Pat Weaver was born Sylvester Barnabee Weaver in Los Angeles, California on 21 December 1908. He studied philosophy and classic at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire and graduated magna cum laude. He went to work for the advertising agency of Young & MacCallister before entering the field of radio. He worked as an announcer, writer, producer, director, actor, and salesman at KHJ in Los Angeles starting in 1932. By 1934 he was programme manager at KFRC in San Francisco. IT was in 1935 that he first worked for NBC. In 1935 he joined the advertising firm of Young &  Rubicam, where he would become their supervisor of programmes for their radio division and later he would become the agency's vice president in charge of radio and television. From 1942 to 1945 he served in the United States Navy.

It was in 1949 that Pat Weaver joined the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the company where he would make a name for himself. With a good deal of experience in both radio and advertising, NBC brought Mr. Weaver in to develop programming for NBC's fledgeling television network. One of his first acts at NBC was the creation of the legendary sketch comedy and variety show Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows consisted primarily of sketches parodying American life, books, movies, and even more high brow things such as opera. If the format sounds familiar, it is because NBC would more or less reuse it for a new show in the Seventies called Saturday Night Live. Your Show of Shows would make stars out of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. Many of its writers, such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin would go onto further fame in television and movies.

Beyond its then revolutionary format, Your Show of Shows would be ground breaking for another reason. On radio sponsors often produced and owned the programmes, a mode of operation that was carried over into television. Pat Weaver thought this gave the sponsors more power over programming than the networks even had. For this reason he developed what he called the "magazine concept" of advertising and would later become known as "participation advertising." Quite simply, NBC would own and produce Your Show of Shows, then sell time to advertisers to air commercials during the show. In other words, it would not be unlike a magazine, in which several different companies advertise in the publication and would have no control over its content. Pat Weaver would utilise this same approach to advertising on Today and The Tonight Show. Eventually it would become an industry standard in television and it remains one to this day.

Your Show of Shows would prove to be a hit for NBC and Mr. Weaver would follow it up with yet another success. In 1950 the networks were very aggressive in expanding their programming. NBC had already filled nearly every available slot in primetime. Pat Weaver then struck upon the idea of airing a show late at night. This made sense to him as it was already apparent that people's viewing habits on television differed from their listening habits on radio. In the days of Old Time Radio most people would listen to their favourite programmes from 7:00 PM Eastern to 10:00 PM Eastern, then shut their radio off.  Viewers approached television differently from radio, however, turning on their sets at 8:00 PM Eastern and watching them until they went to bed. Pat Weaver thought audiences would stay up later if only there was a television show on the air in the late hours of the day.

The end result of all of this was Broadway Open House, the first network late night show. Broadway Open House was a comedy variety show that aired weeknights at 11:30 PM Eastern. Unlike modern day late night shows, Broadway Open House was not a talk show. Instead it played more like a comedy revue straight out of vaudeville, with stand up routines, skits, and the sort of off colour humour that would be found in later late night shows. Broadway Open House would prove very popular in New York City, where as many as two thirds of the city's television sets would be tuned to the show. Unfortunately, in the very early Fifties the percentage of families who owned television in the United States was still relatively low. What is more only the largest cities in the country (New York, Chicago, Los Angles, Cleveland, St. Louis, and so on) even had television stations. It would seem that the time was not right for a late night television show. Broadway Open House went off the air on 24 August 1951.  Pat Weaver had not given up on the idea on late night programming, however, as he would make another, more successful attempt at a late night show at a time when television ownership was more common and there were more television stations were in the United States. That show would be The Tonight Show, but more on that later.

Pat Weaver not only invented late night network television, he also invented the early morning television news show ("breakfast television," as it is known). On radio such early morning shows as The Breakfast Club (NBC Blue/ABC 1933-1968) and Breakfast in Hollywood (NBC/ABC/Mutual 1942-1948) had met with success. Mr. Weaver then figured that an early morning television show could also be a hit. His initial concept for an early morning show had the tentative title of Rise and Shine. It would have been a variety show with songs and comedy routines, much like The Breakfast Club before it. Pat Weaver then reconsidered his idea, deciding that television should differentiate itself from radio. He then developed the idea of an early morning show that would be a newspaper of the air," including everything that one would find in a morning newspaper. There would be news, weather reports, sports reports, interviews, and even a bit of humour. This new idea Mr. Weaver had he would name Today.

Today would have a rocky start, with the all too real possibility of cancellation looming over it in its early days. Fortunately, it would be saved when a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs became a regular on the show. J. Fred Muggs not only saved Today, but also became a phenomenon all unto himself. While J. Fred Muggs would eventually leave Today (host Dave Garroway and Mr. Muggs did not get along particularly well...), the show has remained on ever since.  Indeed, it would create a whole new genre of television, "breakfast television," and would be imitated by rival networks CBS and ABC, as well as other broadcasting organisations around the world.

Although he is often credited with such, Pat Weaver did not invent the concept of the television special. Television specials--a one time special programme that pre-empts regular programming--existed even before Pat Weaver was hired by NBC. That having been said, he took the format where it had never been before. Mr. Weaver conceived what he called "spectaculars," one time programmes meant to bring prestige to NBC as well as larger audiences. Like Your Show of Shows and Today before them  and The Tonight Show after them, Pat Weaver's spectaculars would utilise the "magazine concept" of advertising. Classically educated, Mr. Weaver often sought to bring culture into the homes of Americans with his spectaculars. Mary Martin repeated her Broadway performance in a television version of Peter Pan. NBC aired Lord Laurence Olivier's  film adaptation of Richard III (1955) as a spectacular.  In 1955 the network aired Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Beauty performed by Dame Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.

NBC would meet with such success with their spectaculars that eventually CBS and ABC would produce their own. Of course, as time passed the word special would overtake the term spectacular. Specials would proliferate on television from the Fifties to the Seventies, only to decline in the Eighties. Never mind the Broadway plays, operas, and ballets that NBC had aired under Pat Weaver, today the dance-musical specials are largely gone as well. Still, holiday specials persist to this day and viewers largely have Pat Weaver to thank for this.

Pat Weaver had met with a large degree of success at NBC, with his only failure being Broadway Open House. That having been said, Mr. Weaver had not given up on the idea of late night programming. It would be another man who would help bring Pat Weaver's dream of late night programming to fruition. On WNBT, NBC's flagship station in New York City, there was a late night show hosted by announcer Steve Allen. The show had the format that has more or less been that of The Tonight Show for the past fifty years. It featured sketch comedy, interviews and games with audience members, interviews with guests, and musical performances. Weaver thought that if the show was successful in New York City, it might be successful nationwide. Tonight debuted on NBC on 27 September 1954.

Unlike Broadway Open House, Tonight would prove to be successful. It remains on the air to this day, even after several changes in hosts. Both ABC and CBS would attempt their own late night talk shows, with CBS finally seeing success after nearly forty years with The Late Show with David Letterman.  ABC would also find some success with Jimmy Kimmel Live. The format has also been imitated by several cable channels.

Pat Weaver had been classically educated and thought that television could be used as a means of bringing culture to the public. In 1951 he launched Operation Frontal Lobes, a series of programmes that would do exactly that. Operation Frontal Lobes consisted of documentary specials, interviews with thinkers and artists, and even the occasional educational element in entertainment programmes.

Unfortunately, as the Fifties progressed Pat Weaver would find himself more and more at odds with NBC. Throughout his career at the network his emphasis had been on programme innovation and disseminating culture to the masses. By the mid-Fifties many in the network preferred standardisation in the network's schedule, with an emphasis on regularly scheduled series. Pat Weaver left NBC in 1956. Even after leaving NBC, he would continue to be an innovator. In the Sixties he launched Subscription Television, Inc., which was an early attempt at pay cable. This would result in a battle with traditional broadcasters, which Pat Weaver ultimately won. Unfortunately, Subscription Television, Inc. would go bankrupt in the result. Regardless, Subscription Television, Inc. foresaw the development of such premium cable channels as HBO and Showtime. It would seem that once again Pat Weaver was slightly ahead of the times.

It was on 18 March 2002 that the legendary programmer died at the age of 93. The cause was pneumonia. He left behind a legacy that changed television forever. Pat Weaver diminished the control advertisers had over television programming with his "magazine concept" of programming. This approach, in which the networks produced the programmes and then sold time to advertisers would become the dominant model of selling advertising in television. He created the classic sketch comedy series Your Show of Shows. He invented late night programming with Broadway Open House. He invented breakfast television with Today. While he did not invent the television special, he transformed them so that they would become a dominant force in television for three decades. He also brought The Tonight Show to television. It is quite possible that no other television programmer had the impact on the medium that Pat Weaver ever had. Many have may have had more success (although Mr. Weaver had a good deal of that), but none would ever change the medium the way that Pat Weaver did. Indeed, most of Pat Weaver's innovations remain a part of television to this day.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Late Great Moebius

French comics artist Moebius passed on 10 March 2012 at the age of 73. The cause was cancer.

Moebius was born Jean Giraud on 8 May 1938 in Nogent-sur-Marne, Val-de-Marne, France. His parents divorced when he was only three years old and he was primarily raised by grandparents. When he was 16 he began studying at the École nationale supérieure des arts appliqués et des métiers d'art in Paris. It was there that he started creating Western comics. By the time he was 18 his Western comic strip Frank et Jeremie was being published in Far West magazine. From 1956 he was also published in Coeurs Valiants magazine. Among his comic strips published there was King of the Buffalo. It was in his early twenties that he apprenticed under Belgian artist Jije. Moebius assisted Jije on the Western comic strip Jerry Spring.

It was in 1962 that writer Jean-Michel Charlier and Moebius began the Western comic strip Fort Navajo for the magazine Pilote. In 1963 Moebius and writer writer Jean-Michel Charlier their most successful comic strip, Les Aventures de Blueberry. The hero of the strip was a United States Cavalry lieutenant whose nickname was "Blueberry." The comic strip proved enormously successful. The last edition was published in 2005. Moebius remained with Les Aventures de Blueberry until 1973, when he left the strip in the hands of Colin Wilson, Michel Rouge and later Michel Blanc-Dumont (Moebius would return to the strip a decade later).

While Moebius was most perhaps most famous for his work in Western comic strips in his native France, he may have been most famous for his work in science fiction and fantasy in the United States. From 1963 to 1964 he did 21 science fiction and fantasy strips in the magazine Hara-Kiri. It was here that he first used the pseudonym "Moebius." He would not use "Moebius" again for another ten years. It was in 1975 that Moebius, fellow artist Philippe Druillet,journalist-writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet, and financial director Bernard Farkas founded the magazine Métal Hurlant (literally "Screaming Metal"). Both of Moebius' serials The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius (based on the work of Michael Moorcock)and Arzach were first published in Métal Hurlant. Métal Hurlant would inspire an American version of the magazine known as Heavy Metal, first published in 1977.

In 1977 Moebius and Mr. Charlier had a disagreement with their publishing company Darguad over Les Aventures de Blueberry. As a result they created the Western comic Jim Cutlass. In 1981 Moebius created the science fiction serial L'Incal with Alejandro Jodorowsky. When Jean-Michel Charlier died in 1989, Moebius tookk over the scripting duties on Les Aventures de Blueberry. From 2000 to 2010 Moebius published an autobiographical fantasy entitled Inside Moebius.

Moebius was also well known for his work in film. Starting with Alien (1979), he provided art and graphic designs for such films as Les maîtres du temps (1982), TRON (1982), Willow (1988), Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), and The Fifth Element (1997).

In many respects it is difficult to describe the style of Moebius as he used different styles over the years and his style could vary even on one given work (Les Aventures de Blueberry, for example). In fact, he used different styles for works created under his given name Jean Giraud and his pseudonym Moebius (he used a pen as Moebius and a brush as Jean Giraud). If one did have to categorise him to a single style (which might not be advisable), it would perhaps be nouveau réalisme. Indeed the at times gritty realism of Moebius' work (he did not shy away from sex and violence) was a sharp contrast to such earlier European comics artists as Hergé (Les Aventures de Tintin) and Albert Uderzo (Astérix le Gaulois).

While Moebius' work could be classed as nouveau réalisme, at the same time his work often had a touch of surrealism. This was particularly true of his science fiction and fantasy work, which often featured alien landscapes and strange technologies that could be positively bizarre. At the same time, such alien landscapes and strange technologies possessed a realism all their own. Moebius was truly a master of diverse styles and an artist who could make that which was unreal seem real and that was real even more so. His lasting influence on comics in Europe, North America, and elsewhere cannot be underestimated.