Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Late Great Umberto Eco

Scholar and novelist Umberto Eco died on February 19 2016 at the age of 84. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Umberto Eco was born on January 5 1932 in Alessandria, Piedmont, Italy. Mr. Eco developed a love for literature while still young. His grandfather had a diverse collection of books, including works by Charles Darwin, Marco Polo, and Jules Verne. He was educated by the Salesians of Don Bosco. Following World War II he became a national leader of a Catholic youth organisation. He left his position in 1954 during protests against Pope Pius XII's rather conservative policies. He received a Laurea degree from the University of Turin in 1954. His 1956 doctoral thesis was on  St. Thomas Aquinas.

For a time Umberto Eco worked as cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana. He lectured at the University of Turin and went onto teach philosophy and later semiotics at the University of Bologna. He wrote columns on both pop culture and politics for Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso.  Mr. Eco wrote over 20 nonfiction books, starting with his doctoral thesis Il problema estetico in San Tommaso in 1956.  As a semiotician Umberto Eco's subjects dealt with a wide range of subjects. His 1965 book Le poetiche di Joyce dealt with the works of James Joyce. His 2004 book Storia della bellezza dealt with the meaning and nature of beauty in Western Civilisation.  His 2013 book Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari dealt with legendary lands from the works of Homer to the works of Tolkien.

It was in 1980 that Umberto Eco's first work of fiction was published, the novel Il nome della rosa. It was published in 1983 in English as The Name of the Rose. The novel was a mystery set in the 14th Century in which a  Franciscan friar must solve a murder at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. The novel proved to be an international sensation, ultimately being translated into 30 different languages and selling 10 million copies. A film adaptation was released in 1986. Umberto Eco would write six more novels following the success of The Name of the Rose. His 1988 novel Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault's Pendulum) dealt with a conspiracy theory invented by three unemployed editors that takes on a life of its own. His 1994 book L'isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before) dealt with a man in the 17th Century who was marooned on a ship. Baudolino, from 2000, centred on the travels of the title character, a young Italian peasant in the 12th Century.

Umbero Eco's 2004 novel, La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) dealt with an antiquarian book dealer who lost his episodic memory due to a stroke and his efforts to regain those memory. 2010's Il cimitero di Praga  (The Prague Cemetery) dealt with the rise of modern day anti-Semitism. His final novel, published last year, was Numero Zero. It centred on a hack journalist.

 As a scholar Umberto Eco was remarkable. He managed to do what many have never tried or tried and failed. Quite simply, he made the field of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and how they are used) and made it accessible to the average person. What is more, he did not limit his studies to such highbrow subjects as Homer or Shakespeare, but extended them to pop culture as well. While he certainly did not place the works of Disney on the same level as the works of Homer, but he did deem popular subjects worthy of study. As far as I am concerned this gave him more academic clout than many scholars who tend to look down their nose at anything emerging from popular culture.

What is more, Umberto Eco infused his novels with his academic interests, from semiotics to philosophy. Teh Name of the Rose dealt a good deal with Christian theology in the Middle Ages. Foucault’s Pendulum dealt a good deal with semiotics. And while Umberto Eco's books could be challenging for readers, at the same time they were very accessible. Umberto Eco managed something that very few authors can, balancing a good story with discussions of some very deep, scholarly topics.

Beyond infusing his novels with subjects most people might not encounter outside of a text book, Umberto Eco was also able to create worlds with a good deal of depth in his novels. Many who have read The Name of the Rose feel almost as if they have actually visited a 14th Century Benedictine monastery. In Baudolino the fantastic lands the characters encounter in Asia seem no less real than such historical places as the court of Emperor Frederick. Umberto Eco was able to create three dimensional characters whose worlds always seemed have they could actually exist, even when historically they did not. Umberto Eco was unique in being able to combine academic subjects with well-told stories set in realistic places with three-dimensional character. There had never been an author like him before and it seems doubtful there ever will be again.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Godspeed Harper Lee

Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, died today at the age of 89.

Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name was her maternal grandmother's name (Ellen) spelled backwards. She did not use it on To Kill a Mockingbird out of fear that it would be mispronounced "Nellie". Her father was Amasa Coleman Lee, a prominent attorney who served in the  Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. She had an older sister, Alice, who would follow their father into law. Among her childhood friends was a young boy Truman Parsons, who would go on to become famous as writer Truman Capote. The character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird was based on him. In turn, Mr. Capote based the characters of Idabel Thompkins in the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and Ann "Jumbo" Finchburg in the short story "The Thanksgiving Visitor" on Harper Lee.

Harper Lee attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, where she wrote articles for the school newspaper and fiction for the school's literary magazine. After a year at Huntingdon College Miss Lee transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. There she studied law with the intention of following her father and older sister into the field. She wrote for the school's newspaper, as well as the school's humour magazine, Rammer Jammer. She became editor in chief of Rammer Jammer in 1946. It was in her senior year that she spent a summer at Oxford University in England. It was while she was at Oxford that she decided to leave school to pursue a career as a writer.

It was then in 1949 that Harper Lee moved to New York City. She worked at a book store and then as a reservations agent, initially for Eastern Airlines and later for British Overseas Airways Corporation. It was on Christmas in 1956 that her friends Michael and Joy Brown presented her with a cheque that equalled a year's pay at the British Overseas Airways Corporation and told her to take a year off from her job and write whatever she wanted. Michael Brown was a lyricist whose work included the song Lizzie Borden from the Broadway production New Faces of 1952 and "Indoor Girl" in the musical House of Flowers. He had just made a good deal of money working on a musical fashion show for Esquire magazine.

Harper Lee wrote several short stories with which she was able to get an agent, Maurice Crain. Mr. Crain suggested that she try to write a novel. She began work on a novel titled Go Set a Watchman. She submitted it to J. B. Lippincott Company, who paid her an advance and assigned her to the editor Tay Hohoff. Miss Hohoff thought that Go Set a Watchman read more like a series of anecdotes than an actual novel . It was Tay Hohoff who guided Harper Lee for the next two years into transforming Go Set a Watchman into the novel we now know as To Kill a Mockingbird.

J. B. Lippincott Company did not expect To Kill a Mockingbird to sell well and even Harper Lee said, "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement." As it turned out, To Kill a Mockingbird became a phenomenal success. It topped best seller lists and was included in the Book-of-the-Month-Club.The classic film adaptation of the novel was released in 1962.

Following the completion of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas to research the murder of a farm family. Harper Lee helped with much of the research, interviewing investigators and local people. All of this work would eventually go into Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood. Unfortunately in the book Truman Capote only acknowledged Harper Lee's work with a short "thank you" on the book's dedication page.

Despite the success of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee never wrote another book. She worked for a time on another novel titled The Long Goodbye, but she never finished it. In the mid-Eighties she became fascinated by murders committed by a serial killer and part-time preacher in Alexander City, Alabama. She did research into the crimes with the intent of writing a true crime book titled The Reverend. She would not finish it either.

For many years Harper Lee spent a solitary life in her hometown of Monroeville. It was last year that the manuscript Go Set a Watchman was published. The novel caused considerable controversy.  Some thought that because of her advanced age Harper Lee had been taken advantage of, and the Alabama authorities even investigated to see if she had been the victim of elder abuse. Ultimately, they concluded that she had not. Even more controversial was the portrayal of Atticus Finch, the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird. Counted as one of the greatest literary heroes of the 20th Century, in Go Set a Watchman Atticus Finch is a racist who has attended a Klan meeting and supports segregation. Many fans of the original novel were very upset. Regardless, Go Set a Watchman sold very well.

There can be no doubt that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most successful novels of the 20th Century. It would go from being a bestseller in 1960 to a literary classic that is required reading in many high schools and universities. Much of the reason for the novel's success is that it captured a world that was largely fading by the time of the book's publication. Quite simply, To Kill a Mockingbird was a portrait of life in a small Southern town. It was a world that was rarely seen before in literature. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind dealt with plantation life in a time and place in such a romanticised way that must have seemed far removed to most Southerners in the 20th Century. Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road was set in the present, but dealt with sharecroppers at opposite end of the class spectrum from the O'Haras of Gone with the Wind. To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the earliest novels to deal with middle class life in a small Southern town.

While Harper Lee painted a vivid picture of life in the Thirties in a small Alabama town, she also gave To Kill a Mockingbird several layers. At the centre of the novel is racial inequality and racial injustice. While much of the novel deals with small town life, much of it also centres upon a trial in which Atticus Finch must defend a black man accused of rape. The portrait of bigotry painted in To Kill a Mockingbird is not pretty and is not easy to read, but like the portrayal of small town life rings all too true.  

To Kill a Mockingbird not only dealt with race, but also class as well. Class plays a central role in To Kill a Mockingbird, with characters ranging from the upper class Dolphus Raymond to the middle class Finches to the lower class Ewells. To Kill a Mockingbird was sophisticated in its approach to class in the South in two ways. First was Atticus Finch's insistence that no one be judged according to their class. Quite simply, Harper Lee placed the person as an individual above their social standing. Second, while other works set in the South would generally attribute racism to only the poorest of whites, in To Kill a Mockingbird racism can be found in every social class. Quite simply for Harper Lee one's social class does not determine how good or bad a person may be or what they might believe.

Beyond the subjects of race and class To Kill a Mockingbird touched upon many other subjects, including the destruction of innocence, the nature of courage, and even traditional gender roles (as a tomboy Scout hardly conforms to traditional expectations of a little girl).  Ultimately To Kill a Mockingbird was a much more sophisticated novel than it might appear on the surface.

Given what she accomplished with To Kill a Mockingbird it is perhaps sad that Harper Lee did not write more books. While I rather doubt any other novels written by Harper Lee would have measured up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird (very few novels ever have), it seems possible that she could have produced several classic novels. As it is, the fact that she produced a book of the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys began recording "Good Vibrations".  According to Mr. Wilson the inspiration for the song came from his mother, who would talk of "vibrations" when he was a child. She told him about dogs "that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see, but you can feel." Brian first turned to Tony Asher, who had written lyrics for The Beach Boys' classic album Pet Sounds for help with the song and later his new writing partner Van Dyke Parks. Ultimately it would be fellow Beach Boy Mike Love who put together the final lyrics for the song.

While Brian Wilson began recording "Good Vibrations" on February 17 1966, it would not be finished for another six months. Ultimately work would be done on the song in four different studios and at a cost of  $50,000. All the work proved to be worth it, as "Good Vibrations" hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the UK singles chart, the Australian singles chart, and many other singles charts around the world. It became The Beach Boy's first million selling record

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Nat King Cole Show

Nat King Cole was one of the most successful recording artists of the 20th Century. He began his career as a jazz pianist and vocalist with the Nat King Cole Trio. The Nat King Cole Trio saw a good deal of success, producing several hit records and appearing on their own radio show. Nat King Cole would shift from jazz towards traditional pop music and strike out on his own in the late Forties, but he continued to have phenomenal success. He set a record at Capitol Records for having 150 singles reach the Billboard Pop, R&B, and Country charts, a record that has never been broken. During his career he sold 50 million records. In fact, Nat King Cole was so successful that the Capitol Records Tower at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles has been called, "the House that Nat Built".

Given Nat King Cole's success, it would perhaps be no surprise that he would make the move into television.  In 1956 Nat King Cole signed a contract with CBS to host a show of his own. Unfortunately plans for a show starring Nat King Cole never moved forward at CBS. It was later in the year that Nat King Cole signed a contract with NBC. This time around a show did emerge. The Nat King Cole Show debuted as a 15 minute programme on Monday night, November 5 1956 at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central.

While The Nat King Cole Show was definitely a major milestone for black performers on television, contrary to popular belief, it was not the first variety show to be hosted by a black person. In 1950 singer Hazel Scott hosted the short-lived Hazel Scott Show on the ill-fated Dumont Television Network. In 1952 singer Billy Daniels hosted the short lived Billy Daniels Show on ABC. Since Hazel Scott was from Trinidad, Billy Daneils was then the first African American to host a variety show. That having been said, The Nat King Cole Show was the first time that a variety show was hosted by an African American as successful as Nat King Cole. In fact, Nat King Cole was more successful than many of the white singers who hosted variety shows.

Unfortunately, Nat King Cole's success as a recording artist would not guarantee the success of The Nat King Cole Show.  NBC had agreed to finance the show in the hope that a national sponsor would pick it up. Sadly NBC found it difficult to find national sponsors for the show. Many advertisers were fearful of the reaction the South might have if a company sponsored a show hosted by an African American. An individual representing the cosmetics company Max Factor even insisted that an African American could not sell lipstick for them. Carter Products (who manufactured  Carter's Little Liver Pills and Arrid deodorant) bought time on The Nat King Cole Show occasionally, but it was not enough to support the show. To help support the show NBC sought out local sponsors, so that Coca-Cola sponsored the show in Houston, Rheingold Beer sponsored the show in New York City, and so on.

In addition to NBC's problems in finding a regular sponsor for The Nat King Cole Show, the programme also suffered from low ratings. That having been said, the network still believed in the show and in July 1957 they revamped the programme. The Nat King Cole Show was given a bigger budget and expanded to a half hour. It was also moved to Tuesday night at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central. In the fall of 1957 it would remain on Tuesday night, but it was moved to 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. At the same time Nat King Cole's fellow performers worked for industry scale or even nothing at all in order to save the show. Such legendary performers as Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, and Mel Tormé all appeared on the show.

Sadly, expanding the show to a half hour and high profile guests were not enough for The Nat King Cole Show get a national sponsor or improve dramatically in the ratings. Unwilling to give up on the show entirely, NBC offered to move The Nat King Cole Show to 7:30 PM  Eastern/6:30 PM Central on Saturdays. Nat King Cole declined the network's offer of a new time slot and decided to end the show.  The Nat King Cole Show ended its run on December 17 1957.

Ultimately Nat King Cole said of the failure of The Nat King Cole Show, "The network supported this show from the beginning. From Mr. Sarnoff on down, they tried to sell it to agencies. They could have dropped it after the first thirteen weeks" As to the advertising agencies and sponsors who were too nervous about supporting the show, Nat King Cole said, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."

While The Nat King Cole Show ended its network run in 1957, it would not disappear entirely. The show would later air on PBS stations in the Eighties and Nineties (I remember watching it on our local PBS station, KMOS). It would eventually be available as a digital download on iTunes and editions of the show have popped up on YouTube. In 2002 White Star released the DVD The Incomparable Nat King Cole, Vols. 1 & 2, which included clips from the show. Sadly, an official DVD release for the entire Nat King Cole Show has not yet emerged.

While The Nat King Cole Show only aired for a little over a year, the show would have a lasting impact. The show paved the way for further variety shows hosted by African Americans, including The Sammy Davis Jr. Show on NBC in 1967 and The Flip Wilson Show on NBC in 1970. Ultimately African Americans would become increasingly visible on American television in the Sixties, with black actors in major roles on such shows as Star Trek, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and Julia. While blacks are still under-represented on American network broadcast television (particularly in lead roles), there has been a vast improvement since the Fifties when the vast majority of actors in dramas and comedies were white. The Nat King Cole Show then proved to a be a pioneering effort with regards to blacks on television.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Serials, Procedurals, and Episodic TV Shows

I have noticed a disturbing trend in articles and blog posts on television of late. Quite simply, people are treating serials and procedurals as if they are polar opposites. While they are using the term serial correctly, they are misusing the term procedural to refer to nearly any show in which stories are wrapped up in one episode. As I will demonstrate below, this is most decidedly not the proper use of the term procedural.

Of course, before anything else I should define the terms serial and procedural and talk a little bit about their history. A serial is any show in which a story unfolds over multiple episodes (sometimes even the entire length of the series). Serials are nothing new. In fact, the best example of serials may be the soap operas that once proliferated on daytime television. Soap operas can be traced back to the days of radio--the first radio show considered a soap opera was Painted Dreams in 1930. On television soap operas were by no means limited to daytime, as they have periodically appeared in prime time as well. Peyton Place, Dallas, and Melrose Place are all examples of prime time soaps.

While soap operas were once the most common form of serialised TV shows in American television, they were by no means the only ones. Even in the early days of television there were a few shows that could be described as "semi-serials". That is, for the most part stories unfolded in the course of a single episode, but there were a few story arcs that unfolded over multiple episodes. A very early example of this was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the first of the "adult Westerns" to air on American broadcast network television. While most stories on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp ran their course in a single episode, the show did have story arcs that spanned many episodes.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp would be followed by a few other shows with a semi-serial format. For the most part stories on The Fugitive unfolded in a single episode, but the show had an ongoing storyline involving the falsely convicted Richard Kimble's search for the one-armed man, the person who really murdered his wife. Strangely enough, another early example of the semi-serial was the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Throughout its run The Beverly Hillbillies had story arcs that sometimes spanned several episodes.

It would be in the Eighties that full-fledged serials would become more common on prime time television. Dallas debuted in 1978 and sparked a whole cycle towards prime time soap operas that lasted for most of the Eighties. The Eighties would also see an increase in serials that were not soap operas. Such shows as Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Wiseguy used a serialised format.  The turning point for serials on American television may have been the debut of Twin Peaks in 1990. Following its debut there were several shows in the Nineties that could be considered semi-serials or full-fledged serials. For the most part stories on The X-Files unfolded in the course of one episode, but the show also included an ongoing storyline in the form of its "mythology". Shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and The Sopranos were much more firmly serials, with story arcs spanning several episodes.

It was with the Naughts that serials began to dominate American television. The decade saw the debut of such serials as The Wire, 24, Lost, and Mad Men. It would be Lost that would popularise the serial format on prime time, broadcast network television. With its success the networks debuted a spate of shows with a serialised format. That this was not a passing fad can be seen in that today many, and quite possibly most, network prime time dramas are either serials or semi-serials.

As to the term procedural, it originated from the earlier term police procedural, a genre of detective fiction, films, and TV shows in which the focus is on police procedure as they attempt to solve crimes. The police procedural also has a very long history. The quintessential police procedural on television may well be Dragnet, which debuted on radio in 1949. A television version of Dragnet debuted in 1951 and proved to be phenomenally popular. It led to several other police procedurals over the years, including Naked City, The Untouchables, Adam-12, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue. The debut of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in 2000 sparked a rather large and long-lasting cycle towards police procedurals whose impact is still being seen today.

With the popularity of police procedurals from the earliest days of television, it should come as no surprise that other sorts of procedurals would also arise. Among the most popular may be the medical procedural, which focuses on the procedures of physicians as they treat patients. Among the medical procedures over the years have been Ben Casey, Marcus Welby M. D., E.R., and House. Of course, there are other procedurals beyond police procedurals and medical procedurals. Arguably the classic British spy series Danger Man was an espionage procedural.

Historically stories on police procedurals and medical procedurals have unfolded in the course of a single episode. That having been said, this is not always the case and some of the best known procedurals have actually been serials. Hill Street Blues was very much a police procedural, but it was also very much a serial. Homicide: Life on the Streets was another example of a police procedural that was also a serial.  Arguably the 1995 series Murder One was a legal procedural that was also a serial. House was a medical procedural with a semi-serial format. Among the shows that were both procedurals and serials are Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, N.Y.P.D. Blue, The Wire, and the British TV show Broadchurch.

Given that there are procedurals that are also serials, it would seem that serials and procedurals cannot be considered the antithesis of each other. What it more, it must be pointed that not every single show in which the stories unfold in the course of a single episode can be considered a procedural. Quite simply the emphasis on any sort of procedural is on procedure. This is not true of the vast majority of shows that have aired over the years on the American broadcast networks. The classic science fiction show Star Trek was not a procedural because its emphasis was on its characters and their adventures, not the everyday operations of the starship Enterprise. The classic Western Bonanza was not a procedural because its emphasis was on the lives and loves of the Cartwrights, not how they ran the Ponderosa from day to day. Although it features a police officer as its protagonist, the classic mystery series Columbo cannot be considered a procedural either. In fact, Lt. Columbo generally ignored procedure and went his own way in solving mysteries! To call such shows "procedurals" would seem to be a gross misuse of the term, as there is very little procedure featured in any of them.

What, then, is the correct term for shows in which plots unfold in a single episode. It's quite simple. They are episodic television shows or episodic TV series. The term episodic television has long been used of any show with continuing characters in which stories run their course in a single episode. Episodic TV shows are then the exact opposite of serials, not to mention anthologies (in which there are no continuing characters). The vast majority of TV shows aired on American television have been episodic and it is still the most common format for sitcoms. A procedural can be episodic or serial in format. An episodic TV show can never be a serial.

To some it might not seem to be a particularly important matter, but as a television historian I would like some precision in the terms I use. If the term procedural is used of any episodic television show, then what does one call Hill Street Blues, The Wire, or Broadchurch? Every one of those shows is a serial, yet their emphasis is on procedure. And what of a family drama such as The Waltons? It seems rather silly to call it a procedural, even though its stories generally unfolded during a single episode. Ultimately, I think it might be best if people writing about television simply used the various terms with their original meaning intact. A serial is any show in which stories unfold over multiple episodes. A procedural is simply a show whose emphasis is on procedure and can be serial or episodic. An episodic TV show is one whose stories unfold in simply one episode. It is a lot less confusing that way.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine's Day 2016

In keeping with the usual custom on many holidays here at A Shroud of Thoughts, here are some classic pinups.

First up is Nancy Carroll, who is offering you her heart. Or a heart, anyway!

Next up is Mary Castle, who's all wrapped up in hearts.

 Ann Sheridan lounging on a heart!
Ann Rutherford is growing hearts!

Betty Grable wants you to be her Valentine!

And what would Valentine's Day be without Ann Miller!

Happy Valentine's Day!