Saturday, June 18, 2022

More Native Americans on Television

With the exception of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, Native American characters have been nearly non-existent on television in the United States. And in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, Native American characters were generally confined to the Westerns of the era and played by white actors or actors of yet other ethnicities than Indigenous. It was exceedingly rare that a Native American character even appeared in a present day setting. It is then remarkable that within the past year and a quarter three different shows featuring Native Americans in lead roles have debuted. What is more, two of those of shows have casts that are almost entirely Native American.

The first of these three shows to debut was Rutherford Falls. The show debuted on Peacock on April 22 2021. It was created by Ed Helms (perhaps best known for The Office), Michael Schur (co-creator of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place), and Sierra Teller Ornelas (who served as a producer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Superstore. While Messrs. Helms and Schur are white, Ms. Teller Ornelas is Navajo.

Rutherford Falls is set in the small town of the same name, where a controversy over a statue in the town pits best friends Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), a descendent of the town's founder) and Reagan Wells, a member of the Minishonka Nation. A good number of the cast are Native Americans. What is more, half of the writers on the show are Indigenous. Rutherford Falls has been well received. Furthermore, Rutherford Falls does not rely on stereotypes the way previous shows have, nor does it mythologize American Indians.

The second Native American show to debut was Reservation Dogs. It premiered on FX on Hulu on August 9 2021. Reservation Dogs follows a group of group of Indigenous teens as they try to navigate life on a reservation. It was created by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo. Sterlin Hajro is a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and has Muskogee heritage. He has directed the films Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), Barking Water (2009), and Mekko (2015).

If anything Reservation Dogs goes even further than Rutherford Falls in representation. Its cast is almost entirely Indigenous, as is its production team. Every single one of its writers is Native American. It is shot on location in Okmulgee, the capitol of the Muscogee Nation. This also makes it the first TV series to be shot entirely in Oklahoma.  Reservation Dogs has received a good deal of critical acclaim. It is notable for featuring no stereotypes and presenting Native life from a Native point of view.

The third new Native American show just debuted this past Sunday, June 12. Dark Winds is based on Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn & Chee mystery novels, which centre on the Navajo Tribal policemen Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. While Tony Hillerman wrote the Leaphorn & Chee novels from 1970 to 2006, Dark Winds is set in 1971 on the Navajo Reservation.

The vast majority of the cast of Dark Winds are Indigenous (an exception is Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Whitover). The nearly all of the crew are Native American.  Among its producers is Chris Eyre, perhaps best known for the classic film Smoke Signals (1998). The writers on Dark Winds are entirely Native American. Indeed, it was Graham Roland, who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, who developed Dark Winds for television. Dark Winds has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Dark Winds differs from both Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs in that, while they are comedies, it is a thriller. The show is free of stereotypes and told from a Native viewpoint.

With three Native American shows having debuted recently, I am hoping that there will be more to follow. Native Americans have been largely invisible on American television for much of its history. When Native American characters have appeared, they have often been confined to the Old West and, even when they appear in a modern day setting, have been heavily romanticized. Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs, and Dark Winds are s big step forward for Native representation. I hope that it is just the beginning of more to come.

Friday, June 17, 2022

The Late Great Tim Sale

Tim Sale, the artist best known for his work on various Batman titles (particularly the miniseries The Long Halloween), died yesterday, June 16 2022, at the age of 66. No cause was listed, but the had been admitted to hospital for severe health issues.

Tim Sale was born on May 1 1956 in Ithaca, New York. His father was the literary critic and author Roger Sale. His uncle was author Kirkpatrick Sale. He spent most of his childhood in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington for two years before moving to New York City and attending the School of Visual Arts. He began his artistic career in 1983, providing artwork for the comic book adaptation of the novel series MythAdventures and then the comic book adaptation of the shared universe book series Thieves' World. In 1988 he drew an issue of the comic book Grendel. He later became the series' regular artist.

It was in 1991 that DC Comics editor Elliot S! Maggin hired Tim Sale for the mini-series Challengers of the Unknown. The writer on the miniseries was screenwriter Jeph Loeb, who co-wrote the films Teen Wolf (1985) and Commando (1987), among other movies. Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb would become frequent collaborators, including Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory, Superman for All Seasons, and others. At DC Comics would work on such projects as the 1992 story arc "Blades" in Legends of the Dark Knight, the story arc "Misfits" in Shadow of the Bat, and the Wildstorm title Deathblow,

In 1995 Tim Sale illustrated the Wolverine/Gambit miniseries at Marvel. It was from 1996 to 1997 that Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb created the miniseries Batman: The Long Halloween. The yearlong miniseries received considerable acclaim and is now regarded as a classic. In 1998 they collaborated on the miniseries Superman for All Seasons. That same year Tim Sale contributed to the anthology Grendel: Black, White and Red.

In 1999 Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb collaborated on the sequel to The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory. That same year they contributed a story to Vampirella: Rebirth no. 1. Over the next few years the duo would work on such projects for Marvel as Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and Hulk: Gray. In 2003 they contributed a backup story to JSA All Stars no. 2. In 2004 they collaborated on Catwoman: When in Rome, and the first issue of Solo. Their last comic book collaboration was on Captain America: White for Marvel. When Jeph Loeb became a writer and co-executive producer on the NBC TV series Heroes, Tim Sale's artwork would be featured on the show.

Beyond his collaborations with Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale also worked on Superman Confidential, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales of the Slayers, and Tales of the Batman: Tim Sale. He provided covers for The Foot Soldiers no. 3, Adventures of Superman no 597, Batgirl no. 21, Detective Comics no. 763, Harley Quinn no. 13, JSA no. 29, The Spectre no. 10, Flinch no. 5, El Diablo no. 1-4, Queen & Country no. 1-4, Detective Comics no. 777-796, Batgirl no. 69-73, and various issues of Batman vol 3.

Tim Sale was one of the greatest comic book artists to emerge in the past few decades. His style was different from anyone else in the industry and immediately identifiable. His style was tight and he often made use of strong contrasts between light and dark in his work. He was not afraid to use caricature from time to time in his art. More than anything else, Tim Sale's art emphasized the characters and moved the story forward. In some respects his artwork was more reminiscent of painting than traditional comic book artwork.

Tim Sale was well loved by his fellow comic book creators, and his fans as well. He was known for his kindness and friendliness to his fans, and many left conventions with sketches he had done. If so many comic book professionals and fans are mourning Tim Sale, it's not simply because he was a great artist. It is because he was a great man.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

It was fifty years ago today that David Bowie's album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released. While David Bowie's preceding album Hunky Dory reached no. 3 on the British album chart, many count The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as his breakthrough album. Since its release it has ranked on various lists of the greatest albums of all time. In 1987 Rolling Stone ranked it at no. 6 on its list of "The 100 Best Albums of the Last Twenty Years." In 2003 Rolling Stone would rank it The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at no. 35th in their list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time." Publications from Pitchfork to Q to Time to NME have ranked it among the best albums ever made. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would certainly have a lasting influence.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept album, if a somewhat loose one. In the reality of the album, a news network reports that Earth has only five more years left before it is destroyed by an apocalypse. It is in this milieu that that alien rock star Ziggy Stardust comes to Earth. Along with his  his backing band The Spiders from Mars, he delivers a message of hope that Earth will be saved by an alien Starman (hence the title of the song of the same name). He also becomes a superstar with a legion of fans. Unfortunately, Ziggy's ego gets the better of him and he ultimately finds himself driving away his bandmates and alienating his fans. In the end, his ego and fame cost him his life. The character of Ziggy Stardust was inspired by a number of different sources. including English rock and roll singer Vince Taylor, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Recording on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars began only a few months after recording sessions for David Bowie's previous album, Hunky Dory, had ended. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars retained David Bowie's backing band from Hunky Dory, consisting of Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, and  Mick Woodmansey on drums. Ken Scott, who had produced Hunky Dory with David Bowie, would also serve as the producer on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Like Hunky Dory, it was recorded at Trident Studios in London.

It would be after David Bowie's return from a promotional tour of the United States in February 1971 that he wrote a number of songs at Haddon Hall in London that would appear on both Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. David Bowie's cover of the Ron Davies song "It Ain't Easy," which would appear on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was recorded while they were still recording Hunky Dory, on July 9 1971. It would not be included on Hunky Dory, but would find its way onto The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was on November 8 1971 that recording officially began on the album. Recording continued until November 15 1971, when the band took a break for the holidays. They returned to the studio in January 1972 where the band worked on "Suffragette City"and ""Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." After RCA executive Dennis Katz complained that the album contained no songs that could be released as a single. It was then that the song "Starman" replaced  a cover of Chuck Berry's song "Around and Around," retitled "Round and Round" on the album. It was on February 4 1972 that the album was finished, with "Starman," "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," and "Suffragette City" recorded on that day.

Even though The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a concept, most of the album's concept was not fleshed out until after it had been recorded. Indeed, as late as December 15 1971, the album still bore the title Round and Round. Given this, it should come as no surprise that some of the songs were written before work began on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. "Moonage Daydream" was written during David Bowie's promotional tour of the United States in February 1971. "Hang On to Yourself" was also written in early 1971. Even "Ziggy Stardust" and "Lady Stardust" date back to early 1971. It is well known that "Suffragette City" was meant for another band entirely. David Bowie offered both "All the Young Dudes" and "Suffragette City" to Mott the Hoople. Mott the Hoople took "All the Young Dudes," but turned down "Suffragette City." "Suffragette City" was then recorded by David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars and became one of the highlights of the album.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars would take glam rock places it never had before. As Barney Hoskyns wrote in a 2021 retrospective about the album in The Independent,  as Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie, "...took glam rock to places that the Sweet only had nightmares about." The album ultimately covered such topics as drug use, sexuality, politics, the apocalypse, and the artifice of rock 'n' roll. And while The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has often been counted as glam rock and even, in retrospect, proto-punk, the album embraced a wide array of musical styles. The styles used on the album range from 1950s rock 'n' roll, jazz, heavy metal, and proto-punk. David Bowie himself compared the album to the music of Iggy Pop. Influences on the album ranged from Little Richard to Eddie Cochran to Elton John to The Velvet Underground.

Upon its release The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars received several positive reviews from critics. The 1972 review of the album in Circus stated, "Someday in the far future when armed guides are leading interplanetary tourists through the ruins of Western society, perhaps they'll also be touting chrome statuettes of David Bowie - the young man from England who, if it may not be said that he saw it coming, at least was heard to cry 'Look out!'"Jack Lloyd wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "David Bowie is one of the most creative, compelling writers around today." The review in Beat Instrumental Magazine ended with the line, "Definitely an album for every serious rock fan. A taste of things to come."

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars proved to be successful on the charts. It peaked at no. 5 on the British album chart. In the United States it only went to no. 75 on the Billboard Top LPs and Tape chart, but then it must be considered that David Bowie's previous albums (including Hunky Dory, a hit in the UK) had failed to reach the Billboard chart in the United States.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has had a lasting influence. As mentioned earlier, it is consistently ranked on lists of the greatest albums of all time. It would prove to have a impact on a wide array of artists, from Bauhaus to  The Cure to Chris Cornell of Soundgarden to Fall Out Boy. Fans might argue about which album is David Bowie's best, but The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is definitely the one that put him on the map.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Radio Show Command Performance

Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland during the episode Dick Tracy in B-Flat.

Command Performance
was one of the best known and most respected radio shows of the 1940s. Despite this, many Americans at home never heard an episode. This was because Command Performance aired on the Armed Forces Radio Network and by shortwave to the troops serving overseas during and after World War II.

The show began as a result of a request from the United States War Department to Louis G. Cowan, then working in their radio division, to create a radio show to entertain the troops serving overseas. Prior to the war, Mr. Cowan had helped Kay Kyser develop his radio show Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, and  created the popular radios show Quiz Kids. For the War Department Louis Cowan conceived a show that would based on requests from servicemen and servicewomen serving in World War II. It is for this reason that the show was titled Command Performance.

The requests made by members of military for Command Performance varied a good deal. Among the requests were such things as Charles Laughton teaching Disney cartoon character Donald Duck elocution and Bing Crosby mixing bourbon and soda for Bob Hope. Others were a bit more unusual, such as hearing Carole Landis sigh and Ann Miller tap dancing in combat boots. Other service members simply wanted to hear sounds from home. One soldier wanted to hear his dog back home barking. An serviceman from Indiana wanted to hear the birds chirping in his home town.

In its earliest days Command Performance was transmitted via shortwave, which proved to have its disadvantages. Many in the service had no access to  a shortwave radios. Another problem with shortwaving the show is that often reception was poor, with a lot of static and fading. It was for that reason that Command Performance was then recorded on 16" transcription discs and shipped to Armed Forces Network stations overseas.

The performers who appeared on Command Performance reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood and radio. The Andrew Sisters, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Lena Horne, Kay Kyser, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, and yet others appeared on Command Performance. Any other radio show would have had to have paid a good deal of money for such talent, but the many legendary performances who appeared on Command Performance did so for free. NBC and CBS volunteered use of their network studios for recording the show for free as well. It is estimated that $75,000 would have been necessary to produce a similar show.

In the beginning Command Performance originated from New York City, but it later moved to Hollywood where it would have better access to the stars of the big screen. It was recorded live in front of an audience made up of members of the military.

Because it was recorded to transcription discs, many more episodes of Command Performance survive than episodes of other radio shows. Only one episode would ever air stateside. It was on Christmas Eve in 1942 that Command Performance was broadcasted to radio listeners at home in the United States. That episode featured Fred Allen, The Andrew Sisters, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bing Crosby, Harriet Hilliard,  Spike Jones and The City Slickers, Kay Kyser, Charles Laughton, Dinah Shore, Ginny Simms, Red Skelton, and Ethel Waters.

Perhaps the most notable episode of Command Performance was its February 15 1945 broadcast. It featured the 55 minute parody operetta Dick Tracy in B-Flat: For goodness sakes isn't he ever going to marry Tess Trueheart!. It starred Bing Crosby as Dick Tracy, with Dinah Shore as Tess Trueheart, Bob Hope as Flattop, Cass Daley as Gravel Gertie, Frank Sinatra as Shaky, Judy Garland as Snowflake Falls, The Andrew Sisters as The Summer Sisters, Frank Morgan as Vitamin Flintheart, Jerry Colonna as Chief Brandon, Harry Von Zell as Judge Hooper, and Jimmy Durante as The Mole. The AFRS Orchestra was conducted by Meredith Wilson, who would later become famous for The Music Man. No one loved Dick Tracy in B-Flat more than Dick Tracy's creator, Chester Gould.

Command Performance debuted on March 1 1942. It began airing via the Armed Forces Radio Network after it was launched on May 26 1942. It would continue even after the war, until December 20 1949. It  was cancelled, along with nine other AFRS shows (including the popular series Mail Call), due to budget cuts.

While Command Performance had ended its run, it was not forgotten. Many veterans who served during and shortly after World War II would remember the show. The existence of the show's many transcription discs would ensure that it would survive for further generations. Indeed, episodes of the show are available at such venues as the Internet Archive and YouTube, and CD collections of episodes can be bought from various Old Time Radio outlets. Command Performance was a remarkable achievement in radio, a program featuring the best talent of the time and written by top writers. What is more, they did all of it for free.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Godspeed Philip Baker Hall

Philip Baker Hall, who appeared in the movie Hard Eight (1996) and guest starred on shows from Man from Atlantis to Seinfeld, died yesterday, June 12 2022, at the age of 90.

Philip Baker Hall was born on September 10 1932 in Toledo, Ohio. He attended the University of Toledo and then enlisted in the United States Army where he served as a translator in Germany. When he left the military he worked as a radio announcer and later a high school teacher. He was 30 years old when his wife encouraged him to pursue his dream of being an actor.

Philip Baker Hall made his film debut in 1970 in an uncredited role as a diner owner in Zabriskie Point. That same year he appeared in Love-In '72. In the Seventies he appeared in the films Throw Out the Anchor! (1974), Coma (1978), The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), and The Last Reunion (1980). He made his television debut in 1975 in the TV movie The Last Survivors. During the decade he guest starred on the shows Good Times, Man from Atlantis, M*A*S*H, Visions, The Fitzpatricks, Emergency!, The Waltons, and It's a Living.

In the Eighties he was a regular on the short-lived show Mariah, as well as the recurring role of Ed Meyers on Falcon Crest. He guest starred on the shows McClain's Law, Quincy M.E., Cagney & Lacey, T. J. Hooker, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, General Hospital, Lottery!, Benson, Hardcastle & McCormick, Miami Vice, Matlock, and Baghdad Cafe. He appeared in the movies Secret Honor (1984), Nothing in Common (1986), Three O'Clock High (1997), Midnight Run (1988), Say Anything (1989), How I Got into College (1989), Ghostbusters II (1989), An Innocent Man (1989), and Blue Desert (1990).

In the Nineties he was a regular on the show Michael Hayes. He guest starred on the shows Murder, She Wrote; L.A. Law; Equal Justice; The Antagonists; Dark Justice; Nurses; Civil Wars; Cheers; Bob; Empty Nest; The Good Life; Roswell; Madman of the People; Chicago Hope; Hardball; Life's Work;. The John Larroquette Show; 3rd Rock from the Sun; The Practice; Millennium; Seinfeld; L. A. Doctors; Partners; and the 2000 version of The Fugitive. He appeared in the films Live Wire (1992), Kiss of Death (1995), Eye for an Eye (1996), Hard Eight (1996), The Little Death (1996), The Rock (1996), Hit Me (1996), Buddy (1997), Air Force One (1997), Boogie Nights (1997), Sour Grapes (1998), The Truman Show (1998), Judas Kiss (1998), Rush Hour (1998), Enemy of the State (1998), Psycho (1998), Implicated (1998), Let the Devil Wear Black (1999), Cradle Will Rock (1999), The Insider (1999), Magnolia (1999), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Rules of Engagement (2000), The Contender (2000), and Lost Souls (2000).

In the Naughts Philip Baker Hall was a regular on the shows Pasadena and The Loop. He was a guest voice on the animated series Baby Blues. He guest starred on the shows Night Visions, Without a Trace, Everwood, Monk, Boston Legal, The West Wing, Big Love, Psych, Worst Week, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Jackson VP, The Life & Times of Tim, and Warren the Ape. He appeared in the movies A House on the Hill (2001), The Sum of All Fears (2002), A Gentleman's Game (2002), Die, Mommie, Die! (2003), Bruce Almighty (2003), Dogville (2003), In Good Company (2004), The Matador (2005), Duck  (2005), The Amityvile Horror (2005), The Zodiac (2005), The Shaggy Dog (2006), The TV Set (2006), Islander (2006), Zodiac (2007), You Kill Me (2007), Rush Hour 3 (2007), The Lodger (2009), Fired Up! (2009), Wonderful World (2009), and All Good Things (2009).

In the Teens he was a regular on the shows Ruth & Erica, Second Chance, and Messiah. He guest starred the shows Modern Family, The Newsroom, Childrens Hospital, Rake, Madam Secretary, Room 104, and Corporate. He was a guest voice on the animated TV series BoJack Horseman. He appeared in the movies The Chicago 8 (2011), Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011), 50/50 (2011), Bending the Rules (2012), People Like Us (2012), Argo (2012), Bad Words (2013), Playing It Cool (2014), Person to Person (2017), and The Last Word (2017).

Philip Baker Hall was an incredible actor. Throughout his career he played a variety of roles, everything from clergymen to military officers to police officers to criminals. In Hard Eight he shined as professional gambler Sydney who takes a homeless man under his wing. Perhaps his most memorable guest appearance was in the Seinfeld episode "The Library," in which he played dogged library investigations officer Lt. Joe Bookman, who confronts Jerry about having not returned Tropic of Cancer for twenty years. Philip Baker Hall was even good when a particular movie or TV show wasn't. Hit Me is not a particularly good movie, but Mr. Hall still gave a stellar performance as gangster Lenny Ish. So versatile was Philip Baker Hall that he did equally well in comedies and dramas. It is no wonder that Philip Baker Hall was so prolific. His talent was so great that he was very much in demand.