The MediaLog MediaFix: "Puppet Playhouse" with Howdy Doody

One of the prevailing interests of the MediaLog is television history. Here is a MediaFix that is the intro for one of the landmark early television programs, "Puppet Playhouse," better known by the name of its puppet protagonist, Howdy Doody. Host "Buffalo" Bob Smith joined Howdy for a show that was a pioneer in children's television and paved the way for all the great kids' shows that followed. Those interested in learning more about the history of Howdy should peruse Stephen Davis' fascinating book "Say Kids! What Time is It?: Notes from the Peanut Gallery" (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1987). Also, Amazon has a number of Howdy Doody DVDsavailable for those interested in seeing more of the actual show.

(Video source: YouTube; 1 min. 1 sec.)


The New Colorization: CGI and the Desecration of Film and Television Heritage

Twenty years ago, a persistent if not widespread public outcry arose over the colorization of old black and white movies. Although Ted Turner (at the time having just purchased MGM for the sole purpose of exploiting its film library) was the most prominent perpetrator of this heresy, he was not the only one that tried to "update" what colorizers thought everyone else would think were musty old unwatchable monotone flicks. In response to the outcry, as well as to the fact that colorization did not end up being the boon that the colorizers thought it would be, the practice thankfully disappeared after only a couple of years.

In the past several years, a similar and equally insidious practice has emerged in regards to the supposed updating of old movies and TV programs. I'm referring to the addition of CGI elements to revise media texts that were created before the advent of compuer generated imagery. The rationale is that the creators of these texts would have utilized the creative possibilities of CGI in their original creation, had it been at their disposal when the movies or TV shows were first made. One of the reasons that this rationale is so clear is that in most cases it is the original creators that have decided to make the alterations to their films and programs.

As he has in so many other ways, George Lucas led the way in terms of the digital "revision" of old movies. The first significant CGI updating of a body of work was with Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy "Special Edition" theatrical rereleases that appeared in 1997. Lucas, famously a perfectionist and a stickler for technical detail, felt that the new digital technology would allow him to create enhancements such as new backgrounds, more elaborate alien characters, and more complex spaceships and outer space settings that were impossible with the state of late-1970s and early-1980s cinematic art. These modifications included adding a digital (and mobile) Jabba the Hutt to a previously unused docking bay scene in "Star Wars" (pictured in the above still image), additional exotic beasts of burden and cityscape improvements in the desert setting of the planet Tattooine in the same film, and similar cityscape improvements to Cloud City in "The Empire Strikes Back." These changes in the original trilogy, besides sprucing up scenes that Lucas thought needed it, were a shakedown of the digital technology that he would subsequently use (much, much more extensively) to finally make the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy that was completed last year.

Lucas' sometime collaborator Steven Spielberg also did a digital revamp of his film "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" on its 20th anniversary in 2002. The modifications made by Spielberg were not as extensive, but they were more gratiuitous. The most famous of these was in the scene in which the police are chasing the children, where the guns the police are carrying were replaced with walkie talkies.

The most recent example of the use of CGI to update old media texts (and the first that I've heard of involving a TV program) has occurred this fall with the rerelease to syndication of the original "Star Trek" series with a host of new CGI effects. New background elements, an extensively modified exterior to the Starship Enterprise, and redone battle scenes and shots of space are the reported changes to the venerable sci-fi show. Supposedly, Paramount Studios, the caretaker of the "Star Trek" legacy, has taken pains to stay true to "Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry's vision.

So what is the big deal about the modification of old movies and TV shows in this way? The big deal is that they are revisionist in a way just as damaging as the specious rewriting of history to reflect current trends or the government's shifting rationale for public policy in light of ongoing developments. A truly honest and forthright government needs to be transparent about the reasons for its policy on everything from national defense to disaster management. History has to strive for complex understanding of the meaning and import of the past, not ensure that what happened in the past is not going to offend anyone in the present. And all kinds of artistic texts from the past, whether a movie or a sonnet, should be left intact in the form in which they were created. If not, we run the risk of losing an understanding of the cultural values and mores displayed, the historical values of artifacts seen or described, and the integrity of the formal qualities of artistic texts. Revising a movie or a TV program years after the fact with new elements such as computer imagery just because it is suddenly technologically possible is no different or more acceptable than using acrylic paint to touch up the odd contours of the face of the "Mona Lisa," updating the arcane language of a Shakespeare play, or restoring synthetically sculpted arms to the Venus de Milo.

Perhaps my comparison elicits a snicker or two due to its seeming absurdity. The "Star Wars" movies and the "Star Trek" programs are, after all, only thirty or forty odd years old right now, a mere drop in the chronological bucket compared to something like the "Mona Lisa" or "The Merchant of Venice." However, just as those artistic works are now for us a window into the Renaissance and its culture, rest assured that "Star Wars" and "Star Trek"--as hard as it might be to believe today--will equally be a window into late-20th century culture for those that will seek to understand it a few centuries from now.

At the root of Lucas' and Spielberg's and Paramount's itch to redo their work are several, mostly understandable factors. First is the fact that all of the examples I have been discussing are from the genre of science fiction. Science fiction has always been a form that looks to the future, and when moving-image sci-fi works no longer look so much like they are from the future it can be disconcerting. Already, only a few decades removed from their origin, due to the rapid changes in technology in real life in those decades, there's no denying that texts like "Star Wars" and especially the original "Star Trek" do look outdated, much less futuristic. This urge to update is another factor in the phenomenon of digital desecration. From the '60s togs in "Trek" to the '70s dos in "Star Wars," these films and programs already--even though they are science fiction, a genre that most of us don't think of as being thus--serve as documents of their times. But this is precisely the point. We need for these, and all, artistic texts to be exactly that, documents of the times in which they were created. The chief objection to the colorization of movies in the 1980s was that it represented a diversion from the intentions of their creators. The fact that it is the creators of the texts that are now making the digitally-inspired changes doesn't make it forgivable; the creators' intentions were what they were when they created these works, and that doesn't change because their intentions might be different if they were creating the same works today.

Another understandable factor for the "new colorization" is need for the owners of these bodies of work to make them continually lucrative. Let's face it, as much as we believe that films and (to a much lesser extent) television programs are works of art, they are also equally works of commerce. In this age of the "long tail" when it comes to music and moving images, movies and such can continue to be assets with ongoing value for many, many years. It behooves their creators and owners to ensure that they will continue to be marketable. Even though CGI alterations may not end up being any more long lasting than colorization was, right now such updates are in some cases thought to be necessary.

My guess is that twenty years from now we will look back at the trend towards CGI modifications the same way that we now look back on colorization. Although potentially damaging, as long as the "original" works are not irreversibly changed, we can still enjoy them the same way that we can still enjoy the black and white "It's a Wonderful Life" even though it was at one time (utterly inexplicably) colorized. And as morbid as it might sound, eventually Lucas and Spielberg will die and won't be able to continue meddling with their own work in understandable but still misguided attempts to improve it. Until more time has passed, though, the most we can hope for is that "Star Wars" Special Edition DVDs will languish unsold on store shelves and the 21st-century "Star Trek" will go unwatched.

(Image source: www.scifimoviepage.com)


"The Agony of Defeat": A Requiem for ABC Sports

Little attention has been paid to the recent news that the Walt Disney Company has shut down ABC Sports in favor of utlizing the ESPN sports operation (announcers, production facilities, identity, etc.) for any and all sports broadcast on ABC.

From a strictly business standpoint the move makes a lot of sense: with common ownership of ABC and ESPN by Disney (which has owned the two since it bought Capital Cities/ABC in the mid-1990s), why duplicate services and personnel when a considerable cost savings can be realized by simply using ESPN's resources for the relatively small amount of sports shown on ABC? The recent transfer of "Monday Night Football" from ABC--where it had been a mainstay since 1970--to ESPN turned out to be only part of the larger effort of dissolving ABC Sports.

Why should anyone care about the demise of ABC Sports? Only because it was the first modern TV sports operation, established by visionary TV executive Roone Arledge in the early-1960s and prospering under Arledge's leadership for twenty years; it featured pioneering sports programs such as "Wide World of Sports," "MNF," and the first great Olympic games broadcasts in the late-1960s and early-1970s; and it set the standard for television sports of all kinds, paving the way for sports departments at the other major networks and at cable networks such as ESPN. In short, without ABC Sports, there wouldn't be TV sports as we know it today.

And so, I thought a requiem of some sort was called for. Below you can reminisce about the forty-five year history of ABC Sports through the video clips and links I have compiled. The end of ABC Sports means, in the famous words from the intro voiceover from "The Wide World of Sports," the end of "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."


Opening to "Monday Night Football" (1982)

Excerpt of Skateboarding Championship from "Wide World of Sports" (1965)

Promotional Montage for "Wide World of Sports" (1982)

ABC Sports-related Links

"Monday Night Football" history page on ESPN.com (updated through 2002)

ABC Sports entry on Wikipedia (with links to major programs and sporting events)

Roone Arledge entry on website for Museum of Broadcast Communications

Roone Arledge entry on Wikipedia

Article on Arledge's accomplishments upon his 2002 death on PopPolitics.com

Internet Movie Database TV entry on "Wide World of Sports"

Special Note: If you are interested in enjoying some of this ABC Sports heritage and see what sports coverage from the 1960s and 1970s was like, ESPN Classic currently airs "Classic Wide World of Sports" early Saturday mornings at 7 am EST/6 am CST.

(Video source: YouTube)


The MediaLog MediaFix: "The Price is Right"

This edition of the MediaFix is a final nod to Game Show Network's "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," the countdown for which I posted numerous commmentaries--and MediaFixes. Featured are two clips of "The Price is Right," which came in at #4 on the countdown, but probably should have been higher, maybe even #1 (in my opinion).

This first clip is the opening sequence for what was at the time called "The New Price is Right" with Bob Barker from 1972. It was the revival of the now-nearly-forgotten original "Price is Right" from the late-1950s and early-1960s. There are some noticable differences from the "TPiR" we know and love today, mainly the low level of excitement in the studio audience as the first contestants are announced.

(Source: YouTube; 1 min. 26 secs.)

This second clip is one from the rarely-seen original "Price is Right." It too is the opening to the show and the introduction of host Bill Cullen, who would go on to host many other game shows.

(Source: YouTube; 33 secs.)


"Studio 60" on the Sorkin Strip

Tonight will be the second episode of the highly anticipated new Aaron Sorkin-created TV series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." If last week's pilot episode is any guide, the show is fast becoming as exhilirating as a ride down the title strip itself.

The new ensemble drama/comedy/show-within-a-show stars (above, from left to right) D.L. Hughley, Nathan Corddry, Sarah Paulson, Timothy Busfield, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, and Steven Weber. Like Sorkin's previous television programs (the recently-departed "The West Wing," the now-nearly-forgotten "Sports Night"), "Studio 60" rests on the talents and dynamics of its ensemble and the strength of its characters. Again, if the pilot is any guide, the show shines with promise and glitters with potential.

In brief, "Studio 60" is a behind the scenes drama of a "Saturday Night Live"-like late night variety program similar to how Sorkin's "The West Wing" was a behind the scenes drama of the presidency. The pilot sets up the central narrative dynamic which is that a pair of former writers for the show--Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford)--are convinced (blackmailed, really) to rejoin the show as the producers after the current producer (Judd Hirsch, in a brilliant cameo in the pilot) goes on a tirade on the air about how horrible the show has become. In addition to this narrative dynamic, the pilot sets up a series of very interesting character relationship dynamics.

Chief among these is the relationship between Matt and Danny, who have been creative partners for years (in the pilot they are shown at a Writer's Guild awards dinner, where Matt wins an award). Perry and Whitford make the relationship entirely believable, exchanging repartee and even finishing each others' jokes, as if the two actors really had been together for years. More remarkable, the two actors almost immediately make you forget they ever portrayed the other iconic characters (Chandler Bing on "Friends" for Perry; Josh Lyman on "The West Wing" for Whitford) that they each did for so many years. By midway through the "Studio 60" pilot I was thinking "Chandler Bing and Josh Lyman who?"

This accomplishment on the part of the two men is not to be underestimated. Personally, I thought that the two leads would evoke in my mind their former fictional counterparts way more than they did, which is hardly at all. With Perry, it's been a couple of years since the end of "Friends" but Whitford's "West Wing" ended only this past spring. The fact that they were able to so quickly and effectively draw the contours of their new characters not only bodes well for "Studio 60," it's a mark of how talented these two actors--often not fully respected because of the wisecracking nature of their old characters--really are. At the same time, their "Studio" roles build on the wisecrackery they performed so deftly on their former shows.

Perry and Whitford are hardly the whole show, though. The ensemble they are part of includes Amanda Peet as the charming but charmingly vulnerable new president of "Studio 60"'s TV network (NBS, in a thinly veiled alteration of NBC); a shark-like Steven Weber as her boss, the NBS chairman; Timothy Busfield (newspaper reporter Danny Concannon in "West Wing") as the "Studio 60" director; Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes, the prayerful Christian star of "Studio 60"; and D.L. Hughley as her co-star. Three stellar cameos light up the pilot as well: Felicity Huffman (a Sorkin regular from "Sports Night" and guest spots on "West Wing") as herself, the guest host of the "Studio 60" episode in which Hirsch wigs out; Ed Asner, in a very short appearance, as Weber's boss, the head of the media conglomerate that owns NBS; and Judd Hirsch, who is historically memorable as the "Studio" producer who decides to salvage his integrity at the expense of his job.

The interplay amongst this group of characters shows great promise. Peet's and Weber's characters have a combative relationship; she represents the young turk at the network eager to shake things up and with nothing to lose, while he is a more conservative, more entrenched, less idealistic, and more cutthroat player. Busfield shares a key scene with the network censor during Hirsch's tirade that firmly establishes his character's professionalism as well as his compassion. Paulson as Harriet, the Christian late night comic, is a little strained, but the idea is fascinating and will probably feel a little more natural as the character is fleshed out in coming episodes. Her interaction with the other characters, both as the leader of the fictional show's cast and as the odd woman out in terms of personal sensibility, is interesting. All the more so because of the fact that she is Perry's newly minted ex-girlfriend, which adds yet another interpersonal dynamic. In addition to Harriet's faith, the revelation of Danny's battle with drug addiction and the representation of Peet's character's ambition should prove to be fruitful sources of character and story intrigue.

Just like for the title setting in "The West Wing," "Studio 60" contains a vibrant setting that has a feel all its own. The interior and exterior of the "Studio 60" studio, its Sunset Strip locale, and the offices of NBS are all imbued with a distinctive character that helps provide the context for the character relationships I have outlined above. Although much has been said about this show's and the other new NBC program "30 Rock"'s derivation from "Saturday Night Live," "Studio 60" (the show within the show) maintains a distinctive identity apart from being an "SNL" ripoff. The (fictional) show is celebrating its 20th anniversary season in the pilot, thus establishing a longevity (as well as, through the other plot machinations, a rising and falling fortune) similar to its inspiration.

"Studio 60" has all the classic Sorkin touches we have come to expect: bantering dialogue, sharply drawn characters, remarkable ensemble work, and a distinctive milieu. This series comes with the added value of promotional possibilities that the producers and NBC are sure to exploit: a weekly guest host celebrity and musical group for the show within the show, snippets of the "actual" comedy sketches being prepared or performed for the fictional "Studio 60" program, and the kind of high-profile cameos and appearances by Sorkin regulars found in the pilot. If allowed the time and space it needs and deserves to develop properly, and if NBC doesn't get skittish at ratings numbers that may not immediately be top ranked, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will hopefully be entertaining audiences for years.

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" Links
Official website for "Studio 60" at NBC.com
Mock website for the fictional "Studio 60"
IMDb entry for "Studio 60"
"Studio 60" page on Epguides.com (episode guide)
Links to reviews of "Studio 60" on Metacritic.com

(Photo source: TV.com)


Postscript on "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time"

A few weeks ago, Game Show Network concluded its special series "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," and last week I finished my commentaries on the countdown here on the MediaLog. I would like now to make some final comments on the GSN rankings and on the television genre of game shows in general.

To start off, let me just reiterate (briefly) the remarks I made over the course of the countdown about the problems I saw in it. There were two big issues that I saw that hampered the integrity and value of the rankings. The first of these is the lack of respect shown by the countdown and GSN for the pioneering game shows of the 1950s. The highest ranked of these shows was "What's My Line?" which came in at #14. Although that could have been a few slots higher, it's not a bad ranking; my problem with GSN's treatment of these oldest TV game shows is in the fact that none were treated by showing full episodes. The other big problem I have is the rigging of the countdown to favor either GSN original shows or shows that had reruns airing on the network. There is simply no other explanation for the fact that shows like "Hollywood Showdown" and "Shop Til You Drop" were even on the countdown. And, although maybe (maybe) it's legitimate for "Lingo" to be on the countdown, its #16 ranking is ludicrously high.

So, the entire countdown has little credibility, at least to anyone who cares about this kind of thing. The one value of the whole series is that it presented some obscure game shows unlikely to be seen again (soon, at least) and special episodes of other, more prominent shows. Shows like "3's a Crowd" and "The New Treasure Hunt" are not likely to be seen again, even on GSN. The special episodes included the "Press Your Luck" episode in which a contestant had figured out the game board patterns and manipulated them to win over $100,000; the "Tic Tac Dough" episode with the show's top winning contestant ever; and the episode of "To Tell the Truth" that featured contestant Frank Abignale, the legendary con artist who was the inspiration for the Steven Spielberg film "Catch Me If You Can."

Having reiterated what I think were the chief problems with GSN's countdown of "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," I would like to broaden the scope and ponder a few questions related to the phenomenon of game shows more generally. To begin with, the idea of ranking the greatest game shows begs the question, what makes a game show great? One comment I read online about GSN's countdown is significant: at no time during the several weeks of game show broadcasts was it ever mentioned what the criteria were for selecting the shows, who did the selecting, and so forth, an omission that only makes the countdown more suspect.

What makes a game show great? There are a few key elements, I would hazard. First is innovativeness of the game play and the originality of the show format. If a show is just another retread of a tired idea (fill in your own example), then it's not likely to be too great. However, a new and inventive form of game play that does something original is liable to be great. This is why a show like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," despite its great popularity for a short while, is far from great since it is just a rehash of the big money games of the 1950s (albeit with a lot more money). "The $64,000 Question" has a much more valid claim to greatness as the originator of the big money game show concept (but ranked far lower on GSN's countdown). A show like "What's My Line?" that was the granddaddy of the panel show also has a claim on true greatness.

The next thing that makes a game show great is longevity. A show that lasts a long time, and as a result presumably has a loyal and hardy fan base, is one that is likely great. This is one of the reasons that I was surprised that the top GSN show was "Match Game," which had a run of only several years, ahead of the far greater--and more venerable--"Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy," and "The Price is Right," all of which are still airing with runs of well over twenty years. "Family Feud," with a run now of nearly thirty years, has a similar claim to greatness based on longevity. So does the aforementioned "What's My Line?"

"Wheel," "Jeopardy," and "TPiR" are in my opinion the three greatest game shows of all time, due to the two factors I've just discussed. What elements do these shows have that makes them perenially popular that less successful shows do not have? One key element I think is the host. None of these shows would be the same without their longtime hosts: "Wheel" goes round and round due to Pat Sajak; "Jeopardy" (with all due respect to Art Fleming) is a "Daily Double" due to Alex Trebek; and "TPiR" comes on down due to Bob Barker. The engaging game play of all three is also a factor. "Wheel" is based on the simple game of Hangman; "Jeopardy" takes a simple quiz format and gives it added dimensions due to the game board structure and the requirement for phrasing replies in the form of a question; and "Price is Right" thrives on its variety of interesting pricing games.

These three games are still airing all over America, but the appeal of game shows is certainly not limited to current shows. Older game shows are some of the most popular; what is their appeal? In one respect, game shows are timeless. Watching someone win a car on an old game show from the 1970s can be just as exciting as watching someone win one on today's episode of "TPiR." Especially on a game with engaging game play, there is no reason why it has to be current. On the flip side, it is (for me at least) the datedness of old game shows that is also appealing. Watching a 1950s episode of "What's My Line?" with the old celebrities, the quaint occupations presented, and the simpler game play is highly enjoyable. For the shows of the 1970s, it can be fun to see the goofy fashions, the flashy sets, and the archaic products featured (not to mention Bob Barker with dark hair!).

Finally, why is America so obsessed with game shows in the first place? Part of the American character is the ability to rise in one's station, to become successful, to "make it." Game shows offer a glimpse of normal people winning big and achieving that dream--and doing it without that much effort. With very few exceptions (big money games like "$64,000 Question" and "Millionaire" and more erudite games like "Jeopardy" for example), the games played on game shows are ones that anyone could play and win. One of the most pervasive practices related to game show viewership is the phenomenon of talking back to the TV set, shouting answers to contestants who are not replying the way we'd like them to. We do this because we think that we know better than they do, and if only we were there, we might win big. The American Dream may actually be to win valuable prizes on a television game show.


The MediaLog Movies 100: The 20s

"The MediaLog Movies 100" finally returns after an extended absence to finish the countdown. This installment takes the countdown through the 20s, that is, the films ranked #21-30. The "Movies 100" is not a film by film ranking in precise order, though, but rather groupings of ten films which have no additional breakdown within each group.

The films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, and in the case of foreign films, the country of origin (and English translation where applicable), in parentheses after the title, with the film's director listed after that. This is followed by a brief annotation on the film.

These are not my favorite movies (necessarily) or what I think are the "greatest" movies of all time. They are movies that made an impact on me and my cinematic sensibilities, tempered by considerations of the traditional film "canon" and the conventional wisdom regarding what are the all-time "best" movies.

Soon the "Movies 100" will reach its apex, featuring the Top Ten that all of the blogosphere, not to mention the nonblog world, has been eagerly awaiting. In the meantime, feel free to make comments on the countdown and the films in it.


The MediaLog Movies 100: The 20s

American Beauty (1999) Sam Mendes. Although this popular recent film has gotten some critical backlash, I really like it and think that it is a solid and engaging piece of cinema. An Oscar-winning Kevin Spacey stars as Lester Burnham, a family man who goes through a midlife crisis when he loses his job due to downsizing, discovers his wife (Oscar-nominated Annette Bening) is having an affair, and realizes that his adolescent daughter (Thora Birch) thinks he's creepy. A stellar supporting cast includes Peter Gallagher as Bening's new squeeze, Mena Suvari as the Lolita-like sexually-assertive friend of Birch who Lester apes over, Wes Bentley as the odd next-door neighbor boy that becomes Birch's boyfriend, Chris Cooper and Allison Janney as Bentley's repressed parents, and Scott Bakula as the Burnhams' gay other next door neighbor. Lester's midlife crisis includes getting a carefree job flipping burgers at the local fast food joint, buying a hot rod, pumping iron, and taking up pot smoking with the clandestinely drug-dealing Bentley--all of which apparently makes Lester think he's a teenager again, as he lusts after a secretly virginal Suvari. Wrapped around all this great acting and parent-child conflict are profound themes of stopping to smell the roses, the dangers of unchecked familial dysfunction, and the recognition of beauty in simple, everyday occurances (such as the famous plastic grocery bag blowing in the whirlwind). The film is expertly crafted as well, by director Mendes (in his feature directorial debut), legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall, and screenwriter Alan Ball (all of whom were also Oscar winners). American Beauty, on top of all its other honors, won the Best Picture Academy Award, earning its place as one of the key cultural indicators at the close of the millenium.

Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz. Few films are as well-known or as well-loved as Casablanca. It is the epitome of everything related to the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s and 1940s. It is a great example of studio factory filmmaking, with Warner Bros. staff director Curtiz at the helm and every department of the vast WB production machine contributing to the film's creation. It is a great example of studio-era narrative form and style. And it is a great example of the star system, with Humphrey Bogart as Rick, the proprietor of a nightclub in wartime Casablanca; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa, his old flame that happens to walk into his club "of all the gin joints in all the world"; Sydney Greenstreet as the owner of a competing club; Peter Lorre as a ne'er-do-well playing the expats against the Nazi occupiers; Claude Rains as a corrupt but charming French police captain; Hans Conreid as Lazslo, Ilsa's current flame who is a Norwegian resistance leader; and Dooley Wilson as Sam, who was never asked to "play it again," even though everyone thinks he was. The plot involves Rick's transformation from disinterested expatriate to committed resistance member, as he tries to rekindle his and Ilsa's former romance and make sense of the disintegrating world around him. Casablanca is the source of many famous movie quotes and legendary scenes, as well as the source of great cinematic enjoyment.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964-British) Stanley Kubrick. This is the film that made Kubrick's career. A trenchant black comedy about nuclear annihilation, Dr. Strangelove is a satire on the Cold War, the potential "hot" war that at the time was still a very real possiblity, and on the film genres of the war film and the espionage thriller. Peter Sellers in a remarkable comic performance plays three roles: the farcically-named President Merkin Muffley; a military commander named Lionel Mandrake; and the wickedly funny title character, Dr. Strangelove, a maniacal wheelchair-bound scientist who has created a superweapon called the "Doomsday Machine." This machine is at the center of the black comedic plot as it serves as the ultimate pinnacle of arms race oneupsmanship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (represented deftly by the Soviet ambassador played by Peter Bull). George C. Scott plays the cocky general who gets into an argument with Bull's character as the characters try to avert apocalypse while holed up in the U.S. command bunker. This exchange is the set-up for the line by Sellers' Pres. Muffley that goes down as one of the greatest punchlines in cinema history: as Scott and Bull go at it, Sellers tries to calm them down by shouting, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

The General (1927) Buster Keaton. Along with the next film, Chaplin's The Gold Rush, this Keaton film is often listed as one of the best films ever made and one of the high points of silent film comedy. It's not my favorite Keaton film (that's yet to come in the countdown), but there's no doubt that The General is a masterpiece. Buster plays Johnnie Gray, a Civil War Confederate train engineer (Keaton had a strong love of trains). The title "General" is Johnnie's locomotive, which is stolen by Union troops, causing Johnnie to follow in another train engine in a lengthy chase that is the comic centerpiece of the film. Keaton engineers (pun intended) many sight gags and physical stunts based on the locomotive and railroad setting, including one monumental (and genuine) crash in which two engines collide in the middle of a trestle bridge, sending both vehicles and the bridge itself toppling into the ravine below. The film contains more subtle sequences as well, such as a scene in which Johnnie unwittingly wanders into a Union headquarters house in search of food and ends up learning valuable enemy secrets while hiding under the dining room tablecloth. And there is a love interest, Annabelle Lee, who does not respect Johnnie until he proves his courage through the locomotive chase. Keaton's romantic entanglements were much different than Chaplin's--and "entanglement" might be the best word to describe them; whereas Chaplin's Tramp tended to worship his usually unattainable amours, Keaton tended to not only treat his as functional equals, which he does when Annabelle joins him in attempting to recapture the General, but to actually get the girl at the end of most of his movies, which is the case here.

The Gold Rush (1925) Charles Chaplin. This is my favorite Chaplin film and is also considered by many to be his best and one of the best films of all time. Made at the peak of Chaplin's silent feature career, The Gold Rush has the Tramp in the Yukon with hordes of other prospective prospectors. No gold is struck, although the film is a goldmine of ingenious comic situations. The centerpiece of these is the sequence in which the Tramp and a tall hirsute mining companion are snowed into their ramshackle cabin with scarce provisions. They sit around dreaming of a good meal, and the miner imagines the Tramp as a giant chicken that looks good to eat. Then, in one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema, the Tramp boils his shoe and proceeds to eat it, treating the nails holding the soles to the uppers as if they were chicken bones and the shoelaces as if they were spaghetti. Since the Tramp always gets the short end of the romantic stick, he also meets the beautiful Georgia, a rustic dance hall denizen, and pines away for her even though she is spoken for by a burly brute. The Gold Rush is silent comedy at its zenith, made by one of its greatest practicioners at the top of his form.

M*A*S*H (1970) Robert Altman. Known by most people as the movie precursor to the long-running TV series of the same name, M*A*S*H was many other things as well. First of all, it was the movie that launched Altman, at the time a longtime journeyman TV director with a few obscure features to his credit, into the top tier of American film directors. He capitalized on this film's commercial and critical success to make some of the greatest films of the early-1970s "New Hollywood" movement--including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, and Nashville. Second, M*A*S*H was a potent critique and indictment of the Vietnam War, using the film's setting during the earlier Korean War as a smokescreen to make caustic comments on the nature of warfare. Next, it was an innovator in both filmic content in the new ratings-system era (inaugurated two years earlier with the adoption of the ratings code) and in narrative form with its episodic, meandering structure. Oh, and it was the inspiration and basis for the TV series (which Altman hated) that ran for eleven years and was one of the most popular programs of the 1970s. The story is set at a Korean "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" near the frontlines and chronicles the misadventures of a group of surgeons and nurses who are there to patch up the wounded and save as many as possible from grisly death. Black comic tones seep through the film, as Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliott Gould), Duke (Tom Skerritt), Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), and "Radar" O'Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only movie cast member to reprise his role in the TV series) attempt to stay sane while acting at times insane.

Pulp Fiction (1994) Quentin Tarantino. This is perhaps the charter member of the 1990s fractured-narrative movement that I have discussed in connection with several other films in the Movies 100. John Travolta (in the role that caused his 1990s comeback) and Uma Thurman star in Tarantino's innovative story of gangster intrigue and pop cultural minutiae. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, and Ving Rhames also populate the cast in this narrative that is broken into three asynchronous, interweaving parts. The film's three segments criss-cross their timelines and mix their characters and incidents in such a fashion that the final scene of the film actually (in terms of strict chronology) comes immediately before the film's opening scene. In addition to narrative experimentation for the sake of experimentation, Tarantino engages in this storytelling mixture for thematic reasons. And as with all of his films, the director also includes here a playful soundtrack of 1970s tunes to spice up the cinematic broth.

Sunrise (1927) F.W. Murnau. Sunrise is the film that by conventional wisdom represents the peak of silent film artistry, and for those that appreciate the lost art of silent cinema, it is a sight to behold. The film begins as a love triangle between a farmer husband (George O'Brien), his simple and plain wife (Janet Gaynor), and a woman "from the city" (Margaret Livingston) who has seduced the man. The city woman convinces him to return to the city with her, but encourages him to murder his wife first. The man takes his wife out in a rowboat with the intent of capsizing the boat in an apparent accident that will cause her drowning death. When they get out on the water, though, he has a change of heart, although he frightens his wife greatly. As he pleads for forgiveness, they proceed to the city without the city woman, and while there they spend a day renewing their romance. They ride the trolley, peek in on a wedding, get their portrait taken, enjoy a meal, and stroll through the city streets, all the while realizing their love. On the return trip to the farm on their rowboat, a storm comes up and threatens their life, causing the man to save his love and the city woman to stalk off in defeat. I was lucky enough to see this film several times (on the big screen with live pipe organ accompaniment, no less) while an undergraduate student, as my film professor and mentor was a dedicated silent cinemaphile and film restorationist. The education I received as I was exposed to the many silent films that he presented to his classes is priceless, and Sunrise is near the top of the list of silent cinema masterpieces that I would never have fallen in love with had it not been for him.

Thelma and Louise (1991) Ridley Scott. This story of female empowerment was one that I saw when it was initially released to theatres in a period of my life when I had just started to study film. In that context, it made a powerful impression on me and helped me to begin to understand how to analyze cinema and appreciate its artistry. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are a feminine odd couple (Louise is neat and methodical, Thelma is an impulsive mess) who are best friends and who are both stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships. On a whim, they abandon their mates for a girl's weekend, only the weekend goes awry when Thelma accidentally kills a would-be rapist in self-defense. They go on the lam as cop Harvey Keitel leads the posse that pursues them and their men (a comically uptight Christopher MacDonald for Thelma and a studly Michael Madsen for Louise) fret about their whereabouts. As the two women get more and more desperate they get more and more liberated: Thelma has an irresponsible jump in the hay with country boy Brad Pitt (in a star-making turn in his first big role), Louise loosens up (relatively speaking), and the two explosively confront a lecherous trucker who has been ogling them. As Thelma and Louise's options get slimmer, the expansive Southwest desert setting gets more stark, their spirits get freer, a sympathetic Keitel's posse gets closer, and the women get a final release from their predicament in a remarkable (and somewhat controversial) ending to the film.

Touch of Evil (1958) Orson Welles. Citizen Kane, of course, is considered Welles' greatest film, but this one often comes in second. It's a tale of border town intrigue, as Welles portrays the corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, while Charlton Heston is Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas who has just married American Janet Leigh. Touch of Evil is famous for its opening shot, a tracking, arcing, craning, continuous shot of several minutes in length that follows Heston and Leigh as they cross the U.S.-Mexican border only to witness a car bomb explosion. Vargas begins to investigate the crime and uncovers not only a drug dealing hotbed in the form of the Grandi crime family, but deep-seated corruption on the part of Welles' character. A number of significant supporting parts fill out the cast: Marlene Dietrich (in one of her last roles) plays the madam of the local brothel who is an old flame of Quinlan's; Akim Tamiroff is "Uncle" Joe Grandi, the leader of the crime family; Mercedes McCambridge is a terrorizing gang member; Ray Collins is the local D.A.; Joseph Calleia is Quinlan's partner who is disillusioned by his friend's corruption; and Dennis Weaver plays a motel clerk whose creepiness is second only to Psycho's Norman Bates. In many circles, this is also considered to be the last significant original film noir. The film certainly has a gritty yet artful visual style, as the harsh contrasts of night and day, Mexican side and American side, corruption and integrity are all dramatized and visualized to potent effect. Whether or not Touch of Evil is Welles' second best film, it is definitely the last great film he ever made.


And the Number One Game Show of All Time Is....

The #1 game show of all time according to Game Show Network's "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time" is.... Since the top game was announced two weeks ago, if you care you likely know already by now. The MediaLog has been on hiatus since then, so I'm only now getting around to commenting on the top six game shows.

Prior to the final week of GSN's countdown, I made a prediction as to what the top six shows would be. I predicted that they would be "Family Feud," "Match Game," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," "The Price is Right," "Jeopardy," and "Wheel of Fortune," with the last three as the top three, and any one of those three potentially landing the top spot. As it turns out, I was totally right on which shows would make up the top six, totally off on what the sequencing would be.

Since the countdown is long over--not to mention the fact that these final six game shows are well-known and don't require great explanation--I am going to dispense with detailed discussion of the game play and format of these shows. Rather, I am going to indulge in something I have been doing in small doses throughout my commentaries: point out where I think GSN got it all wrong!

The number six game show was "Wheel of Fortune." I honestly thought that this would very likely be the number one game, so I was a little shocked to see it at this rank. Further, GSN did not air an episode of the venerable and monumentally popular show (presumably because they did not have the rights). "Wheel" was the highest rated syndicated television show in American for something like fifteen years running. It became a cultural touchstone in the mid-1980s, at the height of its popularity, when (for some godforsaken reason) letter-turner Vanna White reached superstardom. I've never cared much for "Wheel" but it probably should have been the number one game show.

Number five was "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," the juggernaut turn-of-the-millenium show hosted by Regis Philbin. I always thought "Millionaire" was a little overrated, and so I find its position in the top five to be unfortunate. There's no question the show was hugely popular for about two years, and it remains a top syndicated show (hosted in that version by Meredith Vieira). But--is it really a greater show than, for example, the longtime (now over twenty years running) "Wheel of Fortune"?

"The Price is Right" was the number four greatest game show of all time. I thought that this too might have landed the top spot, but GSN did not even show an episode of it. I guess almost thirty-five years as the most popular game show ever on daytime television, cult status in the minds and hearts of a few generations of young people, and what is perhaps the most interesting and versatile game play of any game ever isn't enough to get it any higher than number four.

The number three game was "Family Feud." "Feud" has become almost as venerable as "TPiR," even if it has done so in fits and starts with several different hosts and iterations. Believe it or not, "Feud" this fall celebrates its 30th anniversary, although it has not been on continously, leaving the air for a few years in the mid-1980s then for a few more in the late-1990s. I don't have a big problem with this ranking for the show, except for the fact that it puts "Feud" ahead of "Wheel" and "TPiR," two shows which are clearly greater.

The runner-up game show was "Jeopardy," also a venerable show that in its current version with host Alex Trebek has been on the air for over twenty years (in addition to the original version's eleven years). This is the only of my predicted top three that actually ended up in the top three. Its ranking is justified and absolutely right. The problem that I have here is the fact that GSN did not show an episode of it.

Now, GSN's use of voiceover and still photo treatment in lieu of airing an episode for a great many of the game shows in the "50 Greatest" has been one of my biggest complaints about the countdown. It's simply unfortunate that many of these great game shows were not given proper respect by showing a complete episode. If a show is great enough to make the top fifty of all time, isn't it great enough to show an episode of?

The underlying issue, of course, is that GSN did not have the rights to show some of the shows in their countdown, and I understand and appreciate that. If the choice was between having shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" in the countdown, but only with a voiceover because rights to show an episode could not be secured, and not having these shows in the countdown at all, then it's better to feature them with only a voiceover. In some cases, though, it seems like GSN just didn't try hard enough. Take, for example, a show like "The $64,000 Question." I know that there are at both excerpts and at least one full episode extant of the show, so wouldn't GSN want to make every effort possible to try to show at least a clip of it on their countdown? Apparently not (which points up my other big complaint with the countdown, that it did not give proper respect to the pioneering game shows of the 1950s).

There should, however, have been no reason why GSN couldn't have shown an episode of "Jeopardy." They air the program currently on their daytime schedule, so getting the rights couldn't have been an issue. For some reason, the dubious executives or programmers who made the decisions about the rankings and episode choices (or choices not to show episodes) made the determination that the game show that is legitimately the 2nd best of all time did not deserve to have an episode shown.

The #1 greatest game show of all time, according to these same executives and programmers, was "Match Game." I like "Match Game." I occasionally watch "Match Game" on GSN. I enjoy as much as anyone the goofy celebrity interplay and sharp sexual innuendo of the show. Gene Rayburn is unquestionably among the best game show hosts of all time, and the show would not have been the same show without him. I predicted that "Match Game" would in fact be one of the top six shows in the GSN countdown, a relatively lofty perch that the game deserves. But number one?

My beef here is not based on whether or not "Match Game" should or should not be considered the best game show of all time. My beef is that there are at least three games ("TPiR," "Wheel," and "Jeopardy") that are greater. Number four, behind these other three, would have been just fine for "Match Game." Here's my theory: throughout the countdown, GSN jerryrigged it with their original shows (seriously, what the hell is "Hollywood Showdown" doing in the fifty best game shows of all time?) and shows that they are currently airing reruns of (such as "Blockbusters" and, indeed, "Match Game"). Several of the lower rankings were filled easily and unthinkingly with GSN original shows which they didn't have to worry about getting rights to. Although most of these no longer air on GSN, the ludicrously high ranking for "Lingo" (#16) can only be interpreted as a promotion for the show, since it still airs regularly. GSN's main interest (surprise, surprise) does not seem to have been formulating what might have been seen as a legitimate countdown with integrity, but rather self-promotion in the form of rigging the countdown to highlight shows that in one form or another are on the network's current schedule.

Which sheds a lot of light on the number one position for "Match Game." "Match Game" is GSN's favorite vintage game show right now, and the network promotes it to the exclusion of most other vintage shows (they bill the hour of "Match Game" episodes as the "Seventies Hour," even though "Match Game" is the only show that ever airs under that billing). And these are the reasons why "Match Game" is the so-called number one game show of all time.


The Popular Culture of 9/11: A Look Back and a Current Assessment on the 5th Anniversary (Part 2)

This article is dedicated to the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001.

Everyone copes with tragedy in their own way. I am a student of media history and popular culture, and so part of how I cope with tragedy (as well as many other things) is by attempting to understand it through the prisms of media history and popular culture. And so, as we recognize the 5th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I offer this analysis of how the tragedy has been reflected in American popular culture.


Historically, it has usually taken some time for American popular culture to begin to deal directly with an event, especially a traumatic one, in fictional form. The first motion pictures dealing with the Vietnam War in a substantive fashion did not appear until several years after the end of our nation's involvement in that conflict. The same has proven to be true with 9/11. It is only this spring and summer, in the lead up to this week's 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, that the tragedy has begun to appear on American movie screens.

Attempts to treat 9/11 in fictional form remain fraught with controversy. The ABC miniseries "The Path to 9/11" that aired Sunday night and last night is the most immediate example of this. I did not view the program, but Clinton admininstration officials, as well as the former president himself, protested and submitted petitions to ABC objecting to what they say are the broadcast's inaccuracies regarding the Clinton White House's supposed missteps in the months and years prior to the attacks. Although the network reportedly re-edited some scenes, it disregarded calls to cancel the broadcast of the miniseries and it aired as scheduled.

The two motion pictures that have so far dealt directly with the attacks, "United 93" (which came out this past April in theatres and just last week on home video) and "World Trade Center" (which came out in theatres last month), have also not been free of controversy. Some minor uproar surfaced when the trailers for "United 93" started to play in theatres to audiences unprepared for the intensity of the action therein. Fear of renewed anti-Muslim sentiments also accompanied the film's release, and the portrayal of one German passenger urging appeasement with the hijackers was thought inaccurate and potentially inciteful.

The fact that the director of "World Trade Center" was the famously controversial Oliver Stone did nothing to allay fears of misrepresentation or even of the dramatization of 9/11 conspiracy theories in the film. (The general consensus, though, which I agree with, is that the film is one of Stone's most restrained. The only group dismayed by Stone's directorial performance are the 9/11 conspiracy theorists who are upset that he didn't include such speculative material.) Some of the families of victims portrayed are reported as being upset with the very existence of the film (although the families and real life counterparts of the two main characters, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, cooperated fully and support the film).

The two films, "United 93" and "World Trade Center," are very different and yet they share one key characteristic: they are both hopeful stories of 9/11. "United 93" is about the only of the four planes on which the terrorists' goal was thwarted. Due to the fact that it was the last to be hijacked, the passengers of United 93 were able to learn of the earlier attacks and prevent the plane from hitting its target, the U.S. Capitol. "World Trade Center" is about two of the very few people (only twenty total) who were rescued from the rubble of the WTC. That the filmmakers in each case (as well as the studios releasing the films) chose these stories to tell says a lot about the state of popular culture in relation to 9/11. The subject matter in general is still volatile enough that telling these kinds of hopeful stories is one way of appealing to audiences and mitigating potential controversy.

Although both films are naturally intense, "United 93" is probably the more intense of the two, due to the fact that the bulk of the action claustrophobically takes place on board the title plane. Director Paul Greengrass utilizes handheld camerawork throughout pretty much all of the airplane scenes, which further destabilizes the imagery. "United 93" is populated by mostly unknown actors, which helps to make it seem more documentary-like in nature (since there are no movie stars with which to identify). Besides the on board sequences (which make up the last third of the film exclusively), there are scenes showing the activity in both the national civilian air traffic control center and the NORAD military air control center, as both track all four hijackings and come to realize separately what is happening. As a result, the unfortunate lack of coordination between the civilian and military air authorities serves as a subtle theme in the film.

In contrast, after the sequence in which the twin towers collapse on top of the Port Authority police officers that are its central characters, "World Trade Center" becomes almost a minimalist drama of small gestures and big hopes. The two officers portrayed by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena are for most of the film trapped in the rubble, pinned under large slabs of concrete. The two actors' performances under these circumstances are rather remarkable since they consist almost completely of relatively subtle eye and mouth movements. More activity occurs in the scenes featuring the two officers' families (which are intercut with the scenes under the rubble) than occurs with the officers themselves. If there's anything to criticize about "World Trade Center" its that the film gets a little melodramatic during and after the rescue of the two men, although given the timing and the subject this is perhaps understandable.

The most hopeful thing about "World Trade Center" is in the dramatization of the selflessness of the rescuers. The theme of goodness and civility in the face of great tragedy and disaster runs deep in the film. The rescue of John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena) is not just a hopeful story but an example of the many, many, often lesser but still important acts of kindness between strangers that took place not just in New York City and Washington, but all over America on September 11, 2001. For a short time (too short), America was a different place, sadder to be sure, but in some ways better. If only the instincts that were shown that day and week could have been preserved and extended.

One of the things that "World Trade Center" and "United 93" do for probably most viewers is serve as reminders of what happened on 9/11. For those of us that were not directly involved in the attacks, know no one that perished, and have never lived in NYC or DC, these films make powerful impressions that remind us of the human toll of that day. We need reminding. Undoubtedly, there will be in the future more films, more treatments in the popular culture of the horrific events of 9/11. None of them will be as immediate and emotional as the first Letterman shows after the attack or the celebrity-studded benefit telethon shortly afterwards. Now several years removed from the events, they will not be as subtle as the baseball uniform patches and background set decorations of those first few months. Gestures such as Bono's flag-lined jacket and Springsteen's potent anthems would now be drained of meaning. And not all future fictional treatments of the attacks will offer hopeful stories such as "United 93" and "World Trade Center." But 9/11 is now part of American popular culture and of American culture in general, so we will continue to see it reflected in the products of our culture.

In the end, five years and counting since the tragedies of 9/11, it is perhaps this role that popular culture can serve in regards to the attacks: to remind us of what happened that day and to keep the emotions of that day alive in us. Not for reasons of vengeance or for reasons of nationalism, but for reasons of humanity, to make sure we remember the good that people are capable of under the most horrible conditions of duress and disaster. If we can find a way, some way, to keep at the forefront of our lives the impulse towards true civility and the instinct towards true kindness regarding our fellow men and women, then those that died and suffered on 9/11 will not have done so in vain. Popular culture, created and used in this fashion, might be one way to realize that need.


"9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of. The evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out the goodness we forgot could exist. People taking care of each other for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. It's important for us to talk about that good, to remember...."

--Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin in "World Trade Center"


The Popular Culture of 9/11: A Look Back and a Current Assessment on the 5th Anniversary (Part 1)

This article is dedicated to the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001.

Everyone copes with tragedy in their own way. I am a student of media history and popular culture, and so part of how I cope with tragedy (as well as many other things) is by attempting to understand it through the prisms of media history and popular culture. And so, as we recognize the 5th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, I offer this analysis of how the tragedy has been reflected in American popular culture.


On the morning of September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, one plane hitting each tower. Not long after, another plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Later that morning, the two WTC towers collapsed in a thunderous quake that shook not only the island of Manhattan, but also the entirety of the American nation.

We soon learned that the planes were hijacked by terrorists belonging to an international terror organization called al-Qaida, which was based in Afghanistan and led by the nefarious Osama bin Laden. We learned that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was supposed to be flown into the U.S. Capitol and failed in that goal only because passengers learned of the earlier crashes and courageously fought back against the terrorists. We also learned that the attacks were orchestrated to disrupt American commerce and government and inflict the maximum possible symbolic damage, with the physical destruction, including the thousands of deaths, merely a corollary to that goal.

Unfortunately, the terrorists succeeded in disrupting American life, at least temporarily. Airports were closed and airplanes grounded countrywide for nearly a week after the attacks. A siege mentality gripped the nation for a week or two in the tragedy's aftermath, as the uncertainty of what was happening and the spectre of potential follow-up attacks led some citizens to stockpile food, gasoline, and emergency supplies. Businesses, national landmarks, and schools across the land either closed for a few days or witnessed drastic alterations to their normal routines.

In New York and Washington, the circumstances were more dire. Washingtonians lived for days (if not weeks, and to a certain extent still do) realizing that their home was now a giant target for those who sought to destroy America. (I have a friend who lives in DC and has often referred since to his city as the "Big Bullseye.") New York City, where the destruction was more severe and widespread, sifted through the rubble of the WTC and saved precious few of the thousands who were trapped. NYC leaders, especially Mayor Rudy Guiliani, responded compassionately, resourcefully, and effectively. Although death tolls were thought initially to surpass 5,000, the final count was in the vicinity of 3,000--still 3,000 too many.

All of the above is well-known, and I recount it to refresh our memories of the context of what happened on 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath. Although much less important, the entertainment and popular culture that Americans enjoy so much was also affected by the attacks of 9/11. This article (in two parts, today and tomorrow) will analyze and discuss the effects of 9/11 on American popular culture. The remainder of this part will discuss popular culture in the immediate and short-term aftermath of the attacks; tomorrow's installment will look at more recent 9/11-related developments, including discussions of this year's two motion pictures on the attacks, "United 93" and "World Trade Center."

Although news coverage of the attacks is outside the purview of this article, I cannot proceed without at least mentioning the role that the news media played in the days following the attacks. Similar to how network television news came of age with the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and how cable televsion news came of age with the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Internet news coverage matured on September 11, 2001. Although television news (network and cable) remained the primary means by which Americans learned of the attacks and followed the aftermath, most people supplemented that viewing with news updates, in-depth reportage, and images found on the websites of TV networks and print periodicals. For those interested in revisiting this online coverage, there is a detailed and fascinating archive of all forms of news reportage from 9/11 called "September 11 News.com." (In addition to the archive of webpages from 9/11/01, the site has screen grabs from news coverage and facsimiles of the front pages of dozens of newspapers and magazines from that day and the days following.)

Some Americans even first learned of the terrorist attacks through online means. I happen to be one of these people. Like everyone, I will never forget how I first found out about 9/11: I was chatting with a friend through instant messaging. As I did many mornings that fall, I woke up and logged onto my chat service. A regular chat friend IM'd me and asked me if I had heard about the attacks. I had not, and after a short briefing from my chat buddy, I turned on the TV set and switched my news consumption to more traditional forms.

My experience is probably not unique; the significance of it lies in the new prominance of online forms of communication. I come from a large extended family, several members of whom live in the NYC and DC areas. Not long before 9/11, a family web group had been started, and that day it was busy with messages both from those who lived near the attacks letting the family know that they were alright and from those expressing concern about their safety. These personal anecdotes of mine serve simply as examples of how 9/11 caused online communication to become a force in American popular culture.

To the greatest extent, in the days immediately following 9/11, most forms of American entertainment and popular culture came to a halt. Movie theatres, if they were open at all, sat largely empty. Broadway plays stopped performances and left their marquees dark in tribute to the victims in their city. Every major sports league cancelled games for a number of days. TV's Emmy awards, scheduled for a few days after the attacks, were postponed--twice, after the attacks and then again when the rescheduled date fell only a day or two after the retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan in early-October. Television networks of all kinds suspended regular programming in favor of news coverage of the tragedies. Even non-news channels carried news coverage from sister networks; MTV and VH1, for example, carried CBS news coverage (all three owned by parent company Viacom). When regular programming did resume after a few days, some programs did not return until several days later.

Perhaps the most well-known and respected return to normalcy was that of "The Late Show with David Letterman." Letterman's first broadcast after the attacks, on September 17, has become almost as historic as the news coverage of the tragedies. The normal opening credits sequence and raucous band fanfare was replaced with the simple image of an American flag that dissolved to an already-seated Letterman. The host then gave a heartfelt and emotional noncomic monologue in which he expressed dismay and disbelief at the attacks, expressed on behalf of New Yorkers the palpable sadness that permeated the city, and stated that that he needed to hear himself talk for a while if the show and those of subsequent nights were to continue. Letterman's two guests that night added to the show's solemn yet determined tone. Then-CBS News anchor Dan Rather wept as he tried to discuss the attacks. Regular guest Regis Philbin served as he often did for Letterman, as the amiable foil to Letterman's now-guarded repartee.

Once television and popular culture in all its forms returned to activity, small and sometimes subtle tributes to 9/11 could be found. Television programs featured muted signs of respect to the fallen, usually in the form of an "FDNY" or "NYPD" t-shirt or logo in the background, or similar such touches. For the remainder of the baseball season, the uniforms of major league baseball players from all teams sported a tribute patch (seen in the image at the beginning of this article). In other places, the attacks affected plans for future entertainment. Perhaps the most publicized example of this was with the teaser movie poster for "Spiderman" (to come out in summer '02); a planned poster featuring Spidey slinging his webs between the twin towers was recalled in the wake of the tragedy.

Popular recording artists responded in a number of ways to the terrorist attacks. The most high-profile example of this--an endeavor for which the popular music community was joined by the major television networks--was the telethon entitled "America: A Tribute to Heroes" that was broadcast on September 21, a mere ten days after 9/11. In a historic show of support, all the major networks simulcast the program, which included the participation of many actors presenting pledge-drive style appeals in between musical performances. Actors included George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, and Julia Roberts. Musicians included Stevie Wonder, U2, Faith Hill, Neil Young, Billy Joel, Limp Bizkit, Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Celine Dion, and Bruce Springsteen, who penned a new song, "My City of Ruins," for the broadcast and fundraising effort.

Additional efforts by recording artists followed in the months after 9/11. In the summer of 2002, Springsteen released a concept album called "The Rising" that expanded upon "My City of Ruins" and featured several songs that were inspired by the events of 9/11. Earlier in 2002, U2 offered a 9/11 tribute as part of their Super Bowl halftime performance. While U2 sang "MLK" and "Where the Streets Have No Name," the names of the victims of 9/11 were projected on a scrim behind the band (seen in the picture) and lead singer Bono dramatically revealed the American flag lining of his trademark leather jacket. While these tributes were liberal leaning, country music performers provided their own, more conservative tributes. Toby Keith released the song "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)," while Alan Jackson offered the more restrained "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."

All of the 9/11-inspired pop culture that I have discussed thus far are very specific songs or events. A more generalized and vague effect followed the attacks as well. For some time after 9/11, engagement in entertainment and popular culture by fans was muted and restrained. Relishing in the tabloid details of celebrities' lives or enjoying the frivolity of mindless entertainment were thought in many cases to be inappropriate in light of the horror of the attacks. There was some chatter in the media about the "death of irony" in American mass culture, and the signalling of a shift in sensibilities on the part of large segments of the audience. These ideas turned out to be mere speculation on the part of media wags rather than reality in the lives of viewers or changes in strategy on the part of producers. One more substantive shift in media habits was the phenomenon of "cocooning" in which people opted to stay at home and watch television or rent DVDs in lieu of going out of the house for public entertainments, especially in those cities or areas where it was, in the months immediately following 9/11, sometimes still potentially hazardous to do so.

As far as a lasting effect on American popular culture, 9/11 faded from memory for the most part. Eventually, world events shifted away from the immediate concern for the terrorist threat and the changes it wrought on society. American entertainment did proceed with new movies and TV programs, new music and fads. The chief lingering legacy of 9/11 on American popular culture lies in the ways in which the story of that day has begun to be told in the various forms of media. Part two of this article tomorrow will discuss these ways with an emphasis on the movies "United 93" and "World Trade Center."


MediaLog Takes a Holiday: Back in Business on Sep. 11

MediaLoggers need a vacation, too! The MediaLog is taking a week-long break for Labor Day. There will be no new postings between today and Monday, September 11. On that day, regular postings will resume.

As a result, the final commentaries on Game Show Network's "50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time" as well as the final tiers of the MediaLog Movies 100 will not appear until after Sept. 11. Of course, many other things will also appear after that, and here are a few previews of upcoming attractions for the autumn:

Immediately upon returning from holiday, the MediaLog will have a special feature commemorating the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on NYC and Washington entitled "The Popular Culture of 9/11: A Look Back and a Current Assessment on the Fifth Anniversary." Shortly after that, a brand new regular feature called "The MediaLog Weekend MediaScape" will debut; it will be posted on most Fridays and will consist of a round-up of information regarding the coming weekend's media highlights, including TV and new movie recommendations, new DVD and CD releases for the following Tuesday, a summary of significant media and entertainment news from the week ending, and a few other fun elements. Later in the fall, a multi-part series of posts on the early history of the comic strip "Peanuts," the MediaLog Music 25 (a countdown similar to the Movies 100, only on rock music albums), and other fascinating articles will appear.

If you are a new reader (and even if you are not), please feel free to use the Labor Day hiatus to explore the old postings in the MediaLog archive, and/or leave comments or send e-mail to me, Chris the MediaLogger. When the MediaLog resumes, you might just decide to come back and see what's new!


MediaLog MediaBrief: "USA Today" Wonders Which Media You Would Choose Now

"Not Your Father's Television" Dept.--Today the website for "USA Today" featured a tech article entitled "If you wanted to watch 'Superman,' which media would you choose now?" Written by Kevin Maney, one of the newspaper's tech writers who has a pretty good regular column, the article wonders which new forms of media are gaining favor in the hearts and minds of audiences.

"The movie industry is locked in debate about how to lure people out to theaters," starts Maney, but such debate is nothing new. The movie industry engaged in it in the early-1950s when commercial television became widespread, then again in the late-1970s and early-1980s when the same thing happened in regards to cable TV and home video. The difference now is that the choices of media that users face (as well as the variety of places they can use them) are much more diverse than just a box in one's living room. This diversity is the topic of the remainder of Maney's piece.

There is "a deeper trend at work" Maney states.
"It suggests that high-definition DVDs such as Blu-ray and HD DVD will not catch fire with consumers soon; that theatrical live concerts by bands such as U2 will only get more popular; and that live sports on cellphones could be a huge hit."
All of these suggestions sound spot on to me.

Although I have not looked into the technical details of it, I am unimpressed by the industry's entire high-def DVD initiative. This has nothing to do with whether or not the format (either of them) has great images or a quality superior to current DVDs; I have no doubt that they do. The problem is that it has only been half a decade since DVD emerged as the new mainstream home video format of choice for the mainstream audience. There's no way most people are going to (or be able to afford to) convert to another new format so soon. Nearly twenty years elapsed between the emergence of home video tapes and VCRs and the emergence of DVD, making many consumers ready to replace old equipment and worn out tapes anyways in the past several years. It's too soon for another transition in format.

The other issue--and I'm talking about mainstream audiences and consumers here, not videophiles or gadget aficionados--is that HD DVD does not represent the same radical leap in image quality and ease of use represented in the leap from analog magnetic video to digital DVD. Given the other factors I have mentioned, the improvement in image and audio quality going from VHS to DVD was significant (even to the mainstream). The ease of use with DVDs compared to VHS was also much greater, what with instant access to scenes, menu navigation, and the capability for extra features (not to mention the elimination of the pesky need to rewind tapes). What similar advances would consumers get from HD DVDs? A sharper image, probably even a dramatically sharper image. That alone is unlikely to be enough to get millions to invest millions in new machines and discs.

The other suggestions Maney makes seem about right too. Live concerts are an experience that cannot be reproduced in any form of recorded media. Ultimately, watching a movie at home--especially on the home theatre systems that are now available--is not that different from watching a movie in a movie theatre. A live concert is vastly different from either a digital recording (whether on CD or MP3 or its equivalent) or watching a concert DVD. It's not an accident that Maney includes the clause that concerts by bands "such as U2" are going to become more and more popular: just like in the movie business, its mainly the blockbuster music acts that have prospered in recent years. The other suggestion, that watching live sports on cellphones will be a future trend, seems like a shoo-in. Mobile video of all kinds is the vanguard media breakthrough, and watching live sports on a cellphone will probably be the 21st century equivalent of walking around listening to the game on a transistor radio.

All of these developments, says Maney, are related to fidelity, and the main trade-off that consumers have always weighed when it comes to media is fidelity vs. convenience.
"As fidelity gets more convenient, consumers constantly re-evaluate their choices. At certain moments, the trend crosses a threshold. Fidelity gets good enough in a package that's significantly more convenient, and consumers rush in. That often leaves older formats struggling to hold on to customers."
In other words, it is terribly inconvenient to go to the trouble and expense of going to an event like a football game or a rock concert but the level of fidelity--the quality of the experience, the presence of live performers or athletes, in addition to being part of a teeming, cheering crowd--is unmatched. On the other hand, compared to seeing a movie in a movie theatre, it is so convenient, and comparably inexpensive to boot, just to stay home and watch a movie--with not as great of a drop in fidelity. After predictions of the imminent demise of the movie theatre during the introduction of television and then cable and home video, this might finally be the era of media transformation when it actually happens.


The Lower Half of the Top Ten Greatest Game Shows of All Time

Game Show Network's "The 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time" cracked the Top Ten last week with the #10 through #7 game shows. The remainder of the countdown, including what GSN thinks is the greatest game show of all time, can be seen tonight, tomorrow night, and Thursday night, at 10 pm EST/9 pm CST.

Number ten is the venerable and pathbreaking "The Dating Game." The granddaddy of all dating game shows and blind date shows that have come since (including its companion show "The Newlywed Game," "Blind Date," and MTV's "Singled Out"), "The Dating Game" was arguably the first game show to be directed at the young adult market that became so prominent in the 1960s. Running in its original version from 1965-73 with several revivals stretching almost right up to the present, it was, like several of the games on GSN's countdown, from the twisted mind of producer Chuck Barris.

The "Dating Game" game play, such as it was, was simple: three bachelors sat on the other side of a divider so that a "bachelorette" could not see them and be influenced by their looks. She then asked them questions (of a sometimes racy, sometimes silly nature) in order to ascertain which of the three she'd like to have a date with. She made her selection, and the two were presented with the ubiquitous "parting gifts" and told what form their date would take. Less often, the gender roles were reversed, with a bachelor quizzing and then choosing from three bachelorettes.

The episode featured in the countdown was a legendary 1978 show hosted by Jim Lange, who hosted all versions of the game through the end of the 1970s. It was legendary because one of the bachelors was comic Andy Kaufman, posing as a clueless suitor in the persona of his "foreign man," shortly before it would be mutated into the character Latka Gravas on the sitcom "Taxi" and he would become better known. As a result, the first part of the episode basically became a Kaufman comedy bit, as he spoke in his high-pitched, vaguely-Eastern European accent and pretended to be a little befuddled at the proceedings, all to the great amusement of the audience and the genuine disorientation of Lange. Supposedly Kaufman (going by a bogus name) was dragooned at the last minute as a replacement bachelor by being pulled off the street, propagating his schtick unbeknownst to the producers of the show; this seems highly unlikely, as they would be unlikely to install such an unpredictable loose cannon as a contestant. More likely is the idea that Barris, ever the prankster and eager to mess with the conventions of television and the propriety of viewers, knew of Kaufman's work ("Taxi" would premiere later that same year, and Kaufman would have been featured in "Saturday Night Live" and other TV appearances around or before this episode) and purposely put him on as a plant without anyone else connected to the "Dating Game" even knowing about it. That certainly sounds like somethng Chuck Barris would do.

Number nine is "The Dating Game"'s companion show and fellow Barris creation "The Newlywed Game." The premise to this show, which was hosted by perennial game show host Bob Eubanks and aired from 1966-74 on ABC and in the late-1970s in syndication, was that people who dated eventually (sometimes) got married and that their new status could be the source of ribald laughs. The exact nature of "Newlywed"'s game play set a template for a number of husband-and-wife-centered games that followed, including "Three's a Crowd," "He Said, She Said," and "Tattle Tales." One set of spouses remained on stage while the other was sequestered backstage; Eubanks asked the on-stage spouses questions designed in many cases to elicit sexually-construed replies, then the other set of spouses returned and had to match their mate's answers in order to score points. The episode featured in the countdown was the famous one in which Eubanks asked one wife what unusual place that she and hubby had made whoopee--her answer: "In the [bleeped] ass."

Naturally, I have a couple of grouses about GSN's selection of "Dating Game" and "Newlywed Game." First, although it is hilarious to behold, the Kaufman episode of "Dating Game" is hardly a typical episode of the show, and thus does not give a very good sense of it. GSN has done this sort of thing in a couple of other cases in the countdown, such as with "Press Your Luck" for which they aired the two-part episode in which contestant Michael Larson manipulated the game board to win over $100,000. On one hand, it's great to see these atypical episodes, but on the other hand, they are not representative of the game play and the dynamics of a show that caused it to be ranked among the 50 best of all time. My other grouse with "Dating Game" and "Newlywed Game" is simply their placement. Both are influential shows, but I don't think they deserve to be in the Top Ten. A good ten slots lower would probably be more appropriate.

Coming in at #8 in the countdown are Dick Clark's "Pyramid" shows. This series of games had different prefixes over the years, starting with "$10,000 Pyramid" in 1973, then increasing to "$20,000," "$25,000," "$50,000," and even "$100,000" (in a mid-1980s syndicated version) over the years. The newest version, a syndicated revival hosted by Donny Osmond, entitled simply "Pyramid," was on a few years ago.

The game play centered on the title polyhedron. Two pairs with a celebrity and a noncelebrity each competed in a couple of initial rounds in which they chose topics where one gave a succession of clues and the other had to guess the category that those clues fit into. The winning pair from these rounds went on to a final timed round in which the celebrity gave clues for a procession of six topics arranged in a pyramid shape. Each topic was higher on the pyramid, and if the contestant finished the entire pyramid of topics they won whichever sum was in the show's title at that juncture.

Two episodes were shown in the countdown. The first was a "$20,000 Pyramid" episode with Billy Crystal that included a clip from an earlier, now-lost episode in which Crystal helped a contestant win the big money in record time. The other episode was from the "$100,000 Pyramid" era with LeVar Burton.

The final show featured in last week's portion of the "50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time," the #7 show, was "Let's Make a Deal." Monty Hall famously wheeled and dealed in this prize show in which costumed contestants either accepted a prize offered by Hall or traded it for a chance (they hoped) at winning something far greater and more expensive. The appeal of the game was in the uncertainty of whether or not the prize traded for would in fact be better (as often as not, it was not), in addition to the playful way that the entire proceedings were conducted.

"Let's Make a Deal" introduced into the popular vernacular the idea of "seeing what is behind curtain #1" (or 2 or 3), as the biggest prizes (such as cars) were concealed behind drapes on the studio stage. Smaller prizes such as grocery items or small appliances or electronics were brought on trays by announcer and Hall sidekick Jay Stewart right out into the audience, where Stewart described them and Hall appealed simultaneously to a contestant's sense of greed and sense of thrift. Sometimes what was behind those curtains was not a car or similarly large-scale prize but what in the terminology of "Deal" was referred to as a "zonk." These were worthless prizes usually dressed up with humourous props and/or Stewart in a goofy costume.

Goofy costumes were not originally part of the formula of "Let's Make a Deal" when it premiered in 1963. The game was designed to be a simple trading game along the basic parameters that it kept throughout. But about a year into the series contestants (who could be anyone in the studio audience) began to dress in outlandish get-ups (anything from Little Bo Peep costumes to wearing a box made to look like a stoplight) to get Hall's attention and hopefully get chosen to compete. From then on, the outlandish contestant costumes became as much a part of the show's appeal as the deals that were its focus.

Six game shows remain in GSN's countdown. When the ranking reached the mid-teens, I made some predictions about some of the shows that were likely to be remaining. Now that we are down to the final half-dozen, I can do so again, and I think I can identify what all of the final shows will be (if not their exact ranks). I said before and I'll say again that the top three will be "The Price is Right," "Jeopardy," and "Wheel of Fortune," although any of them could end up being the top spot. The other three, I think, will be "Match Game," "Family Feud," and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Starting tonight, we will see whether or not I am right.


The MediaLog Movies 100: The 30s

Welcome to the latest installment of "The MediaLog Movies 100," my countdown of the hundred most influential movies in my life. These are not my favorite movies (necessarily) or what I think are the "greatest" movies of all time. They are movies that made an impact on me and my cinematic sensibilities, tempered by considerations of the traditional film "canon" and the conventional wisdom regarding what are the all-time "best" movies.

The "Movies 100" is not a film by film ranking in precise order, but rather groupings of ten films which have no additional discrimination within each group. Today's installment is the 30s, or films #31-40. The films are listed in alphabetical order, with the year of release, and in the case of foreign films, the country of origin (and English translation where applicable), in parentheses after the title, with the film's director listed after that. This is followed by a brief annotation on the film.

The remainder of the "Movies 100," including the highly anticipated Top Ten, will appear soon, so stay tuned to the MediaLog, and feel free (please!) to make comments on the countdown and the films in it.


The MediaLog Movies 100: The 30s

The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder. I've only just realized that this is the fourth Wilder film in the "Movies 100" (after Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot). Although I've always liked him, I've never considered him to be one of my very favorite directors; I guess in light of his showing in the countdown, though, I should reconsider that preference. The Apartment is a great film about the "grey flannel suit" set of the 1950s and the corporate, "organization man" culture of the post-WWII era. Jack Lemmon (a Wilder regular) stars as a mid-level paper pusher who, in an attempt to curry favor with his superiors, allows them (particularly Fred MacMurray--another Wilder regular) to use his apartment as a rendezvous point for their extramarital trysts. Lemmon becomes enamored in a strictly chaste way with one of MacMurray's girlfriends, a young kewpie-doll cute Shirley MacLaine (in a star-making portrayal), who is the elevator operator in their office buliding. Hilarity and poignancy ensue when Lemmon takes care of an accidentally overdosed MacLaine in his apartment while his bosses wish to continue using it for their assignations.

The Birds (1963) Alfred Hitchcock. I did know that several Hitchcock films were in the countdown, as this legendary director made so many truly masterful films, and I was exposed to them very early in my cinematic tutelage (many in the first film course I ever took, in fact). Although this one is often discounted in light of his other, more prominent masterpieces, I think it is underrated. Flocks of randomly attacking birds of all kinds descend on the northern California sea village of Bodega Bay, where Tippi Hedren has impulsively followed Rod Taylor after a chance flirtatious encounter in, of all places, a pet shop selling birds. Jessica Tandy plays Taylor's mother, and the three of them, along with Taylor's young sister, end up trapped in their farm home during the feathered siege. The attacks by the birds are truly frightening, as they ambush Hedren while using a telephone booth, indirectly cause spilled gas to erupt in an explosion, chase scared schoolchildren, and nearly peck through the roof and doors of Taylor and Tandy's home. The most terrifying thing about The Birds is the fact that all of the attacks are inexplicable, with no discernible reasons or motivation or impetus. The creation of this kind of cinematic terror is the mark of a great director.

Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski. Another of Jack Nicholson's greatest roles, private detective Jake Gittes in Chinatown has become one of the legendary characters of cinema. Set in 1930s Los Angeles, Chinatown is a story of the corruption and back-channel dealing that resulted in modern-day L.A. This dealing relates to the diversion of water to the arid L.A. basin so that it would be fertile enough and have enough municipal water to prosper. It doesn't sound like a real thrilling tale, but Polanski's direction (in a latter-day film noir style), the performances (in addition to Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston in co-starring roles), and the exquisite screenplay by Robert Towne make it into an absolutely compelling film. The film has restricted narration, which means that we as viewers only know what Gittes knows, and at times, that's not a whole lot since he is, throughout most of the film, a little clueless as to the true magnitude and import of what he has gotten himself into. In true noir form, Dunaway serves as an excellent femme fatale, there are healthy doses of double-crossing all around, and the L.A. landscape provides for some really nice imagery. Added to all this, Chinatown ends with a twist impossible in the original noir era and suitable to the "New Hollywood" era of the 1970s.

City Lights (1931) Charles Chaplin. Chaplin famously disregarded the transition from silent to sound cinema and kept making films starring his mute Tramp for a decade after silent film had become obsolete. He did succumb to the nonverbal elements made possible by sync sound, though, and this film was his first utilizing recorded music and sound effects, even if it still contained no dialogue. For example, in the film's opening scene the Tramp is snoozing unsuspected under the tarp that covers a statue only to be rudely waked up (and discovered) when the statue is unveiled; the pontificating officials who are speaking are not heard uttering speech but rather a "wah-wah" kind of nonspeech sound effect not unlike that which would later be used for the voices of adults in the "Peanuts" cartoons. In addition, Chaplin, who was also a composer, created the original score for City Lights, as he did for nearly all of his subsequent films. The film is one of the most poignant of all that the Tramp appeared in. At the beginning, he is, well, a tramp, and he encounters a beautiful blind woman (Virginia Cherrill) who is selling flowers on a street corner. Since she is blind, she can't see that the Tramp is a tramp, and mistakes him for a rich man who has bought some of her flowers. The Tramp perpetuates the misidentification because he enjoys her attention, and she further responds to the kindness and compassion he shows her. They develop a kind of platonic yet, for the Tramp, courting relationship, until she has surgery to correct her eyesight. The final scene, in which she discovers the true identity of the Tramp, is one of the most touching and genuinely heartfelt of any movie I have ever seen.

Grease (1978) Randal Kleiser. This 1950s nostalgia musical is truly one of the formative movies in my life. It came out when I was in first or second grade, and I would argue that it had as much impact on me as Star Wars did on me and others of my generation. Part of the reason for this is that it was one of the few times my family ever went to see a movie in a drive-in. As the perfect viewing environment for a film about '50s teenagers (that has one key scene that takes place at a drive-in), Grease made a strong impression. Helping out was the fact that my parents bought the soundtrack album (on vinyl, natch) shortly after. The remainder of my childhood had occasions when my sister and I would put Grease on the turntable and I would replay the movie in my head as the record spun, aided by the still photos on the double gatefold record sleeve. On at least one other occasion, the neighborhood boys and I dressed up in our jeans and white t-shirts and mimiced the choreography to "Greased Lightnin." I saw the film again for the first time in years on its 20th anniversary re-release in 1998, and I was delighted at how well it held up and surprised at the sexual content that I, of course, didn't get at age eight. John Travolta is Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton-John is Sandy, a teenage couple who has had a special summer romance, but is having a hard time now that school has started again. Zuko has his gang, the Thunderbirds, Sandy falls in with a group of girls called the Pink Ladies, and the two groups of kids enjoy hi-jinks, hot rod races, homecoming, and a graduation party with a full-fledged carnival that totally ruined me for high school when I found out that most schools didn't have one just like it.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Curtis Hanson. It's coincidental that this Los Angeles period piece appears in the same tier of the "Movies 100" as Chinatown, but its no coincidence that L.A. Confidential is almost as good. Set in the early-1950s instead of the 1930s, Confidential is a monument to the tabloid excesses of its late-studio, early-TV, scandal-sheet era. Guy Pearce (as Ed Exley) and Russell Crowe (as Bud White) appear in star-making turns as a pair of L.A. detectives who attempt to solve an intricate set of crimes that involve pornography, prostitution, racketeering, mob executions, police corruption, and the seemingly glamourous patina of Hollywood that envelopes all of it. The remaining cast is a sparkling ensemble: James Cromwell is their police captain, Dudley Smith; Kim Basinger (in a Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winning role) is Lynn Bracken, the Veronica Lake lookalike call girl that both Exley and White have affairs with; Kevin Spacey is fellow detective Jack Vincennes, a dapper dick who serves as "adviser" to a "Dragnet"-like TV series called "Badge of Honor"; and Danny DeVito is Sid Hudgens, the editor of a smarmy tabloid called "Hush-Hush" who puts most of the cops on the take in exchange for juicy info and photo ops. Hanson's direction of his and Brian Helgeland's script based on James Ellroy's novel provides a fascinating look into the seamy underside of the movie colony and its Southern California setting. I had the opportunity to meet Ellroy when the movie came out and he (an L.A. native, but now living in Kansas City) was a guest in a film course that I was helping to teach. His view into the world of L.A. Confidential (found also in his novel The Black Dahlia and memoir My Dark Places) is something to behold.

Psycho (1960) Alfred Hitchcock. There's no problem with this Hitchcock film being underrated; if I had to pick his best film, this might be it. Shot on the cheap with equipment and personnel from his TV series, this thriller is nonetheless one of film history's greatest, and marks a number of formal and industrial breakthroughs as well. To begin with, there is the murder of the main character about one-third into the film--something unheard of before Psycho (and not common since). It is also basically the grandfather of every slasher film that has followed. Industry-wise, it opened the door for films to be more daring in their portrayal of sex and violence, and the films and directors of the late-1960s "New Hollywood" movement would strut right through that door. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane, a secretary who has noontime trysts with her boyfriend and goes on the lam after she pilfers a pile of money from her boss. She ends up at the secluded Bates Motel, welcomed by caretaker Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is awfully lonely and wants something to distract him from his overbearing live-in mother. Marion provides quite a distraction, and the ensuing legendary "shower scene" is, like the "Odessa Steps" sequence in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (in the 40s in the "Movies 100"), a textbook example of editing technique (not to mention the source of many an anxiety about taking showers).

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Frank Darabont. This film started out as a low-profile character study starring Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman as "Red" Redding and directed by the then-unknown Darabont. Once available on video, Shawshank took on a life of its own, finding a large cult audience and benefitting from the growing Internet fanbase, which currently ranks the film at #2 (behind only The Godfather) on IMDb's Top 250 films. Based on a Stephen King short story, the film is the story of the friendship that inmates Robbins and Freeman strike up while in the Shawshank prison in 1940s Maine. Robbins is a new convict in for a crime he didn't commit (the murder of his estranged wife), while Freeman is an old convict serving a decades-long sentence for a youthful robbery. Freeman, known in Shawshank as the guy who can get stuff for inmates, and Robbins, who becomes with his accounting training a wily and conniving lackey for the corrupt warden, dream about getting out and living the good life in Mexico, and eventually, years later, they realize their dream. Shawshank is a nice period piece that gives a glimpse into the mid-century prison setting, while also being a tour-de-force examination of the power of hope.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. This landmark musical is, besides being filled with infectiously peppy music, a great comic story about a landmark era in movie history: the transition from silent to sound cinema. Co-director Gene Kelly stars as a silent film swashbuckler in the Douglas Fairbanks mold, Donald O'Conner is his sidekick and musical guru, Jean Hagen is his silent film leading lady who isn't quite as successful in talkies, and Debbie Reynolds is the ingenue who replaces Hagen as Kelly's leading lady of preference both on and off screen. The film is filled with wonderful examples of the foibles of the new talkies (which, although made humorous, are pretty close to the actual problems encountered when sound films first emerged): the incongruity between the sound of actors' voices and their images (suffered by Hagen's character here, and stars such as John Gilbert in real life); issues related to syncing sound and image, both in production and in exhibition; the thorny logistics of microphone placement (illustrated in a hilarious scene in which Hagen has a microphone concealed in her oversize boutonniere); and the hazard of inadvertent sounds being recorded (illustrated in the same hilarious scene just mentioned). Songs like "Good Morning," "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses," and the title song, and the remarkable dance sequence with Kelly and Cyd Charisse to the music of "Broadway Rhythm Ballet," add great enjoyment, especially the iconic "Singin' in the Rain" song and dance sequence by Kelly, performed while joyfully stomping through puddles of rainwater.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Robert Wise. When this film came out, I only vaguely knew of Star Trek, having inadvertantly seen a handful of reruns of the original series on TV (I was eight at the time). Still, having been conditioned to enjoy sci-fi through my generation's interest in Star Wars, I begged my dad to take me to this film, which he did, I remember vividly, on New Year's Day 1980. From that day, I have been an avid Trek fan. This first ST movie has gotten a bad reputation as a plodding, boring mess, but I strongly disagree with that assessment. True, it is very slowly and deliberately paced, but that is not necessarily the sign of a bad film. I think that ST:TMP, on the contrary, is a wonderful examination of the character relationships among the three main characters, Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and McCoy (DeForest Kelley), as well as an exploration of their vessel, the Starship Enterprise, and its place in their lives. In addition, it is a philosophically intriguing story about human evolution and the implications of humanity's forays out into the universe. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the film is set several years after the time period of the original series, when Kirk has been promoted from starship captain to paper-pushing admiral, and he itches to get back to the final frontier. A major overhaul of the Enterprise is just reaching completion (in practical, moviemaking terms, to make the ship more silver screen friendly compared to its old TV counterpart), and is to be commanded by a brash young new--and inexperienced--captain, Decker (Stephen Collins). When a massive lumbering seemingly-sentient behemoth spaceship that calls itself "V'ger" is found to be on course to destroy the Earth, the Enterprise, with Kirk commandeering a ride, is sent to explore the threat. Ultimately, Kirk and crew save the world (of course), but not before Decker uses V'ger to make what could be the next leap in human evolution.