Happy Thanksgiving from Chris' MediaLog

Chris' MediaLog, in the form of this vintage Thanksgiving newspaper ad (courtesy of the blog "Held Over! Newspaper Movie Ads"), would like to wish the blogosphere a very Happy Thanksgiving!


Film Review: "Flashdance" (1983, directed by Adrian Lyne)

By 1983, a couple of years into the MTV era, movie studio executives apparently began to wonder what would happen if the principles and forms of the music video were applied to a full-length feature film. "Flashdance" is what happened.

I could say that "Flashdance" is the story of an aspiring dancer who works as a welder by day but calling what happens in the film a story is being a bit generous. Over the course of the film there are characters, who do stuff, and talk to each other, and get into conflicts, some of them romantic in nature. The result, though, is not really a story but rather an accumulation of the kind of vague narrative vignettes that became common accoutrements to music videos: dramatizations that serve no dramatic purpose but exist simply so that there are dramatic-looking moving pictures to see while (or before, or after) the music plays. "Flashdance," as a result, does not have a very coherent plot. Indeed, much of it unfolds as if there wasn't in fact any script at all.

The film has become famous for the imagery of Jennifer Beals sweating and strutting in her dance performances. Beals, who plays the aspiring dancer, Alex, puts in a career-making performance, not because of its quality, but merely because of its notoriety. The supposed dramatic tension in the film derives from Alex's desire to be admitted to a fancy dance school, but this entire arc is introduced flaccidly and just left hanging for much of the film. Alex is surrounded by a cast of stock characters: a best friend, an aspiring ice skater who can't skate and instead becomes a stripper; a wisecracking male sidekick, a short order cook who is an aspiring, and embarassingly bad, comedian; a tall, dark and handsome love interest (her boss at her welding job, played by Michael Nouri); a loving and encouraging grandma who dies on her (an underutilized Lilia Skala).

As hackneyed as the narrative elements of the film are, the visual imagery, as might be expected of a feature-length music video, is relatively stronger. The cinematography (by Don Peterson) has an intriguingly gritty feel that does a good job of exploiting the quasi-story's Pittsburgh setting (especially as Alex bicycles all over the city). A few of the dance sequences are striking, such as Alex's opening number featuring cascading water (see picture above) and a later, new-wavy performance with a glowing TV screen, black light, and Alex in whiteface.

These visual strengths, though, combined with the film's famous music--the iconic title song by Irene Cara, Michael Sembello's "Maniac," in addition to a synthesizer-happy score by Giorgio Moroder--only serve to accentuate the film's narrative weaknesses. In the broader scheme of American cinema, "Flashdance" was nonetheless successful in marrying MTV visuals and popular music in a fashion that could inhabit a feature film and appeal to 1980s audiences. Other films would soon follow that did this kind of thing much better--"Footloose," for example--but "Flashdance," in spite of its glaring ineptitude, has the distinction of having done them first.


MediaLog MediaLink: Retrolounge

Retrolounge is a voluminous compendium of pop culture nostalgia links on subjects ranging from advertising and television to architecture and transportation. The sheer number of items in this directory is staggering: over 230 links for photography, a similar number for paperback books, almost 200 links for music, and almost 100 transportation links. Interestingly, the site has comparatively fewer links for what might be called the customary popular culture arts--only 50 for TV and radio, and "only" 100 for cinema.

The site might have been a more mundane links directory if not for the impressive presentation. The lists of links are presented as flash animations, meaning that the links in each category can be navigated through laterally with relative ease and by avoiding loading new pages. A stylish retro hostess welcomes visitors to the page sporting a 1940s (I think) dress ensemble and perky hat. The site contains a copyright notice naming one Patricia Gaspar as the responsible party, and is hosted by Bitlounge.net, Gaspar's server, but other than that the origins of the site are a mystery. Retrolounge is a delight to explore nonetheless, and poses a serious threat to the time management of any retro or nostalgia fan who encounters it.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Hero Sandwich" (1979)

As I (sort of) promised last week, this MediaFix is the final installment of the great 1970s trilogy of kids shows with the word "hot" in the title and having something to do with food. (See also, "Hot Dog" from 1970 and "Hot Fudge" from c. 1976.) "Hot Hero Sandwich" was, in the words of YouTube user 70sKidVid (who posted the clip), "a kind of Saturday Morning Live, it was taped at the same studio as SNL, the show featured comedy sketches, musical performances, as well as interviews with various celebrities."

The celebrities certainly were varied. The episode from which this excerpt is drawn featured the incredible celebrity guest line-up of Loretta Lynn, Leonard Nimoy, and Richard Pryor. This clip is the show's extended opening credits sequence, naming the regular cast as well as the guest stars (alas, it contains none of the actual show itself, though). "Hot Hero Sandwich" aired for only a few months, between November 1979 and April 1980, on NBC at noon on Saturdays.

(Length: 2:20; source: YouTube, user 70sKidVid)


Book Review: "The Sweeps: Behind the Scenes in Network TV" (1984) by Mark Christensen & Cameron Stauth

"The Sweeps" is another in the genre of TV books that I like to call "industry snapshots." These are books that provide an inside (or as the subtitle here indicates, "behind the scenes") look at the state of the TV industry at the time of their writing, offering a variety of perspectives from executives, creative personnel, and contemporary press accounts. Other books in this journalistic "snapshot" genre include Sally Bedell's "Up the Tube" (1981), Martin Mayer's "About Television" (1972), and the more recent "Desperate Networks" (2006) by Bill Carter.

"The Sweeps," published in mid-1984, chronicles American television in the spring, summer, and fall of 1983, as programming decisions were being made and then implemented for the 1983-1984 television season. Christensen and Stauth follow a number of different TV-industry personalities during this period, charting their fortunes over the course of the year and gaining their insights about the TV industry going into the mid-1980s. At the time "The Sweeps" was published, these observations were current and reflected the state of the TV art; now (as in all books of this genre), they provide a valuable historical "snapshot" of the TV industry and its practices at the time.

The personalities featured in "The Sweeps" cut across a broad range of TV industry types. These include early-1980s TV superstars such as Ed Asner, who was going through a career crisis due to his controversial political views, and then-up-and-comers who would become TV stalwarts, such as Harry Anderson and Ted Danson. Particularly interesting are Anderson's irreverance as he books game show appearances and magician gigs as hedges against the failure of his new sitcom "Night Court," and Danson's insecurity as "Cheers" struggles to hang on and Danson wins a nomination but not the award itself for Best Comedy Actor in the 1983 Emmys.

Equally intriguing are fringe figures such as Larry Colton and Corky Hubbert. Colton, a washed up pro baseball pitcher with little TV industry experience, takes a gamble by becoming involved in the development of a scheme to franchise a soap opera format to local TV stations (which for him means becoming a producer on a show called "Pillars of Portland"). Hubbert, a little person known at the time for a memorable appearance in the movie "Under the Rainbow," had fallen on hard times and throughout 1983 was flamboyantly trying to land acting gigs that would catapult him back to relative stardom. The stories of these two provide a counterpoint to those of other, established but still struggling TV industry figures.

One of these such figures is writer-producer Allan Katz. Katz, who cut his TV industry teeth working on shows like "M*A*S*H," "Rhoda," and "Laugh-In," was in 1983 trying to juggle several different incipient projects: a sitcom pilot called "The National Snoop" that was considered but not picked up by NBC for fall 1983; a play, "Kaufman and Klein," for which he was trying to cast Ed Asner and/or Walter Matthau; and his baby, a feature film project called "The Hunchback of UCLA," which he also wanted to star in despite the fact that he'd never acted in his life.

Perhaps the central story of "The Sweeps" is that of aspiring TV writer Tony Colvin. At the beginning of 1983 (and in the opening chapter of the book), Colvin was giving up a successful career as a bank executive to break into TV writing by working as a gofer for the "Cheers" cast and crew. By the middle of the year (and the middle of the book), Colvin had landed a job as a story editor on the new sitcom "Just Our Luck." By the end of the year (and the end of the book's last chapter), he had lost that job (and his best chance at a TV career) due to the show's cancellation and, having given up his banking career, was in exile as a rental car salesman.

As it tells the story of all these personalities, "The Sweeps" also tells the story of several of the new and returning shows of 1983. It is fascinating to read about the anxieties of the cast and crew of the now-venerated "Cheers" (Danson chief among them) as its future in 1983 (its second year on the air) was anything but secure. "We Got It Made," starring the voluptuous Teri Copley and created by the deposed network programming chief Fred Silverman, is one of the new 1983-84 shows prominently chronicled in the book.

The entire slate of new NBC shows for fall 1983 is given special attention, including "Manimal," "Boone," "Bay City Blues," "Jennifer Slept Here," and "Mr. Smith." The network struggled unsuccessfully with these shows in 1983-84 in an attempt to raise itself out of a years-long ratings slump under new president Grant Tinker and new programming chief Brandon Tartikoff. (One of the great ironies of reading this particular "snapshot" book now is knowing that not long after "The Sweeps" was published the slump would end in a big way with the premiere of "The Cosby Show," which would soon become TV's number one program.)

In general, "The Sweeps" presents a detailed and fascinating snapshot of American TV circa 1983. Some persistent problems hamper the book's ability to do so, though. For one, some of the stories seem a little disjointed from the book's main thrust of chronicling the TV industry. Corky Hubbert's story, while compelling enough in and of itself, seems detached from a consideration of TV, due to the fact that most of Hubbert's previous experience and 1983 aspirations and acting gigs concern the film industry rather than television. Also, Christensen and Stauth's writing has an odd (and distracting) stylistic proclivity towards sentence fragments that at times makes it seem unprofessional (and just plain bad writing).

These quibbles do not, ultimately, overly detract from the value of "The Sweeps" as one of these "snapshot" tomes. As I've said before, these kinds of books are media scholarship's equivalent of prehistoric insects trapped in amber, and as such they offer crucially important and insightful looks at what the American media was like in a particular place at a particular time. "The Sweeps" fulfills this function for the American TV industry in 1983.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Fudge" (c. 1976)

Earlier this week, the MediaFix featured a quirky early-1970s kids' show called "Hot Dog." Here's a dessert serving of the same kind of show, from a little later in the '70s, called "Hot Fudge." "Hot Fudge" was a somewhat different show, perhaps even more in the "Laugh-In," quick cuts, non sequitur style I mentioned in the "Hot Dog" post. "Hot Fudge," which was syndicated from 1976-1980, also borrowed significantly from "Sesame Street," namely in the puppet characters here called "Mits." The show's first season, from which this excerpt is drawn, also featured a "Laugh-In" cast member, Arte Johnson, just as "Hot Dog" did (with JoAnne Worley).

The excerpt begins with the opening theme segment for "Hot Fudge" ("It's the Hot Fudge Show comin' on!"), proceeds to a short bit with a couple of Mits, continues with a viewer-mail segment called "Write On!" (don't groan, it was the '70s) that features a Mit that looks and acts like Groucho Marx (complete with cigar), and closes with Arte Johnson presenting some "Hug Awards."

Not all of the shows from this subgenre had "hot" in the title, although I may have to complete the trilogy next week by trying to find a clip from "Hot Hero Sandwich"!

(Length: 5:42; video source: FuzzyMemories.TV via YouTube)


Cinerama Holiday: The Original Widescreen Process Returns

Cinerama, the original widescreen motion picture format, has made something of an encore this year. This is largely due to the special-edition DVD release in September of one of only two narrative feature films made in Cinerama, "How the West Was Won" (1963). In the wake of this release, Rebecca Paller, a curator at the Paley Center for Media (a major media archive), blogged about Cinerama; and journalist Keith Phipps has written about Cinerama on Slate (comparing its brief use for narrative films in the early-1960s to the similar potential today for IMAX).

Both of these writers make useful observations about Cinerama. (Readers not familiar with the widescreen format can study up here, here, here, and/or here.) Both offer personal stories about viewing Cinerama, Paller about seeing it when it was first available in the 1950s and 1960s, Phipps about experiencing it during an unlikely Cinerama revival in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, in the 1990s. These anecdotes point up a terribly important feature of the experience of Cinerama--that is was an experience. As Paller recounts, her family travelled many miles to a theatre in another town to attend Cinerama films, and as the title of her piece ("Put on Your Sunday Clothes") indicates, this was the kind of experience that people anticipated for days if not weeks, dressed up for as if going to church, and bragged about to their neighbors afterwards. I know from my own research that theatres featuring Cinerama advertised and tried to attract patrons from a very broad geographical range, due to the limited number of Cinerama-equipped theatres and the uniqueness of the experience.

The importance of Cinerama, especially to film exhibition, cannot be underestimated. It was important for several reasons: First, it created a cultural sensation in the early-1950s that reignited public interest in movies and moviegoing, after it had slumped for several years post-World War II and had begun to be affected by competition from television. Second, it established a new technical standard, that of the wide screen, that invigorated film exhibition in the early-1950s (precipitating CinemaScope and all the other widescreen processes of the 1950s) and introduced widescreen as a means of viewing visual media that continues to reverberate today with the diffusion of widescreen TVs. Next, it transformed the stylistic palette of cinema, requiring filmmakers to adapt to creating moving images for a wider screen. Finally, it introduced a new mode of moviegoing--what came to be known as "roadshow" or "hard ticket" exhibition (due to the fact that patrons needed reserved seat tickets), that included advance ticket sales, printed programs, intermissions, and a new lease on life for picture palace movie theatres, which were well-suited for the kind of film viewing experience provided by Cinerama.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Hot Dog" (1970)

Much of the TV programming from the late-1960s and early-1970s looks very strange to us now, and the children's show "Hot Dog" certainly qualifies. There was a wave of kids' programs during this period that featured short (often comic) bits, animation, non sequiturs, and other "Laugh-In"-inspired segments. ("Sesame Street" is perhaps the most influential such show.) "Hot Dog" was a program that featured segments explaining how different things worked, such as this excerpt about how a baseball glove is made. Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen (for whom "Hot Dog" was his only regular TV series) were series regulars, and both appear in the clip above. (JoAnne Worley, best known from "Laugh-In" itself, was another regular.) As far as I can tell, the series title, "Hot Dog," is simply a goofy name meant, I guess, to appeal to kids. The show only lasted a single year, airing midday on Saturdays on NBC, from the fall of 1970 to the fall of 1971, winning a Peabody award in 1971.

(Length: 4:27; source: Google Video)


MediaLog MediaBrief: GSN Revamps Logo/Slogan (Again)

"Maybe This One Will Stick" Dept.-- The New York Times' TV Decoder blog is reporting today that cable network GSN is about to undergo another revamping of its image. The network will soon have a new logo (nine small squares in a variety of shades of orange and red, with the initials G, S, N in the middle three squares), under which is a new slogan, "Play Everyday." This will replace the current logo, a black box with the network's initials in the lower half (sometimes with the box and initials taking on different colors) and slogan, "The Network for Games."

I'm not sure how long the network has had its outgoing logo/slogan, but by cable network standards it hasn't been very long (a couple of years I think). GSN, of course, started in the mid-1990s as the Game Show Network, an identity it maintained for its first decade or so (with a couple of different logos). The current logo/slogan was adopted (along with the elimination of the network's original name in favor of its initials only) when it attempted to broaden its appeal beyond repeats of old TV game shows. The outgoing slogan, "The Network for Games," and the contraction of the network's name to its initials, were meant to indicate that game shows (including a sharp increase of new original shows) had become only part of the channel's offerings. These expanded to include any kind of programming that was game-related, including reality-competition shows (such as repeats of "Dog Eat Dog") and poker and bingo programs (the latter have been especially emphasized in recent months).

Over the last year or two, GSN has increasingly been emphasizing the online games that are available to play on its website, and it is this feature of the network that the new logo/slogan seems to be highlighting. These games are versions of classic game shows such as "The Price is Right" and of current GSN original game shows, as well as more garden-variety games such as solitaire and bingo. The aim, it seems from the TV Decoder article, is to strengthen the link between the on-air programming and the online offerings. Creating a strong link of this kind between a network's programming and its website is smart business these days, as cable and broadcast entities of all kinds (e.g. news providers) are more and more becoming "multimedia platforms" rather than strictly TV networks. The relatively frequent changes of logos, slogans, and emphases of GSN, though, seems to indicate that the network has had problems making an identity stick.