Happy New Years: When the World Partied Like It Was 1999

It seems like an eternity has passed since the world rang in the new millennium on Dec. 31, 1999. (Let's just say that a lot has happened in the world since then.) But it has only been eight years. Nonetheless, the news coverage from that night is something that has already become an interesting historical account of what the world was going through at that time. These three video clips feature some of the news coverage from NBC from that final New Year's Eve of the 20th century.


Merry Christmas from Chris' MediaLog

For your yuletide pleasure, a clip of the famous WPIX-TV (New York) yule log. Back in the '70s, WPIX put an image like this on the air on Christmas Day and just let it run, so it would seem as if viewers had a real yule log in their living room. It caught on and became sort of a local institution, and ran every Christmas for many years (don't know if they still do it today). Enjoy a little Christmas fire, and music, and have a very Merry Christmas!


This Week on "Dateline: 1971": Mail-Order Catalog from 1970

This week's post on "Dateline: 1971" is a really interesting Flickr gallery of a mail-order catalog from 1970. Filled with knick-knacks and other '70s-era household objects, it triggered nostalgic memories on my part, and will likely do the same for anyone who grew up in the 1970s.


Film Review: "The Dark Knight" (2008)

The first film of the rebooted Batman franchise, 2005's "Batman Begins," was leisurely, methodical, and exacting in its establishment and exploration of the origins of its nocturnal hero--and it is a masterpiece. The sequel, last summer's "The Dark Knight" (out on DVD this week) is cacophonous, convoluted, and scattershot in its advancement of Batman's story and its attempt to establish Batman as a (to use NY Times critic Manohla Dargis' term) "postheroic" vigilante--and it is not a masterpiece.

It is perhaps unfair to judge "The Dark Knight" by the high standard that director Christopher Nolan set for himself with "Batman Begins," but I don't think it is out of bounds to remark upon the new film's violation of many of its predecessor's tonal and dramaturgical tenets. This is not all bad: "The Dark Knight" works effectively in many respects as a manic, schizophrenic, morally ambivalent, and apocalyptic counterpoint to the painstakingly-constructed, character-building, world-establishing "Batman Begins." The problem is that "The Dark Knight" attempts to cram too much mania, moral ambivalence, and apocalypse into its nearly two and a half hour running time while insufficiently developing its potentially powerful themes of the chaos of a society held captive by terror and the schizophrenia (the two-facedness, if you will) required to survive amongst such chaos.

At the center of all of this, of course, is Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that is undeniably strong and virtuosic, but that seems to be colored by the real-life tragedy of the actor's death this past January. Visually, aurally, bodily, Ledger inhabits and interprets the Joker in a way that no other actor has--as a greasy, truly psychotic, unpalatable, and mentally unhinged terrorist trickster. Much of the performance's effectiveness derives from the inevitable intertextual comparison that nearly every viewer must make between Ledger and the suave, bright, cartoonish Joker of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989). The Joker of "The Dark Knight," though, quite separate from Ledger's skilled portrayal, is as unhinged dramatically as he is mentally. The only glimpses of backstory or psychological motivation we get for the Joker are the bogus explanations he gives of how he got his hideous trademark smile scars and crumbs of personal details that turn out to be red herrings for directing the police to his next scene of mayhem.

The inscrutability of the Joker's characterization by Nolan and his screenwriting partner brother Jonathan is meant to establish the clown's potency as a figure of terror. The fact that we know not what makes the Joker tick supposedly makes his ticking bombs that much more terrifying. But by obscuring the origins of the Joker's psychosis and of his clownish modus operandi, the filmmakers abdicate what could have been an even more powerful exploration of the nature of terrorist acts and of the motivations for their criminal application. Instead, we get with the Joker a dramaturgical thrust that is wildly uneven, at times lurching, and hard to reconcile with any recognizable motivations.

The absence of any treatment of Joker's origins in "The Dark Knight" is important because the exploration of origins has otherwise been such a strong component of Nolan's Batman films. (It is also, of course, a central conceit of superhero comics in general and the movies adapted from them.) Virtually all of "Batman Begins" was dedicated to establishing the psychological and personal motivations that led Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne to become a caped crusader, as well as to the acquisition of the specific skills and tools required for the success of such an endeavor. "The Dark Knight" itself contains a mostly successful such origin story in the transformation of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) into the villain Two-Face.

Indeed, as much as anything else, "The Dark Knight" could be considered to be the story of the rise and fall of Eckhart's Two-Face. This is a story in which a powerful and righteous figure (the crusading D.A. even briefly manages to bring Bruce Wayne under his thrall) suffers a horrific loss (the death of fiancee Rachel Dawes, here played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and undergoes a physical transformation (the catastrophic burning of half his face) that makes concrete his pain and suffering. Two-Face's story is a powerful and effective one because the psychological underpinnings of the character's transformation are made clear. In contrast, the story involving the Joker suffers because of the opacity of the character's motivations and the ultimately directionless course upon which it takes the movie as a whole. Because of these issues, "The Dark Knight" fails in large part to accomplish progressing the powerful story set in motion by Nolan in "Batman Begins."


The MediaLog MediaFix: "Sam and Friends" (1950s/60s) featuring proto-Muppets

The Muppets are some of the best known and most beloved characters ever created. They have appeared in countless TV programs, films, and other forms of media for over forty years (for a listing showing just how extensive these appearances have been, click here). This MediaFix is a very early, pre-"Sesame Street" look at some Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, from Jim Henson's local Washington, D.C. show called "Sam and Friends." "Sam and Friends" was a five-minute program, airing at times once daily, at times twice, from 1955 to 1961.

The segment, called "Visual Thinking," is an early classic of Henson's Muppetry. Kermit is a square fellow who can't think creatively and is tutored in thinking "visually" by a hipster character with a voice that is familiar from later Muppet characters (although I can't now think of which ones). Clever effects, including some use of the letters and numbers that the Muppets would promote so effectively on "Sesame Street," make the piece irresistibly enjoyable. Henson apparently realized this, as he created additional "visual thinking" segments in later years (such as this from 1966 and this from 1971).

If you like this, here is another series of segments from "Sam and Friends," including a promo and a short skit in which Kermit interviews the Muppet doppelgangers of newsmen Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.

(Length: 2:48; video source: YouTube)


Dateline: 1971, Blogging the Year of My Birth

In addition to "Chris' MediaLog" I have another blog called "Dateline: 1971." "D:71" features items related to the year 1971, the year of my birth. My general fascination with history, especially cultural and pop cultural history, finds more specific form in looking for things connected to 1971, to better understand the world and the culture I was born into. "Dateline: 1971" has (and will have, as it is just starting up) video clips and images, links to historical items related to U.S. and international events, and other miscellany, all related to 1971. To broaden the scope a little bit (and perhaps also the interest level of readers), I will probably include some stuff related to the early-1970s more generally.

I intend to make a posting to "Dateline: 1971" about once a week. This week's posting is a video clip from a 1971 "Tonight Show" episode guest hosted by Burt Reynolds. If you're a child of the 1970s, like me, you might find it interesting.


Book Review: "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" (2005) by Jake Austen

Television and rock and roll rose to national prominence at about the same time in the 1950s, and so the two have always had a sort of symbiotic development. That history of rock and roll music on TV is traced with great detail and skill in the book "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" by Jake Austen. Austen offers an exhaustive account of rock music on television in an accessible but still substantive fashion in this enlightening book.

The chapters in "TV a Go Go" follow a roughly chronological pattern--with some overlap from chapter to chapter where subject matter dictates. The first chapter is an exploration of "proto TV rock" in a period (mainly the '50s) when rock and roll was itself still prototypical. Television musical acts such as Nat King Cole and others lead into the first appearances of rock and roll acts on shows such as "The Steve Allen Show," "Stage Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Highlighted, as might be expected, are the Sullivan appearances of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Austen does more than most authors with these signal performances, though, offering important context and showing how they fit into the pattern of rock acts on Sullivan and other shows of the 1950s and early-1960s.

The book proceeds with chapters on every major movement in rock music and its intersection with TV. These include: dance shows, beginning with Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (and a perceptive assessment of Clark's place in the history of rock on TV) but also including several important local dance programs; the phenomenon of "fake bands" on TV, such as the Monkees and the Partridge Family; rock and roll cartoons, including such acts as the Archies and Alvin and the Chipmunks (as well as others of this surprisingly large contingent); a penetrating examination of black music on TV, with a history of "Soul Train" and background on several other obscure yet significant shows; the 1970s trend for live concerts on late-night TV, most famously on "Midnight Special"; an intriguing look at punk rock on TV; the birth and growth of MTV and music video; and rock and roll reality television of the 2000s, including the indomitable "American Idol."

The final chapter of "TV a Go Go" is a fascinating case study of one figure who has been central to rock on TV and for whom TV has been central: Michael Jackson. Here Austen provides a year by year chronicle of Jackson's TV appearances, performance by performance, event by event. This chronicle begins during the Jackson 5ive years of the late-1960s and early-1970s, continues through Michael's first solo appearances in the latter '70s, reaches a crescendo with the landmark performance on the Motown 25th anniversary show in 1983 and the same period's pioneering music videos, traces MJ's post-"Thriller" career in TV performances and music videos (including such incidents as the controversial "Black and White" video of 1991), and concludes with the reality-TV like saga that Jackson's life and career has become since his 1993 accusations of child molestation. Through the story of Jackson's TV appearances, Austen manages to provide a microcosm of the preceding account of the development of rock on TV.

"TV a Go Go" is a veritable encyclopedia of rock performances on TV. Austen is a dedicated aficionado of rock music and of TV and offers exhaustive analyses of particular appearances and particular moments of importance to rock TV. These discussions treat forgotten and obscure shows (such as "Kiddie a Go Go," a dance show for the grade school set, or "Inside Bed-Sty," a local show in New York City featuring black musicians), as well as the subject of rock music on non-musical shows, most interestingly punk rock on 1970s series such as "Quincy M.E." and "CHiPs." The book has a surprisingly light emphasis on music video and the development of MTV, which leaves somewhat of a hole in Austen's analysis, but this is forgivable due to the subject's relatively thorough treatment elsewhere.

"TV a Go Go" is not a scholarly book, although it will appeal to scholarly needs due to its exhaustive historical accounting of rock music on American TV. This historical work will be of interest to anyone with a deep interest in either TV history or in the history of popular music.