Sunday, March 19, 2006

This blog represents my opinions alone; not my employers nor my staff. IT NEVER HAS.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I will be on vacation and probably will not post much in the next few days.

I sincerely believe in taking a break from such habits when on vacation, even if you're sitting at home!

Adios amigos!
I had the opportunity of interviewing Ray Bradbury last week for a story about our city of Springfield choosing his book Fahrenheit 451 for a "one city, one book" program.

Bradbury was great to chat with and if I had more time I would have branched into other subjects.

I did ask him about his reactions to Peter Jackson's King Kong and he said that "ten minutes into the picture I began crying because I knew Kong was in the hands of a lover."

He beleived the Academcy snubbed Kong and that it should have been nominated for "Best Picture."

When I told this to my Kong loving friend Steve Bissette, he instantly chided me for my lack of critical assessment.

Bradbury is seeking a deal to make a new film based on The Martian Chronciles and would like Jackson to direct it.

From the article I wrote:

Ray Bradbury didn’t have censorship on his mind when he wrote the novel. In a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home, Bradbury said that an incident with a police officer and his love of libraries provided the inspiration for the novel.

Bradbury recounted an incident in 1949 in which a police officer questioned why he and a friend were walking through a fairly deserted area after a meal. They were doing nothing more suspicious than walking on a sidewalk.

The incident led to the short story “The Pedestrian.”

“The Pedestrian got me started,” he said.

A year later, he added, he “took the character out for a walk.” The revisiting led to his writing of Fahrenheit 451, first as a short story and later as a novel. The novel took him just nine days to complete.

Bradbury described himself as a “library educated person.” He never attended college, but went two to three times a week to a library from his childhood through his late twenties to read and learn.

He said that “it broke my heart” to learn that the ancient library of Alexandria in Egypt had been burned three times – twice on purpose, and once by accident. He also spoke of his horror of how the Nazis burned books that they viewed as harmful to their regime.

“You can’t touch libraries,” he said.

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, a time in which there was growing fear about the menace posed by the Soviet Union. Bradbury said, though, at the time he wrote the novel there wasn’t any threat of censorship. He said the earliest casualties of the Red Scare were people in the motion picture industry who were blacklisted for alleged Communist ties.

“They were easy marks,” he said.

Bradbury maintained that a society such as the one described in Fahrenheit 451 could never happen in the United States today.

“We’ve got to consider we have a very healthy society,” he said.
He said that censorship would be “impossible” because all aspects of society are watching one another.

Speaking on the 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said he was “80 percent pleased” with the movie directed by Francois Truffaut. His main complaint is that the famed French director cast British actress Julie Christie in two roles, which Bradbury believed confused audiences.

Although he had written screenplays – one of his most notable was adapting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for director John Huston – Bradbury was not involved with the script of Fahrenheit 451. He said that Truffaut’s first script “was so bad he couldn’t get any one to star in it.”

Oskar Werner, who had starred in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, forced the director to re-write it. Werner played the lead role of Montag the fireman.
Bradbury revealed there is a new movie version of the novel in the works with a script by Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption. He said there are talks going on with Mel Gibson to produce the film.

Bradbury is one of this country’s most popular writers – there are over five million copies of Fahrenheit 451 alone currently in print – and among his 30 novels are The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine. He has also written 600 short stories.

He has been active in making movies himself. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright and received an Emmy for his script for The Halloween Tree.

Besides scripting Moby Dick, Bradbury wrote the 64 scripts for his own television series Ray Bradbury Theater. He said that he writes his books in such style that they are easy to adapt.

He recounted that director Sam Peckinpah wanted to film one of his books. When Bradbury asked how Peckipah would adapt the novel, Peckinpah responded that he would tear pages out of the book and stuff them into the camera.”

In 2000, he received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Out of everything he has written does he have a favorite?

“All of my books are my children and I love them all,” he said.

“I’ve had a jolly time, a great life,” the 85 year-old writer added...

Monday, March 13, 2006

On Sunday I had the opportunity of seeing a program at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton, MA, titled “The Unseen Orson Welles.”

Presented by his friend and cinematographer Gary Graver, the three-hour program was produced by Larry Jackson, the former manager of the Orson Welles Cinemas in Cambridge, MA, another friend of the later actor and director.

Graver is associated with Welles’ protégé Oja Kodar. Welles bequeathed his films to Kodar and the materials are stored at Filmmuseum München in Germany.

Except, I suppose for the material Graver presented this weekend, which he said comes from his Orson Welles Archives. While some of it was entertaining and exciting to see, Graver’s rambling unprepared introductions did not put the films and clips into a context that they needed.

Graver said he started his relationship with Welles when he learned in 1970 that he was in Los Angeles and managed to talk with him on the phone. He shot some test footage for Welles, which he approved, and he “was in.”

For a person such as myself who has a number of Welles’ films, have read books and articles on the man – I even had the chance to interview Barbara Leaming who wrote a great bio of Welles – a lot of what Graver said was material I already knew.

The problem is that he didn’t say enough for the folks who were casual film fans there to see something rare.

The program included:

The original trailer for Citizen Kane – not a very rare item.

The 1998 re-issue trailer for Touch of Evil – also not so rare.

About ten minutes of a television production of Merchant of Venice, in which Welles starred as Shylock and shot in Venice and London. This clip was a visual stunner, but the bad sound equipment at the theater rendered the dialogue, especially Welles’ lines, almost incomprehensible. Graver gave no date for the production and Leaming doesn’t mention it in her book. British actor Charles Grey was a co-star.

The 1956 television pilot for the planed Orson Welles Presents series was next. The Fountain of Youth was a delight. Welles used still photos, silent footage and sound footage to create this story of a romantic triangle. It won a Peabody Award for Excellence, but the networks passed on it.

There were a group of television commercials from Japan from the 1970s in which Welles shilled for G&G Whiskey. Graver said that by this time Welles had stopped drinking anything but wine and they used iced tea in the glasses. The spots are funny because one could tell Welles was not the least sincere in his delivery of the product the producers had him describe as “ a glass of happiness.”

There were promo reels for The Deep (which was later made, not by Welles, as Dead Calm) and The Dreamers. These were shot so Welles could raise money from investors. Frankly neither was very interesting and one could only imagine how Welles would use these clips to try to get funding. Could you imagine a pitch meeting with someone like Welles with that physical presence and voice?

There was a clip from an on-going project called The Magic Show, which was filmed by Graver and showed Welles performing a magic trick.

A short clip from the American Film Institute’s tribute to Welles was also shown. Welles is seen giving part of his acceptance speech. The irony that Graver didn’t tell people is that Welles showed a clip from The Other Side of the Wind after his speech as a way of trying to raise money to complete the film.

The Other Side of the Wind was the finale of the program. There was about 40 minutes of scenes Welles had edited from this last film. One or two of these scenes were ones that had been seen before and the quality of the images was fair to poor. Graver explained this was a work-print and the condition wasn’t very good. He said that the original elements were at the Munich archives and that Kodar was making arrangements for the film to be assembled and released.

The scenes weren’t helped by less that sharp digital projection.

He noted that he shouldn’t even be showing them at this time.

Without a proper set-up, the scenes didn’t make a lot of sense. There were several scenes of the birthday party has-been director Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) was having and the scene in which Hannaford’s stooge is trying to explain what the film is about to a studio executive who is watching scenes in a screening room.

Then there were several sequences of the movie within the movie, which Graver said were “a little sexy.” They feature Kodar in various stages of undress running and walking endlessly through a deserted cityscape and a studio back lot with another actor.

It was only after the show ended during an informal Q& A period that Graver said those scenes were a parody of Michelangelo Antonioni’s style. Welles apparently hated Antonioni’s films.

This little tidbit would have been helpful to people to understand what they saw.

Graver shared anecdotes about Welles during the show, none of which were particularly insightful. He did seem to genuinely miss the man with whom he worked for 15 years.

I asked Graver what it was like to work with drive-in and direct-to directors and then switch gears to Welles. He didn’t really respond and by his expression he didn’t really what to discuss his career with the likes of Fred Olen Ray. At no time did anyone mention Graver’s career out of his Welles context.

Undoubtedly scraping along on a low budget and a tight schedule was good experience for working with a filmmaker such as Welles. I wanted to know, though, how a guy like Welles operated on a low budget: what was different.

While the show was interesting, its flaws made the three-hours seem like an awfully long time.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

This was a demanding week at work, hence the lack of blogging. I am one reporter down thanks to budget cuts and two members of the news staff were in the Mojave Desert doing a story about how Massachusetts Marines train for duty in Iraq.

I feel comfortable in making public that BearManor Media will be publishing my first book on animation history in 2007. The tentative title is "Going Mainstream: How Animation Escaped the Kiddie Ghetto." The book is a collection of the pieces I've written on animation for both Animato and Animation Planet – magazines I published and edited – and articles from other places as well.

Each piece has been updated and arranged to tell how animation was able to find its way out of the horrors that were the 1970s and '80s and into greater acceptance.

I would have loved to have included some of the articles written by other contributors, but there was no budget for buying second publication rights.

The book is scheduled to be printed next year.

I have one new project, which I will announce then the deal is set, and I will be tackling my Max Fleischer book once more. Hopefully, since Richard Fleischer's memoir of his father was so limited in scope, there will be interest in something more in depth.

observations of a small town editor, continued....

To paraphrase the Bard, "the story's the thing." There's no purpose in publishing a story unless it's correct, attractive or useful to the reader.

That's why I hate doing puff pieces on businesses, because I doubt anyone cares.

Reviews are just as bad. Everyone wants to be a critic, just like everyone wants to be a columnist. Too many newspapers fall to the siren's song of running reviews because some editor thinks that readers want them.

Readers only want reviews if they are of purpose to them. Here's a case in point: The Republican, our daily in Springfield, ran a review of the Motley Crue concert that took place recently.

The concert was on a Tuesday – a one-night stand – and the review ran on Friday. What was the point? Isn't a review designed to give consumers some educated guidance about something? Isn't it "news you can use?" What is the use of this kind of review?

Well, it filled space and allowed the paper to run a photo that resembled soft-core porn.

Reviewing traveling shows that give a single performance and move on doesn't do the readers a bit of good, but many papers publish these pieces. Perhaps they aspire to be "newspapers of record." Perhaps they want to seem hip and cool. They want to capture that younger demographic.


They just want to eat up space with something locally written that didn't cost very much to produce.

Anything one publishes has to serve the needs of readers, rather than the needs of the newspaper's budget. Otherwise, sooner or later, you won't have any readers.

To be continued...

Monday, March 06, 2006

Every now and then I'm going to write about the press. I know the world is full of media critics, but few of them actually seem to be members of the working press, much less in the trenches where I am.

Let me know what you think

I was at the Chicopee Colleen pageant the other night and I realized how this little story summed up so much of what is wrong in American media today.

Chicopee is a city of about 50,000 in western Massachusetts. It’s a blue-collar community that was settled by Polish, French Canadian and Irish immigrants among others. It has managed to re-gain a new industrial base after the demise of its first generation of factories and is considered to be a safe, stable place to raise a family.

One of its biggest civic events is its participation in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in neighboring Holyoke. The parade is the second largest in the nation – only New York’s is larger – and Chicopee is one of the many local communities that have a large contingent in the parade.

For many years, Chicopee – like Holyoke and Springfield – has presented a Colleen contest. Unlike other Colleen competitions, Chicopee doesn’t require the participants to have any Irish heritage. There is something nicely American about a contest to celebrate a particular ethnic group that is open to all.

For Chicopee, this is a fairly big “soft” news story. It’s a feel good story. It reflects some of the lifestyles and values of the community, which I understand is supposed to be our jobs.

For weeks preceding the event I publish photos of the contestants in our weekly newspaper serving Chicopee, The Herald. The culmination is the contest itself and someone on the staff must sacrifice a chunk of a Saturday night to make sure we have the name of the winner, her court, and photos for the edition that will be distributed on Wednesday.

It’s not a great assignment. The time at which the organizers tell you the decision will be made is never accurate. There’s nowhere to sit, generally and not even a place to stash your coat. So you stand and wait.

The heart-breaking part is when the five finalists are picked out of a group of 30 or more young women. To see their faces and to realize just how controlled they’re trying to be as they’re returning to sit at the tables with their families is a detail of the story that is seldom reported.

So I had the cover the story this year as because of budget cuts we have lost a reporter and since I’m on salary – and because I’m the boss – I have to do it.

Now at the event there were the three television stations, the editor of the competing weekly in Chicopee, and a photographer from the daily ‘paper, The Republican to cover it.

It was a nice turnout all right. It was the weekend, which is notoriously slow for “real” news. I advise many non-profit groups to stage their events on the weekend because television is hungry for material at that time.

The three TV stations left before the winner was announced. How could you leave before the climax, the purpose of the story, unfolded?

The Republican opted not to send a reporter this year. Undoubtedly they will have a reporter call one of the organizers and do something after the fact.

Only myself, the photographer of The Republican and the editor of the Chicopee Register remained until the end.

Now the organizers had done something that they thought would ensure them proper television coverage – they had asked one of the local TV weathermen to be a judge. That ploy, however, did not keep the videographer there for the entire event.

The problem is that the event went on too late. The Colleen wasn’t announced until after 10 p.m. The TV crews had to get back to the stations, where I’m sure they handed a producer a telephone number where someone could call to get the name of the Colleen.

That’s missing both the point of the story and the advantage of the medium: to capture the emotion of the moment on tape.

The sad truth is if the Colleen contest producers had wanted the TV crews to be presenting at the crowning, they needed to be sure the winner was announced at 8 p.m.

So instead of the media reporting the news, the newsmakers must make their event media-friendly to ensure the story is presented correctly.

It’s all about money. It’s better to go cheap and shoot some footage of the contest and supplement it with a voice-over than to do the story correctly.

Same thing goes with the daily newspaper. It’s better to send a photographer to grab a shot and hold it until someone can do a story by talking with someone after the fact.

This is how you meet the lowered expectations of your audience.

There’s no profit these days in raising the bar. Media owners don’t want to give audiences more than their competitor. They simply want to get by with as little as possible.

The Springfield television market is about 104th or 109th in the national rankings of size. It’s a mid-size market. The NBC and ABC affiliates have a 90-minute evening broadcast Monday through Friday that repeats the same major stories and weather forecasts every half-hour. They do not have the budget to produce a solid 90 minutes of local news. They could do a great 30 minutes or an okay hour, but 90 minutes is way beyond their capacity.

What is within their ability is a promotional effort telling audiences over and over that they “are working for you.” They’re not, of course. They’re working for the advertisers trying to create a product that will attract viewers to watch the ads.

I try to be honest when I’m talking to people about the reality of the news business for our newspapers. We have a small operation and can’t be everywhere people want us to be.

Television wants to perpetuate this myth and generally fails in trying to cover a broadcast market. However the vanity element of “being on television” is very seductive and many people court TV for coverage much more than the print outlets because of 30 seconds of fame.

In the meantime, the story is lost.

It’s all smoke and mirrors and these attitudes get worse as the media outlet gets larger.

To be continued…

Sunday, March 05, 2006

I was transfixed by magic and ventriloquism as a kid. Paul Winchell with his dummy Jerry Mahoney was a must-see on television every week, as was magician Mark Wilson.

My favorite segments of such shows were the rare ones in which a little of the techniques behind the illusions were revealed. I know I wasn't the only kid in my generation who wanted to amaze friends and break ice at parties with astounding sleight of hand tricks or throw my voice for similar reasons.

So since my earliest years I've been fascinated by behind the scenes stuff. Give me the opportunity to see or learn something that isn't general knowledge and I'm a happy camper.

I thought I would share a little of what really happens at a press event with you this week. I know that you understand that what you read or see is a fraction of what really went on. For completely legitimate reasons, no media outlet can afford to present everything, nor do they discuss the process.

I'm going to draw the curtain a bit to the side so you can see what happens back stage.

I received a press release that stated that State Senator Stephen Buoniconti would be announcing his bid for re-election on March 1 at 2 p.m. at the Basketball Hall of Fame and that State Senate President Robert Travaglini would accompany him.

No offense to Steve, who is a nice guy and capable legislator, but the big news here for reporters in western Massachusetts was to have a little face time with Travaglini.

So I arrive at the Hall at 2 p.m., which is actually a little late. Amanda Raus of CBS 3 was there as well as John "Don't call me 'Binky'" Baibak of WHYN. A few moments after I arrived, Mary Ellen Lowney of The Republican arrived.

There were plenty of reporters but a noticeable lack of politicians. So we did what reporters are apt to do: trade insults (John and myself) and generally gossip and complain about working conditions and politicians who don't turn up at their own press events on time.

I said my one question to Travaglini would be whether or not he needed a road map to find Springfield. I was still smarting from inviting him to lunch and not hearing back from him a few weeks ago.

About 2:10 p.m. one of Steve's aides came up to the group and announced that Steve was anticipated in about 20 minutes. Mary Ellen asked her if Travaglini needed a map and the aide said they did give him one. Apparently this nugget might wind up as a "Cries and Whispers" item.

I'll send them an invoice.

Twenty minutes, though, is a major pain, as we all had another assignment. Something like that can throw off your entire day. But we all persevered.

I noticed that there were two TV stations missing and I was told that one said it didn't cover re-election announcements by incumbents and the other wouldn't commit.

The one thing no one teaches in journalism classes is creative waiting. It's a skill you learn on the job.

Finally the pair of politicians turned up. They schmoozed their supporters who had gathered and we all started urging them under our breath to get this thing rolling. They asked their supporters to stand behind them as a statement of support - something for television.

About 15 minutes later it was pretty much over. I was back in my car heading through the South End at 3 p.m.

Forty minutes of waiting for 15 minutes of substance is a debatable cost to pay, but considering that two television stations, WFCR and the weeklies that compete with us didn't get a shot at a Travaglini quote tipped the enterprise to the profit side of the ledger for me.

Ah, little victories are the sweetest.

The media lesson for today is that most elected officials will be late. (There are exceptions: Charlie Ryan is always on time). So, be prepared to amuse yourself and don't schedule something too close to a political event.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A flawed documentary, a great assortment of Buster Keaton items and a visually arresting film are the offerings in this week's DVD column.

Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization

This 1999 five hour documentary originally made for British television had the potential for being a fairly comprehensive look at a subject that rarely gets a sober treatment on television.

In this country if something to do with pornography turns up on a TV news program it will undoubtedly be as sensational as possible and also carry some sort of moral message to it.

The premise of the series is to show that what we now call "pornography" has with us for centuries, although the social context has been radically different from culture to culture.

The first segment dealing with the discovery of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii and how Victorians in Great Britain reacted to what they found is among the best episodes.

The second episode, which dealt with how the printing press affected adult materials and the subsequent reaction from authorities, was also quite good.

However the remaining four episodes had some major flaws. In the segment on the impact of photography and the rise of "men's magazines," the filmmakers never mentioned Hugh Hefner or Playboy, an inconceivable omission in a production such as this one.

In the episode on motion pictures, huge chunks of film history are left out. The result is a very misinformed look at that part of the story.

The filmmakers make a leap from the start of the Production Code in 1934 to Deep Throat in 1972. By doing so they are implying that Deep Throat started the cinematic porn revolution.

No one can deny the influences of Deep Throat on society, much less the porn industry, but Deep Throat would never have come about without the following events:

The adults only movies of the 1930s and ‘40s by road show producers such as Kroger Babb, Dan Sonney, Dwain Esper and the like certainly planted the seeds of more sexually explicit material on the screen.

The Production Code was fatally weakened with the release of The Moon is Blue without its seal of approval. Before then, films could not be exhibited without that approval. Audiences made it a hit.

The rise of the burlesque films in the 1950s and the emergence of filmmakers such as Russ Meyer and his nudie movies pushed more envelopes.

The growing number of Hollywood films with “mature” content coupled with the release of the imported I Am Curious Yellow in 1969 brought on the MPPA rating system.

The rating system gave filmmakers a partial defense against certain criticism. The X rating spelled out for audiences that some people might be offended by a film’s contents. They had fair warning.

The last two episodes, which cover the advent of videotape and the Internet, seemed padded, with experts repeating the variations of the same message that technology pushes pornography to new boundaries.

What is missing is an explanation why people are drawn to adult entertainment; if it has positive or negative social effects; and how pornography is a lightening rod for controversy even in these times. I would also like to have seen a discussion whether or not the acceptance of pornography in our society had made other forms of entertainment cruder.

The program is fairly explicit - the Brits don't mind sexual material as much as they do violence - so be warned.

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Industrial Strength Keaton

Buster Keaton is one of my cinematic gods. I know that Charles Chaplin supposedly set the mark for silent comedy and that Harold Lloyd was probably more popular than Buster at the box office. Neither comic made films that seem to hold up as well as Keaton did in his prime.

And his prime was the 1920s. Losing his independence as a producer, a bad marriage and an addiction to alcohol all contributed to Keaton's fall from grace in the early 1930s.

He was able to sober up and return to films, although he was never able to reach the pinnacle he once had. He had a successful final act in his life in which he appeared a numerous television shows, made commercials and industrial films, performed in European circuses and saw his silent films embraced by a new generation of movie fan.

This collection is like a Keaton scrapbook collected by Keaton fans and scholars. If you want to see Buster at his best, find a copy of Sherlock Jr., The Cameraman or The Navigator, among others and then watch these two discs.

Two of Keaton's sound features are included in the collection, Parlor, Bedroom and Bath and An Old Spanish Custom. Neither is among his best sound outings, but they're interesting to watch. There are some silent rarities, as well, including a restored version of Keaton’s great short, The Playhouse.

The revelations are the commercials and industrial films in the collection. They are a treat.

No Keaton fans should be without this two-disc set.

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Comic book artist David McKean teamed up with his frequent collaborator writer Neil Gaimen on this kind of, sort of children's film that made its debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

The good news is McKean was able to translate his arresting visual style to the screen through the use of props, Muppets (the film was co-produced by the Jim Henson Company) and computer effects and animation.

The bad news is the film's story is pretty derivative and doesn't really involve the viewer.

The story revolves around a 15 year-old girl Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) whose parents run a small circus in Great Britain. She's a bit rebellious, but those feelings subside when her mother develops a life-threatening medical condition. Now the kid feels guilty and when she falls asleep she finds her self trapped in an alternative universe.

There she find she resembles the daughter of a dark queen (played by the same actress who plays her mother, Gina McKee) and discovers that if she wants to escape and return she must wake the Queen of Light (played once again McKee) with the Mirrormask.

This movie falls into the same sub-genre as The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth and Spirited Away in which a teenage girl finds herself in a strange fantastical land and must master some task in order to go home.

While McKean's visual style contributes much to the film, the plot does not.

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