Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dexter and the Writers' Strike Revisited

Dexter has made the transition from the premium cable ghetto to traditional network TV. Beginning 17 February, CBS will add the exploits of the vigilante serial killer to its primetime lineup. Actually, the Big Eye will be offering an “edited” version of the critically acclaimed first season of Dexter.
As someone who’s been writing about Dexter since its premiere way back in September 2006, I suppose I should be excited. At the very least, I should feel vindicated. After all, I’ve been extolling the virtues of a loveable psychopath for the past eighteen months. That Dexter has finally made its way out of the cable ghetto should make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
But it doesn’t. And here’s why.
In the first place, I don’t want to see Dexter co-opted to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. Admittedly, CBS tends to push the envelope with series like Criminal Minds and even CSI in its finer moments. Even at that, they ultimately end up being procedural dramas, with the white hats winning over the black hats in the end.
Dexter’s approach has always been more complex. It puts the viewer into the killer’s mind, and even makes us feel a certain empathy for him. The supporting characters are complex, and frequently profane. It is a show intended for adults. I doubt the nuances in it are going to translate well to network television. That’s not what causes me concern, though. What bothers me is the fact that Dexter most likely would not be making the transition from premium cable to network were it not for the writers’ strike. Here’s what CBS President of Entertainment Nina Tassler had to say about the network picking up the series:

We’re excited to work with our corporate cousins at Showtime on this unique programming opportunity. Dexter is a high-quality, compelling series that will be new and original programming for most CBS viewers. It’s also a great match with our existing line-up, affording us the opportunity to promote this critically decorated series in CBS’ top-rated crime dramas.
And Showtime’s President of Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, added this:
We're thrilled to have the chance to expose Dexter to a wider audience on CBS. I think it will be very compatible with their line-up as well as be a great opportunity to promote our brand on a platform that reaches every home in America.

As lofty as all that sounds, it’s actually a classic exercise in doublespeak. The truth of the matter is the networks are pulling every little trick they have to squash the writers’ strike. I hinted at this outcome in November, when I first guessed that the networks had lost their vision, and that cable TV might offer the best hope for meaningful television. I didn’t realize at that time — though I should have — that the corporate types would simply cannibalize their own programs, and present them as fresh and daring.Here’s the thing — the writers are still getting screwed. It doesn’t matter if the Director’s Guild has reached a tentative agreement with the producers. Nobody knows the details of that agreement. Supposedly, it’s something the producers (AMPTA) and the directors DGA) can sleep with, and that’s all well and fine.There’s a problem in that line of reasoning, though. What’s good for directors is not necessarily good for writers. Film has traditionally been the province of directors, visual medium that it is. But what people forget sometimes is that none of those magnificent images — from Scorcese, Spielberg, Scott, whomever — would not exist had it not been for a scribe typing “FADE IN” to make the project take wing.And that’s why I’m almost, but not quite, offended by the eminent debut of Dexter on network TV. On the one hand, I’m delighted that Dexter, however abbreviated, is finally reaching the audience it always deserved. Dexter has always been one of the most original, and most daring series ever produced in America. On the other, a diluted, censored version of the series can’t convey its impact. Much of what makes Dexter so engaging are the complexities of the characters. Once those are censored for network viewing, the series loses much of what makes it great.
And therein lies the rub. The producers are counting on the idea that consumers will obligingly march to a sea of mediocrity, as evidenced by Deal Or No Deal, and shows of that ilk. They may be right. Viewers, in the producers’ view, are lemmings who have no idea what they want until it’s spoon fed to them. A game of chance, or a so-called reality show, will trump a well-written drama or comedy anytime. NBC, especially, is counting on that strategy. They, and the other networks, sweeten up the pot, of course, by pulling out unaired episodes already produced before the strike, and tout them as “brand new” episodes
So that puts us back at square one. The well will go dry soon, and both sides appear to be resolute in their contentions. As much as I love Dexter, Weeds, Entourage and a few other cable offerings, I don’t see them as the producers’ salvation. Their edgy moments simply won’t translate well in a censored, edited version.
I hope I’m wrong, but I seldom am. Maybe it’s the populist in me, but I believe the audiences for those series want to be challenged. By the same token, I don’t think the average network viewer, kickin’ back on a Sunday night with the family, will take kindly to a series with a serial killer protagonist.Maybe I’m too jaded. Perhaps the producers will finally realize their success hinges upon the betrodden writers, and there will be joyous celebrations, replete with flowers and dancing with wild abandon.
Naahh. Bean counters can’t dance.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How the Ramones Changed the World
Tracing the roots of punk rock is a popular pastime among rock critics and genealogists. The usual proto-punk suspects—MC5, the Seeds, Iggy and the Stooges, Patti Smith—are invariably cited. I could go on, but it would be fruitless. We’d end up breaking it down to my favorite obscure garage band when I was a kid, and you’d counter with these guys you knew who were smoking everyone at the time—at least on your block. And finally, we’d have to grudgingly admit to each other that that wasn’t really punk, but it sure as hell influenced it. And we’d both be right, no matter how we knew in our individual heart of hearts that you were wrong and I was right, or vice versa.

None of it really matters. Punk is one of those languages that have existed since our prehistoric ancestors first banged sticks on skulls. It’s the stuff of anarchy, sure, but it’s a tribal anarchy that only found sputtered voices here and there through the years—a stuttered lyric here, a buzzsaw chord there—before those voices opted to pursue loftier ambitions. If not that, the anger consumed them, and they left this world too soon. That’s how rock and roll tosses the dice.

Still, there has to be that one moment where something coalesces, and it can be defined, as anti-punk as that may sound. It happened in 1974 in Queens, New York, and it was called the Ramones. Once Jeffrey Hymans, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin and Thomas Erdelyi transformed into Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, they unwittingly transformed rock and roll forever. They put rock back into its adolescent roots—Joey couldn’t play drums and sing at the same time, Dee Dee couldn’t play bass and sing at the same time, and Tommy, who was the band’s manager, had to resort to doubling as the band’s drummer once nobody who auditioned for the gig could get the chops down the way the band wanted. Joey ended up being the singer, Dee Dee stuck to playing bass and Johnny continued to play guitar.

That’s how the revolution began. At a time when rock had become bloated and complacent to the point it couldn’t even recognize itself, the Ramones performed an intervention. Playing loud, fast and hard, they bitch slapped the rock establishment from its somnambulistic stupor. The Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 documents the evolution—if you can call it that—from their earliest shows at CBGB in 1974 to one of their last stadium performances, at the River Plate Stadium in Argentina. In those 22 years, they never veered from rock’s primal instinct. They kept it short, they kept it simple and somehow, they kept it relevant. And in all those years, nothing really changed about the Ramones. There were minor personnel changes—Tommy relinquished the drums to Marky in 1978, followed briefly by Richie, while Marky went through rehab before returning to the band in 1987. CJ replaced Dee Dee on bass in 1989, even though the latter continued to contribute songs until the band’s dissolution in 1996.

The Ramones never scored a top 40 hit in America, although they fared a bit better in the British charts. Their legend lies rooted in their live performances—all 2263 of them. It’s Alive highlights some of their more noteworthy (and notorious) performances. Think of them as snapshots in a scrapbook—you won’t find any complete concerts on this package. That’s not a bad thing, either. Ramones concerts were short, particularly in the early days, when they rarely lasted more than thirty minutes. What you do get here are sketches that offer a perspective of the band that a polished documentary could never provide. There are nuggets here—band members arguing between songs, ancient Super-8 videos of their earliest CBGB performances, an extended clip of the legendary 1977 Rainbow concert in London. There are also embarrassing moments—slickly produced TV appearances on Top of the Pops, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, even a cameo on the short-lived Sha Naa Naa variety TV series.

At over four hours in length, It’s Alive lives up to its billing as “the ultimate double live DVD.” There is no narration of any sort—only performances separated by simple title cards to give a reference point. The one truth that emerges as a result is the Ramones were the first—and I mean the first punk band. When they played London’s Roundhouse 4 July 1976, they fired the shot heard ‘round the world, and ignited the British punk movement, inspiring future members of the Sex Pistols and the Clash. And all through their career, the Ramones kept the spirit of punk alive. It’s Alive appropriately honors the Ramones through its minimalistic approach. It’s presented in 5.1 Dolby, with a 2.0 Stereo option. Extra features are kept to a minimum, consisting of interview snippets, “rare” videos and various filler flotsam.

Mostly, though, it’s about the music that, no matter how you spin it, altered the face of pop culture forever. Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee have passed on. Tommy is more or less gone, too, though he’s resurrected himself as bluegrass artist Uncle Buck. It’s Alive reminds us that rock was never meant to be pompous or bloated. It was, and is, the voice of the malcontent in all of us. The Ramones weren’t looking for a revolution-- they just wanted relief from the ennui that the rock establishment had come to worship. It’s Alive shows how the Ramones shook that temple to its foundations.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Horatio Hornblower: A Hero for All Seasons
Like every generation before us, we think we live in perilous times. And like every generation before us, we’re probably right. Social animals, after all, do tend to fight amongst themselves. What separated we humans from other mammals was our need to justify our actions. Thus, we devised words like “loyalty”, “duty”, “courage” and “justice” to reconcile our primordial needs. For centuries, it more or less worked. We knew if we went into battle risking limb and life, we were right, and the other side was wrong.

We’ve grown jaded in the twenty-first century. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of honor, loyalty, duty, and most importantly, civility. That’s why the release of Horatio Hornblower Collector’s Edition is an important, if largely unheralded, addition to a comprehensive DVD library. It’s a sweeping epic that’s a reminder of the unyielding power of steadfast ethics.

Drawing their inspiration from C.S. Forester’s novels, A&E’s Horatio Hornblower series of made-for television movies ran 1998-2003 on the cable network. (It ran in Britain on ITV, and was simply called Hornblower.) This DVD collection packages all eight movies together in one set. Together, they chronicle the unlikely rise of Horatio Hornblower from midshipman to commander during the early days of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s romantic high seas adventure on a grand scale, lavishly produced, unrivaled in movies made for television broadcast.

By virtue of visuals alone, Horatio Hornblower is an amazing work. Meticulous attention was paid to every detail of the production. From hairstyles to locations to the magnificent full-scale ships integral to the saga, the movies are imbued with a air of authenticity rarely seen in modern productions. There are no computer generated effects here, as there were in recent theatrical films such as Master and Commander. Rather, director Andrew Grieve and producer Andrew Benson eschewed such effects in favor of location shooting and full-sized ships wherever possible, even filming much of the series aboard the ships. Even the battle sequences where actual ships could not be practically utilized, were shot using exquisitely detailed miniatures at Pinewood Studios.

Of course, beautiful visuals mean little if not coupled with a gripping story and powerful performances. The Hornblower movies exquisitely deliver on both counts. The eight films chronicle the trials and triumphs of Hornblower as he rises through the ranks of the British Royal Navy without resorting to miniseries tactics. Each “episode” (lasting about 100 minutes) stands alone as a complete story independent of the other films. While it’s not necessary to see them in chronological order—or any, order, for that matter—they work together to paint an engaging portrait of a man resolute in his personal ethics against all odds. They’re not preachy by any means, but instead weave their themes within the stories in the tradition of classic filmmaking. Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) portrays Hornblower with a perfect blend mannerly reserve and swashbuckling abandon.In his recurring role as Hornblower’s mentor, Captain Pellew, Robert Lindsay (Wimbledon) delivers an outstanding performance as a gruff but tender father figure who quietly charts Hornblower’s career. In fact, there are no weak performances in the series. Supporting actors play their roles with a vigor born of love for the content.

Besides the 800 minute running time of the adventures, this DVD collection offers a wealth of bonus features, including:

· Exclusive interview with Ioan Gruffudd

· Filmmaker Commentary on Loyalty and Duty.

· 3 Bonus Programs: England's Royal Warships, Sail 2000: Aboard the Eagle, and The Making of Horatio Hornblower

· About C.S. Forester

· Nautical Terms and Definitions

· Interactive 3D Naval Cannon

· Guide to Royal Warships

· C.S. Forester Biography

· Cast and Crew Biographies

· Photo Gallery

· Interactive Menus; Scene Selection

The story of Horatio Hornblower is too rich to cover adequately in one review. I’ll be looking at the individual movies in depth over the coming weeks. In the meantime, I recommend the entire series as a rarity—an uplifting saga of valor suitable for family viewing. It never panders to any particular demographic, but instead opts to present a hero for all seasons.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Three Books for the Musically Obsessed
As I write this, it looks as if we’ve survived 2007 after all. I’m not talking about the obvious calamities and uncertainties that we endured throughout the year. Those are the little demons that have beset humankind from the get go. What I’m breathing a sigh of relief over is that we’re finally done with the endless parade of mindless TV specials commemorating the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Summer of Love.” With almost no variation, all these specials looked at the time through rose-colored glasses, and focused on a generation who danced with wild abandon through turbulent times, but were destined to change the world. Not surprisingly, they were by and large made by baby boomers. Even less surprisingly, they were mostly bollocks.

Those of us who grew up in the sixties will tell you it was all about the music. We’d been raised on rock and roll—at least the do-wop and milquetoast soul of American Bandstand at the time. The Beatles changed all that. I was a little kid when I saw them on Ed Sullivan, but some primordial force was awakened within me—I had to have that mop top. And I absolutely had to get a guitar.

My misspent youth aside, the sixties was the decade in which rock music came of age. It was the time when the stentorian voice of youth was unleashed in full, the echoes of which still reverberate today. Sure, the voice has been assimilated into mainstream mores from luxury car commercials to presidential campaigns, but the grumblings and rumblings bubble just beneath the azure calm. The media has changed, but the message has remained the same after all these years.

Three books have recently come across my desk that serve, with varying degrees of success, as snapshots of key moments that helped to transform rock and roll from a teen novelty to an integral aspect of our cultural landscape. The dispatches come from various geographic points from London to Los Angeles to upstate New York, and the viewpoints expressed are equally far-flung. The one commonality between them is they’re written by people whose love of the medium is readily apparent.

To fully appreciate Dominic Priore’s Riot On Sunset Strip, you have to accept the premise that it was Los Angeles, not San Francisco, that spawned the Californian movement that has become a cornerstone of modern music. He makes a compelling case here. As much social commentary as it is music history, Riot examines the brief moments between 1965-66 when LA’s Sunset Strip redefined pop culture before being effectively being shut down by the cops, who were taking their cues from conservative business owners. Priore recreates the climate of the times, and traces how the scene along a 1½ mile strip of Los Angeles real estate transformed the pop culture landscape forever. The Strip was the breeding ground for the Doors, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Buffalo Springfield and numerous other bands whose influence is still being felt today. It was also a hub for art and fashion, and influenced a generation of filmmakers. Riot details it all in exquisite detail, lavishly illustrated with period photos. Priore’s style is almost breezy, yet incisive. For those interested in the evolution of pop culture, this is a must-read.

Million Dollar Bash, Sid Griffin’s exhaustive (and exhausting) study of the recording of Bob Dylan’s almost mythical The Basement Tapes, is not for the casual reader. While recovering from a motorcycle accident in 1967, Dylan holed up with a number of friends (most of which would later become the Band) to informally record what some consider his best body of work. Ironically, Dylan initially did not release the songs. Instead, they emerged as covers by the likes of Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”) and Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and the Trinity (“This Wheel’s On Fire”). There have been numerous bootlegs of the tapes released over the years, but the only official version is the 1975 “The Basement Tapes,” released by Columbia in 1975. Griffin approaches the recordings with the wide eyes of a fan.
As a result, much of the book is based on speculation, breaking down individual songs into who played what, and when and how. The problem with this kind of attention is that the finished product often gets lost in the shuffle. It’s the kind of stuff that music geeks love, but it adds precious little to the Bob Dylan opus.

In Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America, author Jonathan Gould deftly traverses the rugged terrain that lies between the borders of pop culture, journalism, fan enthusiasm and music criticism. No matte how revisionists try to deny it, the Beatles had the single most important impact on popular culture in the twentieth century. In this book, Gould dissects the influence of the Beatles while examining how the sociopolitical upheavals of the time shaped their own musical evolution. This is by no means just another Beatles biography, although it does delineate finer points of their career that are often overlooked. The Beatles themselves, with the exception of John Lennon, were mostly unaware of how they were altering the face of rock and roll. What Gould has done here is not write a book about the Beatles per se, but instead has offered a chronicle of the sixties with the Beatles as the centerpiece. As a result, he presents perhaps the most comprehensive, enjoyable read concerning the Fab Four ever written. More importantly, Gould’s book illustrates how events influence our thought processes, and how we turn to idols to make sense of it all. This isn’t just a good book—it should be required reading for anybody interested in the influence of the sixties, and how we perceive ourselves now.

From the journalistic to the fannish to the scholarly, these three books are prime examples of rock journalism. Even at their worst, they’re leaps and bounds superior to the reviews I too frequently see passing as “criticism.” Power chords don’t hold much weight I the scheme of things. Lasting music does.