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Posts Tagged ‘TV’

Role Play

June 8, 2015 | by

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A still from Holiday in the Protectorate.

Readers of the New York Times may have noticed a recent story about a new Czech reality show. In the tradition of Victorian House and other total-immersion programs, this one sticks modern people in another time—specifically a 1939 “remote mountain farm” in what was then the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hilarity does not ensue. As the article explains,

There, they must not only survive the rigors of rustic life with dated appliances and outdoor plumbing, but navigate the moral and physical dangers of life under Nazi rule.

German troops (played by actors) kick down their doors in the middle of the night. Local villagers betray them to the Gestapo. Food is scarce. Conditions are crude.

Everything about this show sounds distasteful, certainly. Besides the obvious objections, the basic flaw in these time-travel shows—the assumption that you can switch off modern mores along with central AC—seems doubly true here. Reading about it, I was reminded of when my father and I had gone to an exhibit featuring artifacts from the Titanic. To enter, we’d had to show a “boarding pass,” and they’d made us pose for an obligatory picture together at the top of the stairs they’d re-created, just like Rose and Jack in the movie. Read More »

Better Call Caravaggio

April 23, 2015 | by

Vince Gilligan borrows from the Baroque.

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Above left, a still from Better Call Saul; above right, Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac (detail), 1602.

The eldest character in Better Call Saul isn’t Mike Ehrmantraut, Tuco’s unsuspecting abuelita, or any of the nursing-home residents shakily spooning gelatin from attorney-branded dessert cups. It’s the show’s sixteenth-century lighting scheme, which has better lines than even Bob Odenkirk himself—they’re just in the form of shadows rather than wry legalese.

In fact, while Saul’s setting derives from the blue crystal “artwork” of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, much of its symbolism draws from the black brushstrokes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Saul’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have already confessed a soft spot for symbolism; they used a hot-and-cold color palette to divide the wardrobes of criminals and law-abiding citizens, with Jimmy bridging both worlds as he fights the temptation to break bad. These biblical undertones extend far past the fiery brimstone of Tuco’s shirt and the heavenly hues of “Hamlin Blue”—they go all the way back to the Baroque era of painting. Read More »

The Way the World Ends

February 5, 2015 | by

Being the last man on Earth.

From In the Mouth of Madness, 1981.

On a recent Sunday evening, trying to relax, I turned on the television and saw an ad for a new comedy series called The Last Man on Earth. It wasn’t clear how everyone else had died.

I had learned what I needed to know, or had remembered it: television does not relax me. I turned the television off, took an Ativan, and listened to The Teddy Charles Tentet, a terrific jazz record.

Phil Miller is the last man on earth—which makes him the world’s greatest handyman—world’s greatest athlete—[etc.]

The last man on earth.

But of course one is not the Last Man on Earth. There are other people, equal claimants to the Earth. It can be vexing to share it with them. Read More »

Have You Seen This Plaque? And Other News

January 6, 2015 | by

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Photo: Stifehler, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Everyone says television has entered a new golden age, so it follows that books based on television have entered a new golden age, too. In other words, why write a novel when you can write a novelization? “For publishers, tie-in books have become cash cows that offer instant brand recognition and access to huge fan bases for vastly larger media … ‘Sometimes I meet writers who are like, “Why are you doing this?” but I would be betraying who I am if I said I’m never going to do this again because it’s beneath me as an artist … I combat the idea that these can’t be good novels.’ ”
  • Breaking: some hooligan has made off with the bronze plaque that hangs on Mark Twain’s grave marker in Elmira, New York. Authorities have ensured that it’s not on eBay.
  • Our literary critics have become less egotistical over the decades—have they also lost the touch? “Literary critics have become more subdued, adopting methods with less grand speculation, more empirical study, and more use of statistics or other data. They aim to read, describe, and mine data rather than make ‘interventions’ of world-historical importance.”
  • And Vanity Fair has done something of an about-face, too, if you look at its history. “That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies,” but the early iteration of the magazine, edited by Frank Crowninshield, “sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing.”
  • Rediscovered credos on typography from a 1964 issue of Print magazine: “Is the typographer a prophet or a propagator of a new faith? Typography should be allowed individuality … [but] the aim of typography must not be expression, least of all self-expression, but perfect communication achieved by skill … Typography is a servant and nothing more.”

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Winner of the American Book Award

November 20, 2014 | by

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The third edition of The Complete Directory, prominently advertising its award-winner status.

The early eighties were strange times for the National Book Award. At the turn of the decade, the award’s custodians decided to modernize its image. As Craig Fehrman described the scenario in the New York Times a few years ago, “If publishers were going to spend upward of $100,000 a year running the prizes—not to mention the costs of transporting and feting authors—they wanted something that would give them a better return on their investment.”

And so the National Book Awards—which were, at the time, frankly even more literary than they are today—were dissolved. In their stead came The American Book Awards, a wan bid for populist affection, as implied by that patriotic new name. (That capital in The is essential.) “It will be run almost exactly the way the Academy Awards are run,” a spokesman told reporters, as if the fickle literary set were hankering for an injection of Hollywood glamour. Or Broadway glamour—a theater producer designed the set for the event, which was to be televised. An “academy” of more than two thousand publishing pros took part in the voting.

In 1979, awards were given in seven categories. In 1980, they were given in thirty-four, including typographical design, current-interest nonfiction, religion and inspiration, and—my personal favorite—general reference. In essence, the American Book Awards are to the National Book Awards as New Coke is to Coca-Cola Classic, i.e., a complete fucking disaster, one that all parties involved would prefer to forget. Read More »

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Assorted Hijinks: An Interview with Dick Cavett

November 13, 2014 | by

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Cavett on the cover of Brief Encounters.

Forty years ago, The Dick Cavett Show was a place where luminaries sparred (e.g., Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer), where reclusive stars lowered their guard (Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier), and where musicians were actually interviewed about their music (David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon). Cavett’s show put an early spotlight on the Watergate scandal, even taping a special episode with the senators in the very chambers where the hearings were taking place. It’s hard to imagine today’s major-network late-night shows doing anything similar.

The Nebraska-born Cavett began in New York as a broke Yale grad attempting an acting career while working as a copy boy at Time magazine. One afternoon, with a Time envelope in hand, he bluffed his way into The Tonight Show studios and handed said envelope, filled with jokes, to Jack Paar, who was then the show’s host. Paar used some of the material that night; Cavett was hired, and booked talent for Paar, briefly, until a writing staff slot opened up. Later, he wrote for fellow Nesbaskan Johnny Carson before going out on his own, so to speak.

Cavett, at seventy-seven, keeps busy—for the past several years he’s moonlighted as a columnist for the New York Times, and earlier this year he starred in Hellman v. McCarthy, a play off Broadway at the Abingdon Theater Company that explores the legal fallout from a time in ’79 when Cavett had the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy on his show. McCarthy lambasted Lillian Hellman: “She really belongs to the past. As I said in an interview, she’s such a dishonest writer that even her ands and thes are lies.” Cavett plays himself in the play. “The funny thing is,” he told the Times when it debuted, “I was the second choice for the role.”

In July, Cavett made a popular video with Dave Hill and Malcolm Gladwell about the Amazon-Hachette dispute; he followed this with an op-ed in Time about the prevalence of depression in show business (“Robin Williams Won’t Be the Last Suicidal Star”). That same week, PBS aired a special, “Dick Cavett’s Watergate,” about his role in having publicized the scandal.

Finally, last week saw the publication of Cavett’s new memoir, Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks, with a foreword by Jimmy Fallon. To discuss the book, late-night television, and his writing process, I rang Cavett at his house in Montauk.

In Cavett, your book from 1974, you quite vehemently said you had no interest in being a cultural critic. But that’s an arguably accurate descriptor for you.

I would never think of that as a description of me. It has a nice sound, I like the alliteration, but other than that, it surprises me when I’m  called that. Honestly, I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me to think of myself as a writer/commentator/ cultural critic /columnist. Especially for The New York Times. I’ve had op-ed pieces in the Times over the years when I was pissed off about something. But I always felt alien to friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. I’m still wondering.

Anyway, the Times offer came over the transom—or out of the blue. (Is it National Cliché Week?) and I took the dive. (Another one.) I’ve been told I write well, maybe thanks to two English teacher parents who wrote well, so I took the job. It’s not for the money, I assure you. Someone said, do you want to try a column for the Times? And I thought, Sure, I guess. How much. And they said two days a week. Most writers would have meant how much money, I guess. And I said, that seems easy enough, and it was—for about three weeks when I was doing two a week. Then I started to get desperate, because I felt I had said everything I would ever be able to say in a column of any kind. It’s always nice when someone remembers a line correctly from something you’ve written. In a Sarah Palin column, I said, “She seems to have no first language.” And this is much remembered to this very day, I find. Strange.

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