Monday, January 27, 2020

Review: 'TV Milestones: The Twilight Zone.'

The Twilight Zone haunted TV screens long before the concept of auteur TV, and though Rod Serling was the anthology’s most recognizable face, he did not write every episode. Yet Barry Keith Grant still makes a fairly solid argument for Serling’s role as auteur in the new book TV Milestones: The Twilight Zone. Grant notes how Serling promoted a groundbreaking blend of traditional genres (sci-fi, horror, noir, fantasy, western) and how his center-left politics and Hobbesian “world at war” philosophy (art vs. commerce, individuality vs. conformity, etc.) and willingness to address current events distinguished The Twilight Zone as much as its gremlins, Kanamits, and asymmetrical doctors.

I’m no great proponent of the auteur theory, and such a variety of writing, directing, cinematographic, and acting talent was involved in The Twilight Zone that it would not be my pick for a prime example of auteur TV. Yet Grant makes his case sufficiently convincing by emphasizing how much of its creator went into The Twilight Zone and how unique it was for its time as a result. That kind of focus rather than a more sweeping analysis is also smart considering how slim these TV milestones books are. Barry Keith Grant makes good use of his 100 pages.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Farewell, Terry Jones

It's easy to forget how much Monty Python reshaped the face of comedy. The six-man troupe solidified sketch comedy as arguably the most effective delivery method for laughs. They spread a distinctly British form of absurdity around the globe. They killed parrots. They made at least a couple of great movies. The Meaning of Life wasn't that great.

As the director of those movies (he co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with that other Terry and did Life of Brian on his own. He also directed The Meaning of Life on his own, but don't worry too much about that one since it isn't that great. Well, Mr. Creosote is pretty funny. Feel free to think about Mr. Creosote), Terry Jones was a particularly important Python. He also co-wrote such classic sketches as "Spam", "The Spanish Inquisition", "The Ministry of Silly Walks", and "Fish Slapping Dance" with writing partner Michael Palin. He was also Mr. Creosote. Terry Jones's fascination with history that fueled the Holy Grail and sketches such as "The Spanish Inquisition" also resulted in more serious projects, specifically the books Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary and Who Murdered Chaucer? both of which are apparently about Chaucer.

Sadly, Terry Jones was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia in 2015, a form of dementia that affected his speech. On January 21, Jones died of complications from the syndrome. He was 77.

Review: 'Star Trek: Year Five'

At the beginning of each episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk informed us that the crew of the starship Enterprise was on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and so on. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the gang never got to finish their mission on TV because hostile aliens from the planet NBC aborted it after just three years.

In light of season-three’s high ratio of stinker episodes like “Spock’s Brain” and “Turnabout Intruder”, Star Trek’s early cancellation may have actually been merciful, though there were more tales worth telling in that universe, hence the franchise’s healthy life beyond 1969.

One of the most recent continuations of the Star Trek story returns us to its origins to complete the Enterprise’s original mission. Star Trek: Year Five is a comic series from IDW that began last April, and the groovy thing about this series is how faithful it is to the original series at its best. Like that original, Year Five is the work of multiple writers and multiple directors—or in this case, artists—yet all are dedicated to recreating the Star Trek we know and love in terms of storytelling, characterizations, themes, and visuals. While the art style varies from issue to issue, it never becomes so stylized that we cannot recognize the faces of Shatner, Nimoy, Nichols, and the rest. As soon as Bones orders Kirk to drink brandy on the job in “episode” one (these are episodes, not issues), we are transported right back to the sixties. Fortunately, that period flavor does not extend to its treatment of Uhura, who gets a much bigger role throughout these comics than she did in the original series (Sulu, however, tends to get sidelined).

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review: 'Jack Kirby's Dingbat Love'

In the seventies, Jack Kirby developed several titles for DC Comics’ “Speak Out” series, which would skew toward a more adult readership while tackling topics such as divorce, African-American romance, and street crime. DC did not like Kirby’s approach, watering down his comics in most respects and ultimately nipping them all in the bud. Consequently, Kirby’s work on True-Life Divorce, Soul Love, and Dingbats on Danger Street has become some of the rarest artifacts from the “King of Comics”.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Review: 'TV Milestones: Twin Peaks'

Few twentieth century TV series have been as closely examined as Twin Peaks has been. Because it is so mysterious, evocative, experimental, and elliptical, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series has invited deep, deep, deep analysis since the days before the Internet was ubiquitous. In an Internet-mired age, the analysis has gotten deeper than ever. A fan recently posted a four-and-a-half hour (!) video analysis of all three seasons and the Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me feature film that has received more than 600,000 visits as of this writing.

So what can Julie Grossman and Will Schiebel’s 88-page monograph on Twin Peaks for the TV Milestones series possibly bring to the conversation at this analytical oversaturation point? Well, without necessarily being essential, the book does accomplish a few things. Most obviously and fundamentally, it is the first printed book devoted to the analysis of Twin Peaks published since season three aired in 2017, so for those who can’t be bothered to wade through all of that Internet material, it is the handiest and most encompassing look at the Twin Peaks phenomenon to date.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: 'A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s'

Prog rock was never exactly cool, but you can’t say no one liked it. Contemporary critics tended to mock it and sighed sighs of relief when punk blew in at the end of the seventies, but punk did not sell like prog did. Even my square-as-a-chessboard dad bought a copy of Aqualung because that’s what everyone else was doing in 1971.

Decades removed from questions of “what the hell was with Topographic Oceans?”, its now generally okay to just like what you like, especially if it’s pretty geeky. Though prog was never really all about Tolkien and complex mathematical theorems as the naysayers would have you believe, it was still pretty geeky.

What I’m trying to say in my confused, convoluted, proggy way is that the time is now right for a deep plunge into prog to both determine what it is and celebrate it. That’s what Mike Barnes does with his new book A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s. The UK designation in that title is fairly pointless since prog is such a distinctly British phenomenon (Rush being one exception, as well as a band that does not get so much as a single name-drop in this book. The author does cede precisely 1% of his book to a discussion of German prog bands, though).

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Farewell, Steve Martin-Caro of The Left Banke

They only made two albums, but The Left Banke was one of the best pop groups of the sixties. They married baroque harpsichord and strings with a British Invasion-by-way-of-NYC backbeat to create such starkly beautiful recordings as "Walk Away Renee", "Pretty Ballerina", the majestic "Desiree", and the eerie "Dark Is the Bark". 

A good deal of that beauty came from the mouth of Steve Martin-Caro, who possessed pop's most exquisitely sad voice as far as I'm concerned. He could even render upbeat confections like "Nice to See You" and "Sing, Little Bird, Sing" heartbreaking. On occasion, he could even shake the tears off his pipes to actually whoop it up on rockers such as "Evening Gown", on which he unleashes one of pop's most unexpected Little-Richard shrieks. Martin-Caro also co-write quite a few of The Left Banke's very best songs, including "She May Call You Up Tonight", "I've Got Something on My Mind", "Shadows Breaking Over My Head", and "Dark Is the Bark". 

Martin-Caro was born Carmelo Esteban Martin Caro, but changed his name to Steve Martin during his pop days, only to add his family surname to his professional name after another entertainer named Steve Martin became famous in the eighties. Sadly, Steve Martin-Caro died at the age of 71 this past Tuesday, January 14. The cause is not yet known.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Farewell, Neil Innes

Comedy and music are both great, but they rarely make great bedfellows (no offense, Weird Al..."Dare to Be Stupid" is a terrific song!). Neil Innes's ability to fuse the two into something genuinely funny and genuinely musically enjoyable was a rare exception. Innes made his first major mark as a member of the uncontested best comedy band, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, singing and writing (though not producing...that honor went to Paul McCartney) the group's one hit "I'm the Urban Spaceman". Innes was responsible for many of the Bonzo's other most tuneful numbers, including "The Equestrian Statue", "Deathcab for Cutie" (co-written with Viv Stanshall and performed in Magical Mystery Tour), "Rockaliser Baby", and "Mr. Apollo" (both ditto the Stanshall part but not the Magical Mystery Tour part). 

Like Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes also became an unofficial member of Monty Python, contributing music to the Flying Circus and several Python LPs, as well as making a very memorable impression as Sir Robin's personal minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

Perhaps the biggest showcase for Neil Innes's multi-talents is The Rutles, his and Eric Idle's spot-on Beatles parody-homage (or parmage, which is also a French cheese). Innes and Idle co-wrote the 1978 mockumentary All You Need is Cash, while Innes took over completely for its soundtrack which parodied more than a dozen Beatles classics while also being a very good listen on a purely musical level. Innes's Lennon impersonation as Ron Nasty is uncanny both on screen and on vinyl.

While The Rutles project was arguably the peak of Innes's career, he remained a very active entertainer through the years, reviving his most celebrated project for 1996's Anthology-parody The Rutles: Archaeology and forming The Idiot Bastard Band with fellow British-comedy luminary Adrian Edmondson and some other guys. Sadly, Neil Innes died at the age of 75 this past December 29. His death was reportedly "unexpected." I'll miss the idiot bastard.
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