Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gag of the Month

The gag is simple.  A man who has been riddled with bullets takes a drink of water and water comes spurting out of the bullet holes.  The above screen capture displays a variation of gag featured in The Three Stooges' Three Pests in a Mess (1945).  Following are three other variations of the gag.

Olsen & Johnson's Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

Abbott & Costello's The Time Of Their Lives (1946)

The gag is used for a pivotal moment in the story when Costello's character realizes that he was fatally shot by soldiers and has turned into a ghost.

Married with Children (1991)

Television Advertisers are Obnoxious Jerks

As a child, I was rarely able to stay up past ten o'clock on a school night, but I remember that those times I did stay up late commercials transformed into something out of the ordinary. The lighting was subdued and the announcers spoke in low tones. The commercials often promoted cigarettes or liquor. Presumably, the sponsors respected the fact that the viewers at this time were mostly moms and dads who had gotten the kids to bed and had finished their final chores of the day. Now, these people were trying to unwind before they themselves went to bed. It was conceivable that many were collapsed in front of the television holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. They did not need to be blasted with loud jingles or have a jokey cartoon pitchman storm their way into their living room. Better to have tranquil voices waft through the air to prepare these people for a good night's sleep. After all, they had to be alert for their jobs the next day if they planned to earn the money to buy these products.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a broadcast recording of a 1962 Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode complete with original commercials. It was like taking a trip back in time. The commercials were mostly like I remembered them to be. Sultry Julie London is sitting in a dark living room with a fireplace burning in background as she softly extols the mellow flavor of Marlboro cigarettes. An announcer speaks in a hushed tone to explain that an elegantly dressed woman enjoying a romantic candlelight dinner is wearing Coti lipstick and perfume. This was soft sell at its best.

The commercial breaks were, in their gentle way, much more appealing than the commercial breaks that television viewers have to endure today. The Hitchcock episode included five commercial breaks while the program was in progress and an additional break after the closing credits. This last break allowed a local commercial to be aired prior to the start of the local news. Four of the breaks that occurred during the show lasted no more than one minute and included no more than a single commercial message. The viewer was brought in and out of the break before they had a chance to get antsy. The one other break, which came at the middle of the hour, was three minutes long and included a station identification, a local commercial and two national commercials (one for Marlboro cigarettes and another for Lavoris mouthwash). The commercial breaks in total, including 20 seconds spent on sponsor identification at the opening and closing of the program, totaled 8 minutes and 24 seconds.

I compared this to the commercial breaks on a current primetime show, NBC's The Event. In this instance, the total time given to commercial breaks was 17 minutes and 44 seconds. There still were five commercial breaks during the course of the hour-long program. The commercial break between shows has been eliminated. The closing scene of The Event was directly followed by an opening teaser for the next program, which was designed to grab viewers before they had a chance to switch away to another channel. However, the commercial breaks are not consistent from show to show. I learned through further research that other hour-long shows, such as Blue Bloods, make room for as much as 20 minutes' worth of commercials per episode.

Most surprising is the number of commercial messages that were broadcast during The Event. Eight commercial messages aired during Hitchcock, but shockingly The Event shoehorned in a total of 42 commercial messages. The modern day philosophy of network broadcasters is to bombard audiences with ads. Buy!  Buy!  Buy!  It is a mind-boggling fever dream of consumerism. Julie London is not whispering these messages in your ear. Today, sponsors do not care if commercials are annoyingly loud and brightly lit as long as they are able to catch your attention in the Great Commercial Expressway. Loud commercials are likely to remain ringing in your ears and shiny commercials stand a chance of burning into your retinas.

The Hitchcock commercials looked to sell mouthwash, shampoo, perfume and lipstick.  But high-dollar items, including cars and electronic devices, were prominent in the advertisements aired during The Event.  Other commercial messages solicited viewers to be socially conscious, participating in recycling efforts and supporting the National Math and Science Initiative. NBC is not even directly earning money for all of these commercials. Several of the commercials promoted other NBC shows, including The Office, 30 Rock, Law and Order: LA, Parenthood, The Biggest Loser and The Voice. A commercial for The Voice aired during three of the five breaks.

I assumed that basic cable channels aired more commercials than the networks, but it only seems that way because basic cable channels have six commercial breaks in an hour. Here is a list of the commercial breaks for an episode of 16 and Pregnant broadcast on April 19, 2011:

10:08:54 to 10:12:02    3 minutes and 08 seconds
10:18:11 to 10:21:34    3 minutes and 23 seconds
10:26:22 to 10:28:56    2 minutes and 34 seconds
10:35:16 to 10:38:19    3 minutes and 03 seconds
10:43:38 to 10:45:54    2 minutes and 16 seconds
10:51:08 to 10:54:55    3 minutes and 47 seconds

The length of these breaks, in total, is 18 minutes and 11 seconds.

If this is not enough advertising, an increasing amount of product placement is being include within the program content. By 2006, product placement had evolved into something that advertisers call an embedded commercial. Here is an embedded commercial for Acuview contact lenses included in a 2006 episode of Smallville.

Blogger Wayne Schmidt wrote, "During a 2008 summer episode of Eureka, the lead star picked up a deodorant dispenser in such an awkward way to keep the label facing the camera that is was insultingly obvious it was a commercial.  Worse still, this was a science fiction show in which the actor was caught in a repeating time loop. That's right, the viewer was forced to watch the clumsy bit of embedded commercialization every time the time loop repeated."

Chuck frequently uses a character's addiction to Subway subs to promote Subway as a part of their storylines.

The Amazing Race proves that Goths are not so anti-establishment that they cannot take the time to provide a good word on the Ford Focus.  A good drinking game would be to take a shot every time you see the Ford logo or hear Ford name-checked during this clip.

A map of Austria cannot be displayed on The Amazing Race without a credit for Google Maps being emblazoned across the bottom of the screen.  

Network executives are trying to find ways to thwart DVR users who fast-forward through commercials.  My son, Griffin, is a big critic of what he calls "DVR traps" (advertisers call them  "interstitial ads" or "DVR busters").  This is when a commercial is designed to look like a scene from the show so that the viewer, thinking the show has started again, eases up on the fast-forward button.  Unsuspecting viewers lured into stopping to watch will not get wise to the trick until it is too late.

Mad Men

Desperate Housewives

30 Rock

I have personally had enough of this advertising overload.  I refuse to buy a product just because an advertiser is determined to cram it down my throat.  I am a brand loyalist anyway.  When I visit the supermarket, I stock up on same products that I have been using for years.  I am largely influenced by word-of-mouth when it comes to purchasing a book or seeing a movie.  I ran out and bought a IPod only after my nephew swore to me how useful his own IPod was.  I am not the type of person willing to buy a Ford car because he sees it on The Amazing Race or Hawaii Five-0 (another showplace for Ford cars).

By their aggressiveness and deceit, network executives have scared  away many consumers and have severely diminished the trust of others.  They need to find a compromise, otherwise no one wins.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Funny Food

A highlight of Grandma's Boy (1922) is a scene in which Mildred Davis makes an effort to feed Harold Lloyd a piece of candy without realizing that she has in fact picked up a mothball that has gotten mixed up with the candy.  Variations of this routine were performed by a number of comedians.  Routines involving comedians consuming inedible objects or adulterated food is the subject of a Funny Parts chapter entitled "Misadventures in Eating."  The chapter covers classic routines from Chaplin's struggle to eat a boot to Abbott & Costello's "Turkey Sandwich and a Cup of Coffee" fracas.

Honoring the Goofs

A person who holds their comedy icons in reverence could not approve of New Year's Evil (1980), which features a serial killer stalking victims in a Stan Laurel mask.  But, unfortunately, fans of classic comedy have long had to endure seeing the likeness, catchphrases and mannerisms of beloved comedians turn up in a variety of guises and permutations.  What would Groucho Marx have said if he knew that his act would one day be co-opted by a cartoon stork hawking pickles.

Stork?  Hawk? I believe I just made a joke, son!

By the way, Foghorn Leghorn was one of the first in a long line of cartoon characters modeled after a popular comedian.  The model for the talkative rooster was the talkative radio comedian Kenny Delmar.  As fond as I am of Foghorn, I can't help but feel bad that a cartoon counterfeit of a comedian can be better remembered than the actual comedian.

Perhaps, though, a disservice to Stan Laurel greater than transforming his lovably buffoonish screen character into a knife-wielding psychopath was the woefully misguided way in which Lucille Ball impersonated him on her 1960s sit-com.

Someone should have let Ball know that, although Laurel often scratched his head for comic effect, he never once scratched his derby.

These representations tend, in their wake, to diminish if not tarnish the memories of the originals.  I, as one humble fan, celebrate these men and women in their true form at this and every other opportunity. 

Trapdoor Escapes

A standard in silent films was for a comedian to make a resourceful use of trapdoors to avoid capture during a breakneck chase scene.  This type of routine goes back to nineteenth-century British Pantomime.

Here is an early film version of the routine performed by Harold Lloyd for a 1918 comedy called Follow the Crowd.

One of the best choreographed versions of the routine appeared in Buster Keaton's The High Sign (1921). 

This routine was used to a lesser extent in sound films.  Here is an example of the routine from Marx Brothers' last M-G-M feature, The Big Store (1941).

A Good Comedy Routine is Worth Repeating

In The Gold Rush (1925), Charlie Chaplin's life is endangered when his cabin is dislodged by storm winds and ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff.

Less than six months after the release of The Gold Rush, a copycat routine was touted on posters for Min's Home on the Cliff (1926). 

In Seven Chances (1925), Buster Keaton appeared on screen being chased by a horde of hopeful brides.

Months later, Sid Smith suffered a similar fate in a Fox two-reel comedy called The Heart Breaker (1925).


Leapin' lizards!

Zach Galifianakis recently garnered praise from Entertainment Weekly and assorted commentators in the blogosphere for a Saturday Night Live sketch in which he appeared wearing Little Orphan Annie's cute red dress.  I need to say, though, that no one could ever look funnier in this gabardine frock than Chuck McCann, who regularly donned the outfit on his television series in the 1960s.  McCann went all the way with the getup by wearing a big curly yellow wig and concealing his eyes behind blank white circles.  It was truly a sight to behold. 

A Peek at Alice Howell

A further example of kick-the-brat comedy is provided by Alice Howell in Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917).

Howell demonstrates her trademark walk during a fracas at the beach.

A Lloyd Hamilton Table Stand

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bad Grief!

A person grieving the death of a loved one will resort to desperate measures to cope with their loss.  This idea has been explored in strange and disturbing ways in two recent films, Wake Wood and I Saw the Devil.  These films differ vastly from the more true-to-life Rabbit Hole (2010), in which people get past tragedy and heal in a reasonable fashion.  Rabbit Hole is an excellent film (one of my favorite films of last year), but its realism worked against it in some quarters.  A number of critics numbed by the CGI that passes for modern drama or content with the immoral and emotionally flat characters of The Social Network were offended, maybe even threatened, by a film that showed characters working through deeply painful emotions and maintaining with love and duty the most significant relationships in their social network.  The film, for all its real emotion, was dismissed by many as grief porn.  But those haters who prefer a film that addresses grief in a more fantastic manner need look no further.

Wake Wood, with its ominously quiet townsfolk, fiery pagan rituals and child-coming-back-from-the-dead-wrong, is a combination of The Wicker Man and Pet Cemetery.  The strength of the film comes from its ability to be creepy and heartbreaking at the same time.  Like Rabbit Hole, Wake Wood is set into motion by the death of a young child.  The grieving parents, portrayed movingly by Aidan Gillen (The Wire) and Eva Birthistle (Waking the Dead), move to a distant town to escape memories of their daughter's death and start their lives anew.  But the couple soon learn that the local squire is able to conduct a ritual that can bring their daughter back to life for three days and allow them the closure necessary for them to accept her death and move on.  The viewer is given the sense from the start that something bad is going to happen to this couple for daring to play with fate.  As evil doings unfold, a grave lesson, or a lesson of the grave, is to be learned.  Insert your own Crypt Keeper cackle here.

Unlike Wake Wood, I Saw the Devil disregards poignancy and morality to focus strictly on blood and gore.  Any message that is offered quickly becomes lost in pools of blood.  Wake Wood takes the terror approach, which is designed to provoke fear and suspense, while I Saw the Devil takes the horror approach, which is designed to provoke revulsion. 

The film starts with a young woman (San-ha Oh) getting her car stuck on a dark, desolate road and calling on her cell phone for a tow truck.  While she us waiting for the truck, a hooded figure appears outside of the car and suddenly raises up a sledgehammer to smash open the windshield.  The director, Jee-woon Kim, is skillful in building up the tension.  The superbly stylishness cinematography provided by Mogae Lee further enhances the haunting mood of the scene.  But all of this talent can do nothing to elevate a story as gruesome and muddled as this one.  In the end, the terrifying opening promises much more than the film can deliver.

The woman is tortured and murdered.  Her fiancĂ©, played by Byung-hun Lee, is devastated when the woman's head is found floating in a river the next day.  Lee, a highly skilled and well-regarded federal agent, decides that he will hunt down the killer himself to enact revenge.  The agent soon captures the killer and beats him mercilessly.  But then, after planting a GPS device on the psychopath, he lets him go so that he can catch him at another time and punish him all over again.  It is obvious from the start that Lee's catch-and-release scheme will go wrong.  Planting a GPS device on Choi hardly gives Lee control of the situation.  The plan might make sense if the killer had his hands chopped off so that he no longer was a threat and real escape was never possible.

Min-sik Choi provides a chilling performance as a hulking homicidal maniac as unstoppable as Jason and as morally perverse as No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh.  Although Lee is supposed to be a super-cop, he seems greatly outmatched by Choi.  Lee's beating only makes the killer angry and, the angrier he gets, the more dangerous he becomes.  Unleashing this enraged beast on the general public cannot serve anyone's sense of justice.  The killer, now in this cat-and-mouse game with Lee, is able to come into his own and willfully slaughter anyone unfortunate enough to come into his blood-soaked path.  To be honest, I became so disgusted by all of the killings that I never made it to the end of the film.