Friday, June 25, 2004

My Favorite 70s TV

Most of this was posted on February 18th, though I have made several additions to the text, but since some new people have come along since then, I thought I'd republish it, for anyone who doesn't really know me other than the snarky in and outs and my bad Interview with New Jersey piece that so totally didn't work (sorry for subjecting you to that), but seemed like a good idea at the time:

What the fuck was up with this? When I was a kid the dummy in Magic kept me up at night, distraught. Imagine me, a dainty African Ambassador's son, in the 70s, sheltered from the horrors of the West in decline against the Soviet bulwark -- hey, that's the line we were getting from Amin -- freaking out over a dummy. Actually, there was a lot of "puppetry" as a "televisable entertainment," inexplicably going on in the 1970s, lots of arts and crafts and Shields and Yarnell. Crazy ...

Eight is Enough brings back warm fuzzy memories of childhood. One of the most intense memories of my childhood is the episode where the actress Bradford "Joanie," was playing the role Medea. It represented the Ultimate drama to me, at least the "deepest" drama I had ever encountered as an Ambassador's son constantly changing schools and continents. I was fascinated. Throughout the show she spouted lines over 2,000 years old. The canned laughter did not distract me. It had the same hold over me as those creepy ads on tv for the King Tutankhaman exhibit at the Met that aired during the mid 70s. Years later I found myself studying classics in college. Drama and the ancient, all represented by this hot chick, the actress, Laurie Walters. I blame Joanie Bradford for introducing me to Euripides at an impressionable age.

Fellini's Satyricon. A pagan work, to be sure; groaning with alien laughter. Un-be-fucking-lievable: creativity on a galactic scale. Nino Roti's staggering sonic assault of music from another planet alone is worth the DVD price. The Rablasian Fellini walks us through Roman antiquity as he imagines it, crossed with highbrow science fiction sequences of an imagined future looking backwards, soaked in burgundy. There can never be anyone as Felliniesque as Fellini. Fellini has this really odd little maneuver, where the actors are frequently standing still, looking into the camera, which creates a very disturbing effect on the viewer, as if the actors, beyond time are watching us view their little spectacle. I have a pet theory that surrealism isn't really an art form at all, just a division, or category of the occult. This movie would bear that theory out. Throughout the film -- the Minotaur spares Acyltus from a bludgeoning, prompting cosmic laughter spiralling at the end (the absurd universe?), then the rambling journey winding through the labyrinthine whorehouse at the beginning, with those withering close ups of the freaky pagan denizens therein, then the elaborate fake funeral at Trimalchio's dinner (eating and dying was all Trimalchio was about) -- all give off the combined effect that the film is laughing at you, the viewer. From some distance outside of time the film is laughing at the viewer. Very, very strange effect, that; even now, the echoes of their laughter caused a chill up my spine. Also, the world's first werewolf story, the Tale of Niceras, which, told over the distance of two milennia, is incredibly creepy. But my Ascendant is Aquarius and I am a Gemini who studied ancient literature in college, so I truly dig the ancient sci-fi horror psychological vibe.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos: Okay, so in the madcap world of astrophysics Sagan's hypotheses are probably all outmoded already. Right? So what? So is Ptolemy's Almagest and yet I still read it in college and gained benefit. The methods by which man came to his conclusions about the universe are worthy of contemplation; and, of course, worthy of more questions in light of our most current data. Cosmos is no exception. This series was the bomb! (looks around sheepishly, then raises hand, "question: who is the biggest PBS geek in the room"?) Classics are never outmoded, they exist to be rediscovered and add onto. 

Chespirito. This show was a mystery to me: Why would a grown Latin man in need of some excercise want to go on tv dressed like a racy little bumble bee number emblazoned with a big "CH" on his paunch. Subtitle it and put it on Trio; I'd watch it just to clarify my childhood mystery. I'd like to crack open a cold cerveza and figure this out. What the fuck was going on here? Why is everyone else laughing but me? I feel like I'm in a Fellini movie, but it is in Spanish and the sets are decidedly low rent. We'd all like to know what the people on that endless laugh track find so fucking hilarious.  I think this was a Mexican Show and, to be honest, I've always wanted to know what the life of a Mexican immigrant is like -- they seem to be sadly, partially through language, a very socially seperate part of New York City.  Often when I come back drunk from Soho, you can see the men getting off of work as busboys, taking their checks home to their wives. They seem decent people, even after some Heinekins and incredibly long hours at bad wages and horrendous treament. I'm getting off the subject.

Stoned, the Afterschool Special with Scott Baio. "Super Stoned Jack," was the scariest introduction that most of us had to the world of the sweet leaf. Sensimila? Not if you have any sensibilities! The tag line for this read:

"Jack is a motivated high school student who smokes cannabis for the first time, and falls in with a fast crowd. Will he wake up and realize what he's doing with his future before it's too late?"

If I were stoned I would never go out in a row boat on the grey and greasy river limpopo. Well, certainly not after seeing this little chestnut of a public service announcement made by anxious parents of latchkey kids in the Age of Studio 54. Put it on Trio so we can all laugh at the "reefer madness." Just say yes to that Farah Fawcett haired character Felicity. But I'm sure skeevy New York Times writer Neill Strauss will.

The Boy Who Drank Too Much Site wraps up a major plat point up nicely:

"Scott Baio plays a high school nerd, complete with glasses, pocket protector and the nickname "Melonhead." At first, clean-cut Jack (Baio) wants nothing to do with the burn-outs who sneak joints into the Boys' Room. Unfortunately, Jack's accomplishments are ignored, since Dad is too busy doting on his jock older brother Mike (Vinnie Bufano). Plus, a cute blonde named Felicity in Jack's Spanish class (Largo Woodruff, who later appeared in Tobe Hooper's THE FUNHOUSE) has him (excited), but the guy is too scared to speak to her. These teen pressures have Jack prepared to do anything to change his boring life -- even smoke grass! Oh, no! Of course, a couple tokes later, he's instantly hooked! Jack takes off his glasses, undoes the top button on his shirt, giggles uncontrollably, and suddenly finds the nerve to hang out with Felicity."

Dummy. Gritty 70s drama of urban social decline -- thanks, Ed Koch! Asshole! Back in the Koch day, NYC was all about twitchy pimps with straightrazors and purple suits with ruffled shirts and jewel encrusted goblets wandering the urban landscape (hey, come to think of it, the pimpy fashion aesthetic is very ... umm... priest-like), as well as greaser glue sniffing graffiti punks roaming the streets, wild-eyed, switchblades at the ready, in search of a little of the old ultraviolence. Koch turned NYC into a Guns n Roses video, with Mr. Brownstone creeping around Central Park in a raincoat with nothing on underneath!

Get this plot, though, peeps: LeVar Burton plays a deaf and dumb mute who is framed for the death of a prostitute (Kuta Kinte, you are a framed man!). But will we get justice for the amiable host of Reading Rainbow?

Anyhoo: Will a young Paul Sorvino get him redemption when he cannot even communicate with his morose client? Or will "Dummy" just become another urban statistic on the Koch street? Despite the overall bleakness, this a very, very cool slice of social commentary.
I loved this movie soo much in the 70s. I was an odd kid, as you can imagine.

Bugsy Malone. This was the shit when I was a kid. Scott "Chachi" Baio, who, incidentally, Hollywood has not been kind to, is in a period gangester flic ... only everyone is little kids. Crazy.

Jodie Foster plays an oversexed Tallulah Bankhead rip off. Why were Jodie Foster's preadolescent roles so highly sexualized? I think Ms. Foster has a legitimate gripe with her stage mother. And one can only imagine the shit she had to deal with on those sets in Hollywwod playing a sexually charged tween. Remember, Mary-Kate and Ashley were objects of desire waay before they turned legal. There's a gangster called Fat Sam. And the whole crazy 70s scenario is about spud guns, the empowerment of children -- I fell for this film hook, line and sinker. There is a veiled sense of poking fun at the Cold War here, the escalation of arms, detente, and all that, but a kid, even a precocious little diplobrat like me wouldn't see it. I loved this movie. I wish Trio would put it back on ("anybody who is anybody will soon walk through that door/ at fat sams grand slam speakeasy")

Kramer vs. Kramer. The first dramatic and fully articulated statement of the Baby Boomers achieving adulthood. A film of the first water. Young married couple breaks apart. They become two seperate people, no longer the Eisenhower nuclear family, post sexual revolution. Wife leaves shallow workaholic husband and baby to find her own particular nebulous conception of 70s "freedom". Goes out West. Hints of Big Sur, Esalen and the "Me" Generation. She finds herself. Comes back revitalized. In the meantime, shallow husband once defined by his work, like an IBM-era blue tie white shirt Organization Man, like--probably--his father changes, grows. Welcome to 1978, motherfucker. Ka-Pow!

Husband fights custody. Bach and Vivaldi weave in and out of this drama artfully; a drama that takes place, it seems, embroidered into the most poignant colors of Autumn in Central Park, from skeletal oranges and violent reds to sepia oches and deep emerald greens, the seasons wheel by heavily, like a Buach fugue. Those colors and the rich tonal echoes of Bach and Vivaldi accurately reflect the heightened emotion of the drama -- the decisive break from the previous Norman Rockwell-era, the divorce and emancipation of the Boomers in film.

And the courtroom scene where Meryl Streep slowly dissolves into tears offset by a forced composure, dignified in her hour of humiliation (better than Jane Fonda in Klute) as Hoffman's lawyer vivisects her irresponibility -- her feminism, her 1978ness -- are among the best goddamned acting you ever will see. Kramer versus Kramer is as good as film gets, heralding the onset of the Boomer Generation in much the same way Bill Clinton's My Life will forever change the way our "Kings" narrate the sequence of their movements through the stream of time.

Poldark: This cult British tv series is quite habit forming. Incredible. Just incredible. A period piece that is a cross between Wuthering Heights, the Mayor of Casterbridge and Les Liaisons Dangereuse but with a compelling soap opera character at its heart. A silver mine in the American colonies, unrequited love, lots of horses racing with that dull but electric blue 1970s skyline backdrop, aristocratic dreams thwarted -- call me Madame Bovary, but I dig that classical romanticism. A guilty high quality pleasure. You get sucked in to this costume drama that is one part Danielle Steele and one part high art.

Assorted Good Times episodes: Come on, you know you had a crush on Wilona ("and you too, Wilomena" said the archetypical corrupt pol, Alderman Davis) when you were kid, didn't you -- the only blingy woman in the projects; or, if you were a girl, Bookman the janitor was your long, cold drink of water. What, you never saw a black man doing a John Wayne impression, pilgrim? You better act like you know. And you know in your heart Wilona saved Janet Jackson from falling down that elevator shaft while trying to escape her mom who beat her with a hot iron just before she became Willis' girl, then Cleo on Fame.("and you too, Winooski") . But I was totally in love with Wilona; just as every African-American man my age took his cues from the proud George Jefferson as an influence, we all had a thing for Wilona, and many, many of the brothers are, as we speak, marrying Wilona clones. We can't help it. Her father must have been with the PLO, cause she was Tha Bomb!

Remember the episode where Michael gets crunk off some dodgy ghetto "health tonic" (aka, muscatel) with a dangerously high alcohol content? Crazy. classic ("Get Vita Brite and sleep tonight" ...*promptly passes out*).

Then there was the time Michael joined a gang and hid his jacket in the oven, which prompted JJ to note that the smell emanating from the kitchen was an improvement on Thelma's cooking. Oh, what about the one where Thelma almost married this polygamist Nigerian cat. Crazy! What about that pimpy guy "Lennay," who always sold hot appliances from out of his coat. Classic. So was the episode when James has hypertension. Apparently most of the writers were white, too. So was ... hey ... was this a comedy or what?
("and you too, Winifred")

Cinema Paradiso. The best work of art on the subject of friendship I've ever encountered. The Corsair lost a couple of tears in his Cutty Sark at the end of this one. Any classroom reading of Artistotle on Friendship should include a look at this film.

Shields and Yarnell. Come on, you know you liked it -- mime, dance and comedy sketches. What more could you want? Okay, talent ... is nice.

Fame the TV Series: Why are there not repeats on VH1 of this show already? When you say low budget and high quality I think .. right here's where you start paying for it ... with pain ... and sweat. The show of young, artistic people struggling for their moment to shine is about as American as it gets and less cruel than Donald Trump's Apprentice, where sharky career advancement is all about crippling the competition. Whatever happened to that sexy cello player who wouldn't give anyone the time of day, Lori Singer. I was all about the emotional cellist yet frosty behaving Lori Singer back in the day. Yummy.

Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman. If Black Stallion is the most beautifully shot film, then this is number two. All natural lighting. Bergman uses a fade to red to seperate scenes, mimicking the inner membrane of our eyelids. About as fucking intense as art can get. And halfway through this film about communication and treachery -- where the incessant ticking of an pocketwatch reminds us of time's passage -- Bergman dissolves a reconcilliation scene between two hard hearted sisters into Bach's Sarabande no. 5 in D minor. That's so fucking cool it hurts to just write it (*sips Cutty Sark to steady hisself*)

The Black Stallion: Those fabulous Copollas! This is perhaps the most beautiful filmed movie ever. From the point of view of a boy. The Black Stallion is really about the restrictive society. Very 70s in that it lauds freedom ("keep on truckin'"). The image of the horse adrift in the Pacific Ocean, a burning ship sinking in the background, and the boy, by pure instinct, snatching the floating rope as it passes, is straight out of Jung -- all boldness, the act of grabbing hold; the rest is archetypal images of power and the unconscious.

The Gore Vidal-Bill Buckley Debate-Fight It was in the heart of the 60s: the polarized political center of the 60s. The left and the right clash violently on national television. In the news division of a respectable network. Fuck! A classic. The country was divided in those days is an understatement. Excellent. Buckley is the Grandfather of the American conservative movement; Vidal the leading leftist rhetorician (lefties don't organize hierarchical movements, it goes against type). For a moment, our two leading intellectuals of our two political polarities went at it in a bareknuckled intellectual fistfight. Not since Burr shot Hamilton dead has there been so much political drama in The Republic. Was there something in the water in the late 60s, or was everyone just crezzzzy.

Woody Allen's Teleplay: Don't Drink the Water. One of the most interesting experiments on television ever. Woody Allen directs and writes a teleplay starring Michael J Fox and the kid who played Blossom (Incidentally, you'll have to remind me to get back to the subject of Blossom). Shaky handheld camera follows a grown Michael J. Fox as he slowly becomes involved with a bright but much younger woman. How the fuck did this get on American and not Parisian tv? Aren't we supposed to be puritainical? Did Woody Allen have so much juice back in the day that he could put on pedophilic Americana on network tv? Does the story sound familiar? Actually the story is tame, and inventive and very, very arty.
Whatever happened to Slim Goodbody?

True, he was slim. Very slim. Okay, John Burstein was the classic ectomorph geek. But we were wild and innocent youth at the time. What were we to know about cool? But even as a kid, I did pick up a certain ... nervousness. Now, maybe that had to do with a really fast metabolism on his part. Or, maybe it's just the plain fact that dressing up in his mom's panty hose with your innards haphazardly painted on them isn't the best way to make a living; it's just not a socially acceptable way of being gainfully employed. And add on to that the fact that he did this in front of kids. Creepy factor. In the name of (makes broad ironical quotation marks with his fingers) "health education."

Said ectomorph with an afro would actually sing these horrible -- horrible -- rockabilly ditties and dance this really spastic jazzercize numbers, chicken legs flapping in the wind, all in full view of kids. How lame is that?

When I was a kid at the UN School it was considered lame to watch Slim Goodbody. Nowadays similar social leprosy could be gained from admitting to the consumption of Benson and Hedges cigarettes, or purchasing a Kenny G album.

For whatever unfathomable reason of the childhood cruelty of my generation, the Yemeni Ambassador's kid at the UN School was considered a geek. Kids are old school like that. Now, in his early 30s, that kid is right about now a mid level official in the tyranny there, taking out all his childhood aggressions on innocent civilians. Shit happens: I can't be held accountable.

Anyhoo: Even that kid -- let's call him the monkeyboy -- he thought Slim Goodbody was lame. That guy. And you know your up shits creek without a paddle if your shtick cannot appeal to the undiscriminating tastes of the Yemeni Ambassor's kid.

Matthew Starr pretended to be an earthling, but he was really the Crown Prince of the Planet Quadris. His father was overthrown by tyrants, so he was sent here to develop his telekenetic powers then go back to throw down some furious anger at his oppressors. His mentor is Louis Grossett Junior, who also pretends to be his science teacher.  Grossett notwithstanding, this show was a little too "caucasian" for me, no offense (to be honest, A Different World, in the later seasons, was a little too "African-American" for me, as well, no offense).

As opposed to, say, Bennu of the Golden Light, who is a messenger from an alien world, a scout. Bennu is looking for his lost companion, Mira. He aids people in distress with his freaky magical amulet. You better recognize.  Loved it: superhero on tv.

Alan Fawcett was the host of a show which scored pantomimers on originality, appearance and lip synch.

Quincy's understanding of forensic medicine was way ahead of it's time for prime time tv. He, Quincy, of the LA Coroner's office. He lived on a boat, was a 70s swinger, and played detective to find evidence to support his theories of unexplained deaths. This did not endear Jack Klugman to the po-po.

Greg Evigan played the independent trucker BJ McCay. He was a medevac pilot in the Nam and, somehow, managed to smuggle a chimp named Bear back with him. Living in a truck has it's advantages, as he croons in the theme song, "Best of all, I don't pay property tax." Sheriff Lobo was always on his ass for something or other. Quite possibly this was tax related.

Robert Gulliame -- who insists that he is not Haitian/caribeat, played an upwardly mobile household executive-budget director-Lt. Governor, Benson DuBois. (*snickers* DuBois?) His plight mirrored the rise of African Americans throughout the 70s, more accurately than Good Times (the low estimate) or The Jeffersons (an inflated estimate of the African American plight). He bantered with the Wagnerian housekeeper Gretchen Krauss, played so ably, ironically by the Nebraska-born Inga Swenson. That freaky kid Missy Gold with the big eyes and the adult dialogue kind of wierded me out. She harshed on my "I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke" 70s vibe. Benson always had an ironic stance -- laughing -- and I try to bring that to my own brand of cultural commentary.

So, now you know.

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