Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (Reich?): Cabaret

I'm cheating a little here.  I had said that (except for The Sound of Music) I would stick to reviewing movie musicals produced in the last 15 years.  I had intended my next Movie Musical segment to be about Jersey Boys.  But I just haven't been able to get out to see it.  My "meh, why bother" attitude reflects what I felt when I saw Jersey Boys the musical, and also the movie's general reception.  I do intend to review it before it leaves the theatres, but a Les Miserables movie event it is not.

Then recently, I saw the 1972 movie Cabaret on television, the first time I was able to watch it the whole way through.  Figuring that I would just forget the details if I waited until after reviewing the post-2000 movies, I decided what the hell.

Cabaret is in the Right column because I couldn't justify putting it in the Wrong column, but it's a much more tepid Right than I ever imagined it would be.  Cabaret the movie and stage musical alike are widely celebrated -- the movie if not more so because it made significant changes, yet retains the core of whatever made the stage version so good.  (Some critics of Les Miserables felt that it should have done the same.)  Both are based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin (1939).  While in the original stage musical, the lead female, Sally Bowles, is British and Cliff Bradshaw American, the movie changed it to reflect the nationalities in Isherwood's story, with Sally American and Cliff Bradshaw -- now Brian Roberts -- British.

Set largely in a cabaret club in 1930s Germany, Cabaret sets the whimsy of its lead characters' lives against the growing threat of Nazi power.  It should have stirred many feelings in me, but with the exception of one scene, it didn't.  Maybe it just reflects the fact that I grew up in a different time, and movies are made so differently now.  So while I can say that Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles was winsome, or Michael York as Brian Roberts was awkwardly charming, or that many of the numbers were staged imaginatively, I can't say that any of it left a lasting impression.

Plot Synopsis

Sally Bowles is a young American singer at the Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Berlin, with hopes of becoming a big success.  At the boarding house where she lives, she meets Brian Roberts, a young British writer who plans to tutor Germans for a living while completing his Ph.D.  Since Brian's room is closet-sized, Sally allows him to tutor students in her much larger digs.  So begins their unlikely friendship and even unlikelier romance, interspersed with the madcap numbers at the Kit Kat Club and dark images of the Nazis' rise.

The Good

Gritty Subject Matter.  Cabaret is hardly the first musical to be set during a volatile time period -- The Sound of Music was set also during the Nazi rise -- but it should be applauded for not shying away from the atrocities of Nazism, even at the risk of becoming a "downer."  The Sound of Music portrayed the Nazis as a relentless swarm, but beyond annexing Austria, we never really got a sense of what made them so disturbing.  Cabaret reveals the slow-growing anti-Semitism of everyday German people and the horrors that result.  One character's pet is murdered.  Police stare at a bloody sheet covering a body.  Sally and Brian's landlords trade opinions about a Jewish banker conspiracy.  Even the Kit Kat Klub introduces a number with a gorilla intended to represent a Jewish woman.

But of course the number that makes the hairs on one's neck stand on end is "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  The iconic scene begins with an outdoor eatery in a bucolic German hamlet.  An angelic-looking boy's singing interrupts the diners' chatter.  Only the boy's face is shown in close up, so right then we suspect something isn't quite right.  As the camera pans down, we see that he is in a Nazi Youth uniform.  Yet his siren song is gripping the villagers one by one.  The longer he sings, the more his voice is joined by others, until it's a lusty anthem sung by the entire crowd.  (All but one elderly man, who must be sadly thinking that the country had enough violence not so long ago.)  It's a microcosm of the fervor that gripped Germany throughout the course of the decade.  Well done.      

Good Performances.  For reasons I go into below, the characters of Sally and Brian did not interest me as much as they should have.  However, they came across much better than they otherwise might have due to Liza Minelli and Michael York's performances.  Minelli is lively throughout, with her distinctive hair and makeup style.  Even beneath that, I can still say that her resemblance to her mother, Judy Garland, who died just three years earlier, is pretty strong.  As is her speaking and singing voice.  Minelli's voice is not as strong as I would like (I know, blasphemy), but she can sing, and does so with gusto throughout.

However, I was more drawn to Michael York's Brian.  Perhaps it was his warmth, his quiet reflectiveness.  He has a sense of the changes taking place much more than silly Sally does, though even he can't fully comprehend.  The more minor characters are good as well, especially Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who is at all times cynical and over the top.  A sinister clown, as the best clowns are.    

The Less Good

Lacks Energy.  Was it wrong of me to say this?  Somehow I feel like it was.  But truth be told, I just expected more vibrancy from a movie that spends long segments in a hedonistic cabaret.  Not Baz Luhrman levels of camera spinning and color explosion, just more life to burst out of the screen.  Yet something about the film felt flat to me.  To the extent that the cabaret scenes were active and alive, that energy did not carry over into the non-cabaret scenes involving Sally and Brian.  These scenes felt slow-paced and seemed to last far too long, with the obvious exception of the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  Maybe it's just that I grew up in a different time.  Maybe MTV has conditioned me to expect bursts and dazzle, rapid cuts and sweeping pans.  Maybe my brain can't appreciate the stately pace of a 1972 film.  Regardless, I was never quite engaged with what was happening on screen, and thus never felt emotionally invested in the characters.

The Songs.  With the exception of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and the "Money" song, none of the songs stuck with me.  I know that some are classics, and shame on me for being critical, but that's just how I feel.

Less Deep Than Appears.  Maybe Cabaret isn't meant to be deep, but then why do a story about the carefree days before the Nazi rise at all?  What is strange about Cabaret is how little Nazism touches the lives of the main characters.  Brian is disturbed by growing Nazi sentiment, but it is his student and her lover who truly feel the effects.  Sally seems completely oblivious, not even reacting to the growing pro-Nazi sentiment of the Kit Kat Klub.

Because of this strange detachment, the Nazi threat never feels as dangerous as it could.  Cabaret seems to rely on the audience's knowledge of the actual Nazis' deeds to provide the necessary horror.

The human drama falls short as well.  Sally may be enthusiastic and unconventional, with a father who just doesn't understand, but there's not much more.  That gets wearisome after a while, even with Liza Minelli's spirited portrayal.  Maybe some of that is intentional: the writer of the story upon which Cabaret is based meant for Sally to be of little talent, but under the belief that she was destined for stardom.  The problem is that Minelli's Sally actually is talented, so if satire was intended, it is never clear.  Meanwhile, Brian is stiff and thoughtful, while sometimes surprisingly playful, but it's hard to say there is anything more to him as well.

Cabaret's message seems to be: "Look at these people and their little unimportant lives.  How silly of them to resent their fathers or to revel in their threesomes when the real threat is growing all around them."  If so, then my response is, "so what?"  Big bad things happen all the time while we go about our daily lives.  Are people just supposed to put their desires on hold to appear concerned enough about a threat that they probably can't do much about?  Yet I have the feeling Cabaret also wants us to be invested in Sally and Brian's relationship struggles.  For reasons I have already gone into, I'm not.  Maybe I'm over-thinking this.  Or maybe I'm not thinking about it enough.     


Cabaret is a classic, and as I've noted above, nothing about it is overtly weak.  It just isn't as dazzling and hedonistic, or dark and powerful, as it thinks it is or wants to be, and that leaves me with an "eh" feeling when I watch it.  Still, it is well made and well worth a viewer's time.  So Willkommen!

For more Movie Musicals That Got It Right or Wrong, go here.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.     

Monday, July 21, 2014

Through an Introvert's Lens: Saved By the Bell

For the previous installment, go here.

And so we continue to the next installment of the Introvert series, to a show that no one takes seriously, yet seems indelibly etched into our collective brain.  That would be Saved By the Bell, the original series that ran from 1989 until 1993.

Saved By the Bell followed six high school students on their daily adventures.  The series was a spinoff of a failed Hayley Mills star vehicle, Good Morning Miss Bliss, which aired in 1988.  Audiences were underwhelmed by the show's tepid humor and moralizing, and Good Morning Miss Bliss headed for the chopping block.  Yet instead of swinging the axe, NBC decided to buy the rights and rework the show, turning it into Saved By the Bell.  Among the "saved" were lead characters Zack Morris, Samuel "Screech" Powers, Lisa Turtle, and the principal, Richard Belding.  Gone were Miss Bliss, the rest of the cast, the Indiana location, and several IQ points. 

Set at Bayside High in Southern California, Saved By the Bell revolved around good-looking budding sociopath, Zack Morris, and his band of supporting players: easygoing jock, A.C. Slater; cheerleader "dream girl" Kelly Kapowski; brainy, neurotic Jessie Spano; vain, fashionable Lisa Turtle; and nerdy human punching bag, Screech Powers.  Hovering along the edges were doofy, disapproving Mr. Belding and a cast of teachers so oblivious that if someone replaced their brains with chia pets, no one would notice the difference.

Good Morning Miss Bliss was not an intelligent show by any means, but it did attempt to keep the characters grounded in reality.  Adults were flawed, but generally well-meaning.  The kids could be smart-mouthed and self absorbed, but also kind and thoughtful friends.  The characters were tepidly drawn, but they still felt like people as opposed to oversized cartoon characters.  Whereas Saved By the Bell was like "Pffft to all this nerd stuff!  I'm too cool for school!"

Saved By the Bell episodes followed a pattern with little variation.

  1. The school would hold an event or assign a project.
  2. Zack would develop a scheme to profit from it.
  3. Zack would convince his reluctant friends to join in.
  4. Zack would either outsmart the slow-witted school guardians, or learn a valuable lesson.

Saved By the Bell fancied itself a latter-day Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  Except in Saved By the Bell's case, it was an ordinary person outsmarting animated cardboard cutouts.  That Saved By the Bell worked to the extent it did had much to do with the fun performances delivered by its young cast.

As popular as the show was, I doubt even its tween audience took it for an accurate representation of high school.  So why bother to consider how Saved By the Bell deals with introverts?  Because though its viewers might not have bought the entire premise, certain attitudes the show carried may have rubbed off on them.  Think how many Saved By the Bell moments live on in popular culture.  I only have to say "I'm so excited!" for you to know exactly where I'm going.  It is worth seeing what messages the show imparted.

Are There Any Introverts On Saved By the Bell?

Does a show that's all about being bright and shiny and fun even know what "introvert" means?  Again, an introvert is someone who is generally

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • needs to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • thinks before he/she speaks
  • prefers to observe rather than be the center of attention

Is there anyone like that on Saved By the Bell?  Bueller?  No character fits perfectly, but the one who comes closest is Screech.  And how does Saved By the Bell treat him?  Not well.  

Screech is the perpetual tag-along, existing to make clueless statements that the others respond to with scorn that frequently crosses the line into cruelty.  Lisa is the worst offender, but Zack, Slater, Jessie, and even Kelly have gotten in their digs.  Some examples:

Jessie: Eh, I hate coffee.  Suzy, can I have another cup please?
Zack: So why are you drinking it?
Screech: What else is she gonna do with the coffee Zack?
Zack: Use your head as a doughnut and dunk you in it.


Lisa: I made these friendship bracelets in Fashion Club.
Screech: Did you make one for me?
Lisa: For you, I'm making a friendship muzzle.
Screech: I'm speechless.
Lisa: That's the idea.


Screech: You hooligans.  You demolished my song.
Lisa: No we didn't, Screech.  It still says "Bayside."
Slater: Yeah, and we even left the words you put in: "it," "and," "the," "Bayside."
Screech: Oh... well in that case, it's okay then.

At the beginning of the series, Screech is a socially awkward nerd, but by the end, he is a caricature.  Though a science genius, his intelligence is given almost no respect, except for when the episode needs it to serve the plot.

He's not an awkward mess when he's in his element, 
in this case tutoring Kelly in "Beauty and the Screech."
Instead, Screech's most defining trait is his worst: his obsession with Lisa Turtle, who clearly despises him.  Despite Lisa telling him over and over and over that she is not interested in a relationship, Screech continues to pursue her.  To make matters worse, the one time his friends "encourage" him, it is to tell him to not take Lisa's "no" for an answer! 

Screech is occasionally given dignity, such as the story arc where he dates a fellow nerd, Violet Bickerstaff.  Although their geekiness is played for soft laughs, their love and their goals are taken seriously.  And shockingly, Screech goes from being a joke to a romantic and loyal partner, such as when he saves Violet from stage fright in "Glee Club."

Too often, though, Screech is given far less respect than the other characters.  He is portrayed as socially out of his depth and dense.  The other characters' reactions are always followed by a laugh track, suggesting that their nasty remarks are an acceptable response.  His "friends" rarely take his interests seriously; with few exceptions, they are just more fuel for derision.   

Does Saved By the Bell Value Anything Introverted?

So Saved By the Bell punishes its most obviously introverted character.  But what's more disturbing is the way it also seemingly punishes "introverted" ideas.  

The second-most caricatured person on the show is Jessie.  She is an unlikely introvert, being frequently outspoken and unafraid of the spotlight.  Yet she is also the only character besides Screech who is brainy, well read, and cares about big ideas.  On Good Morning Miss Bliss, her counterpart Nikki Coleman was fairly low key.  By contrast, Jessie is portrayed as a shrill and self-righteous killjoy whose values are openly mocked by "cooler" characters like Zack and Slater.

Yes, Jessie.  I too am offended.
That's not to say only introverts care about big ideas, but they are generally more associated with deeper thinkers, who are more likely to be introverted.  If this were a better show, I'd think Saved By the Bell was calling Jessie a poseur for believing that just because she adopts some heavy slogans, she is on the same level as the deep thinkers who made real sacrifices.  Instead, the show's mentality is more likely: "Nyahh!  Girls who care about stuff are stoopid!"

It's noteworthy that the one time Jessie's concerns are taken seriously, it's because Zack shares them.  In the episode "Pipe Dreams," Zack and company dismiss Jessie's concerns about the hazards of drilling for oil on the football field until an oil spill kills the animals they just freed.  Zack then gyrates from being gung-ho for oil riches to leading a resistance against the oil company.  It seems like the episode intends for us to go on a similar journey: we're supposed to think Jessie is just her usual shrill bitch self, and therefore worth ignoring, until Zack, sees the Truth.  Only then is it safe to think that environmental destruction is a not so good thing.

But otherwise?  Women's equality?  World peace?  The environment?  If you care, you walk alone, and Saved By the Bell will stick out a foot to ensure you trip.

Then Again...

Can you really criticize a show that brazenly stereotypes everything?  There's your howling pack of pocket-protector-wearing nerds, your dumb jocks, your bimbo cheerleaders, and so on.

That's an argument that South Park leans on heavily.  Yet as with South Park, a careful viewer can observe that even on shows that mock everything, certain things are treated with more respect.  On Saved By the Bell, Zack and what Zack stands for are the gold standard.

Zack is good looking, smooth talking.  He has great clothes and hair (for the early 90s) and has the latest in high-tech gadgetry (in his case, a shoebox-size cell phone).  His peers listen to him, look up to him.  He stands for fun, no rules, "too cool for school."  He is, in short, the ultimate extrovert -- if not the ultimate embodiment of the heterosexual white male in all his glory.

Yeah, yeah, you're awesome.
We, the viewers, are supposed to care what Zack thinks.  More than what Screech thinks, or Jessie thinks, or Slater, or Lisa, or Kelly.  We are supposed to care when he learns.  In the world of Saved By the Bell, if Zack doesn't support your beliefs, you can't just ignore him.  You must work to make him change!  And when he says he has changed, we are supposed to believe that he is sincere.  He is the sun around which the show revolves.

Note that it didn't have to be this way just because Zack is the main character.  Plenty of shows have main characters who are awkward and yearning for an ideal just beyond their grasp.  But here, Zack is the ideal.  Unless he goes through one of his routine "completely convincing changes of heart," if he does not share your values, your values are worthless.

In some ways, he's an extreme version of the Power of the Extrovert that we saw in Wicked.  Elphaba was worth mocking until Galinda decided it was time to stop.  Here, Jessie's causes or Screech's cares don't matter unless Zack decides that they do.  The extrovert gets to define who the introverts are and whether their beliefs are worthwhile.  And plenty of tween introverts who tuned in to Saved By the Bell would have learned that they were not.


To sum up, how does Saved By the Bell treat introverts?

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Mostly

Is the Introvert Active?: More reactive

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert: Like an ape that has just been lobotomized.

What is the Introvert's Reward/Punishment Compared to Others?: Constantly mocked, whereas the less introverted characters get treated with more respect.

Aw hell.  One for the road...

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.  The Zack .gif is courtesy of lolslater.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Seven Ways an Earth's Children TV Show Could Improve Upon the Book Series

In case you didn't hear, Jean Auel's Earth's Children will be headed for a television screen near you in 2015.  Only the pilot, but with a distinguished team behind it (including Ron Howard and Linda Woolverton), a series will almost certainly follow.

While details are sketchy, it is likely that the show's producers intend to portray all six of the Earths's Children books.  That should be a challenge, given that the final three installments received their share of criticism.  But perhaps in skilled hands, even the final installments can become an emotional, exciting viewing experience.  Below are seven ways in which a television series might improve upon its source material.

1.  Better Dialogue.  Linda Woolverton wrote the screenplays for Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Maleficent, so it's safe to say that she knows her way around dialogue.  As will anyone else who comes on board.  While Auel's dialogue could sometimes be stirring, it was frequently wooden (especially coming from Ayla) and drowned out by lengthy descriptions of flora and fauna.

2.  Tension.  Although Clan of the Cave Bear was tense throughout, that wasn't the case for the other novels in the series.  In The Valley of Horses, there was the initial tension over whether Ayla would survive in her valley, but not so much over whether she would get together with Jondalar.  The "tension" in The Mammoth Hunters could have been resolved with one conversation.  There was no tension in The Plains of Passage, save the encounter with Attaroa.  And while The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves had ample opportunity for tension, neither delivered.

Television writers know that they can't leave things idle, so I would expect any opportunity for tension to be fully exploited.  And if the writers are really smart, they will rewrite certain encounters to draw real tension from them.  Imagine if the writers had Ayla confront Jondalar about his jealousy soon after her night with Ranec, only to find that the problem couldn't be easily resolved, thus setting up new tension between them?  Or if the writers actually worked with the ample opportunities for tension in The Shelters of Stone instead of pretending they did not exist?

3.  More Nuanced Characterization.  While television thrives on heroes and villains, good writers know that the best drama comes from characters who are not entirely good or bad.  Which means that some of Auel's characters could be given more complex shading.  One obvious choice would be Marona, Jondalar's ex, reduced to a screeching Mean Girl in The Shelters of Stone.  Imagine if the writers (and actress who played her) gave us the opportunity to identify with her?  Showed that Marona's actions were not driven solely by spite and entitlement?  The entire Ayla-Jondalar-Marona storyline could play differently, including its cringeworthy outcome.

And what about Ayla herself?  Auel presents Ayla as unquestionably "good" throughout the series, only adding some gray in The Land of Painted Caves.  But what if Ayla wasn't simply the good and pure child of nature?  What if she had real failings, such as blindness to the impact of the lessons she was teaching ("Oh crap, maybe I shouldn't have told them that men help create babies")?  Or her self righteousness pushed people down paths that were not the best suited for them?

What if Jondalar had more attributes than "hunky sex machine who worries"?  Game of Thrones has had some success making certain characters from A Song of Ice and Fire more complex, and let's hope it's the same way here.         

4.  Subplots Involving Other Characters.  Though Auel occasionally focused on other characters, her novel kept the POVs squarely with Ayla and Jondalar.  But even a television series with just 10 episodes per season has too many episodes for it to be Ayla and Jondalar all the time.  Therefore, it wouldn't be surprising if some characters received subplots that were completely independent of the Ayla-and-Jondalar main plots.  For example, in Season One: Will Oga ever be able to get beyond the nightmare of losing her parents in an earthquake and learn to love Broud?  Season Three: The other Mamutoi are concerned about Vincavec's growing power.  Season Five: Lanoga struggles with growing up way too fast, having to be a mother to Laramar and Tremeda's other children.

These are just some examples.  Done wrong, these subplots can be silly, but done right, they enrich the texture of the show.  

5.  No Scenery Description.  Imagine instead of pages of description, just a long, lingering shot of the plains.  Bliss.

6.  No "Pleasures" Description.  This is where the choice to air the series on Lifetime gets interesting.  Obviously for television, there can be no pages of description of "Pleasures."  Yet because Lifetime is basic cable, it might also influence how much the viewer is shown.  If the series were on HBO, I would expect weekly scenes of Ayla's naked breasts and Jondalar's naked backside (since HBO seems allergic to showing penis), accompanied by their moaning and grunting in "pleasure."  But basic cable would require the series to be more discreet.  So instead, we would see Ayla mostly concealed beneath the furs during the sex scenes.  That might seem like a more prudish choice, but it might also have the effect of making the sex scenes more intimate, more tantalizing.  We can't see it, so we have to imagine.     

7.  Better Conclusion.  Game of Thrones has shown that some story arcs can be rewritten to be more effective.  See, for example, Gendry taking the place of Edric Storm, or Brienne meeting up with Arya.  Here, the Earth's Children writers will have the opportunity to completely rewrite the final dismal chapter of the series.  Surely they must understand that "Hey, men can make babies, too!" is not a satisfying resolution for anyone not named Jean Auel.  Surely they must be aware of the thousand Amazon reviews slamming The Land of Painted Caves.  Since Auel is likely too old to produce a Book Seven, this may be the last chance to make things right.  Show us Durc.  Let the Zelandonii find out about his existence.  Produce a conflict between the Clan and Others, or at least something more compelling than a tour of cave paintings.  Do it, show.  We need you.

The list above takes into account only the ways the show could improve upon the books.  It doesn't consider how the show might simply be different from the books.  Will the show take note of updated research and have Brun and the Clan speak?  Will the Clan be lighter skinned?  Will the show introduce any research that clashes with Auel's utopian vision of Other society?

It also doesn't take into account how a television series could fail in the same way, or even be worse than the book series.  Clan of the Cave Bear would be the toughest to pull off in terms of creating believable interaction between two races of human.  The movie showed how easily that attempt could fail.  Even if the television producers managed to succeed, they would still need to contend with CGI'd mammoths, lions, and other wildlife.  If it looks cheesy and fake, they will lose the audience, unless everything else about the series is really top notch.

So we await the pilot episode of the new series, and look forward to seeing how well television producers can adapt the Earth's Children novels.

The above image was used under the Fair Use Doctrine. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Update: I've Alive, I'm Alive, I Am So Alive!

(If you don't know what I'm referencing, check out this video.  Actually, check it out anyway; it's a good song.)

I don't normally go this long without posting my first update of the month.  Nothing is wrong.  The simple truth is that I have been swamped.  My business is growing, which means more time on client files and doing other legal work.  And with regard to my novel, I am in the process of chiseling it down to 120,000 words (at present, nearing 138,000... so a ways to go).  I am also still researching the sequel, and happily getting closer to feeling like I have enough research.

This weekend, I realized I was exhausted.  I needed to vegetate on July 4 and 5.  July 6 I had to spend reading other peoples' works to prepare for my writers groups early this week.  This coming week is brutal, and the following week won't be fun, either.

I hope I'm not whining.  I'm just letting y'all know why I haven't been posting as frequently.  Plus it's summer; the desire to relax is strong.  I will be going on vacation at some point, and may end up posting some "reruns" that you may have forgotten about during the next month or two.

However, I do have at least one brand-new Movie Musical post coming up, as well as another Through an Introvert's Lens (taking on a guilty pleasure from our childhood).  And probably some other good rants along the way.  Stay tuned.