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Posts Tagged ‘Television’

Mad Men Half-Season Finale; Returns in 2015

Monday, May 26th, 2014

It’s been frustrating watching Mad Men this season, particularly with the final season split into two parts.

But last night’s episode was uncharacteristically optimistic – thank God! After one episode after another of down, down, down into the abyss of despair, to see Roger Sterling (John Slattery) come in and rescue the agency with a merger, and then Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) take his final bow with a musical number reminiscent of his long stint in Broadway musicals, was more than refreshing – it was absolutely necessary. Here’s what Morse had to say about his song and dance sendoff:

“Matthew Weiner came to me and said, ‘Bobby, I want to talk to you… You’re going to pass away in this episode. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I perfectly understand.’ And he said, ‘By the way, I’ve always wanted to have you sing. That’s what I remember you from, all your Broadway and theater days. When I hired you, always, in the back of my mind, I wanted you to sing a song, but there was never a place to do it.’ And then he came up with this idea. He said, ‘I am going to make you come back in the last shot in the picture and sing a song to Don.’ [Morse sings] ‘The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.’

They had this wonderful choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg, whom I knew very well, and hired four or five beautiful dancers who would play secretaries . . . I dance with them and also sing to Don, and it’s a whole production. I went and learned the song, and I went into the studio and we recorded it with a huge orchestra. Then we rehearsed it on the set for a couple of days, away from everybody else. Nobody knew what was going on . . . It was just a lovely way, a sweet way, for dear Matt to send me off.”

Now we just have to wait until 2015 – perhaps as late as April, 2015 – to see how this epic series ends.

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Conelrad: All Things Atomic

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fascinating site which explores the Cold War era in 1950s America.

The site has been around since 1999, and contains text, audio clips, video clips, and other Cold War ephemera, and is a truly one-stop source for anyone interested in what was like to live in America in the dawn of the Atomic Era. As the site’s editors put it, “CONELRAD is the creation of writers who grew up in the shadow of the bomb and all its attendant pop culture fallout. We wish to share our collected interest, experience and obsession with this strange era and thereby provide as much information as possible to the public. This is not to say we’re living in the past! The Day After Trinity is now and forever more and we will reflect that reality here. From apocalyptic dirty bomb scenarios to the Russians and Chinese reigniting the space race, CONELRAD is always on the Eve of Destruction. Watch our Alert ticker on the top of our main page to stay informed of the latest CONELRAD activity. In addition to our own writing on all things atomic, we aim to provide a comprehensive clearinghouse of atomic links. There is a lot of material out there and we will continue to update this section frequently. Furthermore, we extend an open invitation to those of you out there who share our passion for Atomania to send us your suggestions and submissions.”

Amazingly comprehensive, and absolutely worth a look.

Frame by Frame Video: Product Placement

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to the see the video, with subtitles.

There’s a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which talks about product placement in films. Here’s a transcript of my brief overview of this subject:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame, and I’d like to talk right now about product placement. Product placement is something that’s becoming more and more common in movies, as movies cost more and more to make. You have to remember that movies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s cost maybe … a big-budget in the 1980s would cost $12 million… $13 million. Today, a movie costs $100 million to make, and that’s for a small comedy, or something like that. So how are you going to make up this kind of money? Product placement.

I was at a studio this summer, talking to some executives, and they were saying that they aggressively go after product placement to put cars, soft drinks, food items… For example, Reese’s Pieces in E.T. suddenly took off like crazy. But the forerunner in all of this, oddly enough, is a film by Howard Hawks called Red Line 7000, which was considered at the time scandalously the most-sponsored film in history.

Product placements are something which adds additional revenue not just to movies but to TV shows, and there’s varying degrees of product placements. If you have something prominently in the foreground, you pay more. If it’s something in the background, you pay less. If you see just the side of the product, you pay even less than that. And if you don’t pay at all, the product vanishes out of the scheme. Merchandising has therefore become a kind of inescapable part of the movie process, particularly in the 21st century… not so much in the 30s and 40s and 50s… But now that the movies have become more of a business than an art form, product placement has become an art form in itself.”

Now Your Television Will Watch You

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Click here for a demo of this new system; note the camera, watching you, prominently displayed on the top of the television.

The gentleman above is giving an audience demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few days ago of a new device that he thinks you’ll want in your home very soon; a television that watches you.

As Nick Hide in CNet writes, “In the kind of dystopian insanity that would have George Orwell banging his head on his keyboard, Samsung’s newest Smart TVs watch you . . . the Korean manufacturer’s latest tellies recognise your voice and gestures with a built-in camera and mic.

The camera can interpret simple gestures — move your hand around to control a cursor and clench your fist to ‘click’ — and even the different faces of your family members. You can associate permissions with various faces, so if your wee one turns on the telly they’ll only be able to watch CBeebies.

Voice recognition means you can tell your TV which channel you want to watch and change volume, among other functions, which sounds like a really useful feature for people with disabilities, those who’ve lost their remote . . .”

And as Michael Learmonth notes in Advertising Age, “front-facing cameras are everywhere on laptops, tablets and phones. If the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was any indication, [which ran from January 10-13, 2012] they’re about to become ubiquitous on TVs as well.

New TVs from Samsung and Lenovo used the show to introduce TVs that recognize you and others in the room, automatically logging you into Facebook and pulling up your favorite channels or websites [emphasis added]. Lenovo’s TV lets you use the camera as an ID service that blocks access to certain content or channels if a child is in the room. For Samsung’s 7500 and 8000 series TVs, all you have to do is say ‘Hi, TV,’ when you walk into a room for the TV to turn on and know who’s there.

As one can imagine, this is all very exciting to the world’s biggest advertisers, many of whom saw these new applications for the first time this week when they toured the show floor. These are the execs who spend billions on TV advertising but really don’t know who’s in the room when their ads air — or whether their intended audience is busy with a mobile phone or tablet anyway.

‘Is anyone watching? This is why advertisers are so excited about front-facing cameras,’ Frank Barbieri, exec VP of emerging platforms at Yume, told a group of ad agency execs and clients during a tour. Yume powers advertising on smart TVs from Samsung and LG.

Many people in the living room are multitasking with other devices. ‘We’re paying for that,’ said Rex Harris, innovations supervisor at SMGX, a unit of ad agency holding company Publicis Groupe. ‘If you’re looking at other screens, then you’re not paying attention. We would like to know if we’re getting accurate impressions.’

Consumers stand to gain too, according to Mr. Harris [emphasis added]. ‘The idea is, if the ad is more targeted to you, you will get more value out of it,’ he said. ‘When your device knows where you are and knows what you like, it will be a more valuable experience for you.’”

Right. Just imagine when this becomes the new default television system; Orwellian beyond anyone’s possible dreams. Automatically logs you into Facebook via facial recognition, watches you watching the television, and keeps tabs on you if your attention strays to something like reading a book.

The scariest thing for me is that I predict that most people will simply fall in line with this, convinced that it’s the next big thing, and convinced that it makes them part of a virtual community. Nonsense – this is simply advertising and data mining at its most intrusive, and anyone who agrees to this system becomes a target for a totalitarian regime.

There Is Nothing Wrong With Your TV Set

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission.”

From Imre Szeman’s review of Bourdieu on Television, translated from the French by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. New York, 1998: The New Press, as published in Topia, The Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies.

“It is clear that Bourdieu believes that, when it comes to television, it has become increasingly dificult to accomplish anything that might be seen as intellectually constructive, no matter how carefully one approaches it. Television becomes, in Bourdieu’s analysis of the journalistic field, a field that dominates other fields. Not only does he argue that television has altered the function of the entire journalistic field, forcing the print media to approximate it more and more in form and content, he maintains that television has profoundly challenged the autonomy of all other fields. ‘The most important development, and a difficult one to foresee,’ he writes, ‘was the extraordinary extension of the power of television over the whole of cultural production, including scientific and artistic production.’ Television now holds a virtual monopoly on what today constitutes public space, and, as such, it controls cultural producers’ access to the public.

You can download a pdf of the review here.

You can read the entire text of Bourdieu’s book here.

AMC, IFC, Commercials and Aspect Ratios

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Above: Green= flat, or Academy; Red = widescreen; Blue = CinemaScope.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact).

I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there are only three basic cable services left that really run feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Fox Movie Channel (FMC), which, not surprisingly, runs only 20th Century Fox films, but dips deep into their back catalogue, and so is often deeply satisfying; The Sundance Channel, which also has a somewhat limited catalogue, but again, runs the films as they were meant to be seen; and, of course, Turner Classic Movies, or TCM, easily the best of the lot.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

Robert Osborne has been ill of late, as everyone who cares about TCM also knows, and is now on hiatus, while various guest hosts fill in. All I can say is that I wish him Godspeed in his return to health, and to the TCM set, to continue with the work he has done so brilliantly for the past ten years, introducing everything from Yakuza films to Ingrid Bergman’s early films in Sweden to classic MGM product to Buster Keaton silents, with every imaginable stop inbetween.

And one other, very important thing: TCM, Fox Movie Channel, and Sundance nearly always run the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in Scope, you see it in Scope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame.

This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see below), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image.

But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more.

HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

So, to summarize, there are copious commercials on IFC, AMC, and all the other basic cable channels; “pan and scan” versions on HBO, Cinemax, and the other “premium” services; so if you want to see feature films in their original aspect ratios, without commercials, time compression, or editing, you have really only three choices to see the whole film, uncut, unedited, as it was meant to be seen by its makers:

TCM, FMC and Sundance.

See a video explanation of “pan and scan” here, as produced by TCM, with directors Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and others explaining why “pan and scan” really robs the viewer of the original filmmakers’ intent; truly, essential viewing.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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