Monday, May 30, 2011

When the Captain Was Left Out to Sea

On Memorial day, we honor all the fallen heroes in the nation's service who made sacrifices for us as civilians. And as we are in the midst of another bloody culture war, I'd like to celebrate one of our greatest heroes of that front.

If you spend enough time listening to the mutterings of ordinary people, sooner or later you will hear that things are in a bollix. It's a timeless rant, to be sure, but to an extent, I am in agreement with that complaint. Consequently, everyone wants to know when this country went down the toilet, to pin it down to a single event. Depending on the political stripe of the complainant, it is usually attributed to when the rival party achieved certain power or passed certain legislation. Some like to pin it to a certain social sea change, usually involving the increased influence of an "other." And as such, I have my theory.

We as a nation became damned when CBS cancelled "CAPTAIN KANGAROO."

Up until that moment, on national television, there was still something front and center that was geared for a purpose other than money and ratings. Sure, TV networks and stations had public interest programs, but those were usually buried in deep programming holes guaranteed to be found by no one. (See: SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE"'s dead-on "Perspectives" sketches with Tim Meadows). Sure, there was ostensible children's programming, but those were increasingly turning into garish, half-hour toy commercials with a clumsy 30-second "morals" segment to fulfill the contractual obligation of being "educational." (See: "Knowing is half the battle: Go JOE!") Yes, of course there was "SESAME STREET," but PBS programming still had trouble reaching many households due to poor UHF reception, and this was a TV show that depended on government support (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting) and generous benefactors (Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and grants from almost everybody but the Chubb Group) precisely to keep it protected from the kinds of mercenarial market forces that could dilute its mandate.

But "CAPTAIN KANGAROO" was right there on CBS at 8 AM, five days a week. It was a beacon that told America that their growing children, easily succeptible to the lure of television, would have a place to go to where they were safe. There would be sweetness, but it never felt contrived or saccharine. There would be stimulating images, but he always pushed the young viewer to create their own images later on. There would be slapstick and maybe some embarassment for the Captain, getting pelted with ping pong balls by Mr. Moose, but no humiliation or degradation. Offscreen, Bob Keeshan strictly monitored what ads the show ran: he was businessman enough to know that you had to sell stuff, but he made sure the kids weren't being exploited, so sugary foods were kept to a minimum, and violent war toys were flat out not welcome. Even the opening montage, where you might see anyone from kids to adults, farmers to bankers, and famous people like Tom Brokaw or The Fonz or even the President saying "Good morning, Captain," sent a subtle message to kids at home that grown-ups knew the Captain was an important man and someone to respect. Even when you reached 3rd grade and were too cool to watch those baby shows any more, if you were home sick from school, you probably sneaked a look at the show and laughed at Mr. Moose still, because, well, ping pong balls are always funny.

And then, despite multiple Emmy nominations for the show and host, and Keeshan quickly recuperating from a heart attack that required triple-bypass surgery (where he receved thousands of get-well cards), CBS unceremoniously tampered with his program. First, in September 1981, the show was cut to a half hour and moved up an hour earlier to 7 AM, which affected the leisurely pacing that had made him so soothing. They literally renamed the show, "WAKE UP WITH THE CAPTAIN," suggesting that instead of having time to contemplate the day and hang around, kids had to snap to it, get dressed, and out the door. Then six months later they moved him to 6:30 AM, when most kids were still asleep! A year later, he was moved to Saturday mornings, where most affiliates couldn't be bothered to even run the show and yanked him off the air. Despite all of this, Keeshan and the show continued to win Emmys and accolades. But he clearly got tired of the constant heaving from CBS [and if I may interject, I know firsthand about the practice of a network constantly changing a program's timeslot to insure nobody will watch it and thus justify cancelling it], so he let his contract expire and "CAPTAIN KANGAROO" was gone for good by 1984, just shy of its 30th anniversary on television.

Why would CBS give the bum's rush to an American institution, a personality that had been as synonymous with their identity as the Eye logo? Why would they jerk around the man second only to Fred Rogers who demonstrated the positive power of TV on society?

To expand their morning news, so they could compete with "TODAY" and "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" for an already finite audience, and more impotantly, the advertising dollars.

With one act, a major television network told America's children, "Fuck off. We can make more money running a program for adults that is exactly the same as its competition, where we can sell ads for snow tires and Maalox. Because adults have disposable income, and you don't. You kids are not important, go somewhere else." The ultimate exclamation point upon the Me Decade.

Today, there's lots of good shows for children on cable and satellite. But you have to pay for cable and's called PAY TV for a reason. Maybe the saturation is such that only 24% of U.S. households don't have subscriptions, but that's still 30.7 million households relying solely on over-the-air broadcasting for their television viewing. (And that of course, is provided that those crappy digital converters--and don't get me started on those!--even work) Also consider that while kids could conceivably watch stuff on the internet, 40% of households don't have the broadband or high-speed connections required to watch longform streaming media, and 30% have no internet access at all. Which means those kids, who need positive TV programming the most, are shit out of luck.

Some shows are still available for free on PBS. But PBS depends on outside money, which is getting harder to come by every year, especially in this intense partisan climate where it has become a convenient political football. And much of the shows are just pleasant white noise ("TELETUBBIES"), or dumbed-down pandering ("BARNEY"), while "SESAME STREET" has drastically cut down on new episodes and sadly, Mister Rogers doesn't even surivive in reruns.

What little programming the major over-the-air networks offer to satisfy the FCC's mandatory 3 hours of Educational and Informative content for kids are mostly more of the same loud glorified toy commercials. NBC repuposes a few semi-educational series from the "qubo" collective on Saturday mornings...and if you're lucky, maybe you can find an affiliate who actually airs that lineup instead of pre-empting it for their own syndicated sports, news, or lifestyle programs for adults. To say that enforcement of this rule has been lax is not only a given, but would prompt Mr. Moose to notice that the FCC "lax" balls and thus bring a shower of them on their heads.

And by the way...CBS has never, ever, EVER...prove me wrong, TV heads...NEVER been able to dominate NBC or ABC's daily morning news shows, not with Bryant Gumbel, not with Paula Zahn, not with Martha Stewart...nothing.

When CBS devoted an hour each day to "CAPTAIN KANGAROO," they told kids that it was great to be a kid, there were all manner of possibilities in the world to explore, and there were friendly adults to help them navigate it.

Somebody at the network decided they couldn't spare an hour a day for America's kids. And to me, that's obviously where things go wrong.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Supe for Wan

In late April, a tempest in an inkpot erupted when it was announced that in DC Action Comics issue #900, Superman would stand before the United Nations and renounce his U.S. citizenship. Lest anyone think the Man of Steel is about to become a Kryptonite-munching hippie subversive, first off, it is only one of many self-contained stories in this landmark anniversary issue, and the storyline by David S. Goyer is quite thoughtful in its real-world implications, essentially putting forth the question of whether Superman's mandate for justice and peace is not just for the United States, but for all the universe and its citizens. The Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a further thought-provoking essay about this story, and meanwhile, comics websites, message boards and talk radio are fired up about what is really just a great hook to sell more copies of a collector's item, a thread that will surely be tidied up to everyone's satisfaction in a few more issues, faster than it took for him to return from his "death" via Doomsday.

The increased news coverage being heaped upon the finely chiseled ubermensch, along with the ongoing debate about the onslaught of superhero origin films to arrive this summer, put me to thinking about the first significant time I witnessed Superman asking serious questions about his identity. Granted, it was within the confines of a movie that severely tarnished the image of comic book movies for years afterward, but the question was there regardless.
SUPERMAN III, released in 1983, has served as a prime example of what is both interesting and irritating about "threequels" - the perception that this is where the franchise can go into heretofore unseen directions, bring up details heretofore ignored, and potentially here-and-now go off the rails. As far as superhero movies go, it's rather uncanny that future threequels SPIDER-MAN III and BATMAN FOREVER would also explore a similar sort of identity crisis plotline, thus making it a harbinger of things to come...especially since those threequels were not very good. And make no mistake, SUPERMAN III is not very good. You will find some brave souls ready to defend it, and the distinction of worst Superman outing ever still belongs to the moth-eaten SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, but do not for a minute think this is some sort of misunderstood crystal in the Fortress of Solitude. 

SUPERMAN III is the cinematic equivalent of fugu: on the whole, it is a poisonous beast that will suck the oxygen out of you and bring death. But if you carefully carve it up, there is some tasty meat within that can be enjoyed. 

Before discussing any of its merits, we must acknowledge it is nigh impossible to watch the movie in the present day and not be cognizant of the loss of both of its above-the-title stars, and the long, heartbreaking exits they took - Christopher Reeve from quadriplegic paralysis, Richard Pryor from Multiple Sclerosis. Both men, previously icons of energy and youth that repeatedly drew in audiences, ultimately became noble representatives for dealing with their abrupt misfortune with calm humor and determination to continue working until death. As such, the viewer wishes that their one shared movie offered them better material to work with. But thankfully, it is their respective skills that provide what good points the movie has.
First, the film provides a well-needed stretch for Reeve, taking him beyond the established polite nebbish/confident hero dynamic of the first two films. It is forgotten that in his first national exposure, on the TV soap opera "LOVE OF LIFE," his character was often so callous viewers would openly castigate him in person. Thus, when tainted Kryptonite infects Superman and drives him to mean-spirited selfish acts, Reeve throws himself into the bad behavior with relish; Metropolis may be horrified to see Superman being such a colossal dick, but it's a lot of fun for us to watch his heel turn. Which, of course, climaxes in the movie's best set piece, the junkyard brawl between "bad" Superman and "good" Clark Kent, a well-choreographed arragement of camera trickery and stunt doubling that manages to be funny and still inspire a degree of suspense as to how the hero will overcome his dark side. (Surely Sam Raimi, who would go on to helm all three SPIDER-MAN films, took inspiration from this sequence for his similar, albeit completely for laughs, smackdown between good and bad Bruce Campbell in ARMY OF DARKNESS.)

Then, there is the matter of Pryor's oft-maligned performance. Pryor himself was very harsh in his assessment of the experience: the movie merits only one page in his autobiography PRYOR CONVICTIONS, where he concedes the script was terrible but as it was then the highest salary ever offered to a black actor ($4 million) he took the part anyway. He also acknowledges he was still abusing crack during production, and it was shortly after filming when, on vacation with his children, he finally quit drugs for good. For fans who wanted to see the animated, take-no-bullshit persona that Pryor perfected on stage, earlier movies, and in his short-lived TV series, it is certainly a disappointment to witness the beginning of what would become an unwelcome trademark of his later movie roles, what the sketch comedy series "IN LIVING COLOR" (featuring his longtime friend Mr. Paul Mooney as a staff writer) derided as "Richard Pryor is...'SCARED FOR NO GOOD REASON!'" It is also the blueprint that in the present-day has similarly hobbled other great comic actors - Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Jack Black - who start out transgressive and dangerous but get stuck in a rut of making repetitive and bland movies "for the kids" and can't seem to recapture their adult glory. 

But while revisiting the film a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a quote Pryor provided author Arthur Grace for his photo-essay book COMEDIANS...

"I see Laurel and Hardy up there with van Gogh. I do, really. Cause they were just there, man, you what I'm saying. They had a love. They had a magic together."


And as I watched Pryor playing the soft-spoken and often-reluctant criminal sub-genius Gus Gorman, it hit me. Pryor's approach to the role - the half-baked bravado, the physical slapstick, the quick retreats upon confrontation, the occasional squeak of fear - is to emulate Stan Laurel. You even see a sort of Oliver Hardy-ish bluster to Robert Vaughn's industrialist villain for Pryor to play his Laurelisms against. And, considering that Reeve's Clark Kent, a modest bespectacled gent secretly capable of feats of strength, owes more than a little debt to silent comedian Harold Lloyd, a similarly mild-mannered fellow who literally climbed a tall building in a single bound in SAFETY LAST, I find it rather charming that the work of such comedy pioneers is quietly being reenacted decades later. It's not completely effective, especially when you know it goes against his better comedic impulses, but it is interesting because of the contrast, as if trying to prove to the world (and himself) that he could be funny without any of his earthier hallmarks, to use the template of the comedians that he had grown up enjoying to demonstrate his versatility. There is also the harsh reality that, in a family-friendly franchise film which he was receiving a cool $4 million to appear in, there would be no room for the dirty stuff anyway. 

But again, perhaps this is what Pryor wanted at the time. Initially, Pryor had practically begged to be involved in the franchise, excitedly talking about his love for the first film on "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JOHNNY CARSON," an incident which first inspired producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind to make the large money offer to Pryor in the first place. The offer came after accepting a starring role in another family-friendly comedy, the American remake of Francis Veber's THE TOY, oddly enough directed by original SUPERMAN director Richard Donner. A couple of years earlier, Pryor had taken a trip to Africa, where, as memorably depicted in LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP, he was inspired to renounce his use of the racial epithet that he had previously played to the hilt, and while his first interests were still big paychecks (and his drug addiction), he definitely wanted to be a world entertainer and not just a black comedian. All these circumstances suggest that contrary to the dismissal in his book, SUPERMAN III to Pryor was less a cavalier cash grab and more of a sincere desire to pay tribute to things that brought him happiness as a kid, and maybe repay the favor for his own and the next generation. Again, that doesn't make it a good movie, but it provides a new lens with which to observe the mess. 

And that brings things around to the beginning of this essay and the element of the movie that I do find still holds my interest. Superman, in his most passionate fans, constantly inspires questions, whether, as was being asked in the aformentioned Issue #900, if Superman is an American, or in other circles, what is his religious/ethnic identity. But in SUPERMAN III, it comes down to the ultimate question, not just for Superman but also for his ersatz nemesis/admirer Gus Gorman - "Who am I?"

Superman, during his infected rogue phase, is more than just indulging in nasty behavior; for the first time, he's allowing himself to feel better than humans, because, well, he isn't one. After all, he tried being human in SUPERMAN II and was terrible at it. The kryptonite has unlocked residual resentment at being unable to engage in romance because of his hero duties, having to play nice with the people or let them push him around when he's in street clothes, and now he is retaliating against the world, demonstrating what chaos he's capable of doing in a fit of pique, because of his otherworldly powers. When it's time for that I Against I grudge match, it's become a spiritual fight between openly showing off his might and menace or concealing and modulating it in the cloak of ordinary men. The striking image of Clark Kent winning the fight, and then revealing the cleaned up shield beneath his drab suit, says that Superman has willingly made the conscious decision to be outwardly meek and humble, to be a mensch, and let his real strength be within himself. Contrary to what Bill said to The Bride, Superman is not critiquing the human race by his life as Clark Kent, but embracing them, because they embraced him all his life. (In a future essay, I will discuss how the people repaid the favor.)

Gus, meanwhile, is a venal opportunist who is really just trying to improve his lot in life and doesn't want to hurt anyone. His first grand scheme, engaging in salami slicing to fatten his paycheck, he sees as a "victimless" crime since the money goes nowhere otherwise, thus he later allows himself to be co-opted by a megalomaniac for what he thinks are similarly victimless schemes in order to live his silly dreams. When he must confront the fact that his actions have consequences beyond his small world, including destroying Superman, he renounces everything - his criminal benefactor, his supercomputer - that has given him his exalted status...perhaps mirroring how Pryor in real life abandoned his previously-favorite curse word. 

Whatever grand ambitions and ideas are within, SUPERMAN III is still a slog for the average viewer and is only recommended to those with strong constitutions or a good fast-forwarding thumb. It is nice to see it still has some degree of positive impact years later, either obviously, as the initial financial scheme is reprised for bigger comic effect in Mike Judge's classic OFFICE SPACE, or interpretively, as Richard Pryor's Gus Gorman seems to have been a partial influence on John C. Reilly's lovably befogged Dr. Steve Brule character on "TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW GREAT JOB". Perhaps in one of those DC multiverses, Reeve and Pryor made a really great sequel, and my surrogate will be writing an essay about how it could have gone horribly awry...