Watching a real 70s show: The Rockford Files

While I've been retro-watching the 80s shows of my youth, my memory does in fact extend into the 70s as well.  Sad to say, the few attempts I've made to go re-watch old programming did not go well.  Hulu had M*A*S*H on about a year ago and I could not get into it.  It was painful to sit through.  Maybe one of the later seasons would be better, but neither my wife nor I could stomach it.

However, The Rockford Files has aged reasonably well.  It's got the usual detective tropes and comically unsafe firearms use that is emblematic of the period and as I'm closing in on the halfway mark of the first season I can see why it was successful.

James Garner is perfect for the role of Jim Rockford and he has the easy charm and charisma that is sorely lacking in today's stars.  He's genuinely interesting to watch.  Such qualities made often made the difference between schlock and decent programming.

The setting is of course iconic - a guy who lives in a battered trailer set up in a ocean side parking lot.  The interior is nice, but it's constantly the target of various break-ins.  While perpetually broke, Rockford nevertheless boasts a sweet ride - a gold Pontiac Firebird.  This of course anticipates the 80s tropes where private investigators have sweet rides and/or helicopters (or speedboats, or whatnot).

Rockford therefore walks the line between being plausible and relatable (perpetually broke, often beat up) but also admirable (handsome, has cool car, total ladies' man).  There is not a trace of the Mary Sue in this show, which demonstrates how far Hollywood has fallen.

I'm not sure how long I will stick with it, but for now it's a welcome diversion while I finish publishing Walls of Men and recharge my batteries for my next creative venture.

The dead of winter

After a cold snap around Christmas, winter turned unexpectedly mild.  January was gloomy and chilly, but temperatures generally got above freezing during the day, causing all the snow to melt and given the world a brown and dreary appearance.

I think one of the things that makes winter in Michigan tolerable is the snow.  Not only is it attractive, it reflects light, and since the latest snowfall, things are a lot more cheerful.

Snow also absorbs sound, amplifying the natural quiet of winter.   Before the weather changed, it felt like late November - no snow and the scattered holiday decorations hinting that Christmas season had just begun.

Now it's bitterly cold, with temperatures threatening to go below zero and fine powder wafting through the thin air.  This is as it should be this time of year.

At least in this part of the state, bitter cold also brings brilliantly clear skies, and I'll happily trade sub-zero wind chills for some sunlight.

This is very much indoor weather, and I'm making use of it in terms of modeling and painting.  When spring comes, it will be time to set up the garden and then the fleeting joy of summer will keep me outside.  But for now I don't have to feel guilty about watching a movie or playing a game.

No more Elvis sightings

I saw Lisa Marine Presley died the other day.  It was all over the supermarket tabloids.  I don't generally pay attention to the news, sot that's where I get most of my pop culture information.

Seeing the pictures of her with her father reminded me how pervasive Elvis Presley once was in American culture.  Almost every month a tabloid would report an "Elvis sighting" because of course the King of Rock 'n Roll wasn't dead, he was merely in hiding.  Like James Dean, he's supposed to have faked his death to escape the pressure of celebrity.

I never understood that line of logic - celebrity status isn't a lifetime entitlement.  It has to be constantly shored up, and that's what generally makes famous people succumb to drugs and depression.  If you want to stop being a celebrity, stop doing anything.  There are lots of celebrities who did just that and no one talks about them.  Heck, Olivia de Havilland lived for decades in obscurity and was one of those people about which it was said:  "She's still alive?!  Amazing."

Not to digress, but James Dean would easily have vanished.  His whole persona was that of an alienated youth, and without that, I'm not sure what he would have brought to the table.  Yes, I'm sure the long slow retreat into either "Where are they now?" or "famous for being famous" would have been annoying, but it takes a lot less effort than faking one's death. 

I'm reminded here of Dirk Benedict, who achieved considerable notoriety in the 80s as the One True Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica and then starred in the A-Team.   Having made his money, he retired, surfacing briefly to denounce the feminization of his old character.

The point is that just quitting show business is pretty easy.  There's always some new face for the press to fixate upon.

Anyway, not only have the Elvis sightings stopped, but I couldn't remember the last time I heard his music.  The "oldies" stations these days rarely go back into the 1960s.  When they do, it's to play songs recognizable through commercial licensing.  Even "classic rock" formats ignore the King, which is weird because I should think his rock is about as classic as it gets. 

My life only briefly overlapped his, but I know his music well because it was pervasive throughout the 80s.  Indeed, one of the strange games memory plays on us is that we often associate music with events that happened years after its release because while a given song may have peaked in one year, it may well enjoy heavy airplay for many years afterwards.

In putting together playlists based on decades, I've found that the change of a calendar is pretty meaningless, and that well into (for example) the 80s, 70s music was getting plenty of use. 

(As a sidebar, there's also the issue that music is continually evolving, which is why 1981 sounded very different than 1985 or 1989.)

Anyhow, it's strange how something that was once pervasive can vanish entirely.

Henry VIII and Edward VIII: Two disastrous reigns

In my previous post I examined Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a television series which provided (as far as I can tell) a pretty accurate picture of the disastrously short reign of Edward VIII.

One of Edward's recurring arguments in trying to make a twice-divorced woman his Queen Empress was "a king should be able to marry whom he likes."  A quick survey of British history reveals this to be an argument without merit or precedent. 

Indeed, one of the reason why it was socially acceptable for kings and princes to have mistresses was the fact that they often had little control over who would be their spouse.  Dynastic marriages were sometimes happy, but that was besides the point.  The goal was to unite royal houses (and their attendant lands) and hopefully produce an heir.  To do this often required elaborate arrangements depending on the laws of succession.

Perhaps because of the English Kingdom's muddled origins, these laws were fairly fluid.  For example, there was no Salic Law regarding male rulership, nor was there a requirement that heirs be of noble blood on both sides.  English kings could (and did) marry commoners (the current Prince of Wales has done so).

While some accounts of the crisis emphasize Wallis Simpson's American citizenship, that was a secondary concern.  Far more serious was the fact that she had two living ex-husbands, which was a violation of the Church of England's teachings regarding marriage.  As the titular head of the English Church, Edward was bound to abide by its rules. 

Some accounts of the crisis have to offer an explainer on this, noting that at the time this was indeed taken seriously.  Obviously, that is no longer the case, and I've seen citations claiming that in 1982 the C of E said "yeah, never mind about that bit."  Indeed, the last half-century has seen the various Archbishops of Canterbury pretty much rewrite scripture to legitimize all forms of sexual license, most recently deciding that "trans" individuals can have a form of re-baptism.

This is of course deeply ironic, given the number of people killed to create and then solidify its place in English society five centuries ago.  There are countless plays, movies and television adaptations that recreate the life and times of Henry VIII, most of them implicitly taking the position that Rome was wrong and his creation of the Church of England was an act of intellectual independence.

The truth is, it wasn't.  Contemporary events prove that by every measure, the English Reformation was an unmitigated disaster, unleashing centuries of persecution and war.  Henry's serial marriages did not produce a healthy, long-lived heir.  His intrigues bankrupted England, his confiscation of the monasteries undermined the social safety net and severing ties with Rome exacerbated divisions within English society that have yet to fully heal.  It's funny, but even at this late date, one still sees casual bigotry on the part of the English against Catholics.

I wrote at length about how "historian" Anthony Beevor included gratuitous and nonsensical anti-Catholic tropes in his book on the Spanish Civil War, outright saying that Spanish clergy were somehow intellectually incapable of any other occupation.  English period films with Catholics almost always have a scene showing self-flagellation.

American culture has incorporated a certain level of anti-Catholicism, no doubt because of its Puritan roots.  It's amusing to see people claim that the separation between church and state in the Constitution was somehow motivated by fear of the Catholic Church.  In fact, it was caused by the persecutions the Puritans suffered at the hands of the Church of England. 

What made the union of crown and altar so dangerous (and often deadly) was that it turned religious dissent into a form of treason.  Movies about Henry (and especially Elizabeth I) tend to downplay this, but both monarchs put their subjects to exquisite tortures in order to compel absolute obedience.  The Tudors didn't want intellectual freedom, they wanted control.

One could argue that all of this was part of God's plan, and that the martyrs created by Henry have in turn brought about many miracles and ultimately strengthened the faith.  That may be so, but I think it is still essential to fully dismantle the myth that the English Reformation was anything other than a naked power grab of breathtaking scope that brought ruin and war.

And lots of drama, which is why people still recreate it on stage and screen.

Edward and Mrs. Simpson: aristocratic selfishness causes political crisis

I've been doing something of a deep dive in archaic television serials.  I guess some of these could be called a "miniseries," since they aren't really a full season worth of programming, but the upshot is that I'm enjoying watching the old shows.

The latest offering is Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a drama about the romance between Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson that culminated in the Abdication Crisis of 1936.

The show aired in 1978, after Edward's death but while the Duchess of Windsor (nee Wallis Warfield) was still alive.  It is very respectful to the subject matter, and while it is taken for granted that Edward is carrying on a sexual affair with Mrs. Simpson, they never so much as make out.

That is to say, there is much discussion of bed-hopping, but all of it takes place off camera.

The story is quite well-known at this point, but I enjoyed this presentation, particularly Edward Fox's turn as Edward VIII.  Fox was one of those English actors who never quite became a leading man, instead serving in a supporting role.  To be sure, he played the assassin in Day of the Jackal, but it was a very restrained role with little dialog.

I think Fox does a splendid job, and many of the set pieces are designed to mimic known photographs or newsreels.  Cynthia Harris (who I don't recall seeing before), is just as good as Wallis, and the pair establish a compelling (and likely accurate) dynamic of co-dependency that explains why Edward would cast aside the throne and throw the British Empire into crisis simply because of his desire to date older, married women.

I'm sure a more modern treatment would celebrate the victory of love over duty, but this 1978 version does the opposite, noting that at every turn, Edward tried to shirk his royal duties and always put pleasure before business.  The picture that emerges is a fascinating one. 

Traditionally, first-born children feel a heightened sense of obligation to their families, particularly since they may have to help manage the care of younger siblings.  Edward seems to have been an exception to this rule, resentful of his birth and working tirelessly to avoid the responsibilities associated with his birthright.

In the end, of course, he succeeds, abandoning the throne in favor of his brother Bertie, who reigned as King George VI.  After some vague intrigues during World War II (which resulted in Edward being the go-to monarch for alternative history regarding the UK), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor became little more than minor celebrities and part of the Continental social scene.  The question of inheritance was moot because they produced no offspring, which was no surprising given that she was already nearly beyond child-bearing years when they met.

(There were of course salacious rumors about botched abortions and such to explain her lack of children.)

The one knock against the show isn't really against it at all, but rather FreeVee, which apparently owns the rights and streams via Amazon.  FreeVee uses commercials to cover its costs, which was once standard practice (and still is in the broadcast world).  However, the commercial breaks in Edward and Mrs. Simpson appear almost at random, cutting through a scene rather than the normal practice of doing it between them. 

I think there's a fascinating parallel with Edward VIII and Henry VIII, and at some point I'll dig a little deeper into it.

My new life as a civilian

I don't generally dwell on personal details, but as anyone who has looked at my body of work knows, I have done a bit of military service.  More than 20 years, actually.

That came to a close at the end of last year.

I'm looking forward to have more free time - that whole "one weekend a month" thing got to be a real drag after a while.  It seemed that every important event was slotted against drill, which not only wrecked the weekend itself, but cast a shadow of fatigue on the following week.  The weekend after was then a game of catch-up on chores. 

It played havoc with my writing schedule.  I might be writing at a good clip and then drill (or a training deployment) would pop up and that was that.  I might lose a whole month.

Folks sometime ask me how I could write at all given the pressures of two jobs plus a family, and the answer is that it became my creative outlet.  I gave up watching broadcast television and cable years ago.  Over the last couple of weeks I've joined the kids in playing console games, but that's also a function of having Walls of Men near completion.  I like to take  break after one project before diving into the next.

My new catch phrase is "people write what they know," and I'm looking forward to incorporating more aspects of that life in my work.  Yes, I wrote Three Weeks with the Coasties while still serving, but I also pulled some punches (and had to get it approved by DoD).

I've probably said before that I don't put a particular emphasis on the change of the calendar, but for once, the diving line is pretty stark. 

A year of war: flying Spitfires in Piece of Cake

In ancient days, it was common for a home to have a single television under the absolute control of adults.  This is why I have certain blind spots regarding 80s culture - Mom wanted to watch something else.

On the positive side, I got exposed to a lot of programs on Masterpiece Theatre or Great Performances that otherwise would have eluded me.  Even after gaining a measure of independence, I'd check the show by force of habit, often finding really cool shows.

One of them was Piece of Cake, and adaptation of the novel by the same name (by Derek Robinson).

Robinson's book was published in the 80s and presented a revisionist take on the Battle of Britain and the men who fought it.  To book purports to tell the story of "Hornet Squadron," a fictitious Royal Air Force unit and its transition from peacetime to war.  Hornet Squadron flew Hawker Hurricanes, which were preponderant in RAF squadrons during the first year of the war but have since been overlooked in favor of the more effective (and attractive) Supermarine Spitfire.

The Hurricane was generally inferior in performance to the German Messerschmitt BF 109, but when used properly, it was very effective, particularly against bomber formations.  Indeed, the stereotypical scenario was for the Spitfires to tangle with the 109s, while the Hurricanes hurtled into the Heinkels and Junkers.

Anyhow, Robinson's book was popular enough that a six-episode adaptation was made and (like all British drama), it featured a bunch of familiar faces of the era.  (At some point I'll do a post on the fact that at any given moment, the UK only has a dozen or so TV actors who appear in everything.)

What set Piece of Cake apart was its decidedly cynical and negative take on the RAF.  Instead of a "valiant few," the pilots are a bunch of quarrelsome, selfish jerks.  The high command is arrogant and incompetent, and of course there are social class divisions (the British particularly obsess about this).

I have not read the book and have no desire to do so.  By all accounts, it is even worse (verging on caricature) in terms of making the pilots obnoxious and highlighting the RAF's failures.

This may therefore be one of the rare cases where the film supersedes the book.  This is likely because the actors inherently have more charisma than the characters did as written.  This is what happened when The Great Santini was adapted - Robert Duvall couldn't help but humanize the role of Bull Meechum.

Pat Conroy famously used his father as the basis for Meechum, portraying him as a complete sociopath of a father and husband, with zero redeeming features.  He's a cruel tyrant, period.

When the film was made, certain changes were made to the character - not necessarily to make him more sympathetic, but simply more believable.  The irony is that years later, Conroy admitted that he had done his father dirty and that certain details (that he insisted were completely true) had been exaggerated.  A quick (but telling) example: in the film, Meechum is portrayed as an undisciplined Marine aviator whose juvenile highjinks ensure he will never make full colonel or command a squadron of his own.  In real life, Conroy's father was both.

The same is true of "Moggy" Cattermole, a cruel, arrogant, treacherous womanizer who is also the best pilot of Hornet Squadron.    Neil Dudgeon has undeniable screen presence, which necessarily softens the character - and therefore makes him relatable.

Indeed, I think the technical advisor (a retired RAF officer) also fixed some other episodes I've heard of in the book that were totally over the top.  The result may not be as true to the book but is likely truer to the subject matter.

The story of Piece of Cake is the story of the first year of WW II for the RAF.  In September, 1939, the RAF is a peacetime entity, full of ritual and social convention.  Within weeks of hostilities breaking out, it is sent to France to support British ground forces there, but instead of fighting, it finds itself in the Phoney War, a lull which lasted from the fall of Poland until the German onslaught on Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940.

As such, it's a departure from traditional wartime dramas which focus on the people.  Instead, Piece of Cake focuses on the squadron as a whole, and the mainstays are the ground staff, who try to hold the organization together as pilots cycle through.

This is a unique perspective, but an important one.  In a certain sense, it captures the essence of modern warfare, which is largely institutional.  Individuals come and go, some without leaving a mark, others profoundly shaping the culture or events, but few remain forever.  European war films are typically more pessimistic than American ones in terms of killing off characters, but here Piece of Cake is not using artistic license - RAF losses were very heavy during the first year of the war, especially during the disastrous Battle of France and the later Battle of Britain.

Hornet Squadron would therefore have borne the brunt of the fighting and it's appropriate at few characters survive for long.

One anachronism is that the squadron flies Spitfires.  Indeed, they fly late-model Spitfires, completely inappropriate for 1939-40.  What is more, no Spitfire squadrons served in France.  They were deliberately held back to defend Great Britain (which was a sore point for the French).

Why does the show use them?  Because that's what they had.  Few Hurricanes survived the war and at the time of the filming, I don't think any were airworthy.  This was because the Hurricane was obsolete by 1942 and almost all surviving models were melted down to make Spitfires, which served throughout the war.

That inaccuracy aside the show contains lots of gratuitous footage of Spitfires warming up, taking off and soaring over the countryside.  In certain circles this is known as "Spitfire porn," and I confess it's one of the show's strengths.

Another thing I liked about it is the way the title credits change with each episode.  Pay careful attention when watching, as the very formal squadron portrait changes over time - not just because personnel are different, but the posing becomes more casual, showing how little time there is for such things.

Overall, I think the show overplays the pessimism of Fighter Command pilots, and there are plenty of gratuitous digs against Winston Churchill that imply he was not as popular as later legend made it, but one can overlook these things.  If you want a detailed look at the transformation of a military organization over time, Piece of Cake is a great place to start.



Rope of Sand - an often-overlooked film noir

I first encountered Rope of Sand while channel surfing.  It must have been on American Move Classics back when all the did was show movies.  (Like MTV, AMC has some serious mission creep.)

I loved it.  It was a near-sequel to Casablanca, with many of the same actors (Paul Henried, Peter Lorre and Claude Rains) and a fun ever-changing plot.

When I began to collect DVDs, I figured it would be easy to find, but it wasn't.  Indeed, when Turner Classic Movies took over the film channel title, I couldn't recall ever seeing it.

Finally, it got released and thanks to online resources, I came to understand that one of the reasons it was so obscure was that its "parentage" was mixed.  It was a Paramount picture, but mostly used Warner Brothers actors (which is why it felt so much like Casablanca).

The Hollywood studios started out focusing on current and future projects, and they survived only from film to film.  The box office was where they made their money. 

Many of the studio bosses had no interest in their back catalog, or any idea of how to monetize it.  That is why the subsequent TV and home video releases were so haphazard.  As television cut into box office profits and the studio system started to break down, selling off the inventory was a way to raise quick cash, so that's what often happened.

In some cases, the buyer realized what they had, but in other cases the only thought was rebroadcast on television.  When videocassettes and DVDs emerged, there was a sudden realization of all the money that was to be had from these classic films and so third parties (like Ted Turner) snapped up as much as they could.  Some studios (who still owned the films) consolidated their holdings by buying out rivals.

Because it was a hybrid, Rope of Sand fell through the cracks a lot and there are a number of films whose DVD is hard if not impossible to find.

As to the film itself, it's great.  Burt Lancaster plays a professional hunter and guide who is returning to Southwest Africa (now Namibia) after being thrown out two years ago.  He had ventured into the forbidden area after his client took off in the night to make his fortune in stolen diamonds.  The client died and Lancaster almost died trying to rescue him.  When they were found, the client's hand still had a raw diamond in its grasp.

The local police commander (Paul Henried) savagely beat Lancaster's character but he divulged nothing.  Now he's back to settle scores.

There's a lot more of course, including a femme fatale (played be Corinne Calvert), Peter Lorre has some nice parts, and Claude Rains pretty much double-crosses everyone.  It's a great film and should be more prominent.  It is one of a handful of movies I never tire of watching.

Constantly living under explosive tension: Danger UXB

I'm continuing to knock out old shows I missed in my youth, and for the past week I've been binging on Danger UXB, a British production about a bomb-disposal squad during World War II.

The main character, Lt. Brian Ash is brilliantly played by Anthony Andrews, whose career was at its zenith during this period.  Andrews of course played Sebastian Flyte in the immortal TV version of Brideshead Revisited, which is arguably the best adaptation ever filmed.

Many of the same actors are present in Danger UXB, and because it has only 13 episodes, every single one of them is extremely tense because at any point someone can (and often does) get blown up.

In lesser hands, that would be a cheap gimmick, and certainly the likes of HBO's Game of Thrones writing room would make a hash of it, however, Danger UXB is very well done.  I'm looking forward to watch it again, this time savoring the character development and tension.

To me, that is the true test of a story, whether book for film - that you enjoy it so much that even with the spoilers you love watching it again.

As an aside, I think it's interesting how many shows I'm discovering at this stage in life.  I remember seeing Danger UXB in the TV books of the time, and passing over it because it sounded weird.  Obviously, my time to see was not yet come.


The fascinating gender lessons of Tootsie

My foray into 80s entertainment continues, and I have to say that while I had been putting off watching Tootsie, it is a pretty funny (and insightful) film.

Like all good movies, there are several layers of humor involved.  The core of the plot is an unemployed (and unemployable) actor (Dustin Hoffman) who decides to audition as a woman to get a job on a daytime drama.  It works, and his character becomes a national sensation and feminist icon.

Lots of social commentary going on here, and while there tons of gender-bending gags, there's some amusing meta-humor as well. 

It should be said at the outset that Hoffman's character is a straight male.  He aggressively likes women and when in his female guise, his reaction to men who try to kiss or fondle him is instinctive and pitiless, which of course makes it even funnier.  The reason why he is perfect for the role is that Dustin Hoffman can only play Dustin Hoffman, and all his roles are about him playing that role. 

This film turns that weakness into a strength, and we get to see the ultimate method actor take on his most demanding role.  This is in many ways the forerunner of the role Robert Downey, Jr. took in Tropic Thunder.

In addition to showcasing (once again) the vapidity of the entertainment industry, Tootsie also examines male-female relationships from both sides.   I didn't realize Bill Murray was in the film, but he is outstanding as Hoffman's flatmate, who is just watching all this nonsense unfold.  It's an usually subdued role for Murray, but he nails it.

In the present age, this film couldn't be made, or Hoffman's character would be gay, but this is yet again a refreshing reminder that Hollywood once produced funny and interesting films.

I remember it being released, that there was a lot of talk about it, and I also recall the signature song in the soundtrack getting lots of airplay.  That's another thing we no longer see - hit songs coming from movies.