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Topics/Questions/Exercises Of The Week—9 April 2010

"I Dunno, It Just Sorta Screams 'TV' To Me...": The title of this post is not a direct quote, but it does sum up the sentiments of a lot of folks who want to express their reluctance to see...or to pay to see...a particular movie, or take a particular movie seriously. And the attitude extends, does it not, to one's considerations of various performers (although not necessarily of directors). And then, on the other hand, there's actual TV that doesn't scream "TV" to certain people.

I'll start with my own prejudices in this realm. Usually, when a prominent performer passes away, I'll make some kind of note of it on my own blog. But a few weeks back, first Robert Culp died, and then John Forsythe.  Robert Culp; certainly a familiar figure, and a welcome one, an integral ingredient of at least two television programs that, I am told, were thoroughly significant. Problem was, I don't think I'd ever sat through an episode of I, Spy all the way through, and as for Greatest American Hero, I don't think I could even get through the opening theme. I liked Culp on his occasional guest shots on Everybody Loves Raymond (a rather underrated program, I think, and very far from the toothless sitcom many dismiss it as, but I'm not gonna make a federal case out of it), and I liked him because he was, sure, Robert Culp. But his film work was vestigial, from my perspective. What was I gonna write about? Turk 182!? The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday? Hannie Caulder? Hickey and Boggs, maybe, but it'd been years since I'd seen it, if indeed I've actually ever seen it. Usually with fellows of Culp's age you could find one or two B pictures with auteurial stamps on them, going back to the '50s, say, but not here. So? I got/had nothing. So I let his passing go unremarked upon, and still felt kinda bad about it. Then Forsythe died. One didn't need to find a B picture with an auteurial stamp on it here; Forsyth had worked for Hitchcock, not once, but twice, in feature films. He made a good, upstanding foil for the "kooky" Shirley MacLaine in The Trouble With Harry, a whimsical 1955 film from the Master that plays rather like a live-action, feature-length New Yorker cartoon. Then there's the more middling Topaz. Overall Forsythe's actual filmo is a lot more interesting than Culp's, encompassing not just ...And Justice For All! and In Cold Blood but also Madame X and Kitten With A Whip. But there's nothing in the filmo that actually upends what were his various television personae, from Bachelor Father to the disembodied Charlie of Charlie's Angels to the once-again upstanding Blake Carrington of Dynasty. Not that I can claim any kind of definitive basis for that last characterization, as I never sat through an episode of Dynasty, either. (That's why I don't have an attitude, I guess.)

I don't point any of this out by way of dismissing two very fine performers who were also by all accounts exemplars of their profession. I merely note that within the area of my ostensible expertise, there was really nothing I could say about either of them, or at least nothing that someone else couldn't or wouldn't say better. They did not "scream" TV to me, but they were mostly of TV, and TV has never really been my thing. I've had to bone up on it at times. Well I remember a Premiere editorial meeting in late '99, and somebody was talking about this "Ashton Kutcher" guy, and I was all, like, "huh?" (Happy to see that his film career has turned out to be pretty vestigial too, eh?) In any event, the screams-TV-to-me caveat has most recently been leveled at Date Night, the comedy opening today pairing Steve Carrell, of The Office fame on television and The 40-Year-Old Virgin fame on film, and Tina Fey, of SNL and 30 Rock fame on television, as a married couple whose titular attempt to put some zing back into their relationship leads them to all sorts of putatively hilarity-ensuing misadventure. Mitigating the TV-ish feel of the lead casting, some note, are the presences of "real" movie actors such as James Franco and Mark Wahlberg. The awful truth for this film could well be that it doesn't so much scream "TV" as it screams "Shawn Levy," the film's studio-pleasing, material-homogenizing director, whose formula for success is to take varied idiosyncratic premises and talents and smooth them out into a bland paste that goes down easy and digests instantly. See Cheaper By The Dozen, either Night At The Museum, and so on. (Or don't see them, actually.) The irony being that a random episode of The Office or 30 Rock is likely to have more sass, "edge," and laugh-out-loud material than the entirety of Date Night.

The ultimate arbiter of television with edge, or better still, television as Great Art, is David Simon, whose Sunday-premiering new series Treme (on HBO) is garnering so much anticipatory love from so many particular corners (including this one) that my snarkier stuff is a little surprised that the show hasn't yet turned up on that "Stuff That White People Like" site. Simon's vision is such that it can only coalesce, I suspect, in the longer, multi-story thread concept of the television series, or more specifically, the limited-run television series, a concept that networks have been extremely reluctant to embrace but which makes perfect sense for a lot of programs (see Glee).  But what's interesting—and kind of disturbing—is how little crossover Simon's ideas have had. The stereotype-smashing thoughtfulness he brought to The Wire hasn't meaningfully manifested itself in much Hollywood cinematic product that I can see. This represents a potentially discouraging state of affairs for a cinephile such as myself: that to get the Good Stuff, I'm gonna have to start watching more TV. Because I really don't much like TV...

But you don’t HAVE to watch “Dynasty” to have an attitude!
Everybody Loves Raymond? Come on. What the fuck?
Ah, but as they say, TV has “bin veddy veddy good to me.” In the last two years alone, I can safely say that shows like HBO’s IN TREATMENT or FX’s SONS OF ANARCHY have been more satisfying than any film I can think of, domestic or foreign.
@ Willi Patton: Seriously. Watch a couple of episodes some time. Doris Roberts’ Maria is one of the most perfectly passive-aggressive monsters in popular entertainment ever. A completely and horrifically original conception, from the writing to the performing.
Yeah, we’ve been going through a long period (in the US, at least), where television has had more interesting material than film. But it must be noted that TV’s material has been more interesting in terms of writing and acting, rather than auteurist direction.
Re Robert Culp: “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”?
I think there’s an e on the end of Forsythe… Thanks for the words on Culp…his film work was spotty, though he worked with Mazursky with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Don Siegel in the TV movie The Hanged Man and Hickey & Boggs is an outstanding piece of 70s noir. His best features were TV movies like A Cold Night’s Death and A Cry for Help. I Spy is great and holds up nicely, especially the vibe between Culp and Cosby. BTW, Culp wrote and occasionally directed many of the best episodes of I Spy. I’d recommend checking them out. They released a great DVD set a few years ago with Culp commentary on his episodes. And Everybody Loves Raymond is damn good. How can you resist a show that has Culp married to Katherine Helmond?
Yeah, Cisco, sorry about that missing “e”. It has been added! “Bob and Carol” IS an interesting film, and pretty ballsy for its time, as is Culp in it, but BOY has it dated. That isn’t the reason it didn’t spring to mind. But I can’t pinpoint what was…
Believe it or not I’m a Jew and I’m broke I never thought I would work for free Driving away in a Mercedes-Benz Who could it be? Believe it or not It’s not me
Don’t have much to add on the TV/cinema dichotomy, as I’ve barely watched any series television in the last five years. But I’d like to put in my two cents about one of Ashton Kutcher’s films, last year’s “Sread,” which was directed by the great David Mackenzie. My pal Ignatiy reviewed it here last fall during the one week it played in theaters, and I admired it even more than he did. Though Kutcher doesn’t come off especially well in the film (in that his character is vain, exploitive, shallow), he actually produced it and requested that Mackenzie be the director. For someone from TV, it was surprising to learn he’d pull for someone who pulls off so many Ophulsian tracking shots.
Great topic. I like tv, it’s a drug you don’t have to give your full attention to. Just avoid cable news channels and watch reality tv only for the fun of noticing how staged it all is – the situations, the lights, everyone wearing a mic pack.
I know “Everybody Loves Raymond” isn’t the focus of this piece per se, but I just wanted to say I wholeheartedly agree with what Glenn says about it. I’m not married (yet), but from all that I have observed from my parents’ marriage and others’, the series contains a lot of bleak, harsh truths about married life, and doesn’t shy away from presenting them in as stripped-down and realistic a manner as possible. I’ve never thought it was the bland sitcom many people said it was—far from it, sometimes it edged very near brutal. (But then, I see a lot of my mother in Marie Barone, and a lot of myself in Raymond. So maybe there’s a more personal angle that is blurring my perspective.)
@ Ben Sachs: Yes, the whole “Spread” making-of scenario does seem to speak well of Mr. Kutcher. For myself, I remain unwilling to give him any credit whatsoever, and insist on believing his actions were steered by a more aesthetically-sensitive business associate, and that Kutcher acquiesced because he thought that doing so might buy him some “indie” “cred.” I’m petty that way, I know. Maybe I should work on that…
I could care less about Kutcher myself. I went to see “Spread” as a fan of Mackenzie foremost and was pleasantly surprised that Kutcher’s ego (and limited range as an actor) didn’t prevent him from making a great movie. Have you seen it? It’s actually pretty damn good.
Culp is iconic to me and I suspect to a lot of guys my age. “I Spy” was the absolute epitome of 60s cool — and Culp was somebody I desperately wanted to be, actually. And trust me about “Hickey and Boggs” — if there’s a cult film god in heaven, it’s going to get its due someday.
this is about as far from bad film as you can get (in my opinion), but does anyone know what this little jorgen leth clip is about?
In regards to who Robert Culp was – he fought for an equal billing with Bill Cosby and broke the black/white line on TV. No one believed that anyone would take a black man seriously on TV, but Robert Culp did. It was an amazing breakthorugh. He won an Emmy for the shows he directed for Cosby, and according to Cosby, he would never have been on TV had it not been for Culp. I represented Culp and McQueen, when Robert did “Trackdown” and he let McQueen do a bit part which lead to “Wanted Dead or Alive”, and Steve’s explosion. He was a major part in television’s development.R.I.P. Steve McQueen and Robert Culp. Hilly Elkins
let me be another to partially vouch for Everybody Loves Raymond – I think a lot of people who’ve never watched the show don’t know that the title is supposed to be ironic. That said, the nastiness of the show, while fascinating, can also be tiring, and the fact there’s something like eight seasons of the show terrifies me. About a half a dozen episodes caught over the years was enough to convince me of the show’s acidity, and that was about all I could take. Let me add another great Culp moment to the list – the Outer Limits episode Demon with a Glass Hand, a tricky role he pulls off by underplaying to excellent effect. I’ve got a book on Peckinpah laying around here somewhere with an introduction by Culp, and it’s a fascinating document of a macho aesthete ethos that he clearly shared with Peckinpah. Culp had a passionate, gutsy writing persona that suggests someone who cared passionately about his art, and did his damnedest to make sure that whatever he was attached to had some kind of guts to it.
I really don’t much like TV. Except for The Simpsons (until season 14). And Alan Clarke (except my exposure to his work is due to DVDs and bootleg VHS tapings dating from the 80s, not broadcasting).
Clearly I needed to have done a hell of a lot more digging before I started saying anything about Culp. But on the other hand, there’s a reason the word “Questions” is part of the title of this column. Thanks to everyone who’s shared an insight so far, you’ve genuinely expanded my horizons, and humbled me a bit. In a constructive way, mind you!
Here’s the opening lines from Culp’s introduction to the aforementioned Peckinpah book (Doing It Right: the best criticism of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) : “The world’s oldest profession isn’t Whoring. It is storytelling. Of course, there’s a certain amount of overlapping…” The whole piece is pretentious, crazy, insightful, slightly stupid, and half brilliant. I wish he had written an autobiography.
As a bookend to “Demon with a Glass Hand” I would suggest a first season Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear,” which far from underplaying includes a scene of Culp’s character going uncontrollably over-the-top batshit crazy. The man had range and was fearless when it came to his acting. As for I Spy try the Culp-penned third season episode “Home to Judgment” for bleak desperation; the second season “Vendetta” for more subtle desperation (or “Mainly on the Plains” if you want to check out an end-of-career Boris Karloff); or first season’s “Always Say Good-bye” for some comedy (or “The Loser” for Eartha Kitt and more of Culp’s writing, or “So Long Patrick Henry” for Culp taking a poke at current events). Just to toss out some recommendations.

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