New Zoo Revue … Coming Right at You!

A Weird Memory from the 1970s

Early in the 1970s, I was working on my master’s thesis for the UCLA Film Department. It was going to be about how animated films echoed our culture’s collective unconscious. This was before DVDs and cheap VHS tapes, so I had to see animated films whenever I could. At that time, there was a Bugs Bunny show every morning at 7:30, which I studiously watched, taking copious notes about Bugs, the Roadrunner, Pepe le Pew, Tweety, Sylvester, and the whole gang. Before Bugs Bunny came on the air, there was a young children’s show called The New Zoo Revue.

I was entranced by what I saw of the show, and I fell in love with Emily Peden (shown on the right above), who played Emmy Jo. Here is a link to a couple minutes from their show:

Why did I suddenly think of this show? Yesterday, Martine and I drove to Santa Barbara and visited the Santa Barbara Zoo, which—along with the Living Desert in Palm Desert—is one of my favorite small zoos. I guess I’ll have to write about it some other time, when I can stop thinking about Emmy Jo’s lovely legs. So strange to have the 1970s sneak up on me that way!

Z

It Was the Best Movie Channel Ever

It lasted for fifteen years in all, from 1974 to 1989. The Z Channel really took off when Jerry Harvey was hired as program director in 1980. For the next nine years, Z was the best place to study the art of the cinema, from the silents to the present day. I watched it religiously and even created several hundred videotapes of programs that looked interesting. Even though I was no longer studying film history and criticism at UCLA, with the avowed intention of becoming a college professor, I was still—and am still—a lover of the great films.

In 1988, Jerry Harvey murdered his wife and shot himself. The new owners, SportsChannel, decided to add sports to the program. Almost overnight, movies started playing second fiddle to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Out of a fit of rage, I called the cable network to cancel what I called “the hockey channel.” Evidently, I was not the only one, because the representative who took my call knew exactly what I was talking about without my mentioning the name of the service I was canceling.

Last week, I saw a wonderful documentary directed by Xan Cassavetes, daughter of actor/director John Cassavetes. It was called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004). It brought back to me that golden decade, the Eighties, when great films were regularly screened on cable.

Today, by way of contrast, the cable movie channels tend to concentrate on sequels, many of mediocre originals. When HBO or Showtime or Cinemax show a good film, it is an accident.

Jerry Harvey, the Genius Behind Z Channel’s Success

As I watched the Cassavetes documentary, I felt a keen sense of loss. Jerry Harvey had been a genius. Although Z Channel’s subscribers were concentrated in the West Los Angeles area, that is where the movers and shakers in the film industry are concentrated. And they were all, almost to a man, subscribers to Z. It is as if, when those hockey games started showing up on Z,  there were a massive disturbance in the Force. One that has never been reversed or even ameliorated. Years later, I still miss seeing the cinema classics that I have always loved on television.

 

No, Don’t Ask Your Doctor About Abflubimadab

You’ve Seen the Drug Ads … Everywhere

Do you know why prescription drugs cost so much? No, forget about development costs. Just turn on your television and look at all the glossy commercials requesting that you ask your doctor about their pricey pharmaceuticals. You’ll see a whole lot of healthy looking older couples doing fun things together while a voice in the background warns that if you take Abflubimabad (I invented this drug name, so don’t try to buy it or even ask your doctor about it), you may suffer from St. Vitus Dance, rickets, premature ejaculation, memory loss, Ebola, a moist handshake, heart failure, or death. But you’re not listening to this voice droning on, and those old couples look so happy.

Wait until you find out how much Abflubimabad costs: Just finding out may cause St. Vitus Dance, rickets, premature ejaculation, memory loss, Ebola, a moist handshake, heart failure, or death. It costs a whole lot of cash to place ads on prime time TV, especially the cable channels that old people like to watch for their retro programming.

For one thing, the U.S. is only one of two countries that allow this type of advertising. (The other is New Zealand.) Could this be why American drugs are so much more expensive than Canadian or Mexican equivalents?

Whereas the market for TV advertising in general has been flat for the last few years, the direct-to-consumer drug ads have grown 62% since 2012. The pharmaceutical industry is one of those industries where marketers could call a meeting at the beginning of year and pretty much decide what their profit is going to be. (The insurance industry is in the same category.) So it doesn’t matter what these drugs cost. They want to create a buzz, so that viewers will directly participate in their doctors’ decisions, which, of course, they are clearly not qualified to do. Then Big Pharma just raises the prices by astronomical amounts.

Guess who pays for it in the end.

 

An Afternoon in Garmonbozia

Laura Palmer Played by Sheryl Lee

Twice a year, Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale on Criterion Collection DVDs and Blue-Rays. Today, I bought one of my favorite films from the 1990s, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), a prequel based on his two-part television series, Twin Peaks for ABC. The term “garmonbozia” is a nightmarish Black Lodge term meaning pain and suffering. In the movie, the pain and suffering relates primarily to two young women who are killed, and one who is presumably scarred for life: Laura Palmer, Theresa Banks, and Ronette Pulaski.

The so-called Black Lodge is a strange room with no windows, full-length floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes, and a zig-zag pattern in black and white on the floor. Its permanent inhabitant is Michael J. Anderson (below) as The Man from Another Place. He speaks in a strange, barely understandable dialect which was filmed speaking backwards deliberately, and then reversing the sound track. He eats garmonbozia, which looks very like creamed corn.

Michael J. Anderson as The Man from Another Place and Kyle MacLahlan as FBI Agent Dale Cooper

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was not a popular film when released. No matter, it and the ABC TV series were at least a decade ahead of their time and are just now coming into their own. (Though, truth to tell, I loved the film when it was first released; and only now am I watching the TV series.) Both the film and the TV series are postmodern to the max and greatly influenced the development of films to follow. In an article from the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Parker wrote:

Stylistically, the most immediate posthumous effect of all this might have been the gnostic, everything-signifies vibe of The X-Files, but there are glimmering splinters of Twin Peaks in Breaking Bad’s trippy desert-sizzle; in the irruptive, disabling dreamtime of Bran Stark on Game of Thrones; and in the absurdist plot spirals, the gizmos and MacGuffins, of Lost. The Sopranos paid homage with Agent Cooper–esque fugue states and shots of trees blowing in the wind, rippling in their fullness and strangeness. And how is it finally communicated to Tony Soprano, after years of repressed suspicion, that Big Pussy—one of his most trusted sidekicks—is ratting him out to the FBI? By a talking fish, in a delirium, after some bad chicken vindaloo. It doesn’t get more Twin Peaks than that.

I have only a few more episodes of Twin Peaks to watch on DVD and then … and then … I just may pay a visit to the area. I have friends and family in the area.

 

 

Twin Peaks

My Latest Discovery, 27 Years After the Fact

I have never been a big fan of television series—making time to watch them on a regular basis was too much of a drag on my time—but I have always been a big fan of David Lynch.I have loved all his films I have seen, even the strange Eraserhead (1977). Dune (1984) was something of a disappointment, but then came Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), and all his subsequent work.

Over the last several weeks, I have slowly been going over the Twin Peaks (1990-1991) TV series. Even when it does not appear to make any sense, it is brilliant. The people of that strange little Northwestern town beggar all attempts at pat descriptions and then there is FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, who has fallen in love with the town, its people, its coffee, donuts, and cherry pie. Not to mention Tibetan mysticism and dreams that provide answers to the crimes that have plagued the town.

In this country of ours, very little makes sense in a God-is-in-His-Heaven-and-all’s-right-with-the-world 19th century way. Does Trumpf make sense? Does our Senate and Congress make any sense? Very little, in fact.

The Log Lady of Twin Peaks

To date, I have seen the first thirteen of the thirty episodes that make up the show as it was in 1990-1991. (I am not into binge watching, because I tend to miss too much that way.) Whether I find out, definitively, who killed Laura Palmer does not matter to me. I am not looking for answers. What I am looking for are interesting questions, and the series delivers on this scorebig time!

Alienation Effect

Rod Serling with Playhouse 90 Logo

Today was a strange day. It was beastly hot and humid, with a Mexican Monsoon effect. Having no air conditioning in our apartment—and living in an area that regularly gets hit by power blackouts—Martine and I decided to go to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.  The lobby was crowded with young tourist couples seeing the displays about American Horror Story, a series on FX with which I was previously unacquainted. These guys (and their women) were heavily tattooed, wore their baseball hats backwards, did not know to flush toilets, and led with their smart phones taking pictures of everything in sight.

I suddenly felt old. Here I was with a large group of young people that made me feel alienated. And here I was going to see a couple of Playhouse 90 episodes from 1959. I might has well have been talking in Armenian to a group of prairie dogs. Did I feel bad about that? In a way I did, though I would not have considered going far to seek common ground with them: The gulf between me and them yawned as big as the Grand Canyon.

But I felt delighted with the Playhouse 90 episodes I saw, shot in consecutive weeks. The first was “The Town That Turned to Dust,” written and introduced by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer. The story was about a lynching in a small Texas border town called Dempseyville of a Mexican youth who was accused by William Shatner, as the local dry goods merchant, of beating up his wife Fay Spain and robbing the store. The sheriff who is powerless to prevent the lynching is Rod Steiger, in a powerful role, with James Gregory as a visiting newspaperman.

The other was a dramatization of “The Great Gatsby” starring Robert Ryan as Gatsby and Jeanne Crain as Daisy May Buchanan. Rod Taylor was excellent as Nick Carraway. Rod Serling introduced the episode, which was directed by Franklin Schaffner.

Although I do not watch much (if any) current television, I have a great deal of love and respect for the early days of the medium. Back at the beginning, they not only knew how to produce superlative entertainment, but used people who knew how to act, not just nod their heads meaningfully.

“The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Robert Culp and Arlene Martel in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Arlene Martel and Robert Culp in “The Demon with a Glass Hand”

Right after lunch, it started to drizzle; and Martine was without her umbrella. So we decided to go to the Paley Center for Media and watch some old TV. While Martine was watching episodes of Amos and Andy and My Little Margie, I decided to watch an episode of The Outer Limits.

The episode in question was “The Demon with a Glass Hand,“ directed by Byron Haskin and written by Harlan Ellison. It starred Robert Culp as the mysterious Trent, whom we are told at the beginning has lived forever, and the elfin Arlene Martel as Consuelo Biros. It was originally aired on October 17, 1964, and was the fifth show in the show’s second season.

This was at a time when television was great. tt reached out to a more unified audience with a well crafted story authored by the talented paranoiac Harlan Ellison. Trent found himself in Los Angeles’s Bradbury Building (called the Dixon Building in the story), with a glass hand missing the middle three fingers. A group of killer extraterrestial aliens called the Kyben are being sent from the future to get Trent’s hand and to supply the missing glass fingers, which they have. The object is to question the hand as to where the seventy billion earthlings from the year AD 3000 have gone. At the same time, Trent must obtain these fingers so that he could answer the same question and protect the missing earth people.

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

Interior of the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, Where Most of the Action Occurs

My friends in the film industry are always trying to get me to watch television, which they say has vastly improved with new original series like Breaking Bad and The Game of Thrones. In the relationship that Martine and I have, she gets to control the TV while I hit the books. Occasionally, I will watch a DVD while she is out taking a walk. That seems to work well for both of us, and I don’t feel as if I were missing out on anything.

In any case, it is fun to see some of the old classic television series like The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock, and One Step Beyond. I also have a real fondness for The Carol Burnett Show.