Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Man in the Funny Suit (1960).

Rod Serling is still a lucky man, as of this writing.  He's still remembered as one of the most important artistic pioneers in more than just one field.  On the one hand, he's regarded as one of a handful of legendary creators and showrunners who managed to revolutionize, and even bring a decent level of sophistication to the content of the TV shows that were brought into the American living rooms of the 1950s and revolutionary 60s.  Before he became really famous, Serling made a name for himself by penning a lot of well done teleplays for a revolving series of television anthology programs.  These were sparse, taught productions whose level of quality sometimes matched that of a live theater performance.  There were numerous shows that specialized in various types of drama that would tackle all kinds of controversial subject matter, most of it having to do with the question of morality in general, or civil rights in particular.  Considering that Rod got his start at the beginning of the Eisenhower 50s, this was a very hot button topic to deal with.  It was also an issue that everybody in live television felt the need to discuss.  The script writers and show producers who were willing to take on this and other famous subject matter has now become a list of half familiar names, such as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Arthur Miller, Fielder Cook, Norman Lear, and John Frankenheimer.

This was the milieu in which Serling made a name for himself.  If I had to find a few words that best describe his output in these early years, then a good way to put it might be to say that his breakout material has this cozy, streetwise familiarity to it.  Most first time viewers to this new-old material, if they are willing to give it a chance, will soon discover that Serling didn't just break new ground, he also might have acted as a harbinger for the kind of work done by another famous artist a decade or so down the timeline.  Put another way, if the Fifth Dimension had never come along, then Serling might still have had a decent career writing and producing the same type of artistic material that Martin Scorsese would later make famous.  Much like Uncle Marty's later known best work, Serling's live television plays often focused in on main characters who find themselves caught out in a moral dilemma, the kind of thing that takes a heavy toll on not just the protagonist's conscience, yet sometimes even their very sanity.  Maybe its a corporate executive learning just how low he's willing to sink, as in 1955's Patterns.

Often times, Serling's main characters would turn out to be soldiers who were either combat vets haunted by the mistakes they've made in the past, or else fresh-faced officers with too many chips on their shoulders.  You know, it's the sort of mental handicap you that's usually a big no-no in military circles.  Whatever else may happen on the field of battle, you never send a basket case out to the front, where he's libel to cause more damage to his own side than the enemy's.  Still, that sort of thing does happens, every now and then.  And it was a topic that Serling appears to have experienced first hand.  Hence, his writing of stories like Bomber's Moon, or Forbidden Area were he attempts to try and educate the public on the costs of war.  The same type of creative strategy as that found in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Though even this wasn't the end of Serling's early efforts in the field of live television.

There was this one script he did which contains a lot of the same storytelling elements that Scorsese would later put to his own iconic use.  In fact, I almost want to say that the Serling script I'm thinking of now could almost act as both a prequel and a coda to a film like Raging Bull.  It's called Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), and like the later De Niro picture, it details the fallout of what happens the minute a former (or near) champion boxer has reached the end of his career, and what, if anything, comes after it.  Anyone who is familiar with the Scorsese picture will have a rough idea of what's going on in Serling's Heavyweight script from just a bare synopsis.  It's where this down on his luck schlub is told to his face that the next time he steps into a ring will kill him.  His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where boxing is not a viable option for him.  Only trouble is, he's never really known much of anything else his whole life, and he's not what you'd call a sophisticated sort, either.  So, very much like Jake LaMotta, there's a lot of bitterness and anger to go around, and get worked through.  In fact, it's kinda eerie how close Serling and Scorsese's works mirror each other here.

Whatever the case, that turned out to be one of Serling's great early successes. It's the kind of screenplay that gets a guy noticed in a lot of the important showbiz circles.  In fact, it might technically have been an ironic contributing factor that led to Rod being able to make his greatest achievement, and leave his biggest imprint on the pop cultural imagination behind.  It's no secret that The Twilight Zone is still a household name, or that it remains Serling's major landmark.  It's what allowed him to leave a footprint in all the major popular genres, such as Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  As a result, he is placed up their alongside such genre ground breakers like Gene Roddenberry.  I think it's a title that's well earned, nor am I about to dispute it.  I just think we ought to take a brief detour here, and pay a brief article of acknowledgement to those live, hungry years, when Rod was still just a maverick in the business.  In particular, I think a special kind of attention is owed to the Heavyweight script.  Perhaps it will help us to gain a better sense of perspective.  Just as Walt Disney once admonished us to remember that it "all started with a mouse", so it could be said that the Zone owes its existence to that Requiem.

In fact, there's kind of a funny, behind-the-scenes story to be told about the making of that teleplay.  It's now looked back on as the script that made Rod Serling, and that's all very true.  So is the fact that it almost wasn't.  Believe it or not, there were a few moments during the making of Heavyweight, when it almost looked as if the script, and Serling's entire future along with it, were close to circling the drain.  The reason for this all hinged on the fact that one of the actors kept proving to be something of a nuisance.  The kind of problem that could very well get out of hand and bring the curtain down.  Not in a good way, either.  It's issues like these that need to get sorted out quick before the final showtime call rolls around.  It's an interesting element of added drama to what should have been an otherwise straight forward series of rehearsals before the big broadcast day.  In fact, the whole affair was so harrowing, amusing, frustrating, and fascinating, that the making of Requiem for a Heavyweight was later on turned into a screenplay of its own.  It became an episode of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse

It was titled The Man in the Funny Suit, and Rod Serling played himself for the recreation of an important, near awkward turning point in his whole career.  I managed to catch this episode not too long ago, and thought it worth talking about.  It makes for an interesting look into the way that art gets made, and the way that sometimes what happens off camera can determine what happens in front of it.  More important than all of this is the way it helps the viewer to make a series of new and familiar discoveries.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

James Thurber's My World and Welcome to It (1969).

This time things are going to be a little different.  Perhaps that also means things will get a bit more interesting than normal.  For instance, it's always been the job of the critic to do just one thing.  That's to try and examine any given work of art, and see if it holds up as worthy of an audiences' attention and merit.  It's hard to say when all that got started, it's just the way things have been for a long time now.  However, what happens in a situation when both the critic and the artist are left trying to examine the same piece of artwork?  What does it mean if both parties are stuck looking at the work of someone else, and each is left trying to figure out just what it all means?  I'm not sure what you'd call that kind of scenario myself, if I'm being honest.  The best way I can describe it is an irony of circumstance, one in which all the usual roles have been reversed.  However impossible that may sound, it's the situation I found myself in not too long ago.  Which is sort of the reason I'm even writing this article at the moment.  It's precisely because the current situation is so unique that I'm going to have to ask the reader's indulgence for a moment.  Would you take a look at the image below, and tell me what you think?

I suppose that it looks kind of unusual, right?  Not the sort of thing you expect to see even in the pages of a newspaper or a magazine, much less anything to do with real life?  Yeah, well, even if that's the case, what do they say about seeing is believing?  Then again, that could always be just another dirty lie.  For now, let's agree to take it as a given that, like Mt. Everest, the cartoon pictured above counts as "just there".  We don't know why it is, but it is.  All well and good (unless it's not).  So what on earth does it mean?  I have some thoughts on the image, and it is a matter of some explanation.  I guess the best place to start unraveling this whole head scratcher is by letting you know that you're not alone in being puzzled by it.  It's a picture that has even puzzled other creative talents out there.  Some of them, like Mel Shavelson, went so far as to try and write an entire story around that weird idea of a seal in the bedroom.  It seems to have been his way of arriving at the best explanation he could find for it.

If the name of Melville Shavelson is not a household word, then it's not surprising.  He was one of those lifelong journeymen scriptwriters and showrunners during the waning days of Hollywood's Silver Age, that fascinating span of time before the remains of Tinseltown's Golden Age bowed out to the then New Wave Cinema of directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.  In fact, that last name, for better or worse, is somewhat pertinent to our purpose here.  Just bear with me, here.  I'll explain why in a minute.  For now, let's stick with Shavelson and the cartoon.  Mel got his start during the Golden era, and even managed to stick around during the Movie Brats period.  During all that time, however, that image of the seal behind the bed never quite left his mind, and its easy to see why.  It's one of those Mad Tea Party pictures, an imaginary snapshot so absurd that it manages to stick in the craw of memory. Like, seriously, how in the hell does a seal get into the average household bedroom?

The whole cartoon looks suffused with this odd sort of neuroticism that Woody Allen might have been able to appreciate, come to think of it.  Shavelson's thoughts must have been on a similar wavelength, because in 1969, when he helped launch a new TV series called My World and Welcome to It, one of the first things he did was to dedicate an entire episode of the show to trying to figure out the nature and meaning of the Seal in the Bedroom, and what it's implications could mean as a work of art.  That's where this article comes in.  I'd like to take a three degrees of separation look a Shavelson examining the work of another artist, and see if there's anything it can tell us after all these many years.