Sunday, August 13, 2023

Rated K For Kids (1986-88).

This next entry in The Scriblerus Club is somewhat unique, and calls for a special kind of introduction.  I'll have to backtrack just a bit in order for any of what I say next to make sense.  A good way to start out is by stating the simple facts.  This article is written in something of a reflective mood.  No need to worry, however.  There's not going to be any grand, Wordsworthain rhapsodies here.  I may be a sentimentalist, yet I'm also smart enough to know when to reign it in.  Instead, it's more that the last review I did contained a lot of food for thought.  It was enough to get me thinking on my role as a blogger, and what that means in terms of wanting to be the kind of critic who reviews books and films for a living.  I have Martin Scorsese to thank for this (believe it or not as you will, I'm telling nothing less than the truth here).  His work on The King of Comedy, with its cautionary fable about the wages of fame and notoriety made me aware of how much of an ethical responsibility is needed on the part of not just the artist.  It's a moral imperative which appears to also be demanded of both the audience in general, and of any actual, legitimate critics there might be somewhere in the aisles.

I'm not sure I can even pretend to fit the role of a legitimate critic by any stretch of the imagination just yet.  It's the job description I want to have someday.  Until that moment arrives I'm just a journeyman, at best.  However, what Scorsese's film made me realize is that even a trainee isn't exempt for seeing if they can do a proper job well, even if it's just at the beginner's level.  Scorsese seems to be arguing that there's a lot of responsibilities that comes with being a critic, just as much as there is with being a storyteller.  And it is with this brief moment of insight that the last film I reviewed set off a spark in my mind.  Because a lot of the themes he and De Niro tackled in their little comedy project goes right to the heart of what a blog like this is all about.  The Scriblerus Club is a digital space concerned with a number of interlocking topics.  The first is relatively straightforward.  This is just a place where I can satisfy my own myriad fascinations about the making and telling of stories.  This includes what they are, where they come from, and what they mean to both writer and reader.  The other part of this blog concerns the latter half of the equation mentioned in the previous sentence.  In addition to an incurable wondering about stories, I've grown increasingly aware over the years of the role of the audience.

This was a topic whose importance I first began to realize maybe as soon as 2015 or 14.  The irony is it was an exposure to online troll culture that brought this to my attention more than anything else.  It was through stumbling across the work of "internet personalities" like Doug Walker and a host of copycat imitators that first made me aware of the various kinds of roles and outlooks that the audience can adopt or embrace in their dosing or intake of art.  It also brought me to a slow growing realization of just how much of a problem this kind of toxicity is for any possible discussion of the arts.  The good news is that it does at least seem as if the vast majority of the audience is aware of the issue as well, and really does wish for a healthier social space in which to discuss our enthusiasms for the art of stories.  So that's been one aspect of my concerns as a reviewer.  The other one has sort of taken me by surprise.  I also don't seem to be the only face in the crowd whose noticed a kind of collective fumbling when it comes to something like telling a mere story on the silver screen.  I can't even begin to give you explanation for why Hollywood in general seems to be going through its own moment of  existential crisis.

As of this writing, there is a mass walkout strike in all of the major motion picture studios, and television companies.  There seems to be talk and rumors on the street and in various chat forums that the American film industry is headed for a collapse of some kind.  At the very least, it won't surprise me if the entertainment complex undergoes some kind of shake-up transformation as a result of all of these events.  What the fallout of the Hollywood strikes will be, whether it will reshape American filmmaking, and what new form (if any) this next phase of cinematic storytelling may take, I couldn't really say.  If I had to go out on a limb, then I do wonder if one possible result could be a new democratization of making movies.  In other words, one potential outcome could be the either reduction or rebirth of motion pictures on a worldwide independent basis.  In other words, we could see all movies in the future as the product of a worldwide indie filmmaking model.  One with no real studio system to speak of anymore, and instead its all just various artists, actors, and crew coming together to create what they can on an open, crowdfunded environment.  At least this is one possibility out there.

This article, however, can't hope to begin to address all of these matters; or at least not all at once.  Instead, for this entry, I've decided to tackle another issue, and set my sights more on the way audiences take in the art and stories that they enjoy.  Part of the reason for a blog like this is a growing curiosity about what people are thinking when they either enjoy or dislike an offered story, and what this information might be able to tell on a broader level.  I'm wondering if maybe a review of the audience can help us figure out what kind of stories we like to tell ourselves, and see if this, in turn, can tell us something about the state of the arts.  Now, in order to do that, I've chosen the help of an old TV show.

The TV Program.

This brings us to the main subject of the article.  I'd like to invite the reader to watch something, if they have a moment.  The video enclosed below is the product of a YouTube vlogger named Greg Stevens.  He's the owner, proprietor, and operator of a video series known as Pop Arena.  Like many online content makers, Stevens is a video essayist whose work tends to concentrate on the minutia of pop culture as it was defined over the course of both the 80s and 90s.  If the Pop Arena series is known for anything, then it might stem from two continuing sources on his channel.  The first is his ongoing examination of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books.  The second is the one we're concerned with today.  It's a batch of web videos known simply as Nick Knacks.  It's an essay set dedicated to examining the entire history of the TV channel Nickelodeon.  This is a project that has been made in as complete a chronological order as possible, from the channel's nascent beginnings in the late 70s (along with its first major kids show, Pinwheel), and it might presumably go all the way to the cable network's current incarnation, if that's what called for, anyway.  So far, Stevens work on this project has been impressive.

The playlist of for his documentary set runs up to 96 entries as of this writing, with the promise of more to come.  During the course of each episode, Stevens has always reached for that extra necessary mile that turns a merely competent fan opinion into a legitimate work of criticism.  All of this is down to the amount of effort the vlogger has put into not just his editing, timing, or delivery, but also the wealth of research and archival resources he has been able to dig up and draw upon for his videos.  We're dealing with a product from the type of critic who will go out of his way to track down long forgotten people like Paul Saltzman, Julie Weissman Markovitz, or Thomas Hill.  You may not know the names of these people, yet all of them were responsible for giving 90s brats, or 80s kids like me the kind of childhood we've all grown up to look back on fondly.  It's a testament to Steven's skill that he is able to bring this childhood back to life time and again in each of his videos.  Even if it's possible to say there are times when I find myself in disagreement with some of his final judgment calls, what can never be denied is that Pop Arena in general, and Nick Knacks in particular is the work of a genuine critical talent.

I think Stevens's efforts is one of those examples you can point to as a good illustration of the best type of creative promises that a forum like YouTube can aspire to, if you're just willing to raise the standards not just of production, but also talent and insight.  The good news is Stevens doesn't appear to be working in a vacuum, as the medium is now showing a healthy crop of other competent to flat out great video essayists out there.  With all this background info in mind, I thought I might take a closer look at episode 50 in the ongoing Nickelodeon retrospective.  It concerns what happens when you try to see if it's at all possible to figure out what ordinary, average kids think about the movies they watch.  It was a short lived effort from the network back in 1986 to around 1988, and it was called Rated K For Kids.

The Nature and Context of Rated K for Kids.

I do hope everyone bothered to watch the video linked above, as it contains all the crucial information we'll be looking at for this article.  For those who would rather skip the documentary, and prefer the information in written form, a brief summary is that it is Greg Stevens's retrospective look at an old children's TV show about films and movies.  A more in-depth explanation of the content is that this television series, Rated K for Kids, is something of an intriguing anomaly.  In Stevens's own words, the premise of this series centers around a single idea.  "...This was what (Nickelodeon's) young viewers wanted.  That seeing people like themselves running their own TV show was engaging in a way that (the network's) other content was not".  This conceit "would prove to be a key element in the channel's success going into the 90s.  But Nick's first stab at it came in 1986, with a movie review show called Rated K for Kids".  In retrospect, this is the kind of creative decision that would never get the green light from any network today.  The only place you can even begin to try it is on forums like YouTube.

In a way, though, this is what makes the network's decision to even try and go there all the more fascinating.  It marks this choice out as the product of a more open minded time for the arts in general.  This all happened back during an era when the current rules for tent pole film productions, with the heavy emphasis on tightly controlled, pre-packaged blockbusters under immutable, social media age studio regulations still hadn't become the new abnormal.  Instead, as an 80s kid, I'll have to ask younger readers to imagine a time when a lot of young prospectives eager to break into showbiz and many older countercultural artists had managed to carve out this peculiar niche for themselves during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  It was the successful construction of this artistic beachhead that gave both Movie Brats and budding, new artists a chance to make a name for themselves by creating pretty much whatever content they wanted, and being able to get away with it to a large extent that just is no longer possible today.

For instance, a producer like Roger Corman was able to set up his own indie studio that would allow then youngsters like Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese a chance to break into filmmaking in a guerilla style that emphasized learning through real experience behind the camera, and growing that way through trial and error in order to see if you had what it took to be a legit filmmaker of whatever kind.  In that sense, it is possible to claim that ventures like those of Corman are what helped set the template for the kind of experimental, anything goes ethos of those earlier three decades. It's what helped usher in a brief shining moment when there was enough freedom and loose change in the industry to devote time and effort to whatever creative expression a newcomer or old pro felt like doing.  It could be a high concept art film, or the deliberately schlockiest popcorn flick you could imagine.  If you had the commitment to try, go for it.  That was the basic mindset back then.  If you can reach for the big screen, whether it was a hit or a flop, at least you did it.  You made and found your own creative voice and were able to put it out there for all to see.  It was this type of mindset that gave us the classic 80s films.     

I think it also helps to bear in mind that it was also this particular mindset that was responsible for the guiding ethos of TV networks like Nickelodeon back in the day.  As it was this same "go for broke" sense of creative freedom that was also able to expand into the realm of the then new medium of cable television.  I do wonder if this might be an unnoticed and therefore little understood aspect of the type of creative flourishing that existed back then.  The time seems to have reached a point where many critics are prepared to look back and say the 80s might have been (so far, at least) the last major artistic renaissance in Hollywood.  It's a contention I'm willing to go along with well enough.  Yet how many out there might be willing to pause and ask themselves how this same artistic dynamic applied to the world of cable television?  The internet is full of myriad compilations of look backs at all the favorite TV shows we grew up with as kids.  The Pop Arena reviews are just one example of this.  It also, however, seems to be one of the few to ever get close to a consideration of just how many artistic risks that TV producers were willing to take in terms of stretching the limits to the sort of content they were willing to try and place on the then new medium of cable television.  This is where what I'll have to call the countercultural aspect of 80s entertainment came into its own from the family living room box.

It was a time when breakout TV channels like HBO and Nickelodeon showed a greater willingness to push the boundaries of what programming they could place on the small screen.  Yes, there was plenty of familiar fair to be had.  Things like reruns of old classic movies from decades past, along with the syndication of the more famous network series that tend to get mentioned more often on internet retrospectives, like The Smurfs.  However, you would also see them takes risks every now and then by running more obscure and outré fair such as a student animated short about two young, pre-teen girls talking together about growing up and what it means to live a life.  All of this done in the style of a pre-school child's drawing brought to an expressionistic life.  Or else they would import shows from overseas such as Babar the Elephant, The Adventures of Tintin, or even create space for passion projects by famous Hollywood stars, such as Shelley Duvall's Storybook Theater, where Jack Nicholson's co-star from The Shining would serve as the host of animated segments featuring adaptations of famous children's books that were popular back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Or HBO could turn around and air an obscure George Lucas project called Twice Upon a Time in whatever time-slot they had available.

This is perhaps the best memory snapshot I can provide of what it was like to grow up with cable television of the time. Much like Roger Corman or the Movie Brat generation, cable networks and providers were very much in an experimental frame of mind, and willing to see how far they could push the boundaries of what could be shown to audiences.  In that sense, I think it goes without saying that most of us 80s kids were lucky to have such a rich childhood as we got back then.  Or at least this was the one I wound up with.  My parents would tune the channel into all of these little maverick cable stations, and I would be treated to a wider range of movies, short films, and series from what seemed to come from everywhere, and all of it done in a style that has come to typify what the last creative renaissance of the 20th century was like.  What's more important for the purposes of this article is how this same opened ended mindset applied to networks and cable subscriptions such as Nickelodeon.  

In practice, what you got was this span of years in which kids had an opportunity to be introduced to all kinds of different stories and narrative techniques from different cultures and societies.  In fact, looking back on it now, I've just realized an astonishing thing.  In retrospect, that exposure to the channel during its early years (for me, this would have been from 1987 or thereabout) probably marked the first experience I'd ever had of different world cultures at that point in my childhood.  The mid to late 80s version of Nickelodeon was where kids could get their first glimpses into European culture with shows such as Danger Mouse, Count Duckula, or David the Gnome.  Along with their first acquaintances of Japanese and French animation with series like Belle and Sebastian, The Little Prince, and even have a taste of Latino American culture thrown in with a serial known as The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

What shows like this did was grant the child audience a gradual and unforced exposure to the art forms of other societies that were, at the time, still well outside the awareness of mainstream American culture.  As a result, it is just possible that some of us back then were given what might be called a series of unintentional civics lessons in not just being a good citizen, but also a good neighbor.  In other words, it is just possible that for a time Nick was more or less replicating what Mr. Rogers tried to do on PBS, except this time the scope of the goal was expanded to take in neighborhoods around the world.  Looking back, it seems that the best part of all this was that none of that seems to have been a deliberately intended purpose.  All the business suits at the network were concerned about was creating a channel that would put its focus deliberately on the desires and enthusiasms of kids.  The funny thing there is that this does seem to have been a genuine concern on the part of the network's showrunners.  

They really wanted to find not just material that had never been seen anywhere on American TV before, but they also wanted to make sure that it spoke to young audiences in a way that spoke up, not down to them.  The result was a lot of effort with a sincerity that now seems touching as it is quaint.  We no longer expect any television network to have the interests of its viewers in mind.  Yet this is exactly the goal that Nick achieved for a second there.  In doing this, they were able to create one of the first spaces just for kids.  It was a format that would later be followed by the likes of The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, and the later spate of child oriented PBS affiliates.  It was quite an achievement to make, and in the process of doing so, they just wound up as accidental cultural ambassadors there for a second.

To repeat, all of this was made possible because of the almost Open Society mindset that was channeled through the entertainment industry during the 80s.  It's what allowed Nick to take risks on shows like Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea, or to try and expose young kids to great works of literature such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Around the World in 80 Days, or Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics.  This idea of a TV network by kids and for kids extended all the way into the channel's original programming.  This is where a show like Rated K comes into play.  Here is also where Steven's summary of this program tells all we need to know.  "The concept is as simple as can be.  Airing on the weekends, Rated K features three hosts, rotating in from an initial cast of four young adults: Matt Nespole, Lakmini Besbroda, Mark Shanahan, and Rebecca Schwager.  Over the next half-hour, these kids would give their opinions on what's new in movie theaters, and occasionally what's new on video tape.  Each review is capped with a Letter Grade which is entirely made up by the host, and inconsistent per review.  With the exception being "Rated K", the ultimate, five star, must-see score of the show.

"Each review is (introduced) with a scripted segment summarizing the film.  Playing clips, and the odd interview segment from time to time.  But the review itself is completely improvised by the hosts, with active discussions between them usually resulting in playful teasing and ribbing.  And that's it, really.  A few other kids were added to the host rotation over time, but for that first year in change, Rated K's format remained simple and consistent.  So, does it work"?

Conclusion: A Helpful Look at the Tastes and Enthusiasms of the Audience.      

In some ways, it would be very easy to just cite Steven's own verdict on the show, and leave it at that.  What he has to say about Rated K as an attempt at a movie review series for kids is as valid as its possible to be here.  However, I think the point can be driven a bit further home.  Because while it's correct to say that there are reasons why this show doesn't work, I'm not sure all of them have been exhausted by just this single documentary.  My conviction is that in the course of critiquing an unsuccessful children's show, Steven's has managed to unearth a greater problem faced by not just by cinema, yet also the Arts in general.  If I had to give this issue a name then the best label for it I can find isn't my own.  It comes from the title of a book that may or might not be all that influential, and its from educator E.D. Hirsch Jr.  It is within the realm of probability that Hirsch might identify the problem on display with a show like Rated K as one of Cultural Literacy.  In other words, there's a fundamental lack of aesthetic knowledge on display in a series like this, and it gets in the way of being able to talk about stories in an intelligent manner.  I'd have to argue this is the crux of the show's problem, and it's the kind of issue that can't be covered in its entirety in just a single vlog or review.

Instead, all anyone can do right now, I think, is to use a forum like this to open the discussion of the topic.  It's one of the final themes that guides the working of this blog in particular, and it's gratifying that someone like Steven's has found a subject that broaches this very topic, as the ultimate goal of the Scriblerus Club is to try and foster a higher level of literacy in the enjoyment of both films, shows, and above all, books.  So while it's impossible to encompass Hirsch's concerns in the course of a single article, I can at least address it in terms of a basic introduction, and the Rated K retrospective is just the example to help in this case.  I think the best way to approach the problem of Cultural Literacy is to first let Stevens explain why this obscure TV series doesn't work.  Then I'll try and expand on those insights, and why they all point to the larger problem of not knowing how to understand and read the full spectrum of any given work of art, whether this applies to either any possible movie or book.

When Stevens asks if Rated K works as either a series, or just a basic creative idea, his response is, "Not really.  There are two fundamental problems when it comes to a kid's film review show: the kids, and the films.  Let's start with the latter.  The target demographic for this show is young teenagers.  That's the age of the hosts, and the perspective that they bring.  This limits the kind of films you can feature; mostly G and PG rated programming; occasionally PG 13.  And only R rated films if they were deemed relevant to the young audience.  For example, the kids talked about Stand By Me.  A film about four young boys "going on an adventure", starring some of the best rising young talent in Hollywood today.  And you know, if you squint, it kind of looks like The Goonies.  Corey Feldman's even in it.  They talk about Goofy in one scene, we can have our hosts can talk about that.  Of course, they don't bring up the cussing, or River Phoenix smoking...or the stuff that makes it an R rated movie.  

"And that's fine.  Stand By Me is a great film, and while I don't think a twelve year old is entirely going to get its themes, most can take what it dishes out.  However, this was an exception.  Most R rated films weren't even considered for the show.  But you don't always get enough child-appropriate films every week to fill a half-hour review show.  So sometimes you have the Rated K kids talking about movies that aren't R rated, but have virtually no appeal to the youth.  Sure, you're kid could go see Jack Lemon and Julie Andrews in That's Life, but I'm not sure how much crossover audience there is between a drama about a man's anxiety over turning 60, and Danger Mouse.  Sometimes the lack of appropriate movies meant digging into the VHS vault. 'Well, we don't have a lot of movies to talk about this week.  How about if we spend most of the episode talking about half a dozen Alfred Hitchcock movies on video'?

"Now that's kind of cool, right?  Introducing young viewers to Alfred Hitchcock through a young person's perspective.  But that brings us to Rated K's other conceptual problem, the young film reviewers.  As many as 2,000 teenagers auditioned for the four spots.  With the aim on finding genuine, everyday kids. 'The criteria for selecting hosts, says [executive producer Geoffrey] Darby, were weighted toward merely "liking to go to the movies" and away from youngsters with a particular knowledge of film or "stage kids from agents."  So basically, they didn't want kids who were professionals in front of the camera, or kids who were film hobbyists.  They wanted your average kid on the street, in an attempt to make Rated K a genuine experience.  'This isn't some show made by phonies.  These are real kids.  Just like you.  With opinions just like yours'.  The problem is that your average thirteen year old is a really bad film critic.  I certainly was at that age, as I hadn't quite developed the understanding of what makes a good movie versus a bad movie.  And I certainly hadn't developed the vocabulary to communicate my opinions in a way that's clear and engaging.  

"And certainly not in a way that would make for good television.  The Rated K kids seem to prioritize two things: whether the movies are 'predictable' (however they qualify that); or how the actors look in their wardrobes.  Now if you had kids on this show who were actually interested in how movies work, or film history, or anything like that, you could have them making a case for a film that would add an element of learning to the proceedings.  Having an adult tell kids why they should watch Alfred Hitchcock is probably too much of a disengage...But even if one of the Rated K kids likes Alfred Hitchcock, they can't really articulate why.  If you had a kid who knows what they're talking about, making a case for Alfred Hitchcock, explaining why he's so influential, and why his films effect us as they do, then you might be opening the Hitchcock door to a whole new generation of young people".

Here is where I think it helps to give an example of what Steven's is talking about, as right after he makes the above observation, he provides his viewers with a sample clip of one of the Rated K gang discussion one of Hitch's films.  Here's how a freshman high school kid approaches a classic, Nature Run Amok, Gothic picture like Alfred's adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds.  "First of all, I hate birds.  And these little guys are really, like, coming through, attacking everyone.  And it's just like, it made me really nervous and I didn't like it.  And then, the ending was, I was really disappointed.  Because it seemed totally without hope.  It's kinda depressing, and that's the way the movie felt, (or) made me feel, kinda depressed. So I didn't really like it that much.  I hate to say, but I didn't".  

Now, in reply to these thoughts, I have a number of questions to ask, and an observation to make.  First off, could the Rated K reviewer be more specific?  Which scene are you talking about?  There are a number of attack sequences scattered throughout the course of the film.  Are you talking about the scene, where Tippi Hedren (the film's main lead) is attacked in a phone booth?  It's become one of the most iconic sequences not just within the Horror genre, but also of cinema in general.  The trouble is this begs a further set of questions.  Why is the scene, as well as they entire film of which it is just one central part of held in such high regard?  What about this story makes it important?  For what it's worth, I will grant you this much.  You may not be alone in wishing more from the ending of this film.

The funny thing is how even the director of the movie might have agreed with you.  It turns out Hitchcock went so far as to storyboard an entire climactic sequence involving a final chase as the main characters try to fend off one final attack from the sky as they try to flee the town.  It would have been a real technical achievement to pull off, and it also would have tipped the film's final moments into near post-apocalyptic territory.  The viewer would have been treated to shots of an abandoned small town lying in ruins, much like in the works of Stephen King.  The storyboards even featured a shot of the body of a dead citizen torn to shreds, his skeletal hands still clutching his living room TV set.  The whole thing would have ended with a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in whole flocks of birds.

I'll admit that's a bit more of a satisfying payoff for what does count of as one of the first slow-building roller coaster rides at the box office.  What Hitchcock turned in there was perhaps close to being called the Jaws its day and era.  The only reason we didn't get the ending featured in the storyboards is because neither the budget nor the technology was available to the director at the time, and there are indications that this was a genuine shame, as Hitch wanted to give his viewers a bigger payoff.  It could have been one that maybe counted as the first post-apocalypse Horror movie ever shown in theaters.  Something that later writers and artists such as Vincent Price and Richard Matheson would capitalize on with an underrated gem such as The Last Man on Earth.  The point of all this backstory, however, is that this is what counts as a display of genuinely unpacking the contents of a movie in an attempt to explain what makes it work (or otherwise, as the case may be).  The ability to examine any story in such depth hinges on Hirsch's notion of Cultural Literacy as a crucial part of the critic's toolbox.

This conclusion then raises one final question.  How much literacy do the cast of RK4K have when it comes the movies they watch, enjoy, or just can't get into, or don't care for?  Here's what Steven's has to say on the matter.  "Having young hosts who just can't express complex thoughts about art also becomes a detriment when you have films that are, well, more socially complicated than your average blockbuster...And then there's just the matter of presentation skills.  Nickelodeon didn't want show business kids.  They wanted something genuine, going so far as to let the hosts improvise their own reviews.  Meaning you get these kids stuttering over their lines, pausing, repeating themselves, and talking over each other".  Steven's then concludes, "It's a mess".  He then continues: " The Rated K kids aren't completely devoid of charisma.  Lakmini Besbroda, in particular, has some good screen presence.  But the ultimate aesthetics for the show are 'Friends Chatting about Movies during their Lunch Period".  It is an attempt at something authentic.  (It's) also something you can get by chatting with your friends about movies during your lunch period".  In other words, it stops at being just that, and never develops further into anything informed or enlightening.  This is also a major irony.

"You don't need a cable subscription for that.  And you friends taste are probably more in line with your own tastes".  Stevens then brings up a particular highlight of Rated K, and its one the showcases all of the series shortcomings in one single meeting of the minds.  This is a part I don't think I should spoil for the viewer.  Instead, I'll just say you have to see it to believe it.  What I can say without spoilers is that it's a moment that exposes the gap between the show's aims, and the experience and knowledge of its cast, which is also an audience.  I'd like to close out this review by giving my own samples of the sort of pitfalls that a show like this has, and what it might say about the state of the audience.  

In order to do this, I'm going to try a little thought experiment.  We'll print out a transcript from a given episode of the series, and then I'll interject my own two cents as if I were a cast member on the set, like the others.  In doing so, I hope to prove something about how Cultural Literacy is a necessary given when it comes to the work of properly critiquing a story that is meant to be unpacked through a close reading.  This is how we can gauge the story literacy of the very same audience that Nick was banking on.  We'll take, as an example, the Rated K examination of a little children's film which has become something of a standby for 80s kids.  With this in mind, why don't you guys get us started?

Matt: "Hi, I'm Matt Nespole".

Lakmini: "And I'm Lakmini Besbroda".

Mark: "And I'm Mark Shanahan".

Me: And I'm just along for the ride here.

Mark (cont.): "Welcome to the only review show just for kids.  The first movie we're going to view today is an animated musical produced by Steven Spielberg.  You know, the guy who brought you Jaws, E.T -"

Me: Well if I may interject here.  I almost want to ask what you guys think of him as a filmmaker?  If I had to give my own two cents, then I can tell you this much.  Right now things have reached a point where it does seem as if the consensus view is that he's achieved that kind of level which is reserved for those directors, or storytellers, who managed to achieve what might be called "auteur status".  In other words, the vast majority is pretty much convinced that Spielberg counts as a classic filmmaker.  It's also true there may be some dissent in this conviction.  However, by and large, it seems like this will remain a minority opinion, at best, for quite some time.  The rest of the world seems to view him as one of the great directors of the of both the 20th and 21st century.  It's a consensus opinion I happen to share in, and I'm sort of wondering what you guys might think of it?  Does Spielberg count as a great artist?

Lakmini: "Yeah, yeah, we know you know this stuff"!.

Mark (begging off) "Alright".

Me: Ummm...

Matt: "An American Tail is about a family of Russian immigrant mice who decide to come to America because the cats are eating them all in Russia, and there aren't supposed to be any cats in America.  But when they get here they find out that there are cats in America.  And to make matters worse, the little kid in the family, Fievel?  Well he gets taken prisoner by the Mott Street Maulers.  The meanest cat gang in New York City.  But the guy whose guarding him isn't as mean and ugly as he really looks.

Here a clip form the movie plays.  It's Dom DeLuise's first big scene in the film. 

"Matt (v.o., cont.) "While Tiger and Fievel are becoming buddies, across town, Warren T. Rat, the neighborhood con artist, well known for preying on the innocent new immigrants is counting the dough he got today".

Another film clip lays.  This one introducing us to the picture's villain.

Matt: (v.o., cont.) "More than anything, Fievel wants to find his family.  He knows they're out there, somewhere".

A clip for the Somewhere Out There segment plays.  

Me: (I can't help breaking out in a nostalgic smile at this moment.  I'm not the only viewer of this film who has had this reaction, either.  In my case, it's kind of like a homecoming in an of itself).

Matt: (v.o., cont.) "Fievel's voice is really Philip Glasser's, who is seven years old.  In the movie he sang the song, but there's also a music video with Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram".  

Clips from the MTV music video promo for An American Tale play on the video.

Me: (Now I'm flat out grinning watching this, and somewhat misty eyed, because: my childhood).

Matt (v.o. cont.)  "The other voices are done by some famous actors, like Dom DeLuise, who plays the character of Tiger".

Here clips from an actual, contemporary making-of promo documentary, featuring both DeLuise, and even Spielberg himself commenting on the work.

Me: (I'm just watching all this stunned.  I never knew something like this actually existed, and I love it.  I'll have to see if its at all possible to track down the rest of this documentary on the Net).

Meanwhile, it at least looks as if the film has been able to work some of its magic on the rest of the Rated K cast.  They're all wearing the same, identical, goofy grins like mine, and chuckling to each other.  For a instant, at least, it seems as if the audience achieves an important moment of singularity.

Matt: "I liked this movie a lot.  I thought it was a lot of fun to go to.  But at first, when I walked in, I looked at the rating, it said G with the little mouse on the billboard.  I was like, "Aw, I can't get into this".  But as you sit there, you really start getting into Fievel's character, and all the other characters who are hanging out.  It's a lot of fun, you know.  It's great to watch".

Me (interjecting): Well, now, Matt.  I think you might be onto something there.  It does seem possible to make the case that one of this film's strengths rests in its handling of characterization.  The cast of this story really does manage to leap off of the screen, and carve out a permanent residence somewhere in the audiences imagination.  It's one of the many fascinating aspects of this picture.  And since you've brought it up, I'm curious as to what sort of argument can be made in support of that claim.  In other words, what is it about the characters in this film that helps to make it so memorable?

Matt (cont.): Well, "you really get into it, and you start to get that feeling of when your face gets all tense, and you get this hundred and six temperature shoot-up, and your heart gets all hot.  You want to cry, but you don't.  Which is really nice, because you usually don't have that happen in movies".

Me: Okay, granted.  However, there's just one problem.  All you've done is describe the contents of your own emotional reaction to this film.  What I'm asking is why did that happen?  What is it about a film or movie like this that can draw out such powerful emotions in an audience?  Don't just describe the reaction it gave you.  What was it about the content of the story that causes such a powerful stock response?  You almost had something there, for a moment.  You mentioned how all of this, for you at least, came from the narrative's portrayal of its characters.  I myself, meanwhile, likened the film as a whole to a homecoming, of sorts.  Now the question is whether there is any validity to either one or both of these insights?  Is it possible each of us has hit upon a genuine aspect of the story we are watching?  If this is at all plausible, then what can it tell us about this Tale as a work of fiction?

Matt: "What I thought was great was the marketing"!

Me: ….Huh?

Matt: "Now Steven Spielberg did all these movies like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom...And I thought, you know, this is nice the way they don't have no eyeballs in the soup.

Me:...Did you just say? - 

Matt: "It was really sweet and a lot of fun".

Well, I guess we do agree on that.  There's just one problem.  None of this answers the question of what makes a film like An American Tail a great story.  My hope now is that the reader is beginning to get at least a beginner's notion of what Cultural Literacy is, and what a lack of it looks like when trying to understand the entertainment that we enjoy.  In that sense, the perhaps perfect irony of a show like Rated K for Kids is that it does serve as a very useful sort of accidental petri dish for getting a good look at the audience and the way it thinks about the stories that they either watch or read.  

Of course, all entertainment depends upon the ability to read well, sooner or later.  It's like an unbreakable clause in a never spoken of, yet somehow very real agreement between the two, inter-locked parties of artist and reader.  If you go into any story, regardless of medium, without a necessary given amount of literacy in the attic, then odds will always tend to be even enough that you won't entirely understand why you either dislike or love the story that is presented to you.  This is a lesson that Rated K presents to its viewers well, albeit in a way that the showrunners never really intended.

It works as an unintentional, yet nonetheless informative snapshot of at least one segment of the audience.  My question remains just how far this general inability to form a coherent thought about the art we either make or read extends out into the aisles?  It's the type of question that can't be answered just by looking at one group out of many.  In that sense, the K show is just one sample.  It makes sense to believe there will be others out there to find and gather more data from.  The funny thing is how it is just possible to owe a strange, yet very real sort of debt to a failed showbiz experiment like this.  

While it ultimately doesn't work as an informative review of the work of Hitchcock, Spielberg, Don Bluth, or just films in general, it's very shortcomings do offer the critics a surprisingly useful well of information to draw from when it comes to trying to figure out how the average person in the aisle relates to the stories that are told to them.  This in turn can help the critics gain a greater sense of the overall picture they have to work with, both on and off the screen or page.  This in turn can help us when it comes to both talking about the works of fiction that are both good and bad, and give us better insight on ways of sharing these sometimes necessary enthusiasms or critiques with the rest of the people in the audience.

It's with this in mind that I want to give the most cautious an ironic endorsement to this old Nickelodeon show.  I agree with vlog critic Greg Stevens that the final product just doesn't work, either as a movie review show, or an entertaining variety program in its own right.  The irony comes in when you realize that it's very failure is also what makes it a valuable tool for film and literary enthusiasts who are looking for insight into the thought processes of the audience in order to gain a better understanding of what viewing and/or reading is, how it relates to stories and storytelling, and what it can tell us about the state of both art and its receivers and creators.  So while I can go along and agree that there's a lot to critique about this show and its quality in particular, I'm also going to say don't just throw it way.  Stuff like this has to be kept around for what it can tell us about how we watch and read the stories we like.

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