Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spider-Man Down!

So they have shut down the previews of the musical "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark." Who didn't see this coming?

This was the latest "Most Expensive Musical in Broadway History." It's production was suspended before it even had its first preview. It was figured that it would have to have something like five years of sellouts to break even. Its out-of-town previews were plagued with accidents and technical nightmares.

Sure with such a confluence of talent, Bono, Julie Taymor, et al, you might expect to have something spectacular, but somehow it just never seemed to gel. Perhaps it was overambitious. It seems that everything today, especially when it's an adaptation of a comic book superhero, has to be bigger, grander, and groundbreaking in it's scope and interpretation of the source material. But that is a big risk.

Motion pictures made the same mistake. Each Batman movie got bigger and grander until the collapsed under their own weight. It was then up to the smaller pictures of the lesser-know n comics properties, like Blade, The Mask, and Barb Wire, to show how a comic book movie could be successful.

On Broadway a smaller-budget musical "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman" was a success in 1966. I was adapted into a TV movie in 1975...

But the risk there is that the small scale will inappropriately understate the material. Movies like "Captain America" and the Cathy Lee Gifford "Wonder Woman" showed us that...

But big budget or small, traditional or groundbreaking, whether on stage or screen, there must be a solid story and engaging characters. Through all the hype, sound, and fury surrounding "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark," nobody accused the show of having either.

New channels, old shows and movies

A few weeks ago I was told of new channels on the new HDTV system that has been in effect for the past couple of years. I figured, then, that it must be time to re-scan for tv channels that could be picked up by my digital converter box.

The new channel selection reminds me of cable TV from the 1970’s. There are kids’ channels Spanish channels, shopping channels, Christian channels, Spanish kids’ channels, Spanish shopping channels, Spanish Christian channels, Spanish kids’ Christian shopping channels, Chinese Channels, Korean channels, and a few channels that show old TV shows and movies.

This is a great opportunity to see what the medium of television was giving us before cable TV and changing technology and social mores gave us the diversity, excitement, and mature subject matters we see today. Shows like “Robin Hood,” “Life with Elizabeth,” “I Married Joan,” “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Peter Gunn,” "Daniel Boone," and “Bat Masterson” show us the attempts that were made to fill time on TV with quality, wholesome entertainment. We also occasionally get to see some well-known actors in their younger days. Acting, writing, and directing styles were very different back then. We even get to see views of cultures that don’t exist anymore, like dinner/dance nightclubs and beat poets.

But what is more personally interesting (and addictive) is This TV (HDTV 11-3 in New York City), a station that shows nothing but movies almost all day and night (with some children’s shows in the morning). But most of the movies are the second-tier, lower-budget sequels and knock-off movies with less-well known actors. Instead of “Bad News Bears” we get “Here Come the Tigers.” Instead of “The Magnificent 7” we get “Guns of the Magnificent 7” and “Magnificent 7” Ride. Instead of “The Guns of Navarone” we get “The Iron Coast.” Instead of “The Wild Angels” we get “The Glory Stompers.” Instead of “Oceans 11,” James Bond, or even Matt Helm, we get “Salt and Pepper” and “One More Time.” Instead of "True Grit" we get "Rooster Cogburn." Instead of "Billy Jack" we get "The Born Losers."

I find it nice to see that these lesser-known works of pop culture get an opportunity to be screened, especially on free TV. Cable TV, the growth of the VCR (followed by the DVD and Blu-Ray), and the commercial effectiveness of the infomercial have meant that free TV has been showing fewer and fewer movies over the past two decades. And even on cable and at the video store, older and lesser-known movies have been drowned out by the ongoing crush of major blockbusters, reality TV, and the forward march of time.

I fear that This TV will go the way of many other stations that have been movie-heavy or had a single programming concept (WPIX in the 1980’s, MTV, The Nashville Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, WBIS). It will find greater profits in original programming and diversity. Then these movies will go back to the dustbins of film-making history. But for now, let’s enjoy seeing what our parents and grandparents saw, and let that inform us on where they came from when we don’t understand them.