Friday, October 26, 2012

Satyajit Ray - India's Master Filmmaker

Filmmaker Satyajit Ray
Regarded as a Master in World Cinema
It was the year of India's Independence from Great Britain in 1947,  when master filmmaker Satyajit Ray helped found the Calcutta Film Society.  He was born in Calcutta in 1921 into a Bengali family prominent in the world of arts and literature.  Ray came to appreciate fine art and his interest grew even stronger after the encouragement of his mother to study at the Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali Nobel Prize Laureate and author of India's National Anthem).  Years later, with Calcutta always in his heart, Ray celebrated his beloved city with the film Mahanagar (The Big City) that dealt with a rare foray of social satire in 1963 whose citizens manage to dream under the most oppressive conditions.

Ray was working as an illustrator and copywriter when he made his debut film, with Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) in 1955.  It took three years to complete the film as he was able to work on it only on weekends and had to make ends meet with his regular job.  He used his own savings and the money from the sale of his wife's jewelry.  The film was finally completed thanks to the funding of the government of West Bengal after John Huston, the director of The Queen of Africa encouraged and pushed for support.  Ray was never a popular filmmaker throughout India.  The commercial success of his pictures was restricted by his use of the Bengali language, as opposed to the more widely spoken Hindi.  The indian masses were not used to reading subtitles on films nor were prepared to appreciate narrative art films that did not follow the usual Bollywood formulaic elements: which is the standard for the bulk of indian films that contain melodramatic tones, unrealistic scenarios and life situations, fantasy, glitzy and over the top out of context music and dance numbers.  

Apu in Satyajit Ray's debut film, Pather Panchali, (Song of the Little Road)1955
from the Apy Trilogy
Ray's films spoke clearly to discriminating Western cinema-goers.  His films paid serious attention to plot, storyline, dialogue, and actor performance.  This is not surprising at all as Ray learned his craft and emulated the films he most admired.  He studied closely Victorio de Sica's, The Bicycle Thief (1948), but also hundreds of American films directed by John Ford and Frank Capra.  After helping french filmmaker Jean Renoir on his film, The River (1951), Ray realized he had an opportunity to learn the craft from a master and followed the style and aesthetics that were common in the narrative films of Renoir.  At the time, Renoir's films were often cited by critics as the greatest films ever made.  Renoir travelled to India in 1949 to make his film The River.  Ray admired the way in which Renoir told the story of three young girls coming of age in India.  It was a meditation on human beings' relationship with nature.  

Ray was a lover of many art forms and he had an appreciation for writing, directing, and designing sets, but his other love was music.  He eventually composed many of the scores for his own films.  Ray revealed himself to be a director of moments.  His films spoke to the viewer with a sensuous incandescent quality, mastering one of cinema's most uncanny tricks, the illusion that the camera is somehow able to capture the light from inside a human being.  

Ray turned poverty into beauty displaying an appreciation of nature and found the simple lives of those less privileged to be just as interesting.  Most mainstream Bollywood films portray subjects of wealth and glamour and an untrue reality that only the beautiful and rich can fall in love, enjoy happiness, or dress in beautiful colors.  He became frustrated with Bollywood musical films and turned to a neo-realist style already common in Europe and the US.  The neo-realist style of filmmaking consisted of realism, serious content, natural performances from the actors, and naturalism with a special focus on the sociopolitical issues of the time.  The genre became known as art house films and were in part supported by state governments to promote an authentic art genre from an Indian film fraternity.  Ray's films invoked warm humanism often transmitted through a deceptively simple yet profoundly resonant close-up of the human face: cinema's lingua franca (a working language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue).  

Although Ray's films were successful in Western countries, in India, politicians objected when his films were cleared by the film censor (Censor Board of Film Certification).  They complained his films portrayed India in "a very negative light"; "The world will think we have only poverty."  Because of the realism portrayed in his films, cinema-goers did not want to see reality on the screen.  Ray always managed to show the real India thru his films.  During his lifetime this humble master of the cinema had to beg for money for his next film while in the 1960's mainstream Bollywood was awash in black money and undeclared cash fortunes found their way into the film industry.

Ray talked about the hardships he faced in making his first film Pather Panchali in his  essays compiled in a book titled, Our Films Their Films, "When I look back on the making of Pather Panchali, I cannot be sure whether it has meant more pain to me than pleasure.  It is difficult to describe the peculiar torments of a production held up for lack of funds.  The long periods of enforced idleness produce nothing but the deepest gloom.  The very sight of the scenario is sickening, let alone thoughts of embellishing it with details, or bruising up the dialogue."

A still frame from the film Mahanagar (The Big City), 1963
directed by Satyajit Ray
There were three familiar and well trodden paths open to him.  He could make mythological films, or he could make 'devotional' ones, or he could make 'socials' preferably melodramas - which must have adornment of the latest favorite star team.  All three must have the usual concomitant of songs and dances and must not be below two and a half hours in length.  This last proviso is so rigid, and so is the exhibitor's faith in it, that a film that dares to disregard it may never see the light of day.  Needless to say, these formulas do not work every time, but they are the ones that have had the longest and most lucrative existence.  They have evolved out of the producers' deliberate and sustained playing down to a vast body of unsophisticated audience brought up on the simple tradition of the Jatra, a form of rural drama whose broad gestures, loud rhetoric and simple emotional patterns have been retained in the films to a degree unimaginable to those not familiar  with this unique form of filmmaking.  The song and over the top out of context dances are a legacy of the theatrical operatic tradition carried onto film even if all the most awkward.  

Ray assumed his position as a serious filmmaker and the results have been more than gratifying throughout his 37 films that included feature films, documentaries, and shorts.  Ray faced the challenges of contemporary reality and from them drew his subject matter for his films.  It payed to be uncompromising.  He was aware of the consequences of departing from the beaten track, but he was undeterred because he had great faith in his films.  Ray expected no quick returns he is remembered saying, "What is really important and exciting is not the immediate gain, but the ultimate vindication of the belief that I hold dearest as an artist: art wedded to truth in the end have its reward."  

Beloved Satyajit Ray's masterpiece films are a trilogy titled, The Apu Trilogy, consisting of three Bengali films: Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), completed from 1955 to 1959.  The films are now regarded as masterpieces in world cinema and have been appreciated by such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Kazan, Carlos Saura, Isao Takahata, Philip Kaufman, Wes Anderson, Dany Boyle and Akira Kurosawa.  The films went on to win many international and national awards.   

Master Filmmaker Satyajit Ray upon receiving
his Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar (1992) 
In 1992, Ray's health deteriorated due to heart complications. He was admitted to a hospital, and would never recover.  In recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world, an Academy Honorary Oscar from the Motion Picture Arts And Sciences was awarded to him weeks before his death, which he received in a gravely ill condition.  He died on the 23rd of April 1992 at the age of 70.  When a radio announcement was made in Calcutta that their ailing filmmaker had died, people poured out of their homes.  Offices closed and the government was brought to a standstill as buroucrats deserted their desks to give their final respect to the now legendary filmmaker.  

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2012

Satyajit Ray Filmography:
Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), 1955
Aparajito (The Unvanquished), 1956
Parash Pathar (The Philosopher's Stone), 1958
Jalsaghar (The Music Room), 1958
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), 1959
Devi (The Goddess), 1960
Teen Kanya (Three Daughters), 1961
Kanchanjungha, 1962
Abhijan (The Expedition), 1962
Mahanagar (The Big City), 1963
Charulata (The Lonely Wife), 1964
Kapurush O Mahapurush (The Coward and The Holy Man), 1965
Nayak (The Hero), 1966
Chiriakhana (The Zoo), 1967
Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), 1968
Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), 1969
Pratidwandi (The Adversary), 1970
Seemabaddha (Company Limited), 1971
Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder), 1973
Sonar Kella (The Golden Fortress), 1974
Jana Aranya (The Middle Man), 1975
Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players), 1977
Joi Baba Felunath (The Elephant God), 1978
Hirak Rajar Dese (The Kingdom of Diamonds), 1980
Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), 1984
Ganashatru (An Enemy of the People), 1989
Shakha Proshakha (Branches of a Tree), 1990
Agantuk (The Stranger), 1991

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Babette's Feast - Food in Films

The relationship of food and cinema goes back since the invention of the seventh art.  Food is extremely sensual and symbolic and it's no wonder that film creators have centered their plots around food.  In Babette's Feast, as the title implies food does not fall short.  The entire plot is centered on the determination of one woman to prepare an exotic scrumptious feast.  It's a celebration of a single meal served to her less than accepting guests whom are truly in need of appreciation of life's simple little pleasure's.  

Babette's Feast is a visually stimulating Danish film released in 1987, written and directed by Gabriel Axel, based on the story of Karen Blixen also known by her pen name Isak Dinesen.  Rightfully so, the film was honored with the 1987 Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  The film depicts far more than food and foodways, it shows more than the sensuality of food in our lives and it portrays a story of french cuisine by lovingly detailing the many pleasures of food.     

Babette's Feast takes place in a remote seaside village in Jutland, the site of an especially strict Lutheran sect of 19th century Denmark.  The two beautiful young daughters of the founder of the sect reject suitors from the outside world whom if married, would have taken them away from their father, their religion, and their village.  Many years pass; neither sister has an opportunity to marry, so they live their lives devoted to good works and keeping their now dead father's spirit alive.  

The story flashes back several years, depicting the sisters in their youth.  Each sister is courted by handsome young men, one a worldly aristocratic army officer and the other a French opera star named Achille Papin.  

One evening some thirty five years later, on a dark rainy night, a bedraggled and visibly exhausted woman appears on the doorstep of the two sisters, who are now in late middle age.  The woman arrived with a letter written by the famous opera star whom had before courted one of the sisters: Achille Papin.  He asks the sisters to take in the woman, a refugee from the civil war that was tearing France apart in 1871.  The woman's husband and son were both brutally killed leaving her with nowhere else to turn.  Babette Hersant, played by Stephane Audran, had lost her family, her country, her language, and as it turns out, her art.  In exchange for taking her in, Babette submits herself to servitude and housekeeping for the sisters.  

The sister's live extremely isolated and simply that they hardly know what to do with a servant.  Nevertheless, they take her in and she soon becomes indispensable to them.  Babette cooks delicious food and brings pleasure to the deeply protestant religious ways of the two sisters whom had grown accustomed to the flavorless, hardly edible fare.  Once good taste is learned there is no return!  The townsfolk appreciate Babette's cooking and attention she gives to flavor and freshness that they give thanks to god for the arrival of Babette.  

The mysterious maid has been happily keeping house for them and the story turns when one day she wins the 10,000-franc French lottery and decides to spend it on one grand meal for her emotionally withholding employers and the needy inhabitants of the town.  The townsfolk had given up all worldly pleasures including the pleasure of good food, taking religious beliefs to the extreme.  As it turned out the sisters had been planning to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of their father's birth.  This celebration comes at a crucial moment: like many other sects after the loss of a charismatic founder, the disciples have fallen to squabbling and backbiting.  The sisters hope the celebration will restore the spiritual harmony of their early church.  Babette, having been very unfortunate her entire life, and now having won the lottery, requests permission from the two sisters to prepare the commemorative feast for the sisters and the community of believers, but she wants to do so on her own terms, as a "real French dinner."  She insists on paying for it and although the sisters are reluctant, they assume this will be the last meal she prepares for them before she returns to France a rich woman. 

Babette orders many of the exotic ingredients from France and they include a gleaming candelabra, silverware, elegant china, and table linens and they start arriving by boat but the greedy sneering townsfolk start "talking" about all the goods parading in the town.  The sisters, being religiously strict and deprived their entire lives, are horrified and they fear the feast will turn into a "witches Sabbath".  The sisters warn the community, begging for forgiveness and set out to meet the presence of "evil" with resignation, with their minds on heaven.  The ungrateful townsfolk decide with the sisters that the nice meal will be "sinful", so they all agree not to enjoy the meal or express anything appreciative about it.  

The dinner brings an unexpected guest, the army officer and suitor of Martine from years before.  As the dinner progresses the officer realizes that the dinner he is enjoying could have only been prepared by the chef of the renowned Café Anglais in Paris.  In the course of the dinner he recounts the story of the extraordinary chef of the superb restaurant who "quite exceptionally" was a woman.  The incomparable chef had the gift of transforming a dinner into a love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.

When the guests leave the two sisters, Philippa and Martine come into the kitchen to compliment Babette on the meal and to prepare to say good-bye, but Babette stuns her employers that she will not be returning to France - ever.  There is no place for her there and she has no money.  

Of course, the chef at Café Anglais was Babette, but this is the first time she has had an opportunity to so lovingly prove her culinary artistry, expecting nothing in return form the ungrateful congregation.  She had spent all the money from the lottery winning on the feast that in her mind will redeem the townsfolk from their heartless and cold ways.  Babette will reap one final reward, for the first time, Philippa embraces her servant in an act of love that at once acknowledges the right of the artist to sacrifice.  The sisters are taken aback at her sacrifice.  She has proven her skill and art, but most importantly, she has taught the sisters and the congregation the gift of love.  Babette has had a last chance to give of her very best. The power of the culinary art transformed the feasters, even if their expression was silent, their eloquent testimony in their facial expression was captured thru the magic of film and Babette's skill was proof enough that words were not what she needed.  Her satisfaction was the humble and simple opportunity to cook like in the days when she was the star chef and artist at the Café Anglais of her beloved Paris.  

The Menu:

Babette's  scrumptious feast begins with a glass of amontillado, a variety of sherry from the Montilla region of Spain.  Next a bowl of ""Potage à la Tortue" (turtle soup), followed by "Blinis Demidoff au Caviar" (buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream).  For the main course Babette prepared elegant "Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine" (quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce); a salad featuring Belgian chicory and walnuts in a vinaigrette followed by "Les Fromages" featuring blue cheese, papaya, figs, grapes, pineapple, and pomegranate.  The grand finale dessert is a sweet "Savarin au Rhum avec des Figues et Fruits Glacées" (rum sponge cake with figs and glazed fruits).  Numerous rare wines, including an 1845 Clos de Vouget, along with an 1860 Veuve Clicqot champagne and spirits, complete the menu. Babette's purchase of the finest china, crystal and linen with which to set the table ensures that the luxurious food and drink is served in a style worthy of Babette.

To Bring the Feast to your table:

Babette's Cailles en Sarcophage (quail in puff pastry shell)
  • 1 pound frozen puff pastry, defrosted 20 minutes at room temperature
  • 4 quails, boned
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper to taste
  • 12 ounces foie gras, of which is cut across in 8 slices, the rest cut into 2/3- inch cubes
  • 1 1-ounce black truffle, sliced as thinly as possible, at least 12 slices
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup demi-glace (see note)
  • 16 black figs, quartered
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut 4 5-inch rounds from the pastry. Make a 3-inch circle in the center of each round, being careful not to cut to the bottom of the dough. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 22 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Carefully lift out the 3-inch round from the center to create a nest with a top. Set aside to cool.
Raise the oven to 450 degrees. Season the inside of the quails with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Lay 1 slice of foie gras in each quail cavity followed by 3 truffle slices and top with the remaining foie gras. Truss the quails. Season the outsides with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Melt the butter in an ovenproof skillet over high heat. Sear the quails, 20 to 30 seconds per side. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. Turn the quails and roast for 5 minutes more. Remove and keep warm in a covered dish.
Place the skillet over high heat on top of the stove. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and demi-glace and simmer for 3 minutes. Stir in the figs and simmer for 1 minute. Stir in the 1/4- inch cubes of foie gras and simmer, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the sauce is reduced to 2/3 cup. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, put each quail in a pastry nest. Drizzle with sauce, top with the pastry round and surround with the figs.
4 servings

Friday, September 7, 2012

Rod Serling - An American Master Interview with Mike Wallace

Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling, considered one of television's most prolific writers and one of the most admired dramatists of the time, is best known for his science fiction television series, The Twilight Zone. He believed that the role of the writer was to "menace the public conscience." Throughout his life Serling used radio, television, and film as "vehicles of social criticism."

Rodman Edward Serling was born in Syracuse, New York, on December 25, 1924, to a Reform Jewish family.  After graduation from high school, Serling enlisted in the United States Army.  The war and the army took a permanent mental toll; he would suffer from flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia for the rest of his life. When discharged from the army in 1946 he was "bitter about everything and at loose ends."

Serling enrolled under the G.I. Bill of Rights at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In the late 1940s Antioch was famous for loose social rules and a unique work-study curriculum. Serling was stimulated by the liberal intellectual environment and began to feel "the need to write, a kind of compulsion to get some of my thoughts down." A master writer was underway.  He was also inspired by the words of Unitarian educator Horace Mann, first president of Antioch College, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Serling would later feature these words and a rendition of Antioch's Horace Mann statue in the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, "Changing of the Guard." His first writings were short stories, mostly about the war.  In "Transcript of the Legal Proceedings in the Case of the Universe Versus War" a heavenly trial was conducted with Euripedes as prosecutor, Julius Caesar as lawyer for the defense, God as judge, and a jury of twelve angels.
By the late 1950s the days of the live New York teleplay were over and the television industry had begun to move to Hollywood, where there was more money, equipment and talent. In 1957 the Serlings moved to Pacific Palisades, California. Serling believed "that of all the media, TV lends itself most beautifully to presenting a controversy." He found that with television he could "take a part of the problem, and using a small number of people, get my point across."
However, Serling quickly realized that to get a point across often meant creating scripts that contained controversial messages and dialogues. Corporate sponsors, on the other hand, had no desire to have their products matched with messages that might be deemed offensive. In 1959 Serling expressed his frustration: "I think it is criminal that we are not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils that exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society." Because of the hostile creative environment Serling began to see the advantages of writing science fiction and fantasy. He learned that advertisers would routinely approve stories including controversial situations if they took place on fictional worlds. Out of this realization came the television series The Twilight Zone, 1959-64, on which Serling and other writers would enjoy unprecedented artistic freedom.
The Eye Of The Beholder (1960)
Serling wrote or adapted 99 of the 156 Twilight Zone episodes. The first season of The Twilight Zone opened with the episode, "Where is Everybody?" on October 10, 1959. This pilot had been originally pitched to CBS with the idea of Orson Welles as narrator. Welles asked for too much money, however, and the producers decided that Serling would do the narration. The series, with Serling's trademark appearances, ran for five years and won him two Emmys. From within the surreal world of The Twilight Zone, Serling addressed dozens of social issues such as prejudice ("The Eye of the Beholder," 1960), loss of identity ("Mirror Image," 1960), capital punishment ("Execution," 1960), censorship ("The Obsolete Man," 1961), the Holocaust ("Deaths-Head Revisited," 1961), ageism ("The Trade-Ins," 1962) and social conformity ("Number Twelve Looks Just Like You," 1964). In the closing words to "The Shelter," 1961, Serling expressed what he understood to be humanity's greatest challenge, "No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple state of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized."

In a rare and insightful interview (1959), Mike Wallace took an opportunity to ask questions to Rod Serling.
The Mike Wallace Interview
Mike Wallace: This is Mike Wallace with another television interview in our gallery of colorful people. In television drama few names have the prestige of that of our guest. Rod Serling is the only writer to have won three Emmy awards, for Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns and The Comedian. We'll talk to him about censorship in television, his fight to say what he believes, and we'll learn what he means by the price tag that hangs on success.

Mike Wallace: And now to our story with Rod Serling. Way back in 1951 when television was just a baby, a young man sat in a Cincinnati diner with his wife and came to a momentous decision. He decided to give up the security of his job and take a chance at becoming a free-lance television writer. Rod, first of all, let me ask you this. What was it that brought that decision about? Was it a burning desire to write because you felt that you had to say something or was it just a way to make more money?
Rod Serling: A combination of many things, Mike. The immediate motive at the time, the prodding thing that pushed me into it, was that I had been writing for a Cincinnati television station as a staff writer which is a particularly dreamless occupation composed of doing commercials, even making up...uh...letters of...what do they call it? To plug a product...somebody has used it...
Mike Wallace: Testimonial?
Rod Serling: Testimonial letters. As I recall, there was a drug, a liquid drug, on the market at the time that could cure everything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis, and I actually had to write testimonial letters. And on that particular day I had just had it, and though I had been free-lancing concurrent with the staff job—the best year I had ever had I think we netted about seven hundred dollars, which is hardly even grocery money. And that one night we just decided to sink or swim and go into it.
Mike Wallace: So you went, you came here to New York?
Rod Serling: Uh, not immediately. We stayed another six months, I guess, in Ohio then came to New York. Started principally in Lux Video Theatre, then live a half hour emanating from New York. I did eleven shows for them and I was sort of on my way from that point on.
Mike Wallace: And what kind of stuff did you write, because you said that it wasn't just the money. It was something that you wanted to say, that you weren't getting a chance to say in Cincinnati.
Rod Serling: Well, in those days, Lux Video, as one show, was doing reasonably adult stuff. These, of course, were not Playhouse 90s, nor were they award winning shows, but they were reasonably mature things that even today stand up pretty well. And I was doing Lux Video, Kraft Theatre, the early so-called pioneer days of television, which, of course, are hardly pioneer, but anything over eight years old is pioneer-style in television.
Mike Wallace: You worked a little for a television producer, David Suskind, at that time.
Rod Serling: I worked for David, yes.
Mike Wallace: You've come a long way since those early days, and perhaps more than any other writer, your name is figured in the classic battle, that is television writer, the battle of the writer to be his own man. What happens when a writer like yourself writes something that he really believes in, for television?
Rod Serling: I'm not sure I understand the question, Mike. What happens, you mean, in terms of...
Mike Wallace: Well, we hear a lot about censorship of the writer on TV, and a good deal about it in your own case especially.
Rod Serling: Well, depending, of course, on the dramatic treatment you're using, if you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently extant, then you're in deep trouble.
Mike Wallace: For instance?
Rod Serling: Uh, a racial theme, for example. My case in point, I think, a show I did for the Steel Hour, some years ago—three years ago, called Noon on Doomsday, which was a story which purported to tell what was the aftermath, the alleged kidnapping in Mississippi of the Till boy, the young Chicago Negro. And I wrote the script using black and white, initially, then it was changed to suggest an unnamed foreigner. Then the locale was moved from the South to New England, and I'm convinced they'd have gone up to Alaska or the North Pole if, and using Eskimos as a possible minority, except I suppose the costume problem was a sufficient severity not to attempt it, but it became a lukewarm, eviscerated, emasculated kind of show.
Mike Wallace: You went along with it, though.
Rod Serling: All the way. I protested. I went down fighting, as most television writers do, thinking, in a strange, oblique, philosophical way that better say something than nothing. In this particular show, though, by the time they had finished taking Coca-Cola bottles off the set because the sponsor claimed that this had Southern connotations, suggesting to what depth they went to make this a clean, antiseptically, rigidly acceptable show. Why, it bore no relationship at all to what we had purported to say initially.
Mike Wallace: Paddy Chayefsky has talked about the insidious influence of what he called pre-censorship. How does that work?
Rod Serling: Pre-censorship is a practice, I think, of most television writers. I can't speak for all of them. This is the prior knowledge of the writer of those areas which are difficult to try to get through and so a writer will shy away from writing those things which he knows he's going to have trouble with on a sponsorial or an agency level. We practice it all the time. We just do not write those themes which we know are going to get into trouble.
Mike Wallace: Who's the culprit? Is it the network? The sponsor? It sure is not the FCC.
Rod Serling: No, it's certainly not the FCC, ideally speaking, of course. It's a combination of culprits in this case, Mike. It's partly network. It's principally agency and sponsor. In many ways I think it's the audience themselves.
Mike Wallace: How do you mean?
Rod Serling: Well, I'll give you an example. About a year ago, roughly eleven or twelve months ago, on the Lassie show—this is a story usually told by Sheldon Leonard who was then associated with the show—Lassie was having puppies. And I have two little girls, then aged five and three, who are greatly enamored with this beautiful Collie and they watched the show with great interest. And Lassie gave birth to puppies, and Mike, it was probably one of the most tasteful and delightful and warm things depicting what is this wondrous thing that is birth. And after this show, I think they were many congratulations all around because it was a lovely show, the sort of thing I'd love my kids to watch to show them what is the birth process and how marvelous it is. They got many, many cards and letters. Sample card, from the deep South this was: if I wanted my kids to watch sex shows, I wouldn't have them turn on that. I could take them to burlesque shows. And as a result of the influx of mail, many of the cards, incidentally as Sheldon tells it, were postmarked at identical moments all in the same handwriting, but each was counted as a singular piece of mail. And as a result, the directive went down that there would be no shows having anything to do with puppies, that is in the actual birth process. Well, obviously, it is this wild lunatic fringe of letter-writers that greatly affect what the sponsor has in mind.
Mike Wallace: You can understand the position of the sponsor, can't you?
Rod Serling: In many ways I suppose I can. He's there to push a product.
Mike Wallace: He has a considerable stake, thus, in what goes on the air.
Rod Serling: Most assuredly, and in those cases where there is a problem of public taste, in which there is a concern for eliciting negative response from a large mass of people, I can understand why the guys are frightened. I don't understand, Mike, for example, other evidences and instances of intrusion by sponsors. For example, on Playhouse 90, not a year ago, a lovely show called Judgment at Nuremberg, I think probably one of the most competently done and artistically done pieces that 90's done all year. In it, as you recall, mention was made of gas chambers and the line was deleted, cut off the soundtrack. And it mattered little to these guys that the gas involved in concentration camps was cyanide, which bore no resemblance, physical or otherwise, to the gas used in stoves. They cut the line.
Mike Wallace: Because the sponsor was...
Rod Serling: Did not want that awful association made between what was the horror and the misery of Nazi Germany with the nice chrome wonderfully antiseptically clean beautiful kitchen appliances that they were selling. Now this is an example of sponsor interference which is so beyond logic and which is so beyond taste—this I rebel against.
Mike Wallace: You've got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone. You are writing, as well as acting executive producer on this one. Who controls the final product, you or the sponsor?
Rod Serling: We have what I think, at least theoretically, anyway, because it hasn't really been put into practice yet, a good working relationship, where in questions of taste and questions of the art form itself and questions of drama, I'm the judge, because this is my medium and I understand it. I'm a dramatist for television. This is the area I know. I've been trained for it. I've worked for it for twelve years, and the sponsor knows his product but he doesn't know mine. So when it comes to the commercials, I leave that up to him. When it comes to the story content, he leaves it up to me.
Mike Wallace: Has nothing been changed in the...
Rod Serling: We changed, in eighteen scripts, Mike, we have had one line changed, which, again, was a little ludicrous but of insufficient basic concern within the context of the story, not to put up a fight. On a bridge of a British ship, a sailor calls down to the galley and asks in my script for a pot of tea, because I believe that it's constitutionally acceptable in the British Navy to drink tea. One of my sponsors happens to sell instant coffee, and he took great umbrage, or at least minor umbrage anyway, with the idea of saying tea. Well, we had a couple of swings back and forth, nothing serious, and we decided we'd ask for a tray to be sent up to the bridge. But in eighteen scripts, that's the only conflict we've had.
Mike Wallace: Well...
Rod Serling: They passed...
Mike Wallace: They passed what?
Rod Serling: I mean, every script.
Mike Wallace: Is pre-censorship, though, involved? Are you simply writing easy?
Rod Serling: In this particular area, no, because we're dealing with a half hour show which cannot probe like a 90, which doesn't use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment.
Mike Wallace: These are potboilers.
Rod Serling: Oh, no. Un-uh. I wouldn't call them potboilers at all. No, these are very adult, I think, high-quality half hour, extremely polished films. But because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science-fiction and all of those things, there's no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything.
Mike Wallace: Well, you're not gonna be able to cop a plea or chop an axe because you're going to be obviously working so hard on The Twilight Zone that in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you've given up on writing anything important for television, right?
Rod Serling: Yeah. Well, again, this is a semantic thing—important for television. I don't know. If by important you mean I'm not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you're quite right. I'm not.
Mike Wallace: You told Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News this: you said "Professionally, I don't think Twilight Zone will hurt me, but I must admit I don't think it will help me either. I'm stepping out of the line of fire." You've had it as far as trying to beat your brains out.
Rod Serling: I have to lay claim to that being a misquote. I didn't state that, not verbatim. I didn't say that I was...would you just read me the first two lines, Mike?
Mike Wallace: "Professionally, I don't think Twilight Zone will hurt me, but I must admit I don't think it will help me either."
Rod Serling: I never said that. I'm convinced it'll help me. I have great pride in the show. In eleven or twelve years of writing, Mike, I can lay claim to at least this: I have never written beneath myself. I have never written anything that I didn't want my name attached to. I have probed deeper in some scripts and I've been more successful in some than others. But all of them that have been on, you know, I'll take my lick. They're mine and that's the way I wanted them.
Mike Wallace: But you're going to play fairly safe, let us say.
Rod Serling: No question about it.
Mike Wallace: Dave Suskind, on this program, had this to say. "Playing it safe," he said, "is a sure road to sterility and death." What about it?
Rod Serling: Well, of course, I've known David a long time. We've worked together. I think David sometimes has a kind of convenient lapse of memory in which he forgets the shows that he produced not too many years ago, which were safe shows in the extreme. Shows like Appointment With Adventure, that I wrote for. And these shows were, you know, cut off, sliced off the old ham. They were shows that, you know, characterized early television at the nadir of its mediocrity. I don't think playing it safe constitutes a retreat, necessarily. In other words, I don't think if, by playing safe he means we are not going to delve into controversy, then if that's what he means he's quite right. I'm not going to delve into controversy. Somebody asked me the other day if this means that I'm going to be a meek conformist, and my answer is no. I'm just acting the role of a tired non-conformist. And I don't wanna fight any more.
Mike Wallace: What do you mean you don't wanna fight any more?
Rod Serling: I don't wanna have to battle sponsors and agencies. I don't wanna have to push for something that I want and have to settle for second best. I don't wanna have to compromise all the time, which in essence is what the television writer does if he wants to put on controversial themes.
Mike Wallace: Well then why do you stay in television?
Rod Serling: I stay in television because I think it's very possible to perform a function of providing adult, meaningful, exciting, challenging drama without dealing in controversy necessarily. This, of course, Mike, is not the best of all possible worlds. I am not suggesting that this is at the absolute millennium. I think it's criminal that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils as they exist, of controversial themes as they are inherent in our society. I think it's ridiculous that drama, which by its very nature should make a comment on those things that affect our daily lives, is in the position, at least in terms of television drama, of not being able to take this stand. But these are the facts of life. This is the way it exists, and they can't look to me or Chayefsky or Rose or Gore Vidal or J.P. Miller or any of these guys as the precipitators of the big change. It's not for us to do it.
Mike Wallace: Of course, Chayefsky got out of television.
Rod Serling: Yeah, he did, and I can't knock that. I think this takes a relative degree of guts to leave a medium that's made you, that made you sociable as kind of a household name. Paddy was the first guy to kind of lend stature to the television writer. Prior to Paddy Chayefsky, most of us were considered to be two-headed hacks who worked around the clock and used boy/girl situations and any one of five thousand different routine manners. But Paddy gave us a stature, and I respect Paddy's decision to leave. He felt that he wasn't satisfied with doing things half-best.
Mike Wallace: Do you think you could make it outside of television?
Rod Serling: Me? I'm not sure I could. And I suppose this is an admission of a kind of weakness or at least a sense of insecurity on my part. I've never had a Broadway play produced. What few motion pictures I've written have been somewhat less than spectacular. And I suppose I stay in the medium partly as an admission of I wanna stay in the womb. This is the medium I understand. These are the tools and techniques that I've been versed in for many years. Maybe I don't wanna get stuck up on the board and get shot at with darts on a Broadway play when I'm not sure I'm prepared for it. But Paddy was willing to take the chance. Gore Vidal writes novels. Bob Bartee did Broadway.
Mike Wallace: What about you and novels?
Rod Serling: Ultimately, I'd love to write a novel, and I think next year I'll start my play. Requiem was under option. It was written as a play, and I gave them their money back and I wanna do it over again. But I stay in the medium, also because I happen to like the medium.
Mike Wallace: Herb Brodkin, who was a TV producer who was associated with some of your earlier plays, has said this about you: he said "Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both." Now, in just a second, I'd like to come back and have you talk to that. Are you going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, and do you agree that you can't do both?
Mike Wallace: Rod, let me repeat it. Herbert Brodkin, a TV producer, associated with some of your earlier plays, has said this about you. He said, "Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both." Now, has it ever occurred to you that you're selling yourself short by taking on a series which, by your own admission, is going to be a series primarily designed to entertain.
Rod Serling: I remember the quote. He gave it to Gilbert Millstein when Millstein was doing a profile on me in the New York Times. I didn't understand it at the time. I fail to achieve any degree of understanding in the ensuing years which are three in number. I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic. You cannot be commercial and quality. You cannot be commercial concurrent with have a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve. And this I have to reject. I think you can be, I don't think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it's something raunchy to be ashamed of. I don't think if you say commercial means to be publicly acceptable, what's wrong with that? The essence of my argument, Mike, is that as long as you are not ashamed of anything you write if you're a writer, as long as you're not ashamed of anything you perform if you're an actor, and I'm not ashamed of doing a television series. I could have done probably thirty or forty film series over the past five years. I presume at least I've turned down that many with great guarantees of cash, with great guarantees of financial security, but I've turned them down because I didn't like them. I did not think they were quality, and God knows they were commercial. But I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can't have public acceptance and still be artistic. And, as I said, I have to reject that.
Mike Wallace: One of your most recent plays was one called The Velvet Alley, right?
Rod Serling: Right.
Mike Wallace: It was about the corrupting influences of Hollywood and big money.
Rod Serling: Right.
Mike Wallace: Where'd that come from? Your own experiences?
Rod Serling: Many, part of it was very autobiographical, part of it was a composite of observation of other people involved.
Mike Wallace: Well, what do you mean by the corrupting influence of Hollywood and big money? What is that all saying?
Rod Serling: Well, I didn't mean to suggest that corruption had a geographical tag, that it was necessarily the corruption of Hollywood. What I tried to suggest dramatically was that when you get into the big money, particularly in the kind of detonating, exciting, explosive, overnight way that our industry permits, there are certain blandishments that a guy can succumb to and many do.
Mike Wallace: Such as?
Rod Serling: A preoccupation with status, with the symbols of status, with the heated swimming pool that's ten feet longer than the neighbors, with the big car, with the concern about billing, all these things. In a sense rather minute things, really, in context, but that become disproportionately large in a guy's mind.
Mike Wallace: And because those become so large, what becomes small?
Rod Serling: I think probably the really valuable things, and I know this sounds corny and sorta Buckwheat-ish to say things like having a family, being concerned with raising children, being concerned with where they go to school, being concerned with a good marital relationship. All these things I think are of the essence. Unfortunately, and the problem as I tried to dramatize in The Velvet Alley, was that the guy who makes the success is immediately assailed by everybody, and you suddenly find yourself having to compromise along the line, giving so many hours to work and a disproportionate number of fewer hours to family, and this in inherent in our business.
Mike Wallace: How many hours a day do you work right now as executive producer and/or writer on...
Rod Serling: Twelve to fourteen hours a day.
Mike Wallace: How many days a week?
Rod Serling: Seven.
Mike Wallace: I don't mean, now seriously, I'm not asking for figures here, but obviously The Twilight Zone is your own creation. You're doing it for money. I think that our audience would be fascinated to know, and again I don't want to get too specific, but how rich can a fellow get under these circumstances?
Rod Serling: Well, if the show is successful, he can get tremendously rich. He can make a half a million dollars, I suppose.
Mike Wallace: Half a million dollars a what? A year?
Rod Serling: Over a period of three or four years, I suppose. But, Mike, again this sounds defensive and it probably sounds phony, but I'm not nearly as concerned with the money to be made on this show as I am with the quality of it and I can prove that. I have a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer which guarantees me something in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars over a period of three years. This is a contract I'm trying to break and get out of, so I can devote time to a series which is very iffy, which is a very problematical thing. It's only guaranteed twenty-six weeks and if it only goes twenty-six weeks and stops, I'll have lost a great deal of money. But I would rather take the chance and do something I like, something I'm familiar with, something that has a built-in challenge to it.
Mike Wallace: But it's even possible, though, that if it is a success, you could make well over the two million dollars that you suggested—four years at half a million apiece.
Rod Serling: Quite right, but I happen to feel, after a year and a half of working twelve to fourteen hours a day, it's worth it. And I think I rate it. I think anybody does who works that hard and can create an idea and can make a show go.
Mike Wallace: Let's come back to something that David Suskind said, not about you this time. He said this about network programming. We have only about three minutes to do this. He said, "ABC is western, mystery quiz and Lawrence Welk from top to bottom and represents television at its worst. And NBC seems to be trying to catch them at their own game." He felt somewhat better about CBS. How do you rate the three networks?
Rod Serling: I have to have a kind of, almost a proprietary feeling towards CBS because they've been better to me and better to most writers than any network.
Mike Wallace: Why?
Rod Serling: CBS was the only network who hired writers under contract, who gave us this kind of free-wheeling, to write as we wanted to write. A chance to write, an avenue, a channel through which we could write. They put on a Playhouse 90, which lost them a great deal of money and kept it on three years and will continue to produce it. I've had not nearly the experience—I've have no experience with ABC except one minor hour show five, six years ago.
Mike Wallace: I know, but you see their shows from time to time, in spite of your twelve to fourteen hour daily schedule.
Rod Serling: I'm afraid I would probably have to go along with David on that. But of the three networks I think CBS has the edge. However, I think NBC runs awfully close. It's almost which paper do you read. They've got this NBC showcase coming on. Now, ABC I'm not quite as familiar with.
Mike Wallace: Is television good?
Rod Serling: Some television's wonderful. Some television is exciting and promising and has vast potential. Some television is mediocre and bad. But I think it has promise, Mike. I think this conceivably can be a real art form. And I stick with it for the reasons I said and because I think it can only improve and can improve tremendously and I think aims toward that.
Mike Wallace: One minute. Can pay television make any difference?
Rod Serling: I've never quite understood pay television. I rather think not. If it's there, substantially to fix the evils that presently exist, I think the same things will apply. They'll put on the stuff that they thing the greater number of people want. A totally quantitative view of things.
Mike Wallace: You don't think that perhaps be able to play to a more perceptive audience?
Rod Serling: I doubt it.
Mike Wallace: A smaller audience for special things?
Rod Serling: No, because it's still governed by the buck, and I think they'll play what they think will garner the most bucks.
Mike Wallace: There can't be small pay television producers who won't be governed, necessarily, by the buck?
Rod Serling: I'd like to see them come out. I'd welcome it.
Mike Wallace: Thirty seconds. What would you most like to write?
Rod Serling: A good, legitimate play, having to do with the McCarthy era in television.
Mike Wallace: I hope we'll see it. Rod Serling, thanks very much...
Rod Serling: Thank you, Mike.
Mike Wallace: Rod Serling's story can be summed up in just a few words. From forty rejection slips to three Emmy awards. From a trailer home to a hacienda in Hollywood complete with swimming pool. It hasn't been a long road, but it's been a hard one, and the last couple of miles have been paved with gold. We thank Rod Serling for adding his portrait to our gallery. One of the people other people are interested in. Mike Wallace, that's it for now.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Little Fugitive Movie - A 1953 American Gem

Little Fugitive (1953) Directed by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin
Cinematography by Morris Engel
Little Fugitive is a wonderful small scale American film released in 1953.  The film was written and directed by photographer husband and wife team Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, along with long time friend and writer Raymond Abrashkin (as "Ray Ashley").  Morris Engel's All-American classic is widely regarded as one of the most influential and enjoyable films of the American Independent cinema.  It is a pleasure from start to finish, a little masterpiece that you'll never forget.  

When twelve year old Lennie Norton (Richard Brewster) is left at home to care for his younger seven year old brother Joey (Richard Andrusco), sibling relations get tested.  Lennie resents that their mother has left him with the responsibility to care for his younger brother when she is called out for an emergency to visit their sick grandmother.  Although the mother tells them to stay in the apartment while she is gone, nothing seems to matter and Joey and Lennie take to to the streets to play with their pals.  Lennie and his friends soon tire of babysitting Joey, so they decide to pull a practical joke on him: While playing with toy carabines they shoot at each other and they get the idea to allow Joey to shoot his brother Lennie.  They stage an incident to trick Joey but he doesn't know that Lennie will smear tomato ketchup on his shirt when Joey shoots him.  As soon as that happens, the boys tell him he accidentally killed Lennie, and Lennie pretends to be dead.  They tell Joey that the police will catch him and imprison him.  Joey, believing Lennie's pals, becomes frightened and runs away.  

With six dollars in his pocket, Joey runs to the nearest elevated train station.  He heads for one  the one of the largest playgrounds - Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, where the amusement park and its characters come to life through a child's eyes.  He seems to forget his predicament and spends the day wandering around arcades, pony rides, and the beach.  When the money runs out, he earns money for snacks by cashing in deposit bottles that he finds on the beach and spends the night sleeping under the boardwalk.  Joey indulges himself with amusement rides and carnival food, and as the weekend progresses, Lennie begins an equally frantic adventurous search for his missing kid brother.  When Lennie gets a call from mom, he is finally taken back to reality and knows he only has a few hours to find his lost brother before mom returns.  On a pony ride, the proprietor is suspicious that Joey is a runaway and tricks Joey into giving him his address.  The pony ride proprietor calls home and alerts Lennie, who comes to Coney Island and finds his brother.  It is an adventure  that will give viewers a glimpse of what it was like going to the Boardwalk in the 1950s.  

The film was shot with amazing realism that you can't believe there is a camera anywhere around filming the child as he spends the day running wild as a fugitive from justice at Coney Island.  The story is simple and touching and involves the viewer into the point of view of the child and his innocent way of thinking.  What ensues is a seven year olds fantasy.  It is an interesting snapshot of a time and place long gone.  A time when Pepsi bottles were returnable, when there were cotton candy vendors, carousels with a calliope, mechanical fortune tellers, arcades, and games such as throwing an underweight baseball at a stacked pile of weighted milk bottles.  

The team of filmmakers had a small budget to work with, but made the best of it by using a cast of non-actors.  The scenes were shot with a handheld 35 milimeter homemade camera discreetly filmed in the streets of Brooklyn and at Coney Island.  The camera used did not record sound, and dialogue was dubbed subsequent to filming.  Its value as a cinematic style setter is equaled by its value as a historical record of a city long gone.  It is photographed beautifully in rich tonalities of black and white perfectly exposed for a hot summer day.  It is an utterly charming story that poetically captures the joys and wonders of childhood.  

Morris Engel was a pioneer in the use of handheld cameras and nonprofessional actors in his films.  Using cameras that he helped design and his naturalistic films, influenced future prominent independent filmmakers.  Little Fugitive influenced the French New Wave cinema (La Nouvelle Vauge), a blanket term coined by critics for a group of french filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Italian Neorealism and classic Hollywood cinema.  Little Fugitive became an example of European art cinema.  Using portable equipment and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave of filmmaking presented a documentary type style.  Filming techniques included fragmented, discontinuous editing, and long takes.  

French director Françoit Truffaut was really taken by this film and was influenced as he made his film 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959).  He was quoted saying, "Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for young Morris Engel, with his fine Little Fugitive."  High praise indeed, and as Trauffaut observed, this early milestone of American Independent filmmaking had a powerful influence on such later French classics as The Red Balloon, White Mane (Crin Blanc 1953), and Trauffaut's own Les Mistons.  

Little Fugitive won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1953 and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Script Writing in 1954.  The film was inducted for preservation into the prestigious National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1997 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Little Fugitive is a time capsule preserving a nostalgic and innocent era on a hot summer day at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.   It is is a film without a doubt to be enjoyed by the entire family.