Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Sad Loss Of Direction

It Was A Tough Weekend If You're A Fan Of Television And Film With These Losses.

I spent a huge chunk of this past weekend scooting up and down the Eastern Seaboard visiting family and relaxing (it's been a bearish last month, more on that later), so there were lengthy hours spent in a car either focusing on the road and directions while driving, or snoozing as a passenger. In being out of that loop for a hot minute, I missed the news of the passings of damned notable folks in the Hollywood community—former “Laugh-In” co-host and noted TV director Dick Martin at age 86, and the very sad loss of film director Sydney Pollack at the age of 73.

I myself have been quite busy the last few weeks what with the WGA Strike-delayed “Up Fronts”—the network showcases put forth for ad buyers hyping the new shows on this fall's sked— and the ensuing frenzy it brings as folks (yours truly included) scramble to nab meetings and get new material in the hands of production execs. I've been a little immersed in TV and film doings, augmenting my writing for that medium (and helping me through a bout of serious pain issues as noted before) by watching as much “good” material as I could. Turner Classic Movies has been on a continuous loop at Casa dé LM as have my piles of classic TV DVD box sets.

If you haven't figured it out, I'm a huge TV and film buff. In large part due to being a child of the sixties and seventies when there were a lot of great things to see—on TV with it's then-limited three networks and a clutch of local independents who picked up the best of “yester-vision™”—and in film—where I lived through that second golden age of brilliant rebel filmmaking of 1966-1980 (Basically from 67's Point Blank to 1980's Apocalypse Now). How closely did I identify with “the biz”? The Dick Van Dyke Show's Rob Petrie was an idol of mine. Great job in television, the cool, sofa-appointed office, good friends, natty attire, a gorgeous wife and a beautiful home. (This will be explored further in a future piece called “Why We Write”) One of my lifelong dreams always was to work in television, and I've been lucky enough to have that dream come true. An added bonus is the fact that I've had the opportunity to work with some of the people who worked on shows that I (and a lot of others) hold in high regard.

Here's where the late Dick Martin comes into play. He and I are separated by one degree career-wise. We both had the distinct pleasure of working for an extended time with a talented, award-winning director who shared knowledge with and mentored me in directtion—and I would assume Dick as well, as post-“Laugh-In” he would also go on to excel as a TV director. It was a thrill to work with someone who worked so closely with Martin on a show (“Laugh-In”) that was one of my all-time favorites, and in that time, I learned a great deal about the inner craft of television directing, as well as learning from behind-the-scenes tales of life on the wild “Laugh-In” set. Martin in every one of these stories was an absolute professional, and apparently one phenomenally funny man. What you saw on “Laugh-In” was only half of how uproariously funny the program was. The out-takes were legendarily hilarious, and a lot of that had to do with the chemistry between Martin and his comedy partner, the late Dan Rowan. Martin played the semi-oblivious “goofball” role of the two, punctuating the pointed jokes with seeming bumbling naiveté, but in reality deftly deploying a biting undercurrent that stuck it to the personalities and issues of the day. He was according to people I trust, a kind and warm-hearted man, and a joy to work with—on set, and “in the control room” where a lot of TV direction is helmed. He'd go on to direct numerous episodes of the original, classic “The Bob Newhart Show”, “House Calls”, and “Archie Bunker's Place”, to name a few, so he was no slouch.

But his passing hit me hard when I got wind of it, because it was yet another small, tangible loss of one of those things I hold dear—part childhood memory, part career inspiration, and part of my own professional history (personal and shared). I'm of an age where a lot of people who inspired and taught me are of an age themselves where they're passing on at an increasing frequency. And unfortunately taking that considerable talent with them. I know i'll sound like a fogey here, but the reality I've encountered is that the folks who now fill many of those gaps in the talent continuum just don't seem as gifted, or as sharing as the people who've since gone on. This drives me all the more to go to “those who know”the masters I can get to, to soak up that much more of their knowledge. It's something we should all do when the opportunity presents itself. For example, during Tribeca Film Festival week here in New York recently, the Apple Store here in Lower Manhattan had a series of seminars and discussions hosted by prominent people in film, and I got the chance to soak up info from people like Martin Scorcese's film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, documentary film maker Errol Morris, “The Daytrippers” and “Superbad” director Greg Mottola, and the actress/filmmaker Isabella Rosselini. It was free, and they practically had to throw mw out of the place at week's end. But the main thing was I had a chance to learn from these seasoned professionals, and I would urge every one of you with a creative yen to take any opportunity you can to keep yourself inspired and on the front end of the learning curve by taking whatever you can from talents you respect. Be it through in-person or one-step removed instruction or as I was doing for much of this month, simply surrounding myself with their works as inspiration.

That's where the work of the late Sydney Pollack comes in.

I'd see him around town here every now and then in his signature suede shirt-jacket, t-shirt and corduroys, walking here and there in the West Fifties (most often near the Director's Guild theatre on 57th street), but I never got a chance to meet him. His work however, particularly his material during that aforementioned “Second Golden Age” of filmmaking is indeed inspirational. Starting officially with his uncredited work on the existential Burt Lancaster vehicle “The Swimmer” (one of the great cinematic treatises on mid-life crisis, and based on the paragon of this genre, John Cheever's New Yorker short story), moving to his dark turn on the exploitation of human suffering “They Shoot Horses Don't They?” from 1969, and then to the prescient, and frightening youthful sibling in the 70's great paranoia trilogy, “Three Days Of The Condor” (preceded by equally disturbing “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation”), and from there to the highly popular and artistically excellent (and award-winning) “Tootsie” and “Out of Africa”. The two-time Oscar-winning Pollack was a directorial “everyman”, capable of handling a wide range of genres, ranging from bleak drama, to suspense thriller, straight action and farcical / romantic/ light comedy. He cut his eye teeth (like a major directorial influence of mine, John Frankenheimer) in the fertile training ground of fifties and sixties television on projects like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey and The Fugitive. Pollack's directorial works are Cable TV evergreens—you can always catch Tootsie or Condor on a weekend somewheres, so he's ubiquitous—and that's good—because the work is so damned good. Aside from the simple enjoyment factor of the films, they are splendid lessons in filmmaking unto themselves.

As a teenager, I saw “They Shoot Horses Don't They” on an ABC Sunday Night Movie and found myself riveted to the movie for its subject as well as the intentionally stark and unflattering way it was shot—depicting depression-era America in an un-romanticized and harrowing way that just got under your skin. That's what a director (along with his Director of Photography/Cinematographer) does—fuse script, carefully cajoled performances, and a stylistic vision into a cinematic whole. And the good ones do it well. Pollack was damn sure one of the good ones and was considered something of a “dean” of the craft to the younger set. I know he was to me, and I frequently consulted his works (particularly “Condor” and “Tootsie”) as learning works. But alas, he is now gone as a direct teacher, although he was a gifted raconteur in discussing the craft (and a not bad actor in his own right in roles that played on his paterfamilia persona) and informative interviews with him exist in abundance. And fortunately, with the super-repository that is YouTube, you can also find Dick Martin at his faux-dim best, cracking 'em up still in clips from the seminal “Laugh-In”.

It's easy to forget now how ground-breaking Laugh-In was in the late sixtoes and early seventies, but consider that we were coming off the staid, but still-entertaining classic template of variety television exemplified by the almost eternal Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton comedy shows. Laugh-In broke the template into a million little pieces, grabbing from the Ernie Kovacs school of irreverence and blasting out a thousand little sketchlets and “blackouts” that were also daring for their time in terms of taking on “the establishment” and its icons.

That was a huge portion of Laugh-In's appeal for me, and many others, which dovetails nicely into my love for my favorite of Sydney Pollack's films, “Three Days Of The Condor”, a subversive, sour take on government, the intelligence industry, the ugly and evil side of our involvement in the Mid-East oil biz, and as fully revealed at the end, how all of that ties into media manipulation. Just the last fifteen minutes of “Condor” will leave you looking over your shoulder forever for where the powers-that-be lurk. Pollack challenged them with thst film and maybe that's why I have such a soft spot for it.

Like Laugh-In, it stuck a finger in the eye of those who needed to know they were NOT untouchable.

For that alone, a tip of the cap to both men is more than in order. So Godspeed while on to that better place, Mr. Pollack and Mr. Martin.

And thanks for bodies of work that will long continue to “Sock it to us”.