" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, August 12, 2016

The NRR Project: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company’

Cal Stewart as Uncle Josh.
'Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company'
Cal Stewart
America started off with barnyard humor, ‘cause that’s about all there was at the beginning – both as subject and stage. Americans were farmers principally for generations, and the minute port towns began to grow into cities, the classic division and mutual suspicion between country and city folk, long documented in human history, spring up here as well.

“Rubes” were figures of fun, and often were possessed in their native habitat with what used to be termed “foxiness” – the capability of outwitting the city slicker. Here lie the reputations of the “sharp” Yankee peddler and his battles of wit with his peasant customers, and the archetypal “Brother Jonathan” of New England.

An epitome of this tradition is Cal Stewart (1856-1919), who worked a prolific and widely loved hybrid of standup comic and village sage, Uncle Josh Weathersby, an inhabitant of the imaginary Punkin Center, a hamlet located somewhere in the then-wilds of New England. In countless stage performances and more than 100 recordings, the latter on cylinder and disc between 1897 and 1919, Stewart honed his jovial, skeptic, gentle, wisecracking persona.

He stole it from someone else. Denman Thompson wrote a sketch for vaudeville in the character of Joshua Whitcomb, a “hayseed” who goes to the big city. He first performed it in Pittsburg in 1875, and later developed it into a popular four-act play, “The Old Homestead.” Read RandyMcNutt’s marvelous essay, which accompanies the NRR listing, right here for complete details. Stewart evidently lifted the concept and adapted it to his own purposes, creating a whittling, tobacco-chewing, cracker-barrel wit that made him a major draw for decades.

It was a style most humorists of the time were using. Whether termed rural humor or dialect humor or ethnic humor, people such as Washington Irving, Mark Twain, “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne); “Petroleum V. Naseby” (David Ross Locke), and Bret Harte all practiced in this vein. Most of it, Twain aside, is not that funny now, but this was the gut-bustin’, knee-slappin’ kind of stuff that made Lincoln delay Cabinet meetings.

Stewart’s Uncle Josh represents common values – he is an advocate of plain horse sense, an enemy of pretension, and a scoffer at anything new-fangled. He functions in the Bergsonian sense of humor as a social corrective. His humor reinforces the status quo, and articulates what the attitude of the “normal” person inside it should be. And in truth, at the time who could make a living creating transgressive comedy, something no family would buy and play in their home?

Stewart has many descendants. Will Rogers, Charley Weaver, Lum and Abner, Minnie Pearl, Judy Canova, Parker Fennelly’s “Titus Moody” radio character, the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movie series, Jerry Clower, the antics of CBS’s 1960’s-era rural comedy shows, TV’s syndicated “Hee Haw,” Jeff Foxworthy, Garrison Keillor, and many more take up the Western/Southern/”hillbilly”/Far North axis of American rural comedy history.

Here Stewart recycles the old “barrel of bricks” routine, which has been traced by Snopes back to at least 1895. In it, a man hoisting bricks in a barrel gets hurt about five different ways. Here’s the routine:

In keeping with his persona, Uncle Josh frames it with another joke about the expense, impractability, and unreliability of an insurance company. He’s a master storyteller, and he stands equidistantly between Twain and Keillor as a brilliant practitioner of extemporaneous comedy, something developed roughly and varied in each telling. Uncle Josh’s soliloquies rises above mere satire by poking as much fun at himself as at anyone else.

Whether or not you find his signature chuckle ingratiating or not, listeners will find its homey gags and platitudes a familiar template.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The NRR Project: Canzone del Porter from ‘Martha’ (1903)

Edouard de Reszke
In 1903, a cultural arms race was on. The Victor and Columbia recording companies were battling it out for a dominant share of the “high-end” record market. At the height of the enthronement of Western culture as a beaux ideal, opera was considered the most prestigious of the arts. Its combination of music and drama was seen as the ultimate synthesis of forms, and opera singers were globally-known celebrities in a manner not seen again until the days of Pavarotti.

This recording was part of a set of releases by seven Metropolitan Opera stars – Suzanne Adams, Antonio Scotti, Giuseppe Campanari, Charles Gilbert, Marcella Sembrich, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and Edouard de Reszke. The Victor company had sent its representative to Europe to obtain recordings by continental opera stars. Columbia beat them to the punch by commissioning recordings in New York. The singers were well paid, and the discs were correspondingly more expensive. Avid listeners shelled out $2 a disc, twice what the going rate was for a record in 1903, and the equivalent of more than $50 today.

De Reszke was a bass from Warsaw; his strong singing and acting skills propelled him through an illustrious three-decade career (he often sang with his brother, the equally talented and noted tenor Jean). He sings this aria from Act III of the once-popular romantic/comic opera “Martha” by Friedrich von Flotow, which premiered in 1844. The bass plays the hero’s best friend, and gets to implement a little comic relief here and there. It’s a drinking song, rendered here in Italian, as many German and French operas of the 19th century found themselves translated into Italian for the convenience of the predominantly Italian-trained singers.

Though Columbia won the battle, Victor won the war. Under its Red Seal label, most of the first half of the century’s great artists would choose to record for them – starting with its superstar, Enrico Caruso. Caruso would make “Martha” a huge hit for the Met in 1906, and very familiar Flotow melodies such as “Ach, so fromm” and “the Last Rose of Summer” would become familiar cultural staples of the period.

As an aesthetic record, it’s lacking. The same year de Reszke recorded his three sides, of which “Canzone” is his best effort, he retired from singing. His breath support is wobbly, his tone is flat. Only his phrasing and trills remain to remind us of what he must have sound like at the peak of his career.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Uncle Josh and the Insurance Agent.'

Friday, July 29, 2016

When the whirring stops: the death of the VCR

The ancient top-loader. Pure steampunk.
The Funai Electric Company of Japan makes its last Video Cassette Recorder, and the last one for the foreseeable future, in August. It’s over.

The first videocassette recording of a film was released in 1967. Starting in 1977, the Video Home System consumer-level analog recording tape was the film-industry standard. In 1997, the DVD began encroaching on the VHS tape’s territory. The last major-market film (and future trivia answer), “Eragon,” was released on VHS in 2007, and a year later, tape manufacture ceased entirely.

 Now whatever is left out there on magnetic video tape that is playable will be stuck in a world that’s rejected its playback technology. Like the V-disc, the 8-track tape, the player piano roll, the filmstrip, and the LaserDisc, it has dead-ended, become a sport in the genetic sense of the word. It’s a now-pointless mutation.

VHS tapes were essential to a very particular kind of understanding of film. Not since the advent of art houses and repertory cinemas on the American coasts in the late 1950s had such a stretch on unseen films been found, easily accessible in the open market.

We viewers were previously subject to the imperatives of the market. In childhood, there were a few enthusiasts who wrangled 16-millimeter films, but these were few and far between, and well-off. We could find some of the output of the famous Blackhawk Films on 8-millimeter and Super 8 (Super 8!) at the local libraries, and we owned an old 8-millimeter job that played our family home movies, and Blackhawks of Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, and Tarzan.

Otherwise, first-run films came and went, and if they were good but not popular, you might never see them again. Broadcast television, the first great secondary market, was a yawning abyss of hours to be filled, and old movies filled them. “The Wizard of Oz” played every Easter, Christmas movies at Christmas, etc. We used to go through the pre-cable TV guides every Sunday and underline and/or circle (no highlighters yet) upcoming obscure gems, making late-night appointments to stare bloody-eyed at the boob tube, getting through a rare Douglas Sirk or Roy William Neill film, or “Alligator People,” or even some freakish stretches of quality such as Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace,” through the incessant interruptions of commercial blocks.

The bulky boxes of tapespool littered our weekend floors for decades, as we chucked them into the maw of the machine, which ground and gnawed at the boxes, straining to turn its gears and play that precious tape. (We had, and still have, a TOP-LOADER! Good times!) The revolution was us.

The VCR released us from time and space, and gave us ownership. We eagerly caught up with films we WANTED to see, WHEN we wanted to see them. We could now set timers and tape TV shows too, free our viewing schedule from the intentions and ends of the programmers. The power of the movie theaters faced its second serious challenge at this time, after the introduction of broadcast television and anti-monopoly action brought down the big studios after World War II.

All the films we’d read about that we’d never seen rained into our lives. It was now possible for the average person to self-educate about the length and breadth of cinema.

The primary downsides of the VCR were the laughably difficult programming problems the recording system always seemed to have, the clanky, cranky laboring of the devices, and the grainy, stretched, and stuttering quality of the image itself. (Anyone on the production side from the period will tell you about the hellish nightmare that was editing videotape.)

 As a legacy medium, the VHS tape still has cachet. Yale picked up 2,700 of them last year, mostly horror films. Stephanie Rogers’ story for the Yale News points out that the VHS and VCR spurred the rise of low-budget cinema, particularly in the cost-effective horror genre, and direct-to-rental market helps to undermine cinema-going. (Pornography was, as always, on the cutting edge of whatever technological development came along, and thrived as well.)

The DVD murdered the VHS tape. Its infinitely better image, searchability, and capacity made it the winner over the tape. DVDs gave every film freak far more than even they could digest in one sitting. The advent of multiple data channels on each disc gave birth to the commentary track, scads of now-expected “extras,” alternative edits, contextualizing content, gag and blooper reels, and films within films. (The damn things do scratch easily.)

Now what’s next? A few years ago, Oliver Stone held up a DVD and said, “You may be the last generation to own a movie.” The video (now DVD) rental stores are almost extinct themselves. Even the Redbox movie-dispensing kiosk service, which killed the Blockbuster video-rental chain, finds itself becoming a less profitable anachronism. Its DVD rentals were down a whopping 17 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015.

Now that we are streaming film, we are purchasing temporary access to a product that’s not material. Pay for play. Downloads are possible, but we’ve come to find that digital files are just as prone to disruption, damage, overwriting, and loss as all those playlists you made on GrooveShark.

And that’s disturbing. I have about 2,000 films on DVD, very consciously chosen to provide me with an index of great films (OK, and “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and “Pootie Tang”) for reference and repeated viewings. I am hoping the kids get into them and are accidentally infected with the rewards of quality viewing. How long until I have to jury-rig some kind of playback system for this collection I have no desire to rebuild again, from scratch? We all seem to end up living primarily in the last medium we are comfortable with, the one we commit to financially and emotionally.

That being said, I am still hoarding the following, as hope springs eternal – 78 rpm records, 45s, and standard vinyl; first-generation audiotape, cassettes, V-discs, CDs, DVDs, and . . . somewhere on this dusty shelf I’m probing . . . my last VHS tapes.

There are 15 tapes here I deemed indispensable a decade ago. I wonder what’s on them? Can I see the content on them some other way?

Here’s a head cleaner. “A Rugrats Chanukah,” “A Rugrats Passover,” both available via Hulu. My friends Kathy and Robin Beck’s hilarious documentary, “Grandpa’s Still in the TUFF Shed.” Keeper. Three vintage Daffy Duck cartoon compilations, one of Bugs Bunny, one merely labeled “classic.” (You can see where my priorities lie.) Keep.

Of course, I have to hang on to the Mary Martin “Peter Pan” TV production. Priceless!

Homemade mixes: here’s a John Ford triple feature, “The Lost Patrol,” “The Informer,” and “Wagon Master.” All easily found via streaming.

Here are two I can’t find anywhere else: Jack Gold’s brilliant and underrated retelling of “Robin Crusoe,” 1975’s “Man Friday,” with Peter O’Toole and Richard Roundtree. And the PBS mini-series version of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” from 1996. “Nostromo” was the last, great, unrealized project of David Lean’s, and this production lacks something vital but points the way toward a truly definitive adaptation of the novel.

The first and last “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes. Of course. Keep.

Another compilation: the documentary on Russell Scott, Denver’s TV clown Blinky (can stream it); “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (likewise) and “The Maltese Falcon” (I have the DVD). Goodbye!

A documentary on my hero, Steinbeck; a miscellany of Laurel and Hardy shorts, some vintage Dana Gould (a criminally under-regarded standup comedian and writer), and some of those delectable vintage Fleischer Brothers Superman cartoons. Keeper.

And the family home videos. Our father’s side of the family was ravenously to new technology, and the earliest home-movie footage we have dates back to the mid-1930s. Our dauntless cousin Elaine picked up dozens of these Super 8 and 8mm home-movie shorts and had them transferred to videotape. (A dissection of moving family images from before my father’s birth to my youngest sister’s babyhood deserves another essay, and some therapy.) There are hours there to be pored over by curious descendants, discussed, laughed at, explained, and used as a springboard of associations. “That’s Aunt Emma,” I say, and her clean, damp, kitchen-y smell, her scrollwork piano, a laundry chute, the cuckoo clock, the steeply raked back yard, all manifest themselves, instantly.

The VHS tape in this last case will serve as a link to a new technology, duped to DVD and then undoubtedly to whatever new forms of recording and transmission evolve. But it’s a fact of physics that there is loss of signal, a weakening of the resolution of the image, each time a duplication to another medium is made. Will these irreplaceable ghosts of me, my parents, grandparents, sisters, cousins, and friends fade away down the years like pen strokes on a palimpsest, until finally forgotten and lost? When a medium dies, that erosion, that slippage occurs, and I worry.