Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The descent into Hell: 1984

Eddie Albert comes face to face with Big Brother in 1984 (1953).

In Christian theology, the "descent into Hell," as enumerated in the Apostle's Creed, refers to the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when Christ descends to the realm of the dead, bringing salvation to the righteous who had died since the begining of the world. The Church believes this to be a triumphant occasion, the victory over death and liberation of those souls destined to reside in Heaven.

There are many kinds of Hell, other than the theological kind. There's Hell on earth, a Hell often of our own making, and when you descend into this kind of Hell, it's not so easy to see it as triumphant. There's one thing that all these versions of Hell have in common, though, and that's the loss of freedom, the enslavement of the soul, the stench of death. We are, I think, engaged in such a descent now; I say "engaged," because I don't think we've hit bottom yet, not even close—if, in fact, there even is a bottom. It is the Hell of totalitarianism, a Hell that has, over the years, played itself out many times on television. The relationship between television and totalitarian dystopia is, I think, an interesting and ironic one; it could be said that television both sheds light on and perpetuates totalitarianism, at least in its modern incarnation. 

And so it seems particularly appropriate today that we begin an extended look at this particular descent into Hell by returning to Apocalypse Theater for one of literature's most famous stories, one that spawned two television adaptations within five years of its publication: 1984.

George Orwell wrote 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four, if you prefer) in 1948, and for those of you into numerology, it might be interesting to ponder that it was 36 years between 1948 and 1984, and 36 years between 1984 and 2020. Then again, it might not be; I suppose it depends on your outlook.

Orwell's world is one that's become familiar in both literary and political history, a world built on  censorship, government surveillance, mutual suspicion, and the suppression of any forms of dissent, populated by agencies with names like the Ministry of Truth, which controls the distribution of information and makes appropriate "adjustments" to the historical record so that they conform to the latest pronouncements of the government; and the Ministry of Love, home of the infamous Thought Police, charged with the arrest and "rehabilitation" of those who practice dissent against the government. Orwell's concepts entered the lexicon almost from the very beginning, concepts such as Big Brother, the Two Minute Hate, Thought-Crimes, Doublethink, and—perhaps the most famous and most sinister of them all—Newspeak. You know the highlights; War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, 2+2=5. To paraphrase that great philosopher Chico Marx, "Who ya gonna believe: Big Brother or your own eyes?" 

The first visual adaptation* of 1984 came just four years after its 1949 publication, and perhaps tellingly, it was made not for the movie theater, but for television. It aired on September 21, 1953 (the height of the McCarthy era), as part of CBS's Studio One, in a production written by WilliamTempleton, directed by series mainstay Paul Nickell and with a cast that included Eddie Albert (above) as the protagonist, civil servant Winston Smith; Norma Crane as Julia, his colleage and forbidden lover; and Lorne Greene as O'Brien, the underground member who turns out to be an agent of the Thought Police. The Studio One production dramatically condensed Orwell's story to about 50 minutes, typical of most hour-long shows of the day. Although today's reviewers are mostly critical of the show (especially in comparison to subsequent productions), contemporary reviews were more favorable. The New York Times praised Albert's performance and called the overall production "a masterly adaptation that depicted with power, poignancy and terrifying beauty the end result of thought control—the disintegration of the human mind and soul." 

*The very first adaptation was on radio in 1949 (they didn't waste any time, did they?), broadcast on NBC University Theater, starring David Niven as Smith.


It took only one year for another television version of 1984 to appear, this time on the BBC, and this adaptation won far more critical praise, both then and now. It was written by Nigel Kneale, who the year before had created the much-loved sci-fi classic, The Quatermass Experiment and was produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, one of the BBC's best. Winston Smith was played in this version by a very young Peter Cushing, with Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, AndrĂ© Morell as O'Brien, and Donald Pleasance as Syme, the creator of Newspeak, who eventually becomes an Unperson.

At nearly two hours, or twice the length of the American version, this 1984 was a much more detailed adaptation of Orwell's work. It also created no little stir, with many viewers calling to complain about the show's "subversive nature and horrific content," and a number of protests in Parliament. Other MPs, however, rushed to the show's defense, pointing out that "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play" were "already in common use under totalitarian rĂ©gimes." The Queen and Prince Philip weighed in, letting it be known that they had watched the broadcast, and had "enjoyed" it. Thus emboldened, the BBC staged a second live broadcast four days later, and it is this rebroadcast that has been preserved on video.


The fact is, any adaptation of 1984 should feel subversive and horrific, because it is. As brutal as the world of 1984 is, though, there's an even darker thought behind it, for as essayist Scott Bradfield has pointed out, "For Orwell, the horror of totalitarianism was not that someone would impose it on you, but rather that you might be all-too-prepared to submit." Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it, those who would trade privacy for a bit of security deserve neither privacy nor security. We can quibble about what Franklin really meant (the quote actually comes from a debate over taxation), but one of the great attributes about being a genius is the ability to synthesize a thought, even if it isn't the thought you were thinking of at the time. 

I find it interesting that there hasn't been an adaptation of 1984 since 1965 ("The World of George Orwell: 1984", a second production of the 1954 BBC adaptation, which aired as part of a season of Orwell adaptations on the BBC program Theatre 625), when the Cold War was hot and the West was about to explode in an unrest that, in significant ways, continues to this day. Radio, yes; a big screen version (in 1984, of course), and movies that could be said to be in the spirit of Orwell. In fact, the last time television broached the subject was in the famous Super Bowl commercial by Apple, which might have been prescient in linking modern technology and a future 1984 society (though perhaps not in the way Apple intended). But then, as I said, the relationship between television and totalitarianism is a complex one. I don't know; maybe television has a reason for not revisiting it.


Orwell's attack on totalitarianism wasn't aimed solely at communism; 1984 takes many of its ideas from post-World War II Great Britain. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the book's eternal popularity is that both left and right can point to its contents as representing an existential threat to freedom and liberty. But since we're on the subject of chilling statements, try this one on for size. It comes from Orwell, in correspondence with, of all people, Sidney Sheldon, who had purchased the stage rights to 1984 from Orwell. In one letter, Orwell wrote that the book "was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office."

That, my friends, is what we face today. It takes no great stretch to make the connections between Orwell's creation and our world today; if you glance at the headlines on any day of the week—Communist crackdown in China is "Beyond George Orwell’s Imaginings"—the parallels become clearer. And if you think that it can't happen here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, you haven't been paying attention. 

So the next time someone—perhaps in the government or the media—tells you that Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength, remember the words of the prophet: "Woe to you that call evil good, and good evil: that put darkness for light, and light for darkness: that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." (Isaiah 5:20) And ask yourself what you will answer when someone asks what two plus two equals.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Things to Come?



It's's been said that art which disturbs forces the partaker into a realm of solitude that is not entirely welcome, for it forces one to confront his innermost thoughts, to enter "a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self.”

And it's in that sense that I use the word "disturbing" to describe Assassinio nella CattedraleIldebrando Pizzetti's 1958 operatic version of T.S. Eliot's (equally disturbing) verse play Murder in the Cathedral, the story of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170.  

Most of us know, or should know, the basic story of Thomas Becket: his early life as friend and close associate of King Henry II, becoming Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, and—finally and tragicallyhow a fatal rift developed between them over the authority of the State over the Church. Eventually, Henry is (supposedly) heard to utter the famous words "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?", whereupon four of his knights travel to Canterbury and there murder the Archbishop in his cathedral.

The question of man's relationship to authority, and the legitimacy of said authority, is timeless. Eliot's play, which premiered in 1935, was taken by many as a commentary on Nazi Germany and its growing oppression of religious freedom. However, it is difficult to view Assassinio today and not think of the growing religious oppression on the horizon in America, the disease of nihilism and threat of totalitarianism that envelopes the nation and the world.

As the opera opens, it is December 2, 1170. Becket has returned from exile in France. There is a truce between Becket and King Henry, but nobody expects it to last. Becket's congregation fears that the Archbishop's return can end only in tragedy, not only for him but them as well. Becket is unfazed by the prospect of martyrdom, but is it a measure of the man's spiritualityor ego? The answer is soon to come.

Becket (Ruggero Raimondi) faces the four Tempters
In a stunning first act confrontation, Becket meets four Tempters; manifestations of Becket's own intellect, they converse with him in a reflection of the inner dialogue tearing through the Archbishop. The first three offer the usual—safety (by running away); power (by compromising with the king); and rebellion (joining the barons against the king). Thomas is able to deal with those temptations easily; it is the fourth that gives him pause, for the fourth temptation is martyrdom itself, the chance for eternal fame and influence through giving up his life.

This one proves the most dangerous, for it is easy to convince yourself that you're dying to draw attention to a cause, when in reality it is you to which you draw attention. Is this why Becket returned to England? Does he look for the ultimate "I told you so" moment? As the tempter says, it would put everyone under Becket's heel: king, emperor, bishop, baron.

It is here that Becket must provide the ultimate measure of who he is and what he believes—and he does, defiantly casting aside the temper, saying "The last temptation is the greatest treason/To do the right thing for the wrong reason." With this act, Becket finds a kind of peace; he comes to the knowledge that he is not looking for martyrdom, but is prepared to accept it as part of sharing Christ's Cross.

In his Christmas Day sermon, Becket gives us a profound meditation on the meaning of Christmas. Yes, it is a day to rejoice in the birth of the Savior, but also to realize the price that salvation will ultimately exact from Him*. It is in this spirit of unityand lovethat one embraces martyrdom, Thomas says, warning the congregation that "It is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr."

*I've always thought that the ideal Nativity set should somehow cast a shadow of a Cross over the crib where Christ lays. The Creed celebrates both His birth and death, and at no time is this more clear than at Christmas.

The denouement of Act Two is, at once, tragic, inevitable, and joyous. Four of Henry's knights, played by the same four singers of Act One's tempters, confront Becket, accusing him of disloyalty, and calling on him to surrender or face death at their hands. Becket refuses all attempts by his priests to protect him, either by locking the doors of the Cathedral or by fleeing; in so doing, Becket echoes the words of Pilate that "what has been written is written." He accepts the savage act of martyrdom with peace, and meets his death on December 29, 1170, vested for the liturgy, sprawled on the steps of the altar. 

So what does it all mean to us, and why should we care about Assassinio nella Cattedrale as anything other than a work of art? It has to do, I think, with a question we will have to ask ourselves, sooner or later: of what kind of stuff are we made? We may dare to hope that it doesn't come in as public a venue as it did for Becket, but in truth we don't know. And while we like to hope we'll know how we'll respond to such a moment of truth, as Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, "You won't know until it beckons. To you. So long as it temps others you can judgecan sneercan express shock, disgust, outrage, and prim distainthe usual emotions of punitive people. But you won't know."

The Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket,
by Michael D. O’Brien

It may be pessimistic to see in these days the twilight of America, if not the world, but then there are reasons to be pessimistic; we may be far closer to the times of Becket than we think. The late Francis Cardinal George, former Archbishop of Chicago, once said, "I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square." While his incompetent succesor (no Becket he!) is more likely to wind up in prison due to corruption, Cardinal George's words should serve as a warning to us all.

The time is coming, I think, when we will find out what we're made of. It will beckon, as Oates says, and then we will find out. The battle is not merely fought among the high-ranking, the statesmen and prelates; its battlefields not confined to the ancient histories of centuries past. No, history is here and now, and each of us will be called upon to take up our own roles in this drama. And then we will find out, we will know.

Here is an superb performance of Assassinio nella Cattedrale from December 22, 2006, staged at the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, with Piergiorgio Morandi conducting the Orchestra Sinfonica della Provincia di Bari. The grandeur and solemnity of the Basilica provides a unique but stunning location for the production (with the orchestra situated between the audience in the nave and the singers at the altar), compelling us to consider the story in an atmosphere that for once justifies the correct use of the word "awesome." 

Bass Ruggero Raimondi delivers a dignified, powerfully moving performance as Becket, a man walking at the same time with both truth and death. The New York Times once described Eliot's play as "an opera libretto waiting to be set to music," and Pizzetti, working from an Italian translation of Eliot's play, is faithful to both the story and the underlying meaning. Events are condensed, as they often must be in opera, but at all times Eliot's message comes through without distortion. The music is clearly modern but never lacking in melody, and it creates an atmosphere that will stay with the viewer long after the opera ends. Let's all hope that it remains an entertainment, a history lesson—and not a preview of things to come.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Wish I'd written that: on the past and the future




"F
ar-stretching, endless time brings forth all hidden things and buries that which once did shine; the firm resolve falters, the sacred oath is shattered, and let none say, 'It cannot happen here.'"

Sophocles

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Wish I'd written that




"I’ve tended to overlook the actual underlying . . . um . . . precariousness of human life, so thinking we could all just arrange things by sticking to nice, agreeable procedures, being the decent stiff-upper-lip Englishmen that we’ve always been, and let the whole thing manage itself. I think that is a kind of softness, because the more I live, the more I see that humanity is always poised on the brink, and can fall into chaos and disaster at any time.”

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Six Degrees of Alex Trebek via Starcade


Wink Martindale's video vault of vintage television finds its way through an interesting kiddie television show of the early 1980's, Starcade, which ran from 1982-84 when Parker Brothers money ran out even with decent ratings (and a show I remember from my youth).

Jim Caruso and Mavis E. Arthur, among others, pitched a video game-based television show and filmed a pilot in 1981.  The original host of the pilot was Mike Eruzione, the hero of the country following his game-winner against the Soviet hockey team a year earlier in Lake Placid.  The pilot with Mr. Eruzione took 24 players, with eight players playing one of three different games in a tournament.  A second pilot was later ordered a few months later, with someone best known then from High Rollers and later the flop Pitfall hosting this pilot.  It was evident that this pilot was still a game in development.

The same person hosted two more pilots and did the editing himself.  When the show was picked up, the daytime Battlestars was being done and he was doing pilots for a Merv Griffin revival that would take him to the rest of his life, so he could not do this video game show.

The oddities of this show turned out to be even stranger.  Mark Richards hosted the first 23 shows before executives did not like his work, so for the rest of the show's run, it was well-known Treasure Hut and Jackpot! lead Geoff Edwards who hosted the duration of the show until its ending, it was very popular and people auditioned.  And you could even hear Edwards using his signature phrases at times, while we later learned one video game was his favourite and he'd notice that when it was chosen.  Edwards, of course, as we noted in his obituary in 2014, was a well-known hosts who also hosted Chain Reaction and even a few episodes of Let's Make a Deal when Monty Hall was sick.  Edwards was also Mark Goodson's first choice for Family Feud (something I've noticed with Goodson-controlled versions;  Joe Namath was Mr. Goodson's first choice for the 1988-95 version).

But wait . . . there was more twists and turns from the pilot and the first host.

Despite the failure of Mark Richards, the man who producers wanted to host Starcade after seeing his pilot but was unable because of other commitments later hired Richards to be a contestant coordinator of the syndicated show and moderate practice games for contestants in the first season. He released those recently.



The current person doing the practice games for Jeopardy!, as he has for the past decade, is Clue Crew member Jimmy McGuire, s a candidate to take over hosting the show and I believe is the favourite for taking over that show that caused Starcade to not have its first choice as host.

Friday, January 1, 2021

A Place to Celebrate New Year's - A Drag Show



I
n Ohio, there is a place offering a New Year's Day drag show that has a strange rule about being slower every year since it began.

For this year's Hangover Nationals at Dragway 42 in Ohio, the rule is 20.21 seconds -- more than two-tenths slower than what it was when it started.

The drag competition is held in all weather conditions and with street driven cars.  The object of the race is a bracket event.  A decade ago, the race was run with a 20.11 second index.  As is a sportsman event, the Christmas Tree counts down bulb every half second (unlike a Pro tree, which lights all three in four-tenths of a second) before going green.  People actually count seconds to ensure they are going no faster than the index.  If you're faster than the index, you are disqualified unless the opponent rings up the red light or crosses a boundary line.  If both drivers are faster than the index, the slower car (closer to the index time) wins because it is closer to the index.

Happy New Year everyone.



Happy New Year!


 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

I don't think anyone's really going to miss the end of 2020, do you? In retrospect, the omens were there for anyone to see, with so many people talking about it being the start of a "New Roaring 20s,"* and we all know how that turned out: the aftermath of the Great War introduced a spiritual nihilism, prohibition, the first sexual revolution, massive labor unrest, the rise of Marxism, the Great Depression, and finally—a decade later—a second world war that included the Holocaust and culminated in the introduction of nuclear weapons and the start of the Cold War. 

*Not to be confused with the TV series of the same name. We could have used Dorothy Provine this year.

And now here we are, one year later, and the first year of the new Roaring 20s has given us the worst twelve months since, what? 2001? 1968? 1941? It doesn't matter, I guess, except in degrees. It's like asking whether you'd rather have your skull smashed or your heart torn out. No matter which one you choose, it's gonna hurt. I know there are people out there who think 2021 will be a better year, and you can't blame them for that hope. Hey, I hope it's better, too. 

In a way, New Year's provides us with a choice, a fork in the road. One path continues the status quo, the other leads to something new, different, uncertain. Sure, this may be symbolic more than anything else; after all, you don't need to wait for a new year to start to make decisions about your future. Seeing that date 1/1 does make things so much easier, though.

The Monsters
I suppose this last essay of 2020 serves as something of a "best of" for the blog; over the past year, I've written several times about the foreboding nature of 2020, of those prescient movies and television shows that seem to reflect in their black-and-white images the nightmarish visions of today; paranoia, people ratting on their neighbors, the dehumanizing isolation into which so many have been fooled or forced. From 1984 to "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" we see it all unfolding before us. The scientists in the Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear" assumed they had the answer, if only the right question is asked, but found out that they knew nothing at all. It is, indeed, Apocalypse Theater, and every time you see this rerun on TV you wonder how it can be happining, whether or not this Great Reset is in fact a Great Betrayal, and you want to cry out, in David Shoemaker's words, You told us this was fake. You lied!   

Tomorrow at midnight, another year joins the pantheon of history, and there are those out there who think that we're headed for some kind of epiphany in which this brave new world will take care of everything. To say that I'm apprehensive about the future is an understatement; 2020 looks to me like it was just the prelude to a complete meltdown: soft totalitarianism, social credit systems, elections that don't count, unending constraints on basic social interaction, globalists who want to control what we can and can't think and say and believe, wars and rumors of war—from biological to civil—and you can't even face them with a smile, because nobody'll see it behind your mask. 

It only takes Two
But then, there are those two paths I talked about, and invariably the stories from Apocalypse Theater offer us that moment of choice, when disaster can be averted, when our leaders pull their fingers away from the button at the last moment. Perhaps, a la Jack Benny in the TV version of The Horn Blows at Midnight, we'll have a little angelic intervention on our behalf. And, of course, we haven't even begun to discuss that other popular genre, the post-apocalyptic story. In the Twilight Zone episode "Two," it is suggested that humans (in the form of Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery) can, after all, come together to create a hopeful future: true, that's only after the war has been fought, but at least there's a future, and that's something to hang on to. I always like to think that, in a twist on the old saying, where there's hope, there's life.

          There would have been a time for such a word.
          — Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
          Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
          To the last syllable of recorded time;
          And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
          The way to dusty death.

Tomorrow night we say "Good Riddance!" to 2020 and look forward to 2021, but we'd better be careful what we wish for.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas!


This is not an add for Coke, which produced the product, but Vendo, which made the machine that kept the product cold. What a wonderful, vivid ad, and a great way to wish a Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The 24 Days of Ad-vent, 2020: Day 24


Plymouth rocks! Seriously, there's just something very, very inviting about this ad. Perhaps it's the vividness of the colors, the red rug in the entryway, the wreath hanging on the front door and the red decorations hanging down from the walls. Maybe it's the arms laden with gifts on what probably is Christmas Eve. The holly inserted in various parts of the frame. Whatever, it's an evocative tableau—especially this year, when we're not supposed to travel or get together with family and friends or do any of the other things that reinforce our humanity and bring joy to others. Maybe next year—if they'll let us.
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