In Praise Of Rose

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson
The wacky neighbor has a long and honorable tradition in the world of sitcoms, as does their habit of just bursting in the apartment or home of the actual stars of the program. That these sidekicks almost invariably outshine the leads is a cause for celebration by the audience and no doubt annoyance to the people who are ostensibly heading up the cast list. (Think Sean Hayes and Christine Baranski.)
I don’t know why I’ve always been fascinated by second bananas. It may be for the same reason that when I look at a photograph I’m always much more interested in what is happening way off in the background than I am in the so-called subject. It could be that I am a huge fan of Art Carney’s, and he was the first guy I remember seeing just bounce into an apartment unannounced. I loved the fact, also, that no one ever seemed to mind. Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden was always stewing about something, but he never asked Ed Norton to knock.

And so I am on the lookout for these neighbors. Rhoda never knocked on Mary Richards’ door. Howard the pilot just walked right in when Emily and Bob Hartley were having a cocktail on “The Bob Newhart Show.” There is of course Kramer, and Sean Hayes, who played Jack on “Will and Grace.” The list is endless, and just when it seemed to have run out of steam, along comes the gloriously goofy but lovely Rose, on “Two and A Half Men.”
I must confess that I came to this series late, and only on reruns. The couple of current episodes I have seen on prime time this year have bordered on the dreary. But when I catch an older episode, when the writing is extra-sharp (and I think this was an exceptionally well written sitcom), and I see Rose coming up over the railing on the deck, it is blissful sitcom heaven.
In “Two and A Half Men” people actually knock on the front door, and it’s usually a young woman, Alan Harper’s wife, or their mother, played by the incomparable Holland Taylor.
So, in order to maintain the stalwart traditions of the sitcom (which also includes the unseen neighbor, think of Wilson on “Home Improvement” or Carlos the Doorman on “Rhoda”), the producers of “Two and A Half Men” had to find a more ingenious way for the neighbor to arrive unannounced. So they have Rose, played by Melanie Lynskey, quietly hop the rail and walk in through the sliding glass doors. It’s pure genius.
Lynskey is part of a heritage — a line of players who have that ethereal combination of sex appeal and humor. It’s the rarest thing — to be beautiful and actually funny. When you see it, you’re kind of spellbound. I watched “My Man Godfrey” the other night, and Carole Lombard was stunning and hilarious. I love Judy Holliday. But lately I couldn’t find anyone who was their heir. I never cared for Helen Hunt, and Debra Messing in “Will and Grace” was just simply not funny, to me. (I also think the writers had the hardest time with her character.) But Megan Mullally on that series comes very close, but misses slightly because she could be a little annoying. 
Lynskey, like Mullally (and certainly Holliday) has that Betty Boop voice. I’m not sure why this has to be, but it could be that it is simply part of sitcom tradition. I think it once was meant to aurally invoke the idea that the character was kind of daffy. Rose is certainly cracked (endearingly so), but she is very far from stupid. like the world of “Two and A Half Men” because even though they all are chronically annoyed with each other, and the characters are trying to work through some realistic issues about the family dynamic, they all love each other and try to care for each other as best they can. No one quite knows what to do with Rose, but when the adults all go their separate ways, you can always count on her to be sitting on the couch playing a video game with Jake.
So it seemed fitting to honor Rose, in our own little way. She is the latest in a long line of truly memorable wacky neighbor characters that have sprung to life in the sitcom universe. And Melanie Lynskey has also made her one of the best.

Musical Choices: The Top 10

November 6, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

It’s no secret that movie theme songs have degraded into a kind of chase for a chance to put another pop tune on the soundtrackT compilation. These songs seem to rarely connect to the movie itself, although younger directors, such as Noah Baumbach and Paul Thomas Anderson, certainly seem to be trying to bring back some magic to the art form. It’s nice to see them try. I thought the music to “The Squid and the Whale”, by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, was gorgeous.

I was thinking of how perfectly some songs seem to fit into their movies when I was listening to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” the other day, which is on the “Superfly” soundtrack – out of which came one of the great movie theme songs of all time. It also came to mind when I watched the “American Masters” edition about Charles Schulz and heard once again Vince Guaraldi’s music from the Peanuts’ Christmas special. It seems to me that rarely has the artistic sensibilities of two people, Schulz and Guaraldi, been so beautifully matched.

I think the first time I became aware of music in a movie was when I was watching the Marlon Brando version of “Mutiny On the Bounty” on TV when I was a kid. The Bounty was slashing through the water, and I heard the big, swelling soundtrack, and I thought: Do they always put music in movies like that? I hadn’t paid attention to it – outside of the more obvious songs they sang in “Mary Poppins” or a movie like that. And then later on, in 1968, I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the theater and you couldn’t escape the perfection of the music in that, even as a kid.

So I started to think about this list. It is purely my own, and I even left a few out because they are so odd: who would put in their top 10 the theme music to “Soldier In the Rain”? That 1963 film, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen, captivated me as a child – Gleason or McQueen could do no wrong, in my book – and I’ve never forgotten Henry Mancini’s music. But who else would remember it? That moviegoing experience is so purely my own, so I left it off. I was going to include Aimee Mann’s music for “Magnolia”, but the movie is such an odd mixture of failure and success that I couldn’t put it on. I’m sure she’ll be crushed.

I also didn’t include such songs as “White Christmas” or “Moon River” because, you know, we’ve had it up to here with that, despite the fact that they’re beautiful songs. Some others, as you’ll see, you just can’t ignore. The others are the ones that have simply stayed with me since I first saw the movies to which they are attached and the music seemed to perfectly, utterly capture the feelings inside the films they were written for.

Here then, is my list of the top 10 greatest movie theme songs, soundtracks – or tunes – of all time. It’s idiosyncratic, for sure, but what movie list isn’t?

1. Shaft, 1970, Isaac Hayes. Propulsive, exciting, sensual – tied right into the themes of the movie. Exactly right in every way.

2. Fight the Power, 1989, Public Enemy (used in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). Innovative, powerful and provocative. Three words also to describe the movie. Classic in every way.

3. Help!, 1965, John Lennon. Never has there been a sadder, more desperate song written for a frivolous comedy, masked by a memorable, upbeat tune.

4. “The Odd Couple Theme”, 1968, Neal Hefti. There is whimsy to this, but you can also hear the loneliness people can feel in a place like New York.

5. Soundtrack to “Popeye”, 1980, by Harry Nillson. Absolute loveliness; rhymeless songs, capturing the sweet and endearing heart of this fractured universe.

6. Opening theme to “Southern Comfort”, 1981, Ry Cooder. Haunting and spooky and exotic, just like the movie.

7. “Superfly“, 1972, Curtis Mayfield. Here you have the dead-end life of the title character captured in the lyric, weaved together by a delicate tune.

8. Soundtrack to “Bang the Drum Slowly”, 1974, Stephen Lawrence. This is a sad story, of course, made all the more humane by this empathetic music.

9. Everybody’s Talkin’, 1969, Fred Neil (and performed by Harry Nillson in “Midnight Cowboy”). The cacophony and dislocation of New York, writ small in a tune not written for the film, but used perfectly in it.

10. Theme to the Pink Panther movies, various years, Henry Mancini. You have to include this. You just have to. Don’t you? The song stayed as joyous even all through the truly dismal incarnations of the series that Blake Edwards put out, even after Peter Sellers was dead.

11. Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s rags, 1973, “The Sting.” Never has a movie used the sounds of one era – the early 1900s – to illustrate the rambunctious attitude of another – the 1930s. This choice was truly inspired.

A Little Glimpse into the Welcoming Past

August 13, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

When I was a kid I never watched The Wonderful World of Disney. I always watched the Jackie Gleason Show. I loved the announcer, and the look of the camera flying low over Miami Beach, and then there were the girls surrounded by chiffon announcing the names of Art Carney and the June Taylor Dancers. The entire feel and look of the show seemed to me something out of a different era — a more glamorous, timeless era than my own — and that is what I loved the most about it, I think.

I was a kid afraid of my own time. When I was very young, the brother of one of our friends in the neighborhood was killed in Vietnam, and I remember the women in the neighborhood bringing over food and other stuff, and it was a very scary thing to me. After that, I was sort of hyper-aware of the war. It was always on TV, or on the cover of Life or Look or Newsweek or Time and some of the pictures were very frightening to me. I had images of these soldiers — the Vietnamese — marching down my street. I hated that war and almost everything about it.

In an effort to escape, I sort of attached myself to the 1940s. It was an odd time to think of as tranquil, of course, but I saw nothing but elegance and courtesy through the photos I looked at and the movies I watched. This was a fiction, of course, but a useful one to me, because my own time seemed anything but elegant. So retreat I did into the glamour of an earlier time.

One of the ways available to me to do that was through the Merv Griffin Show. In the 1970s, a great many of the major stars from the 1930s and 1940s were not only still alive, they were still very much in the public eye, and I could see them every afternoon. It is where I first heard Orson Welles’ voice, and I saw him do a magic trick that didn’t work. I listened to Bette Davis tell stories. Merv said: “There will never be another Bette Davis.” And she said something like: “Oh my dear, thank God for that.” The audience laughed. It was all scripted. I listened to the anecdotes of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and any number of other people. They all seemed enormously entertaining and authentic.

I knew that many of these stars had not only lived through war, their war, but had also fought in it. So their very presence was a comfort to me, because I felt if they could have gotten through the awfulness of World War II, then we all could get through the awfulness of Vietnam, too.

So I never looked at the guests on Merv as simply a parade of has-beens from a black and white era with some funny stories to tell, I looked at those old actors as symbols of resilience and fortitude and resourcefulness. Watching Merv’s show was one of the little ways in which I coped. It seemed like such a well-ordered and polite world. He would joke with the trumpet player – I forget the guy’s name — as he introduced the band.

Is all this putting too much weight on a simple talk show? I suppose. But it seemed important to me at the time. And then of course you grow up, and that war ended, and so many of the people that I had acquainted myself with through books and movies left the scene, and Merv retreated to his businesses — his hotels and the like — and you saw him every once in a while.

He was the “Wheel of Fortune” guy, the inventor of “Jeopardy”, and because he stayed the same for so long, the way in which Johnny Carson stayed the same for so long, we didn’t think of Merv as being vulnerable to age or time.

Now, the era I longed for as a child, those silky 1940s, are retreating even further into the past, and I don’t have much use for them now — as a comfort zone or as anything else. And even the era in which Merv reigned supreme, the 1970s, has gone through a couple of periods of acute nostalgia already and so it, too, is becoming less relevant and is becoming more silent with each passing year. So we are left with the ever-changing present.

Merv, in the end, seemed like an affable, decent man. You did not hear bad things about him, which is something. And his chatfest was a brief respite from the craziness of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to have those little memories, those happy memories of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Myrna Loy and Joan Blondell, memories that are better to have than of gunfights in the streets of Saigon, well, for that I will of course always be grateful.

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