Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

Birth of a Nation: Happy 100th Birthday?

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D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.

On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film.  This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.

And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.

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Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.

In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.

How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.

But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind.  No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier.  Why do we show it to them?  I have no idea.  Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915.  As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.

More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.

So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.

An interview with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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From the mid-1910s until 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular of film comedians.  However, at the height of his fame, he was tried for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe.  After three trials (the first two of which resulted in a hung jury), Arbuckle was acquitted, and received a written apology from the jury.  However, it was too late.  He was made a scapegoat for the so-called lack of morals in Hollywood and the current ban on his films stayed in place until 1923.  The jury verdict seemed unimportant; he had been one of the first victims of “trial by media” and he was unable to get work in front of the camera, although he directed a number of films during the remainder of the 1920s.  An on-screen comeback took place in the early 1930s, but just as his career was taking off once more, Arbuckle died of a heart attack, aged 46.

The following article is from a happier time in Arbuckle’s career, and he comes across in the interview as a warm, gentle man who was totally dedicated to his craft.  Written in 1916, the article also indicates just how quickly film was changing and becoming ever more sophisticated during this period, with Arbuckle commenting on the way comedy was progressing from the pure slapstick of Mack Sennett.  It’s a wonderful historical document and a lovely portrait of this much-loved comedian.

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Fatty Off Guard

Author: Elizabeth Sears

(Film Fun, March 1916. Source: Media History Digital Library)

“Let’s go ‘round to the office,” said Roscoe Arbuckle.  “We are not rehearsing today, so there is nothing doing here.”

He had been standing in the huge studio, with its roof of glass, watching workmen make a set and rapidly paper two walls with a vivid pink hanging.  At the end entrance there was bunched an eager group of men and women, hoping against hope that they would have an opportunity to speak to him and get in the cast.

When you see his jolly grin facing you from a picture or the covers of a magazine, you are minded to say, “Hey, there’s Fatty!”  Somehow you have no inclination to call him “Fatty” when you come face to face with him in the flesh.   True, if he were not fat, he might not be so funny; but there are brains there as well as bulk.  And Arbuckle has not been idle all these years that he has been in motion pictures.  He has been thinking out his plans and dreaming his dreams, and not he has an opportunity to put them on the screen and see how they pan out.  He has passed the acrobatic stage and the business of flapping his hands against his sides, as the symbols of fun.

“Of course we have to keep up a little of that stuff,” he explained.  “The public has associated it with the Keystone Comedy, and it would not think it a Keystone without a little rough stuff.  Wait a minute, until I call the projectionist room.  I want you to see the first showing of the first picture we did back in New York – and you will see what I mean.  We have tried to get some fine photographic effects here.  I have always though there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie.”

“The motion picture world has turned over several times in the past two or three years,” I suggested, which we waited for the man who was to show us the picture.  “What is the outlook?”

“Outlook!” repeated the comedy star.  “It’s as wide as the blue sky.  Film standards change so fast and film styles come in so often that the director whose ideas were heralded as the climax of brilliancy six months ago is old-fashioned now.  And if he fails to discard his old ideas and keep at least two laps ahead of the procession – you know what’s going to happen to him.”

The director-author-actor paused long enough to courteously assure a would-be actor that the rehearsals would not begin for a day or two and that there were no good positions open as yet.  He bows out his applicants in such a pleasant and friendly fashion that they forget they were turned down and remember only that they have met “Fatty” and found him most delightful in his manner to them.

“I hate to turn ‘em down,” he apologized, “but I haven’t a thing for them just now.”

“Just a word about your scenarios,” I begged.  “Where do you get them, who writes them, and how do you direct them?”

Mr. Arbuckle paused long enough to bid a courteous good-morning to three or four young women employes (sic) who passed through the office and who spoke to him shyly.  He held open the door for one of them who wore her black hair low and held fast to her forehead with a blue silk garter.

“Not a scrap of scenario paper in my studio,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a manuscript in my hand.  I plan out the pictures, and we rehearse them – that’s all.”

Easy enough, isn’t it?  And Arbuckle has discovered a grand bit of audience psychology that some of the other stars might well copy.  He allows a bit of the picture to film along without him once in a while.  He gives the rest of the company a chance.  He says he’d rather the audience would wish he would come on back than to wish somebody would sweep him out of the picture.

“An actor doesn’t lose anything by effacing himself once in a while,” he said, as he swung himself comfortably aboard a chair to see the picture in the little projection room.  “If he is a favourite, they are all the more certain to welcome him when he gets back in the picture.”

We viewed the opening of the picture in silent.  Arbuckle, as the doctor in He Did and He Didn’t has struck a new note, although the film cutter has cut out a trifle too much footage here and there and leaves the picture a bit minus in continuity once in a while.

“You are breaking away from the slapstick stuff,” commented some one (sic) from the gloom of the room.  “How’ll Mack Sennett like that, huh?  Sennett’s idea of humor seems to be one garnd slam of kaleidoscopic action that tires the eye and leaves no one strong point in the memory.”

Mr. Arbuckle continued to watch himself on the screen diving under the bed for a collar button.

“Well,” he said calmly, “Mr Sennett trusted me to come to New York and put on these plays.  He knows what my ideas are along the newer lines of screen comedy.”

It may be that Sennett has noted the trend and begun to moderate his inordinate frenzy of acrobatic falls and tumbles and violent and unnecessary smashes through breakfast rooms, with the unvarying accompaniment of broken china and ceilings.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor?” I asked, apropos of the remarkable tumble down the stairs of the doctor in search of the burglar.  Mr. Arbuckle handed me the answer slap off the shoulder.

“To arrive,” he said promptly.

“I thought that was what they all desired more than anything else,” I said, in surprise.

“They do,” he replied, “but the trouble is, once they arrive, there isn’t much to do but leave again.  When they are climbing up, the public applauds and says ‘That chap is coming right along – doing better every day.’  But once the actor is heralded as an absolute arrival, the public begins to criticise and pick flaws and expect him to better his own standard, and it is a tremendous strain.  He simply is forced to keep ahead of the public’s opinion and to spring something newer and better every season.  The man or woman who can survive an ‘arrival’ is a star of the greatest magnitude.”

There’s a bit of thought for you.  We mulled it over and watched the picture silently, until Mr. Arbuckle began to chuckle over a scene.

“We had an awful scrap over that,” he said. “You see, sometimes some of us disagree on an essential point of the production, and we stop the picture and thrash it out right there.  Miss Normand is a very charming little lady, but she has a mind of her own, all the same, and we had some argument over that.  My idea was to mystify the audience right there – not let ‘em have an inkling of why Mabel gets her visitor into her room there, until they see the burglar hauled out from under the bed.”

I noticed that it was his part of the idea that got over, though.

“That’s a good bit,” some one (sic) commented in the group, when the screen flashed the picture of the armchair before the fireplace.  Mr. Arbuckle smiled happily.

“That’s what I meant when I said that we need not rob the picture of scenic beauty to get humor into it.  Clean comedy, with an artistic background, not merely hysterical laughter and situations.”

“Think the public wants that kind of comedy?” queries one of the visitors.  “I don’t believe the public wants to get its laughs mixed up with its thoughts, do you?”

“I’m banking on it,” said Arbuckle confidently,” although older and more experience men that I am have failed to grasp the way of the public and what it will do at a given period.  I believe in the comedy that makes you think, and I believe that the time has come to put it on – and that is what I am going to do.”

We stood a moment in the doorway, when the picture and the interview were over, and watched the little file of actors and actresses in the yard, who had been informed that there would be no use in waiting.

“I’d like to go out to the car with you,” said Mr. Arbuckle, nervously glancing out of the window at the group; “but if I go out there and they see me, they’ll ask me for a job – and I haven’t a thing to offer them.”  His blue eyes looked concerned with a boyish sentiment as he bent them on us.  “I – I sort of hate to turn them down,” he said deprecatingly.

You see, responsibility takes the laugh out of you sometimes.  And although Roscoe Arbuckle loves to see his public laugh, it takes the smile off his own face when he much in any way distress even a small proportion of it.

“Miss Normand has a longing to play drama on the stage,” he said, as he bade us good-by (sic); “but I don’t believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh, do you?”