Monthly Archives: August 2006

Joseph Stefano

For a writer who didn’t particularly enjoy horror and fantasy, screenwriter Joseph Stefano contributed quite a bit to both genres. The Philadelphia native, who died recently at the age of 84, left his mark twice on pop culture, first with horror — he wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s best known film, Psycho — and then in fantasy when he masterminded The Outer Limits, a short-lived TV series that frequently scared the beejesus out of viewers.

I recently read Evan Hunter’s Me and Hitch, a short book (more like a long article, but still very engrossing) about his experiences as a screenwriter working on The Birds and Marnie, the first one of Hitchcock’s most overrated films while the second marks the point when the old thrillmonger truly went off the rails. It’s a tale of how an immensely talented screenwriter and a master film technician came together to make two misfires.

Stefano’s collaboration with Hitchcock, on the other hand, is a story of unexpected triumph. Stefano was unimpressed with Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho (it is pretty lame), so he conceived the idea of building the first third of the film around Marion Crane and then using her sudden death to pull the rug out from under the audience. Hitchcock, to his lasting credit, liked the idea and went with it. (In fact, the concept Hitchcock and Evan Hunter came up with for The Birds — a screwball comedy abruptly turns into a tale of terror — can be seen as a repeat of Stefano’s inspiration.) It’s no longer possible to share the experience of that twist, but it helps to remember that in the early 1960s, when people still thought nothing of wandering into the theater after a movie started and then lingering to watch the parts they missed, Psycho was one of the first films in which patrons were not allowed to enter once the show started. The other key element in the film’s success was composer Bernard Herrmann, who decided to echo the film’s black-and-white look with a “black and white score” that exclusively used strings — particularly effectively in the shrieking shock cues that accompany each murder. And when Hitchcock, displeased with the finished film, was about to cut it down to an hour and use it on his Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, Herrmann convinced him to release it as a feature.

Of course, if Stefano gets the credit for pointing Psycho in a successful new direction, he also gets the blame for the closing explanation of what turned Norman Bates into a killer. This weary cavalcade of barbershop Freudianism may be the worst five minutes of film Hitchcock ever shot, but it reflects Stefano’s lifelong interest in Freud, which in turn fueled his ventures into horror.

He really gave old Freud a workout in The Outer Limits, a short-lived (1963-65) series that provided plenty of nightmare material for plenty of young viewers, including Yours Truly. In one episode, appropriately titled “Nightmare,” a young astronaut is singled out for torture because “there’s too much ‘mom’ in those eyes of his,” and in more than one episode a headlong flight from a pursuing monster is interrupted for a lecture about how the protagonist has been “running all his life” and “won’t take a stand.”

Fortunately, Stefano also had a taste for good old fashioned raw scares: even the opening title, coming at you with an explosive shock cue,was enough to send the faint-hearted scampering for a cup of hot cocoa and a nightlight. He insisted that each episode have a “bear,” his term for a monster, and while a few of them were pretty silly (this was a low-budget series in the early 1960s, remember), the show also came up with some doozies. The bizarre, all-devouring vortex in “It Crawled Out of the Woodwork” and the creature living in the box marked “Don’t Open Until Doomsday” always had a special spot in my subconscious.

Stefano wrote the scripts for all of the show’s best episodes, and he was very particular about the look of the series — slightly low camera angles that placed the ceiling within the shot, giving everything a closed-in feeling, were one of the show’s signatures.

So tonight I’ll pay tribute to Joseph Stefano by looking under my bed before going to sleep. It won’t be the first time he had me wondering what else was in the room.

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Write if you get a life

I don’t know how many readers remember Bob and Ray, the comedy duo whose bone-dry deadpan humor was a staple of radio (and sometimes television) for 40 years, starting in 1951 and coming to a suitably low-key close sometime in the 1990s. Their show regularly featured Wally Ballou, a flat-footed journalist who never quite managed to arrive on the scene of any interesting news, and Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, a long-running Helen Trent-type serial. Kurt Vonnegut was a diehard fan — at his suggestion, they were featured as newscasters in Between Time and Timbuktu, a hard-to-find made-for-TV quasi-anthology of Vonnegut’s stories — and their comedic DNA can be found in the work of Garrison Keillor, George Carlin, Al Franken and David Letterman.

They had their tag lines: “Write if you get work” was a favorite sign-off, as was “And hang by your thumbs,” and Bob and Ray fans didn’t have to explain why those phrases cracked them up — any more than Monty Python fans need to analyze why “This . . . is . . . an . . . EX-PARROT!” is one of the funniest bits conceived by the human mind.

One of their most quietly surrealistic routines was a hobby feature that included regular interviews with the editor of Wasting Time magazine. One of the guests (played by Ray Goulding, if I recall right) had spent 20 years collecting the numbered tickets from deli counters. Harr harr — what could be more ridiculous than that? Well, after 30 years and the rise of the Internet, life imitates Bob and Ray.

Cross-species commercialization

It’s widely known that certain dog breeds become fashionable after they turn up in films or television shows. This can be spell trouble because breeds chosen for cuteness or photogenic qualities are not always good for certain owners. Kelsey Grammer’s show Frasier started a run on Jack Russell Terriers, which is a problem because (as breed enthusiasts will be the first to tell you) Jack Russells are a very bad choice for families with small children. It isn’t always a matter of cuteness: the Rottweilers in the original version of The Omen made the breed’s sales go through the roof.

But I’d never thought about other types of pets becoming popular until the other day, when we rewarded the sprouts for good behavior during a long, dull shopping trip by taking them to a pet store to coo and squeal over the animals. Once we’d toured the obvious cuties (dogs, cats, parakeets, hamsters) we swung through the tropical fish section. The freshwater types were the standard array, but the salties were all featured in Finding Nemo — I mean, who ever heard of tangs before Ellen DeGeneres played one? This may well be the first time a Hollywood film has boosted fish sales. It’s not like Jaws sent people running to buy great whites.

All of which makes me wonder if this movie sent people running to the pet stores?

Eminence Gray

Even at this late date, there are still entirely too many people who don’t recognize that a book with a title like The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is not just appropriate, but necessary. Fortunately, author Michael Gray addresses them on the very first page:

Bob Dylan’s reach is too wide, too deep and too long for any book about him to cover it all. His career spans 45 years of American history, and that history has intersected with his prolific songwriting, recording, touring, acting, filmmaking, TV appearances and interviews. He has published a novel and a book of drawings, composed for film soundtracks and written a best-selling first volume of memoirs. He has found a place in the world of literature and academic study as well as in popular music. He is important to the history of the times, having given voice to a generation at a time of huge social change and political struggle; his songs are enmeshed in the story of the U.S. civil rights movement as well as the Folk Revival movement. His busy life has embraced everything from bohemian excess to being Born Again.

His work has revolutionized song, reaching into every area of popular music from folk to blues to rock to gospel. He has met and worked with untold hundreds of musicians, politicians, celebrities, singers, poets, writers, painters, film-makers, actors and activists. He has released several dozen albums, written many hundreds of songs, in many cases adapting them from older folk and blues material, and recorded songs by many ther composers. He has been the subject of an enormous number of books, academic conference papers, showbiz stories, essays and concert reviews. He has attracted more fanzine enthusiasm, and inspired more websites, than almost anyone in the world.

To which I would add that Dylan is one of only three artists crucial to understanding 20th century American music. Like Aaron Copland, Dylan took a musical form that was frozen
in time and caught looking backward to “superior” European models — folk music in Dylan’s case, orchestral music in Copland’s — mastered it, and then turned it into something new with a uniquely American sonic palette. Like Duke Ellington, Dylan took a musical form widely dismissed or patronized as novelty or dance music — rock and roll in Dylan’s case, jazz in Ellington’s — and stretched its expressive boundaries to encompass every nuance of human life, emotion and activity, from articulate rage at a political crime to sorrow over the dissolution of a marriage.

In short, Dylan made rock music into an arena for art, and his work into a crossroads where Sonny Boy Williamson sits with Allen Ginsberg, Little Richard plays alongside medieval balladeers and William Blake shares lines with Bukka White. And doing so, Dylan presented a challenge to every other artist of his generation, a challenge that only the most ambitious and adventurous came close to matching. The Beatles used The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as the lodestar for their growth as songwriters; Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye used his example to burst the confines of the Motown hit factory and insist on making their albums into conceptual works, not just two hit singles and a ton of filler. And, alone of that generation, Dylan has survived and continued to grow as a vital artist, rather than a mere antique or nostalgia merchant.

What’s more, Dylan did this at a unique moment in which American popular music was undergoing a generational shift. The old-line record companies, baffled by the youth music of rock and roll but eager to exploit its profit-making capabilities, were open to an unpolished, rough-at-the-edges voice like Dylan’s. By using their marketing clout to bring Dylan to the mass audience, the record companies (quite by accident!) transformed him from a strikingly gifted performer into the musical equivalent of the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. That all these scattered forces should have come together around a musician with genius-level talent and ambition was a breathtaking stroke of good fortune — for Bob Dylan, and for us.

So yes, by all means, give us The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia; better still, give it to us from the hand of Michael Gray, whose massive work Song and Dance Man established him as the most insightful and informative critic of Dylan’s immense body of work. Instead of indulging in the free-associative babblings of Greil Marcus or the high-toned fanzine gushing of Paul Williams, Michael Gray burrows deep into Dylan’s verses, teasing out influences and references that range from Robert Browning to Gregory Peck movies. What’s more, he avoids the pitfall of concentrating solely on Dylan’s writing; unlike a Christopher Ricks, Gray is alert to the deep veins of blues, folk balladry, country crooning and jangly rock that strengthen Dylan’s visions of sin. Dylan is well versed in a dizzying range of poetic styles, but he is also a musician playing songs, a fact overlooked by too many critics.

Some of the material in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia is already familiar from Song and Dance Man: e.g., the thumbnail descriptions of each album, the condensed versions of his arguments on crucial songs such as “Jokerman” and “Blind Willie McTell.” I also admire his take on Greil Marcus, which gives him his due as an early champion of Dylan’s work while noting that he “sometimes comes close to self-parody, and sometimes may not actually be saying anything.” Witness his takedown of a vintage Marcus assessment of “All Along the Watchtower” as covered by Jimi Hendrix:

“Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ takes place outside of time; Jimi Hendrix’s accepts time, and then unravels it.” It’s a great technique, used sparingly, and his writing seems to pluck these verdicts from the air — verdicts with all the cryptic power of a guru up a pole, so that the hapless reader feels he can argue with neither the supreme self-confidence of the delivery nor with the content, since this is as ungraspable as it is forcefully done.

Far better and shrewder to observe, as Gray does in his own entry on Hendrix, the irony of Mr. Electric Gypsy taking “All Along the Watchtower,” the key cut from the defiantly non-psychedelic 1967 album John Wesley Harding, and transforming it into one of the defining songs of the psychedelic era — a transformation so powerful, in fact, that Dylan continues to echo the Hendrix version whenever he performs the song in concert.

Gray’s entries on everything and everyone from Kenny Aaronson to the Zimmerman family (but nothing about William Zanzinger, the villain of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” — what’s up with that, Michael?) remind me of the old line about essays and women’s skirts: both should be long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to encourage further discussion. The items on blues musicians, rival musicians and crucial songs are packed with enough references and pointers to lead to hours of useful (and enjoyable) exploration.

All of this is highly flavored, sometimes even combative in its judgments. There are also some delightfull idiosyncratic entries, such as the one for “musicians’ enthusiasm for latest Dylan album, perennial,” which I leave to the curious to dig up for themselves.

If Song and Dance Man marked Michael Gray as the finest critic and analyst of Dylan’s music, then The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia establishes him as the field’s answer to Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson, Gray has produced a landmark work, comprehensive and rich in useful facts, that also tells us nearly as much about its author as its subject. And Gray proves himself to be just as good company, for the Dylan expert and the novice alike.