PBS always is indicative of a cross-section of political, nostalgia and a mix of tangible intelligence. The idea is one of perceiving the world through a myriad of eyes which ranges from the essence of independent film in “Independent Lens” to intrinsic investigative reporting on the edge with “Frontline”
Beginning the relevant nature works with the Pioneers Of Television highlighting “The Best Of Laugh In”. One of the biggest shows of its time, especially when there was only three networks and viewers could get as high up as 60 million, the sky was the limit but finding new and creative ways to deal with sponsors, censors and the like was always a challenge.
George Schlatter, producer of the show, always relates finding the cast. With the silken voiced Gary Owen, who is now known the world over, the mogul found him in the men’s room of The Smokehouse (across from Warner Brothers Burbank) against the tile wall. With Jo Anne Worley, it was always if nobody else could do it, give it to her. Lily Tomlin bowled him over in the first moments. She came to him in a show he did in NY that got canceled and was doing a barefoot tapdance. What really focused his attention was when she did her rubber freak who ate erasers and everything else. He recalls that when she went on to do Ernestine, the phone operator, for the first time, he made a signal for her to do the dialing with that one finger. Also whenever Lily did her Church Lady (way before Dana Carvey), she made her knees creak. The censors thought it was something else. In terms of maintaining a sense of spontaniety, they always gave the band a heads up when they were doing something a little out there so they could be sure to contain their laughter. Schlatter still remembers the ball they had with the Farkle Family in dealing with the censors. He told them to go “look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls” (which was a popular encylopedia at the time). There were many guest stars. Kirk Douglas came to mind because his sons (specifically Michael) were such fans of the show and encouraged him to go on. One of George’s favorite characters was Gladys but he attributes that to being “glandular” with the scene of her on the bench with her paramour having the pockets out of his coat being the best. In terms of Roland & Martin and their working relationship (which people have always asked about) he says they “were the best nighclub act but couldn’t talk to each other”.
Lily Tomlin follows up the texture of her audition of the barefoot tapdance by saying that she lasted three weeks on that other show “before they fired me”. In terms of Ernestine, she says that George told her that they needed someone on the switchboard as a joke. After doing her rubber bit on-stage (like not a day has passed), she admits that during the time of the show she was too rigid politically to the point that she wouldn’t take a picture with John Wayne. This of course, she said, was fueled by the fact that they had ratings on their side. Her favorite character was the fast talker although she admits “Ernestine thinks she the boss”. The key to the show’s success over the years is that, she says “people get turned on when they see other people having fun”.
Gary Owens, the man with the voice, says that Artie Johnson recommended him to George. One of the most intrinsic moments he remembers is when Billy Graham was a guest. Artie was still wearing his Nazi helmet and comes around to see who’s who. He tells Graham that he has been talking to the man upstairs to which Graham says “Really?” Artie retorts, “Yes. He thinks you’re a schmuck”. Owens also recalls that when Nixon did his “Sock It To Me!” bit on the show, he [Owen] was talking to the incumbent Humphrey on “Meet The Press” when it all happened. He mentions that his father had a deep voice “and so did my mother actually”.
“Forgiveness: A Time To Love & A Time To Hate” takes an “Emotional Life” perspective as to how people deal with the tendencies of letting go but finding closure at the same time.
Helen Whitney, the director of the film, wanted to make something that was passionate but also small in its edification but distinct in concept. This idea seemed to resonate the most deeply for her.
One of the most interesting interrelations for her is the aspect of a wife who abandoned her husband and children and then many years later tries to come back to at least be part of their children’s lives. Daniel Glick, the father, says that 11 years ago he never thought he would be sitting on the stage with his ex-wife but realizes now that forgiveness as an “actual” is not a linear concept but resonated in the themes apparent within this show. The major obstacle is how the production would affect his kids because even though the cameras have been around, they haven’t actually seen the finished product.
Liesbeth Gerritsen, the mother who left, admits that, in being an agent of suffering, it is hard to know how to ask for forgiveness. She see it as “a gnarly question with a gnarly answer”. She can’t admit to say that the experience was therapeutic but only to agree that it was very painful. There however was something about the process, she says, which brings to the forefront that “you cannot be forgiven unless somehow you pay”.
For others like Terri Jentz who was terrorized by an attacker, she provides the perspective that she doesn’t believe that one can dismiss an unforgiveable evil. Her path created an interesting paradox as she looked to new age thinking for an escape. She thought after 15 years she had forgiven this unknown man who escaped but she began to realize that it was just a deadening of her will.
“Independent Lens” is a more and more visceral way is bring the experience of film festivals to public television. In a more saturated world finding this kind of material needs a voice.
“Wasteland”, directed by Lucy Walker, which IR saw at the Provincetown Film Festival, tells the story of an Vic Nunez, a well regarded artist, taking his idea of sustainability into a creative project in the landfills of his native Brazil. When Lucy was at film school at NYU she was always interested in doing profiles of young artists but the reality of approaching the daily life was never that possible at that time in terms of consuming the viewer. She never thought she could do it because the idea of that kind of immersion, at times, doesn’t exist anymore. What surprised her is the lack of awareness she had to the amount of trash in the world. With Nunez, she realized that “the richness of the story was in the rescue of the ingredients”. Nunez grew up poor in Brazil and the film was about recapturing that innocence that he sees in the people there now. In Walker’s mind, that is the kind of thinking that resets the art world. The Brazilian angle of it also offered interesting government involvement because the actualization of the project, more than an art installation, became a social outreach.
Tamra Davis, director of “Jean Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (which was also a film picked up from last year’s Sundance Film Festival), speaks of her relationship with the artist when she was going to film school (again at NYU). Her first experiences in front of the paintings hit you because (as she describes) they are “arresting” and “loud” to the point that you can “hear them”. Basquiat referenced many things in Davis’ estImation because “he was sampling the world around him”. She met Jean Michel at an art show in Los Angeles when she was 19 and he was 22. He actually mentioned to her about making a movie about him because as she puts it, “it was a reason for us to hang out with each other”. A couple years later, they actually did a formal interview. The resolute aspect is that in order for people to see your work, you have to be known which means placing yourself out there personally for your art to be seen. She accepts the ideal about how the film made in the mid-90s approaches Jean Michel’s life and has she has talked personally to Geoffrey Wright who portrayed the artist but what surprised her is that there was no discussion about his race in that movie. She says that subject was big to Jean Michel. She continues that she made this film for Jean Michel as a friend but also a girl since many women supported him. She wanted to embody her love and sensitivity for him but also relate what life was like for him on a daily basis.
Intonating the adjoining ballroom with a sense of a gala club, Harry Connick Jr. took to the stage to perform songs indicative of his style for PBS’ new special “Harry Connick Jr. On Broadway”. Having in recent years made his own transmutation to Broadway, one would expect that he would be playing to that tendency but all roads for him still track back to his roots as an 11-year-old in New Orleans.
Upon taking the stage the first inference Harry speaks of makes traction to Frank Sinatra whom he has been often compared to, though Connick prefers to see himself as a “piano player” though he joked about his “super-talent” when riffing with his bandmates. “The Way You Look Tonight” used the simple progression of the bass and drums to coordinate the crooner’s silken voice. With “Mason Street Blues” he brought out an exceptional trombone player featured on the program which gave that undeniable Louisiana twang without going into full jam. His sax player then came out as Connick abandoned the piano for a miniscule time frame to sing a slow tempo serenation of “And I Love Her” by The Beatles which was not on the special. Its inclusion showed the range of interpretations that this performer can see life through though he admits that his personification of jazz offers a certain idealism which, when he tried to make a couple funk records, somehow played short. After bringing up a trumpet player for one of their trademark jams (which Connick says sometimes certain audiences don’t understand because they come to hear him sing), the musicianship comes through.
His trademark “It Had To Be You”, best known as a full big band progression, here was done purely with the piano and a sax on a down tempo giving it a different lounge heavy intensity that plays exceptionally different with a sense of knowing. The ending rush was an inventive Mardi Gras Stomp with all the instruments playing in tandem and Connick allowing his jazz cronies to shine closed the set..
Afterwards, the ideas of the man behind the music ventured with a discussion that covered his influences and various thought processes moving up inside the music. Of course, in tandem he brought the comparisons to Frank Sinatra which he explains like linking someone to Brando in acting. Sinatra had a certain phrasing that made his possibilities look deep and endless but this came out of an enlongated thought process. One of the more interesting influences Connick mentioned of his was Freddie Mercury which he said created these infinite thoughts without being pigeonholed or held back by anything. Connick relates that he spoke to Brian May about this in-depth. The crooner also mentions that he went to the Manhattan School Of Music so technique and practice always comes to his mind. Someone, like Mercury, he says, had no training and the amazing elements he could create were astounding. Connick also mentioned his support of the Saints being a true Orleans boy. In terms of a cutting contest, the one person he says he might be reserved to go up against is Art Beau but says that he rules on New Orleans ground. When asked about the evolution of the definition of jazz, he says that the song remains itself though the idea of who is singing it might not. They key is that the personification of it is timeless whether seen through a young boy or an old man.
The other undeniable performer of this tour resided in the notion of David Foster, who is responsible for some of the most enduring songs of the past couple decade. Evidenced by his calm demeanor and humor, his successes and drawbacks haven’t fazed him as he speaks in between certain songs about how their timeline interrelates to each of his different wives and what they got in the divorce settlement.
Needing nothing but a simple baby grand, the act of the way that Foster can coax structures out of different performers are intriguing. He admits he is no singer which brings about comparisons to Barry Manilow but his instinct in terms of reacting to the American people during a specific period of time were, and still remain, remarkable. Take for example, as he spoke, the two young people that he is shepherding right now. After having achieved success in cross-over with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli, he is currently working on the debut album of Jackie Evancho, the 10-year old prodigy that sounds like a fully trained adult opera singer.
The greatest gift to talent, in being able to capture what they are capable of, is a sure hand but also exceptional expertise and success on you end plus a sense of humor. In recollecting to the small rapt audience, Foster broke down the progression of his hits songs in an unorthodox way: which wife (he has had three) got a condo or certain baubles from it. He doesn’t sound bitter but makes no apologies for it either. He plays these songs and you begin to realize in a small part the immense impact (at least on easy listening) he has had over the years.
In terms of Wife #1, he begins playing “Look What You’ve Done To Me”, the hit song from “Urban Cowboy” made famous by Boz Scaggs back in 1980 and the one/two punch of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After The Love Is Gone” and “September”, which alone is enough to make a career. What is essential about these songs is how effortless they feel which, as most songwriters will say, is the ultimate compliment.
In terms of Wife #2, the 80s were ruled in texture of Foster through Chicago and Peter Cetera. The blockbuster “Chicago XVI” and “XVII” albums were structured by harder hitting modern pop with heavy drums and guitars while still maintaining the melodic element that made their early hits possible. This new approach gave them an edge and two of the biggest hits through songwriter/producer Foster were “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re The Inspiration” which redefined the band. When Cetera left the band, one of his biggest hits after was the love theme for “Karate Kid Part II” called “The Glory Of Love”, which was again penned by Foster and sported that same necessary edge. Also interspersed among the time period was his instrumental hit for “St. Elmo’s Fire” which became a chart topper as well under his own name.
Again remember, during this whole performance is playing all these live on piano as well while explaining their context. Fast forward to the 90s with Wife #3 (he always remembers his motif) when he worked with Whitney Houston on “The Bodyguard” soundtrack. He wrote the hit “I Have Nothing” and then re-purposed the Dolly Parton song “I Will Always Love You” into the massive life changing single it became. After this structure he began working with Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli mixing the notions of classical and pop into a fusion that is still being perceived today.
The first of the live performers to come on-stage was Charice, one of Foster’s new additions (alongside Evancho), who did at amazing belting version of “All By Myself” that simply knocked the floor over, especially when she an upper octave at full pitch and never wavered.
Donna Summer, proving not to be undone by any means, came out and blasted with a cover of the Foster-penned “Unbreak My Heart”, originally sung by Toni Braxton, with a fervor that shows her voice is nothing if not stronger than when she first used it. Wrapping up the evening, she continued into the song she did with Foster in the 70s that permeated and still remains a stalwart around the world: “Last Dance”.
Two intense live performances. “Great Performances” indeed.
Tavis Smiley, who made a big structure with his intrinsic investigation with director Jonathan Demme into New Orleans on his last trip to the press tour, conceded that he doesn’t like the word “interviewer” instead liking to refer to himself as a conversationalist. For him, the key to his show is about listening generously because if you do it well enough, your subjects will open up to you. The idealistic aspect is knowing the difference between optimism and hope. Hope structures the foundation that times will eventually get better. Smiley thinks that this perception of “hope” is wrong and stands to reason why the nation is not unpacking and taking the economic threat more seriously. While he points out that government is to blame, he does think that “we have to engage in the right kind of discourse in regards to civility”. Politicians are not more important to him than artists though. In fact, for his perception, it is quite the opposite.
“Frontline” continued the discussion on the perspective of intelligence sources versus the actual ground level advances in the persistent effort to protect borders. Dana Priest, one of the lead investigators on the terrorism front, says that the ideas start from what government and private enterprise has built since 9/11 and what is a viable tangible fact. Her focus is watching these organizations and how they grow. The possibility resides in the fact of how the government spies on people. If suspicions are heightened, how do the intel committees looking at these issues weigh the points especially if it involves classified material. She specifies though that the Obama administration has been much more specific and vigilant than the Bush administration in its intent to move the matter through the courts. Priest believes that there is a responsibility to the job they do but the balance is to not suffer the consequences, especially when you find a source willing to talk.
Miles O’Brien approaches a different front with his ongoing and deep seated investigation into the airline industry especially in its outsourcing of maintenance to foreign countries. He makes the specified example of a major US airline moving their maintenance hub from San Francisco to Bejing. What that creates is the situation where no one can get into the hangars to see what is actually being fixed. The regionals do less outsourcing offshore but he explains, even going back to the Buffalo crash, that Continental had no legal responsibility whatsoever because the plane itself was a regional contract. No airline wants a crash but what is happening is that there is a system in place and, slowly but surely, the margin is being eaten away. All the decisions add up but the concern is that the crack seen in all these little decisions will add up to a hole that eventually will run all the way through.
The PBS outlay “POV” takes the approach of looking at a problem or situation and unraveling it at its core by the people living it.
“Where Soldiers Come From” attempts to bring a perspective in the aspect that, even at a purely psychological level, the basic aspects of a person can change when coming home from war, even if they don’t see it.
Director Heather Courtney, known for her documentary “Letters From The Other Side”, describes the aspect that her subject is encapsulated in a rural area and a very small town. The problem returning from war here is that are absolutely no employment opportunities. The incentive of signing up for $20,000 is a powerful one. After war service, Courtney admits that TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) has become the hidden war wound. It is complex and not necessarily easy to explain. The idea of her film for her started off in rural America. The physical subject of her film is Dominick Fredianelli whose father was a few years ahead of her in high school. She says that she didn’t have aspirations to be a war reporter in following Dominick with his deployment but “I needed to be there”. She says it was unusual to be embedded but admits that most of their mission is “alot of boredom” with some “wonderful conversations”. With verite, she says, you can get great stuff but you have to be taping for a couple of hours to get that nugget.
Dominick, as the viewpoint through which the narrative is based, says that once he graduated high school, he had to be ambitious. The deployment was in his head and, before and since, he has been treated very well by the veterans administration. He says that when someone asks him if they should join the guard, he says that it comes down to a personal decision. He did it “for my family, my friends and my girlfriend”. He currently goes to a school for design but it was important for him to get this story out there. He admits though it is hard to do every day things with Courtney sitting there with a camera. The key in this kind of outreach is compassion so people have more of an idea what the soldiers go through over in war zones.
“Storycorps” blending the essence of social media and animation takes an interesting approach to the idea of a family story taking the audio and placing it against an animated milieu. Different booths were set up at various functions and festivals for people to go in and tell their story to be possibly put on file in the Library Of Congress which acts intently as a motivator.
David Isay, the founder of Storycorps, says that the process is a new thought into the idea of storytelling. At the end of a storytelling session, 2 CDs are burned. One is given to the person relating the story and the other goes to the Library Of Congress. Some of the stories are broadcast on NPR and a select few are adapted for PBS. It all started with a radio program he did. He gave a couple of kids audio recorders which they took around their housing projects. Some of the people they recorded eventually died and the recording was all that was left. It created an “ah-ha!” moment. From there they set up a booth in Grand Central to tap the cross-section though he admits that “you just worry about the Jerry Springer Factor”.
James Ransom, whose story about one of his teachers named “Miss Devine”, was adapted into animation says that he didn’t know what the final result would look like but that the creation of it was “how she was”. He relates that he went into one of the Storycorp booths in Sarasota, Florida. It was an Airstream trailer and the actual interview progressed like a fireside chat. He says what is aired is simply a smaller part of a larger conversation. When he asked his cousin about Miss Devine, she related that she was stern but she was mean. At the time, Ransom relates, corporal punishment was OK but “she was the keeper as far as we were concerned” with “a superpower that was unique”. He admits that there was lessons learned. He remembers listening to plays on the radio but says that Storycorps takes these ideas to a new level because the key to it is “about being yourself”.
PBS continues to address sociological aspects of continuing society both from an intellectual but also an emotional standpoint in how everybody from soldiers to major corporations make decisions that change the balance.