Thanks for the add! Gros bisous :-)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Becky, crochet, and (maybe) the meaning of life through sitcom set design

Being from France, I have a lot to catch up on TV wise. I used to despise sitcoms, but what do you know, maybe it's true that you mellow with age. Now I love them, but then again I am known for changing my mind about what I like and don't like.

What often makes me change my mind is the fact that friends like certain things that I do not particularly like spontaneously. For example, I did not know that I liked blogging, by my friend Becky advised me to do so. She once blogged about That Girl, and has always raved about The Mary Tyler Moore show, so I was intrigued and started watching these series from scratch, just like I started with a blank canvas for the I Love Lucy show.

Funny I mention canvas.... I can do crochet (another interest revived by Becky's needle work) whilst watching TV (underneath is a prototype of a larger babette blanket that I would like to make, so really it was just to get me stated, I bought a lot of yarns odds and ends, and just went with the flow),

And since this is a rather 1970's project to embark on, as I was watching the mary Tyler Moore show, I was struck by how similarly my taste is with Rhoda's, Mary's sidekick in the show. I much prefer Rhoda's apartment to Mary's.

See, Rhoda's apartment is very cozy, there is the orange bean bag, and coordinated rug, the old Rococo Mary Poppins like lamp, the shocking pink lamp shade, and matching bedspread, the amazing purple and pink and red sort of tartan curtains that bring the whole thing together. Whereas Mary's apartment is much more airy, and elegant, and subtle, and beige and brown... and sedate.

For an extensive article about Mary's apartment, see The Mary and Rhoda Magazine, where you will even find tips on decorating  Mary's style. Take a closer look at the design. I think this  seamless part of sitcoms is fascinating. I remember watching an excellent documentary about how design set evolved in the Frasier series. (Frasier Crane's Apartment is a bonus feature on the Frasier Season 1 DVD set.). But the detail of Mary's apartment is just as fascinating.
This got me thinking about the amazing task that is set design, because it has to consciously recreate the individual psychological processes that go on when we decide to make a space for ourselves, and to top all this for people who do not even exist!

Think about it, your interior reveals so much about you. It reveals the amount of money that you spend on it, which in turns depends on your income, and your job, it reveals your taste which is shaped by the times you live in, and the time and effort you are willing to put in it which reveals more of your personality.

In TV sitcoms, set designers have to try and replicate this process for fictional characters, but there is of course the added dimension that there is an agenda, a rationale behind this which requires they need to frame a story neatly in a way that our  lives are not framed. So for example, Mary's and Rhoda's apartment sets reflect two trends of the 1970's aesthetics and their ideology.

Rhoda's apartment reflects Rhoda's personality - vibrant, slightly anarchic, creative, bohemian, and warm, and the colours reflect her emotional nature which is more exuberant than Mary's.

Mary's apartment on the other hand is much more tame, everything in the right place, all in order, considering that she has to sleep on a pull out couch.  She has books, thus implying a certain degree of ability to reflect on things, etc. The colours are more mute and reflect her elegant dress style.

Overall, the idea behind this show and That Girl was to show that single girls would be able to "make it after all", i.e. make it on their own hence the importance of showing these girls living independently from their parents and/or boyfriend husbands- because "women's lib" was very present in 1960's and 1970's collective thought. Both in That Girl and the Mary Tyler Moore show,  in the first episode we see these girls moving in their apartment which they rent with their own money (although how could a person like Ann Marie who works the odd job afford her place on 78th in NY remains a mystery, but that's just an aside, and NOT the point of the show).

Also set designers consciously made Rhoda's apartment smaller than Mary's because Rhoda is from New York, and apartments are reputedly smaller there than in Minneapolis, look at Ann's 78th Street flat below which is much more cramped than Mary's, and is in fact a mixture of both Rhoda's anarchic nature, and Mary's elegance. It's as if Ann of That Girl had generated these two character's of Mary Tyler Moore Show. Her apartment is both muted, and elegantly messy.
I could really wax lyrical about this topic, and many people have put much more effort in writing about design set, but it is always fun when watching an old fashioned sitcom to say things like, hey i remember this dish, or this cover or cushion style...we used to have one of those back in the day. And really if I were a set designer, and heard this, I would sit down with a sigh of self satisfaction, and would rest on my laurels for the rest of my life, because surely that would mean that life has a meaning after all!

And on these thoughts, boys, and girls, please do not forget to leave your stocking under the tree tonight, as you may have an expected visitor.... ho ho ho :-)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lucille's got balls

It is high time for me to pay tribute to the comic genius of Lucille Ball, from the ultimate all American TV series I Love Lucy.
By the time the show started, in 1951, Lucille was no spring chick, she was already 40. Pre I Love Lucy, she certainly was quite the seductress. Here are a few pre-Lucy pix.

And even though she consistently thereafter had "a lot of  'splaining to do", she remained quite the pin-up.

But Lucy, was not just a silly red head. According to estranged Desi Arnaz, she was not a natural red head, and the jury is still out on whether Lucy was a communist or not. But, in 1953, she was met by a representative of the House Committee on un-American activities for having stated the Communist party in her political affiliations, when she registered to vote for 1936 (fbi files). She did deny all political involvement, as one would do naturally at the time, and let's remember that many actors, and artists became the object of all sorts of accusations by the HCUA at the time, and that you were guilty by association, see A Miller and Marilyn for example. Whether she was "better red than red" being a non issue, let's have a look at her comic genius, and that of the series's scriptwriters. Lucy is funny mostly because she does slapstick, a form of comedy mostly dominated by men, and Lucille Ball worked with the best in the field, and what a brilliant student she was!

Before the show, she worked with Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers,
Harpo even featured in an episode of Lucy. Click here to watch the clip..
 And Buster Keaton
"The jokes, reminiscences, and reenactment of well-loved movie bits that filled the Boors Nest were more than an exercise in nostalgia. For the aging men, they kept the withering muscles of their comedy in shape. For Lucille, they provided informal professional training. .....Up in the Boors Nest, Keaton taught Lucille how to command props and how to throw herself into physical maneuvers without hurting herself. Speedy, rambunctious Lucille learned to slow down and refine action. Keaton drilled her in the mantra that was the foundation of her fabled comic timing: Listen, React, then Act. .....
Miss Grant Takes Richmond, her first film under her new Columbia agreement, showed that Keaton’s belief in her was justified. Lucille played a public-spirited secretary, a character so ditsy that watching her is like standing before a photographer’s developing tray and seeing a photograph of Lucy Ricardo gradually emerge."
Excerpt from Kathleen Brady's The Life of Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball, in the character of Lucy stands out because she was willing to take personal challenges and push them to the limit. See for example when she impersonates Charlie Chaplin.
She has no issue putting on a man's suit, being that of a tramp or of that of a clown. See The Audition.
Humour by nature is progressive because it makes you look at yourself from outside, hence it transforms you, and your world. It allows you to take a look at the flaws of the world you live in, and here the show does to some extent what Charlie Chaplin did in Modern Times, it says look at this society, it is funny, it is not right and things need to change. In fact there is a direct reference to one of the mosct famous scenes in Modern Times in the candy factory scene.
I could go on about her prowess at slapstick for ever but here are another two clips that are such testimonies to her vast talent at slapstick - The ballet scene
or Lucy's geisha's dance.

There is also a little more to the show than mere slapstick. In I Love Lucy, the traditional family values of American post-war society are prevalent,  however some signs of ambivalence are displayed towards its own values, I wish I could say the show was in someway subversive, but that would be just too far fetched, but it was ambivalent.

The premise of the show relies mostsly on Lucy's frustrations with her status of housewife and her ambitions which makes her dissatisfied with the daily chores no matter how hard she tries. This model is far from the usual “stepford wives” representations of the perfect homemaker of the 1950's. In this way, I Love Lucy echoes many women’s position, frustrations and ambitions to get away from the confines of an apron, and this drives the comedic plotline of the show. 
Watch her and her pal Ethel trying to make bread and butter.
Lucy is forever pursuing new things to do, often at the expense of on-and-off stage husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz). She often dream of making it in the world of television or cinema. Here she is being shot for an Italian movie, acting as though she was Sofia Lauren.
But ultimately, Lucy's grandiose illusions fails and “domestic harmony” returns, Ricky forgives Lucy for her “silly mistakes” and regains the figure of authority in the household.  Lucy was indeed a "bad girl", and scenes of spanking are numerous, in a way that might be even seen as “acceptable” in today's media. The theme of men's (Ricky's) domination is a recurrent one in the series, and not necessarily in a fantasy kind of a way.

In this way, I Love Lucy “simultaneously legitimizes the yearning of women for fuller lives and assured them that they would be better off keeping their dreams in their head
Excerpt from Manning, Robert. “Why Love Lucy?” Honey, I’m Home! New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1992. 62-75.Manning 68-69).

This is the reason why such a show is ambivalent rather than subversive. The comic element of the character shows without the slightest shadow of a doubt the cracks in the American society of the 1950's, whilst on the other hand avoiding any form of radicalism, which would come at a later stage in the media with a series like That Girl, shot with an actress who to this day is willing to take quite radical stances about women's position in society.

Lucille has become my favourite comic after Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, plus she was gorgeous, vulnerable, graceful, awkward, daring, unbearable, demanding, everything a woman should be. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

As we walked through the streets of Dublin...

I am not going to lie to you. I have dithered and dithered about this post, because of its "political" aspect, and it may even switch a few people off, but I swear this will be the only one of its kind. Ten days ago, as we were coming back from a friend's house at about midnight, there was thunder and lightning. Something unheard of in Ireland. Next morning another unusual phenomenon for Ireland was covering all the streets and gardens.... SNOW! Such a rare event on this isle with its mild Atlantic climate!
So when I got to the "LUAS", which is the name of the tramway, the tracks were covered with snow, and you can even see the Dublin mountains in the background.
You see, I was on a mission, and the weather conditions reminded me of Il pleut bergère a French children song of some historical

This song, all about a shepherdess and her sheep dates back to 1780 and is said to have been a herald of the Revolution which was to happen 9 years later. You see, Marie-Antoinette used to play shepherds and shepherdesses in the Little Trianon in Versailles, whilst the majority of her French subjects lived in abject conditions. In this song the Revolution of 1789 is symbolised by the rain and the thunder  from which the "bergère" (the shepherdess) is seeking refuge.

Anyone who follows the news will know that the current situation in Ireland is alarming. After 8 centuries of resistance to England, it took just about 5 days for Ireland to abdicate its soveignty to the draconian conditions imposed by the EU and the IMF for it to repay its debt. But enough of the "leftie" talk, and on with the march.

As I looked at the pictures of Dublin I took during last Saturday's march, I thought they would make an interesting post. Everyone is allowed their political opinions and I have no intention of labouring mine in this post, but this march went through so many sites of historical importance that it would be a shame to keep these pictures to myself I thought.

The march started at Christ Church with its bridge which links this medieval cathedral (on the left here) to the Synod hall.

You now have a view from that bridge and cathedral from the other side.

We marched from Christ Church down to the Liffey turned right at the 4 Courts and left at O'Connell bridge before reaching the General Post Office.

These are supposed to be the hands of oppression I guess. But it is very much in the style of the floats that you can see here at the St Patrick's day Parade.
Underneath is the Four Courts, which is now the centre of legal life in Dublin, but which also a building of crucial importance during the Eater Rising of 1916, and the Irish civil war.
The river Liffey, also known as Anna Livia
And the Ha'penny bridge, a pedestrian cast iron bridge over the Liffey, built in 1816. The board walk promenade that flanks the river is a recent addition.
And then of course O'Connell street, which many kids were taught (wrongly of course) was the widest street in the whole of Europe! At the very start of the street is a statue of Daniel O'Connell, the "Liberator", the man behind Catholic emancipation in Ireland 
William Smith O'Brien, although a protestant, was also a supporter of Daniel O'Connell at the start, and then became one of his rivals.
Sir John Gray, yet another pal of Daniel O'Connell.
There were too many people for me to take a picture of the General Post Office (pic underneath) which In Ireland IS the symbol of the Easter Rising of 1916, and freedom from Britain, as it was the headquarters of the uprising leaders.

In conclusion, a hard snow came in Dublin  10 days or so ago, they are announcing more snow tonight, tomorrow is budget day, and I will be once again going out on the streets of Dublin to protest my disagreement with the current decisions which are being made in the name of the Irish people, and I leave you with one of my favourite songs from Bob Dylan, and next time I will write about my recent stay in Pennsylvania, but sometimes it is also good to look out the window to see what is happening outside.
A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall - Live 1976 - Bob Dylan