Saturday, November 8, 2008

Space and Time

Remind you of anything?



Most cinephiles know Douglas Trumbull as the special effects guru behind such classic films as 2001, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters. What I did not know, until I stumbled upon the above clip on YouTube, was that he also did title designs for commercial television.

Looking at the clip above, I immediately thought of 2001's climax, and congratulated ABC on being trendy enough to incorporate the look into their programs as early as 1969 (when the "Movie of the Week" debuted). But in fact, as this page details, Trumbull himself had knocked on ABC's door, looking for work in America after several years abroad. Lending his style to the relatively new form of the "made-for-TV" movie (as opposed to airing theatrical films, or doing the stage/screen/TV hybrids of the Golden Age of TV such as Playhouse 90), Trumbull's graphics framed often the often-pedestrian narratives (note the comedown from his space-age color to the clips of the Brian Keith movie it announces) and made the whole thing feel shiny and modern.

The ABC "Movie of the Week" would really take off with "Duel," a 1971 film whose eerie anthropomorphisms, Hitchcockian pacing and stylish camerawork would immediately get studios asking about its young director, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was not the only one headed for the big screen; the inventor of the "Movie of the Week," ABC head honcho Barry Diller, would soon become head of production at Paramount Pictures. While Trumbull brought a larger-than-life, big-screen style to television with his graphics, Diller would bring the budget-conscious, episodic mindset of mid-70s TV to Hollywood feature production-- along with his lieutenant, Michael Eisner, Diller would emphasize the "high concept" notion of narrative (or what Spielberg-- a far richer and more ambitious talent, but also one raised in the fields of TV--would call "an idea you can hold in your hand"). Under Robert Evans, Paramount had made the Godfather films, Chinatown, Paper Moon; under Diller, they would make Saturday Night Fever and Grease (both with ABC star John Travolta) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (another TV adaptation that reunited Diller with Trumbull). Harlan Ellison, in his withering review of the last film, would call it "Star Trek: The Motionless Picture," rightly suggesting how a slavish devotion to both the original TV concept and its rabid fan base collided with the temptation to go overboard on ponderous special effects, resulting in a monstrously uncinematic inertia.

That was a decade in the future, though-- the YouTube clip above retains its initial excitement, and suggests a world of visual possibility opened by Trumbull's blending of spaced-out light and late-60s commercial typography. To make a Brian Keith TV western seem like the hippest thing on the tube? That's truly going where no one has gone before.

5 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

I had no idea Trumbull did that. Through the years I had completely forgotten about that logo. When I saw it I was probably too young to know it was such an obvious take on 2001.

And Star Trek, the first one, has got a fairly decent 45 minute movie in there somewhere. That's about how long it takes to watch it if you fast forward through the lingering, ponderous effects. The story is clever but lordy the visual padding going on is ridiculous.

Bob Westal said...

Considering how good "Silent Running" was, maybe that first Trek movie would have been better if they'd let Trumbull actually direct it. (No diss on the great Robert Wise intended, but I think his wife had just died and he clearly wasn't on his game for that one.)

BTW, that music was composed by Burt Bacharach, it's called "Nikki" after one of his kids and can be found on at least one or two albums.

And, double btw, when I was seven years old, my mother dragged me and my older sister to Las Vegas, an experience which I'm sure has permanently warped me. Anyhow, we stayed at the Sahara -- then, one of the nicer joints in town -- where it just so happened they were filming "The Night Stalker," which got the best Nielsens of any movie in the history of the "Movie of the Week" and, of course, spawned the Kolchak/Night Stalker franchise.

I was afraid of horror movies at that age (okay, I'm still a scaredy cat, slightly) and a bit creeped out when I heard it had to do with vampires. I nevertheless watched them film a hokey pool side scene with Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland, which ends with McGavin responding to the question "Where are you going?" with something like "after that girl!" as he follows a bikini babe. It was the only line we could hear. An early education in the dullness of watching actual filmmaking happen. I don't think anyone had a clue that it was going to be particular success.

Brian Doan said...

Jonathan,
I agree with you about ST:TMP. Watching the Trumbull clip caused me to break the film out last night, and I watched the first half (I'm also excited by the upcoming Trek film, and kind of have a jones to go back and watch the first six films again). I hadn't seen it since I was six, and it was better than I remember-- it's always a pleasure to see the cantankerous DeForrest Kelly-- but you're right about those special effects. They linger on them so long it's almost like space porn or something. 2001 does the same thing, but Kubrick has this deadpan sense of humor that frames the lingering in some ambivalent ways, whereas ST:TMP just seems gobstruck by it all.

Brian Doan said...

Bob,
I've never seen SILENT RUNNING (I know, I know-- it's on the list!), but Trumbull certainly had an eye when it came to creating enticing effects and cinematic landscapes. That's cool you got to see them filming "Night Stalker"! I know a lot of folks cite that show as an influence on the X-Files-- interesting to think the Movie of the Week had such a far-reaching impact.

Bob Westal said...

I loved, loved, loved "The Night Stalker" TV series when I was a kid, a few years after all that. I haven't seen it since, but I wonder how it would hold up. Darren McGavin was certainly born to play that, even then, extremey anachronistic park. The guy talked and dressed like a refugee from "The Front Page."