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Institutional Knowledge Today in the Umpteenth Year of “The Knowledge Economy”: Do you want fries with that?

In politics, ideology, sociology, civics on April 12, 2015 at 11:49 pm

This item is produced (from a draft six weeks old) from the point of view of New Zealand with local circumstances in mind. Somehow, I’m sure, people in a couple of hundred other countries will be able to relate to it… The wonders of technological and economic progress.

KnowledgeWhere?6854662772_55f43de9c0_oYesterday I and an elderly friend enquired about how to get a Total Mobility Card, available to over-65s and the infirm allowing them to access taxi transport for half price. We started at his g.p. — Neither he or his receptionist knew of this arcane service that is supposed to be universal across the nation and severely affects the wellbeing of old people, but she took the trouble to phone a cab company and was told the cards were issued by the Auckland Council, and sent us there to pick up an application form. On calling at the council offices — John, aged 85, stayed in the car by necessity — while I, venturing inside, was told whom we should contact was called Auckland Transport… no luck there, so back to square one. That’s really what the difference is in these situations — whether you stumble on someone, eventually, who is willing and able to help. It used to be that, whether he gave a damn or not, a public servant would be helpful through the sheer amount of knowledge he held in his brain after years of experience in the same job or making his way (slowly) up the ladder based on long experience. This is what we call the “infrastructure” that made a society socially beneficial for its members. It was Margaret Thatcher — that despot who deformed her own country by reinforcing the class system with a vengeance — — and now celebrated as someone worth remembering via Meryl Streep — who proudly proclaimed that “There is no such thing as society.”

I couldn’t help reflecting on a time up to thirty years ago (now, as I count them) when I worked in a government department and there was more than a smattering, a large core, of staff who knew every rule and every skerrick of policy that could help a client; only they weren’t clients then, they were fellow members of the public with not even a counter separating us from them, and entitled to every resource at hand coming to them as of right as a citizen or permanent resident. The local post office — long gone everywhere around the country to the point of dismantling villages and hamlets now barely a memory — would have someone who knew where to get anything, how to help anyone or put you in direct touch with someone who could. This was called “institutional knowledge” and was held in a place of regard and some considerable importance at the time. It was the thing that would keep essential infrastructure in a society going after the nuclear holocaust had blown over and the cockroaches and Law of the Jungle were about to take over.

Now, in an era when every public asset has been privatized or corporatized, boards of governors play musical chairs from one corporation to the next — their feet never getting wet, never mind muddied by mixing with us ordinary folks — managers are “head hunted” for their ruthlessness with staff in treating them like dispensible cogs more of nuisance value than any importance. And the institutional knowledge held by societies across the globe seems to amount to automated self-service (Whatever happened to exalted “customer service”?), a one-size-fits-all approach to products, and a nice smile interchangeable across MacDonald’s, Burger King, the local pharmacy to the doctor’s surgery to our universities — and amounts to “Do you want fries with that?” In other words, not How can we help you in a meaningful way, but how can we upsize your order to collect more money for our shareholders?: and this coming from servants who are employed at the sufferance of owners and managers who can strip their weekly hours and routinely reduce them to try to eke out an existence for them and their family on less-than-living wages.

New Zealand has been headed this way since the mid 1970s under a big-business-minded conservative National Party government through its nine-year term, and was accelerated by stealth on the election of the trumpeted Third Labour Government — actually a lot like a Fifth Column of neoliberals. While the Nats invented institutionalized, permanent unemployment in this country that had previously had none — into the tens of thousands within a year and then upwards of a hundred thousand still in its first term (equivalent to seven million in the United States) — this new Labour Parliament was anything but labor, made up of lawyers, accountants and other businessmen eager to impress their cronies of the so-called Business Round Table, a coterie of laissez-faire capitalists and big investors dead set on a silent coup. First to go was the power of the unions, membership made noncompulsory and close to impotent.

And now the prospective next government, led by a hopeful Labour Party, refuses to even threaten that public assets still being sold into the hands of politicians’ cronies — privatised for the privileged and subsidised to the tune of $hundreds of millions by us taxpayers — will be taken back into public hands as soon as they are elected. I can see a time when, around the world, our only alternative future will resemble more Bastille Day 1789 than the futuristic Utopia every thinking person once hoped for. What a pity for the world, but just a fact of life, that the greedy and most powerful among us always seem to be the last to learn from history.

RAWHIDE!

In history, television on March 27, 2015 at 12:16 am

Rawhide cattle logoToday maybe this western television series — filmed through its seven-year run (1959-66) in black and white — is best remembered for its theme song, and not even for its classic rendition by Frankie Laine but by nonsingers Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi of The Blues Brothers (1980). It seems a shameful travesty, as seen today — and I’ve been watching the entire run semi-religiously on the Turner Channel daily, sometimes twice a day for the especially good episodes — it easily holds its quality after all these years as the best western rerun, just shading Gunsmoke but utterly destroying the color extravaganzas Bonanza, High Chaparral and The Big Valley; with a nod to The Wild Wild West, very well done but as an interesting foray into a camp, period-set crime show that had more in common with The Man From Uncle, even Star Trek. The series was created by Charles Marquis “Bill” Warren, a writer who had begun in the business with MGM. Warren kept busy with television, turning out three classics among his five western series, the others being Gunsmoke and The Virginian; another not so bad was the later Iron Horse with Dale Robertson. On none of his projects did Warren stay more than one or two seasons, happy to move on to something new once his current series was established. As such, he must rate with Quinn Martin as among the most successful independent television producers of the 1960s.

Like virtually all successful American tv series that don’t drag through repetition for a whole season, Rawhide relied on seven or eight regulars to carry the stories as genuine ensemble efforts. Eric Fleming (33 when filming started) and Eastwood (28) dominated as the trail boss and his ramrod respectively, often alternating, though the older man commanded the screen as well as the drovers. The top-billed star’s personal story is a haunting one, from a boyhood filled with vicious physical abuse from his father, to traumatic military service and facial reconstruction surgery, to early accidental death by drowning in a raging river filming on location in South America. Sheb Wooley as trail scout Pete Nolan was a reliable third wheel with screen presence, almost as tall as the 6ft-3-to-4 Fleming and Eastwood and fit for romantic leads, but leaving in 1962 to further his considerable country & western career — though he had been a recognisable screen face from his role as the third doomed badguy in High Noon (1952) and made most money from disc novelties like “The Purple People Eater”. Steve Raines (as Jim Quince) and Rocky Shahan (as Joe Scarlett) had started as stuntmen and background expert horsemen and wranglers, but Raines shone in an often demanding role and early on performed as central character a number of times, a convincing westerner in the Fordesque mold and a more than competent actor. Even Mushy, the young naive (slow) “cook’s louse”, played appealingly but without mushy sentiment by James Murdock, was treated as an important character, having several stories built around him. A year or so younger than Clint in real life, Murdock was handsome too and over six feet, yet another slimline hunk to ensure covering every possible combination and permutation of demographic. In keeping with the historical veracity of cattle drives held paramount for the theme of the series throughout, little Robert Cabal as “Hey Soos” (Jesus, spelt phonetically) was in charge of the ramuda (corral of working horses) and added many a fine coloring of Mexican folklore and trail superstition to the atmosphere. In his eyes, packs of wolves, rogue bulls roaming solo, patent medicine pedlars and travelling entertainment shows of Gypsies were never quite what they seemed, allowing for interpretation by the supernaturally inclined — much to the taste of the drovers but the constant derision of ever tough, level-headed trail boss Gil Favor. Far less conspicuous and never featured was John Hart, a semi-regular over two early seasons but trusted with few lines though yet another who was tall with movie-star looks and not without talent: on the slow road of neglect after having been tv’s fill-in Lone Ranger for two seasons while Clayton Moore ruminated over a pay dispute with the producers, and then again every boy’s small-screen hero in the Canadian-produced Hawkeye/Last of the Mohicans.

Bewhiskered Paul Brinegar (Wishbone the cook), always good value as comedy relief in westerns — seen in the Fifties as a regular sidekick of Hugh O’Brian on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp — and whose avuncular codger appeal a sizable section of Rawhide fans swore by, was a recognised star by 1964 and he and the two established principals toured Japan, where the series was number one in the ratings. In the States it was not as overwhelmingly popular as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Bonanza (1959-73), ratings toppers in turn for several years and in color for most, latterly, and all of its run, respectively; or a number of lesser western entries for that matter. Rawhide, a mid-season entry in the New Year of 1959, was an instant top 20 hit, peaking at no.6 for 1961, but then on a slow fade in domestic popularity despite a constant year-by-year improvement in overall production standards. And in the face of the fact that it was by far the most authentic western on tv through the Sixties including other vaunted candidates such as Gunsmoke, a revelation as the first adult western in 1955 and darkly noir-stylish in its early years (running till 1975), Wagon Train (1957-64), and Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-60) with Steve McQueen as the bounty hunter.

rawhide_original cast

Repeat guests of the suitably gritty quality of Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Robert Middleton, Simon Oakland, Claude Akins, R. G. Armstrong, Lola Albright, Ted De Corsia and L. Q. Jones had served the series’ long run well, along with bravura character thespians James Whitmore, Burgess Meredith, Mercedes McCambridge, Mickey Rooney, Patricia Medina and others. Rawhide‘s production company, Revue-CBS, which in 1962 had finished with Laramie and begun the full-color, 90-minute blockbuster The Virginian/Men of Shiloh as a longrunning flagship project, by the end of 1964 was ploughing more resources into bolstering a failing series that was arguably better than ever. One episode from this period, “Canliss” directed by former sci-fi specialist Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Island Earth) features Dean Martin as the titular gunfighter, surrounded by up-and-coming leading lady Laura Devon and prestige character stars Michael Ansara (famous from tv as Cochise), Theodore Bikel and silent-movie veteran Ramon Novarro. The recruitment of Martin — best-selling crooner and moreover bona fide tv star with his own popular variety series having started that September — was a sure sign of status, the first “special guest star” to be featured upfront in the opening titles, though the series was to survive barely a year more till the New Year of 1966, just half a season after the decamp of Eric Fleming with Clint Eastwood left as the sole regular star.

The episode did without Rowdy altogether, Eastwood on hiatus making A Fistful of Dollars with Italian director Sergio Leone. Clint had guested in a pre-Rawhide episode of Maverick, co-starred with other popular tv series stars David Janssen (Richard Diamond, later The Fugitive) and Darren McGavin (Mike Hammer, later The Outsider) in an ill-starred remake of Lafayette Escadrille (1958) from prestigious director William Wellman, and gone on to guest star as himself in Mr Ed — a modest peak in American tv. Starting as a $600-a-week tv “star”, he had probably made it to a couple of thou by the end of the run — and received $15,000 for his first Leone outing; $50,000 for the second, For a Few Dollars More, filmed 1965; $250,000 for the third, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (’66). Eastwood called on Ted Post, a frequent director of Rawhide episodes, to handle his first independent film production, Hang ‘Em High.

Eric Fleming said, leaving after the 1964-65 series, the producers had let him go because he was costing them a million dollars a year — the same, record fee that Elizabeth Taylor had recently earned for Cleopatra, that took two years to film: good indication of Fleming’s centrality and appeal to fans of the show. For as long as he lasted, Gil Favor’s “Head ’em up! [six-beat pause] Move ’em out!” was an icon and probably the widest known feature of the series apart from its evergreen theme written by Dimitri Tiomkin. And when the show finally wound up the unforgettable personification of Favor, Eric Fleming, had just ten months to live.

While Charles Gray had filled in as scout Clay Forrester with charismatic performances (though on the back foot competing with scout Flint McCullough played by Robert Horton on Wagon Train) for a good while after the departure of Sheb Wooley, only for Wooley to return for a few episodes when it was almost all over, things were never the same when for the season opening of fall 1965 Rawhide recruited John Ireland (previously the gunslinger in Red River and Johnny Ringo in Gunfight at the OK Corral) and Raymond St Jacques for its final series — as fill-ins, as Wagon Train and Bonanza would try too for longevity. A collective landmark was crossed with St Jacques joining Bill Cosby (I Spy) and Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as the first black actors as regulars in a tv series, all in 1965, to be followed by Nichelle Nichols as Uhura the following season for Star Trek.

COWBOYS IN HOLLYWOOD

In film, history on February 2, 2015 at 7:42 am

"Bronco Billy" Anderson sheet music (1914)

“Bronco Billy” Anderson sheet music (1914)

It was 1903, a time when Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were still raiding from Devil’s Hole and Los Angeles itself not much more than a hole in the wall, that the one-reel western drama The Great Train Robbery scored a huge hit with audiences stirred by a life and time rapidly passing by. This was four years before a viable movie industry began in the United States, and a stage thespian and featured player from the short film, G. M. Anderson, formed the Essanay motion picture production company in Chicago and began his career as a cowboy on screen, namely “Bronco Billy”.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

For a while, travelling “wild west” shows starring William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Sitting Bull and others outdrew western movies for paying audiences. Wyatt Earp (still spry until 1929) volunteered himself as a historical-technical consultant to filmmakers, and the real west imposed itself on screen art too by incorporating real cowboys and Indians as stuntmen doubling as actors, some of whom became proto-stars. Enterprising small outfits, ever more mobile like American and Bison, set up filming units in the wilds of California before there was a Hollywood and used the raw resources at hand (including lead actor Francis Ford, brother of future director John Ford), making probably the most authentic westerns ever. Apaches grew more popular in France, then the centre of filmmaking, than they had ever been to Americans, white or red, and Star Film of Paris set up shop in Flagstaff, Arizona. Producer-director Gaston Melies, partner and brother of Georges Melies, one of the founding fathers of narrative film, was the local honcho, later joined in North America by leading continental European companies such as Pathe-Freres, Gaumont, Nordisk and independent Solax. The wilds of Fort Lee, New Jersey, close to the big film companies in New York, remained the mecca of western filmmaking until World War I.

It wasn’t until 1915 or so that the long, lean dramatic figure of the classic cowboy eclipsed the popularity of squat, energetic Bronco Billy with his pat heroics. While the stark, dressed-all-in-black William S. Hart was the new sensation in character-driven dramas promoted in the films from Paramount, the biggest studio and film distributor in the suddenly burgeoning Hollywood, at nearby Universal City rode dour Harry Carey directed by John Ford as saddle bum “Cheyenne Harry”, and Tom Mix, with experience as a wrangler and deputy sheriff, was making steady progress at Fox, perversely portraying a cowboy with spangles and shiny spurs and riding Tony the “wonder horse”.

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age's idea of a cowboy

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age’s idea of a cowboy

Hart had earned massive fees of $150,000 and $200,000 per movie in a time of virtually no income tax; and gained such high prestige he was invited by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to be a founding partner in United Artists (1919) before being substituted by D. W. Griffiths. Through the 1920s, though, Tom Mix set the tone by appearing in six to eight B-movies a year, said to earn $17,000 per week while filming, averaging out to a steady $7,500 a week through the years. Hoot Gibson came to emulate him at Universal, ousting the realism of the Ford-Carey films; as Fred Thomson did at FBO — Film Booking Offices, whose major shareholder was a certain Joseph P. Kennedy, lover of Gloria Swanson, before it morphed into the famous RKO studio at the beginning of talkies. These two also approached Mix’s commercial appeal, reportedly rewarded with during-filming weekly pay of $14,500 (Gibson) and $15,000 (Thomson). A last gasp try at A-movie status for westerns was pushed by MGM late in the decade through hero Tim McCoy appearing in a select few relative blockbusters with good co-stars and supporting casts.

Tom Mix retired from the screen, temporarily as it turned out, in 1930 when he was still riding high at 10th place in Quigley’s annual box-office survey, albeit through bulk product in release. Tiring of proving his credentials live in “wild west” travelling shows, he returned two years later, by which time Buck Jones and Jack Holt in B’s were the only cowboys showing up in the annual top 25 stars list. Buck continued scoring on his own up to 1935, multitudes of strictly B “stars” like Ken & Kermit Maynard, Charles Starret, Tom Tyler, Smith Ballew and Bob Steele lining up at tiny “Poverty Row” studios like Monogram, Grand National, Chesterfield and Tiffany; and aspiring Columbia and Universal. In 1930 the athleticism of Johnny Mack Brown had made a good impression in a big, realistic production of Billy the Kid at MGM, while John Wayne in his first major lead role was doomed by the failure of Fox blockbuster The Big Trail to a decade as a B-cowboy and the best part of another as a mediocre star before taken fully in hand by ace western directors John Ford and Howard Hawks.

The founding of Republic studio in 1935 would lead to singing cowboys Gene Autry and then Roy Rogers climbing to top 10 star status through appeal to undiscerning audiences unconcerned with authenticity with, again, bulk output. This trail was followed too by William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy and led to the overwhelming popularity of kids’ cowboys on tv from 1949 through the early 1950s: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Kit Carson, et al. It was a species John Wayne, best known on screen as gunslinger “Singing Sandy” in the mid Thirties, had only torturously escaped, handed a plum role in Stagecoach (1939) by Ford.

Henry Fonda broke through to major stardom — that top 25 published each year by the Motion Picture Herald — in 1939 and 1940 courtesy of western roles in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Return of Frank James, a status he couldn’t sustain in ensuing sophisticated comedies and then forestalled by war service that put him behind the eight ball. To cement his comeback he wisely chose Ford classics My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948).

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

In the meantime, Gary Cooper, who’d made his name at the first death of westerns as talkies came in as laconic hero The Virginian and The Man From Wyoming, had made tentative steps to return as The Plainsman (1937) as Wild Bill Hickok and The Westerner (1940) under top directors Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler. It was obvious the A-western was here to stay when odd-man-out Errol Flynn at Warner Bros, the studio of urban modernism, was, Tasmanian accent intact, diverted once a year from his pirate swashbucklers to depict the classic heroic westerner in an expensive and highly popular series from 1939: Dodge City, Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio

By the end of World War II the main feature western at the Saturday matinee was such a staple that established routine stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea restricted themselves to the genre for the rest of their careers. McCrea made it among the runners at 23rd in 1950, while Scott (best directed by Budd Boetticher) was a fixture in the list from 1948 to 1956, top 10 the middle four years. By this time not only Gary Cooper was a regular in westerns, but James Stewart more popular than ever, re-entering the upper echelon after ten years, moreover joining his friend Coop in the top 10 for the first time (1951). While Stewart, mostly directed by Anthony Mann for Universal, got wealthy on percentage-participation deals, other Universal contractees on salary grew into big stars in westerns: Audie Murphy, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson.

Through the Sixties and into the Seventies, while John Wayne ruled tall in the saddle, other established stars extended their careers and broadened their appeal by going western: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark; and veteran supporting actors Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef morphed into bona fide stars. B-westerns were long gone from the big screen to tv series, developing Steve McQueen (Wanted: Dead or Alive), James Garner (Maverick) and Eastwood himself (Rawhide) into superstars.

Cowboys and American Indians have fared poorly on screen over the past forty years in the era of wookies and hobbits and other differently-normal humanoids. In 1965, after a decade when classic western tales ruled television, just as two admirably realistic series in Wagon Train and Rawhide folded after ‘long’ six-to-seven-years runs, new trends began innovating on the small screen: The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, followed by Cimarron Strip, Lancer and The Outcasts. These, providing bright spots with their own flavor, were all gone by 1969 while the more traditional Bonanza and High Chaparral limped along for another couple or three seasons, and Gunsmoke out-gunned all the odds and broke the all-time record for a 20-year run into 1975.

That year saw Posse, produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, with a quirky anti-establishment take on western politics, but was isolated and muted in its impact amid ongoing efforts by John Wayne to mythologize “The West” while failing to match his Oscar-winning True Grit (1969). The jokey, indulgent taint purveyed into a staple of the big screen through the mid Sixties had descended by then to MacKenna’s Gold, Paint Your Wagon and Support Your Local Sheriff/Gunfighter. The feel-good, romantic thrust of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year as these last two and Wayne’s landmark performance was more in the blockbuster tradition of Hollywood than the western one. It was in stark contrast to Sergio Leone’s contemporaneous Once Upon a Time in the West. Burt Lancaster through the early Seventies made a number of thoughtful contributions in Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming, exploring the underbelly of history, along with Chato’s Land (Charles Bronson) — a worthwhile echo of Paul Newman’s Hombre the decade before. These, influenced to varying degrees by the “Spaghetti westerns” of director Sergio Leone (not forgetting the atmospheric music of Ennio Morricone), failed to ignite a new tradition for long in the States, aside from Eastwood’s ongoing thematic and stylistic tributes to his Italian mentor.

Mel Brooks’Blazing Saddles ripped the shit out of every cliche contained in what, up to then, had been thought ‘classic’ westerns. And two years later even stalwart Clint seemed to take the coming of Spielberg, Lucas and their acolytes to heart and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was the last in his series of gritty oaters, reviving his ruthless man-with-no-name character only for isolated triumphs Pale Rider and Unforgiven over the following decade or two. That year too marked what should have been a classic on-screen meeting between Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks, but wasn’t. Odd landmarks like Heaven’s Gate and Silverado came and went without threatening Clint’s monopoly. Only Tombstone (Kurt Russell – Val Kilmer), which put Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp in the shade, and Costner’s Dances With Wolves and Open Range made much of an impact afterwards. Cowboys met New Age, maybe sealing the lid on the genre’s coffin, in Brokeback Mountain.

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