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Little House on the Prairie


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#1 M. Leary

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 05:54 AM

I wanted to put this in film rather than TV because it deserves to be in this category. No seriously. I have just finished watching the first season on DVD (1974) and have been rather awestruck by what is going on in that series. This is the same year as Cassavetes' groundbreaking Woman Under the Influence (a personal favorite), The Conversation (a completely underrated American classic), Godfather II, Brakhage's "Text of Light" (which I am sure Michael Landon never watched), etc... This pretty much is right in the middle of the "decade under the influence."

There are a lot of films from this period that are characterized by their contemplative visual approaches, much longer takes and pans compliment wordless scenes of activity as a means of storytelling. There are gritty moral undertones to these scripts, tapping into the darkest recesses of the American dream. Unfortunately, there is a complete biographical disconnect from the producers and directors of LHotP and this great generation of filmmakers. But there is such an incredible aesthetic similarity between these and the directing of LHotP that I couldn't help but start grouping the series in with these other great American films.

Granted, the acting is so poor that I often think of LH as some sort of ironical performance art so far ahead of its time that it has taken von Trier and Dogville to catch up to it. But the series in 1974 can be characterized three ways:

1. Visually, it goes out of its way to simplify scenes as much as possible. There are four basic shots in LH. There is the panorama shot, almost every time the show starts out with a shot of a wagon bouncing along the dusty trail with a remix of the show's basic theme playing (sometimes this remix has a great funky doo-wop bassline to it with a jazzy little beat playing on the snare). There is the basic activity shot whether interior or exterior, the camera just groups people in the frame and lets them interact. There is the extremely extended close-up of a person's face, or a group of faces, as they react to something (best example is in the episode that Johnny Johnson falls in love with a hooker in Mankato and four times during the show the camera cuts into a ten second close up of his face with the most pantingly lustful gaze). And there is the extended look at some facet of prairie life by abstracting it from the scene, this basic shot is the most fascinating one in the show. The camera will zoom in on baking bread, the building of a fire, the melting of metal, the sawing of wood.

All this is to say that the show intentionally slows itself down and reduces its directing to two basic modes. It is either clear action and panorama, or the camera is letting the viewer see and digest something. This second mode is so intentional though that it becomes meditative, even beyond a mere didacticism. Perhaps it is the sort of realism that France never learned from Eastern Europe and Russia, but America tapped into. Either way, it is way too similar to the same camerawork that is exploding in the American art cinema of the time.

2. LH is basically extends basic American ideals to their logical extremes, whether they are good ones or bad ones. And this is basically what American cinema in the 70's is all about. What distinguishes LH on this point is that its visual storytelling lends a gravitas to the points that it is making. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think LH is a repristination of the boldly capitalist ideals of early America. There are subtle criticisms of the privatized ethics that characterize such an ideology laced all throughout the storytelling. Here is a little town of boot-strapping (literally, they all have bootstraps) workers who are consistently having to pool resources to work out some problem in the community. If anything, we learn in the show that the personal acquisition of resources is totally unethical...the shopkeeper's wife is one of the most hated people in TV history. The scripts are rife with these little nuggets of anti-capitalist speculations that seem to be anticipating the 1980's. Great example: the actress that plays Caroline, the mother, was an avid supporter of women's rights. She also spent much of her career fighting domestic abuse. Quite a strange sidelight for America's classic "pioneer wife."

3. It is epic. It does seek, as Taxi Driver, The Godfather series, or basically any Cassavetes film to produce a totalizing perpsective on American culture. It does seek to produce a world that is complete in itself and is designed to come into direct conflict with the world of the viewer. I think this last point is the most important, but this post is already too long.

I am not sure what sort of feedback I am expecting, just needed to share this. You know, I think I may turn this into an article length piece next week, so I would appreciate a lot of criticism.

#2 Russ

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 07:22 AM

You just became my mother-in-law's favoite person, Mike. I've not seen enough of the show (especially from that period) to coment substantively on what you're saying.

#3 BethR

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 08:27 AM

FWIW, a new TV mini-series version is coming soon. Don't have the details. This really does belong in TV, but I continue to insist that TV can also be a form of art. "Can" be, not always "is."

For some reason I feel obliged to say that I never watched the original series and am unlikely to watch the remake. But I'm struck by (M)'s comments. I suspect he's hit on much of what made (makes) the series appeal and continue to appeal.

#4 M. Leary

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 09:26 AM

While watching it I was struck by how it can appeal to audiences at two different levels. For cinephiles it is a gold mine, for kids, it is completely entertaining and educational. (Kind of like Story of Weeping Camel and Stef's daughter. What a great anecdote that is.)

#5 Tim Willson

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 11:26 AM

Fascinating, Leary -- thanks! I've been digging into this one recently from a distribution point of view and can add a few thoughts.

ABC is airing a 5-part mini-series starting March 26th with a 2-hour premiere as part of the Wonderful World of Disney; one-hour episodes will air on subsequent Saturdays. The official title has been changed to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (was Little House on the Prairie, but I'm guessing NBC objected). ABC is going to great lengths to make sure people know that the new series has nothing to do with the old one, but instead follows the original autobiographical account more closely.

David Cunningham directed -- yes, the Loren Cunningham, To End All Wars David Cunningham. It was shot in southern Alberta (not far from here), with a mixture of Canadian and American cast and crew. Ed Friendly was executive producer, as he was for the NBC series. ABC has details and photos here.

As to the original, just FWIW, the DVD rights are held by a Canadian company (Imavision), which has released the first seven seasons. Seasons 8 and 9 (final season) will be released in June and August, respectively.

#6 M. Leary

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 11:36 AM

March 26 eh? Too bad, I doubt it will make it across the pond. It would have been interesting to do a compare/contrast review of both together. Thanks a lot for that info.

#7 Persona

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 01:14 PM

So... Scotland reduces you to this?

-s.

#8 mike_h

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 01:46 PM

QUOTE(stef @ Mar 17 2005, 12:14 PM)
So... Scotland reduces you to this?

-s.

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Dude, what happened to Leary?

This must be what happens when the Big Dawgs cut out of the conversation.

Scary.

#9 Persona

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 01:58 PM

QUOTE(mike_h @ Mar 17 2005, 01:46 PM)
Dude, what happened to Leary?


Nothing. He always looked that way.

I'm sorry, (m), but you actually deserve to be harassed for posting a Little House on the Prairie thread.

-s.


#10 Tim Willson

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 04:10 PM

C'mon Stef! Did Melissa Gilbert not respond to your fan letters?

#11 Persona

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Posted 17 March 2005 - 10:19 PM

QUOTE(Tim Willson @ Mar 17 2005, 04:10 PM)
C'mon Stef! Did Melissa Gilbert not respond to your fan letters?

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LOL! grin.gif

#12 M. Leary

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Posted 18 March 2005 - 09:30 AM

Ha! Well played Tim. You guys are spoilsports (as Nellie would say). This is good stuff, I swear. Instead of raining on my parade, why not suggest some more comparisons to American cinema in the 70's? Maybe this is your chance Stef to finally watch some Cassavetes.

#13 Russ

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Posted 18 March 2005 - 12:03 PM

ken,

Real life is intruding on my ability to reflect on and respond to that fantastic post, which touches on some things I've been thinking about for a while, too, so I'll come back to it later (maybe not until tonight), but I wanted to add that I really like what you've said.

#14 M. Leary

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 05:02 PM

QUOTE(kenmorefield @ Mar 20 2005, 05:27 PM)
I'm not sure if the visual simplicity is meant to artistically reinforce a traditional philosophical persepctive or is merely a function of budget.  Certainly LHOTP eschews the sort of visually destablizing perspectives of a Third Man or a Color of Money, but I would need more convincing that this was a conscious aesthetic choice on the part of Landon and the other directors and not a fortuitous coincidence.

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Thanks for hopping in on this, you are a true ally in the faith. Wouldn't mind getting a copy of your Evangelical Porn paper by the way, something like that should be published online for others perusal.

As to the above point, which is completely fair, I am not quite sure it matters in the long run. The argument could also be made that Cassavetes et al. landed on their particular methods of filming due to intial budget constraints as well. The 70's is happening all over again in the world of digital cinema, a truly low-cash aesthetic. What is obviously a conscious directorial choice though (from a formal perspective) are the simplified close-up shots of either faces or "prairie activities." There is an earnest didacticism to some of these shots that are what seriously enriches the show as visual art. There are really no other TV features Landon was involved with as an actor that exhibited these visual characteristics, so I can't help but think that somewhere between Bonanza and LHotP either he or one of his Ass. Directors stumbled upon a great way to make a TV show. I haven't scratched around much in terms of historical detail about the first season, which would be nice to do. But from a sheer reader-response, the "fortuitous coincidence" works really well with the moral and political tenor of the show.

From another perspective, relating the production values to the aesthetic of LHotP would just enhance the notion that LHotP is really one of America's first solid indie features. Low budget, avid niche-market following, fairly amateur cast, shot on location, etc...

What I really want to find in LHotP is a montage shot. The closest I could find were in the episode that all the kids get together with Tinker Jones and cast a bell for the church out of their own toys, and the "gift-buying" sequence in the first Christmas episode. (Great scott, I just read these last two paragraphs. Am I out of my gourd?)




#15 M. Leary

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 05:22 PM

Recent quote (in LA Weekly) from a now grown-up Nellie about Michael Landon's real highway to heaven:

As for her seven years on Little House, Arngrim is quick to demystify Michael Landon as the saintly Pa Ingalls. Landon was an underrated pioneer of family TV who not only directed the show, but wrote, produced and executive-produced it, “and he did every single bit of it smashed out of his fuckin’ mind,” Arngrim recalls. “Five o’clock in the morning — sunglasses, Marlboro and a Styrofoam cup of Wild Turkey.”

Aye, that's the Little Joe we know and love.

Edited by (M)Leary, 20 March 2005 - 05:23 PM.


#16 Thom

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Posted 20 March 2005 - 09:16 PM

(M) I wanted my first post to be a reply to your opening statements but this comment is faster.

I have heard Melissa Gilbert make statements saying Michael Landon was so intense and insisted that the scene was just right that if she could not be sad or cry when a scene called for it then he would take her aside and threaten her, make her cry, then standup with a smile and say, "Let's get this shot."

But let's not turn this into a "What ever happened to those child stars?" thread.

#17 Ron Reed

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Posted 22 March 2005 - 03:32 AM

Let me here announce my solidarity with Morefield and Leary on this, and all due raspberries to stuffy steffian nay-sayings. I make no claims to objectivity - I see LHoP (not to be confused with IHoP) through the eyes of my daughters, a decade or more ago, when they were complete Prairie devotees. Combine fatherly sentiment and cheap nostalgia, and all my comments can be readily dismissed.

Still, at the time, I remember frequently responding to these humble little stories with a kind of shocked admiration. Over and over I saw people faced with life realities they couldn't solve with ready cash or a Mastercard, or recourse to social programs or lawsuits. Dad had to leave home for many months to work in a mine: either that, or his family suffered. It brought a certain perspective to my own struggles to keep a theatre company operating, to the constant temptation to give it up because it demanded too many sacrifices, it cost too much, life shouldn't be that hard. Oh really? Life is usually that hard, on this planet, and much harder. Why do you want to live without sacrifice?

Seems to me that sacrificing one's own advantage for others was a frequent theme. Doing the costly thing simply because it was right, even if it was unglamorous or unpopular or un-noticed. I suppose some would read that as moralistic: more often than not, I read it as moral.

Sure the film celebrated family. But not in isolation: family was one "good", but existed within a contextualizing "good," the larger community. Not a lot of that in American media nowadays, or a decade ago. Self first, family next, community don't make the list. (Gross generalization, I know, but examples of "look after yourself" and "follow your dream at any cost" and "the nuclear family is God" stories are everywhere.) Not so on the Prairie.

And the show didn't shy away from hard realities. The one daughter is blinded in a fire. I was shocked. You didn't see that on The Brady Bunch.

All my memories of the film have to do with the "what" of the series, story and character. (M)'s comments on the "how" of the series, the aesthetics, are utterly intriguing. I owe my eldest daughter a birthday gift - her rotter of a boyfriend bought her the same thing I did, Season One of Degrassi Junior High, and I was stranded without a gift. Procured a My Little Pony DVD on eBay that's wending its way Canada-ward, but now I'm thinking about something on the Wilder side. Indulge her 19-year-old nostalgia binge, and see if I can see what Mike sees...

Oh, and certainly an aesthetic that proceeds from limitations of means (financial or other) is perfectly legitimate. Artists often find new ways when working within restrictions - indeed, often impose such on themselves simply to generate new thinking, intuitive solutions, a fresh view or method. That something rich may have emerged from a paucity of resources wouldn't surprise me at all. My theatre depends on such miracles.

Better sleep.

Edited by Ron, 22 March 2005 - 03:33 AM.


#18 Persona

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Posted 22 March 2005 - 10:23 AM

And how about those Waltons? Who's up for them guys? G'night, John Boy, G'night, Suzie Q, G'night, cusin' Esta.

-s.

#19 Persona

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Posted 22 March 2005 - 10:27 AM

I'm sorry. Maybe it's my age, or maybe it's my bias toward TV to begin with, or maybe it's that I was living in Hicksville when I was a little kid and that's all that shows like The Waltons and Little House bring to mind. So perhaps it is me, and not ya'all. But since I have nothing of value to contribute here, no more jokes, I will keep out of this topic.

-s.

Edited by stef, 22 March 2005 - 10:31 AM.


#20 Persona

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Posted 22 March 2005 - 10:32 AM

Except that I think we should also be discussing The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Eight is Enough.

-s.