May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 28, 2009
The only good TV
I despise television.
I have a deep and abiding aversion to the noxious stuff that streams into our homes every day, gushing through cables and flooding into living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms. Trance-inducing, rigidly structured around sales pitches. Story arcs that never land, like endless transcontinental flights that only pretend to have a destination, suspended mid-air by continual complications – whether mundane or melodramatic – until such time as certain contracts fail to be renewed and the exhausted shell of a thing comes crashing to the ground at last.
Oh, I know. “West Wing”. “Mad Men” (or is it “Madmen”? I have no idea). “The Sopranos”, until it started repeating itself (about a third of the way into Season One, as far as I was able to determine). “The Office”, back when Michael still made your skin crawl (and before it became the “How long until Pam and what’s-his-name get together” soap opera. Yeah sure, she’s adorable, but… Whatever). “Happy Days”, before somebody jumped some shark. “Gilligan’s Island”, while it remained a searching examination of communal human survival in the face of unheralded catastrophe, and before the Skipper and Maryanne got kicked out of the theme song. (Or was that “Lost”? Which one was the funny one, again?). “Deadwood” and “Picket Fences” and “My So-Called Life” and all the others that were actually good enough to get yanked off the air sooner rather than later. (Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know.)
Lost: The Early Years
Fine. You’re right. I’ll head straight out and rent Seasons One through Fill-In-The-Blank of “24”, “Six Feet Under” and “Three’s Company”. Right away. Just give me a minute to check out 400 Blows and at least a few other French New Wave films I haven’t seen yet. And Singin’ In The Rain and The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, Let The Right One In and Pickpocket and The Bicycle Thief (or Thieves?) and Munyurangabo and Ballast and Galaxy Quest. The rest of Psycho and A Touch Of Evil and Rashomon and Factory Girl and The Wild Bunch and La Dolce Vita and One False Move. At least three or four Ingmar Bergmans (Bergmen?), a couple more Tarkovskies, The Class, Coraline, The Great Buck Howard, In The City Of Sylvie, Of Time and The City, Seraphine, Waltz With Bashir, and of course a reconsideration of the cinematic oeuvre of Bill Murray. And by then The Road will have come out, and a whole lot of cool end-of-2009 movies I haven’t even heard of yet, and then the lists of really great films that came out earlier in 2009 that I missed, and then all the “Best Films Of The New Millenium” lists. Which will remind me of all the amazing films I did see that really need to be seen at least twice, if not three times.
Watch TV? Sure. Just as soon as there’s nothing better on.
Ah, you say, but what about when your brain’s too tired to watch a movie? Too tired to watch a movie? Dear God. That’s what sleep is for, my friend. Or death. Either of which is preferable to what drizzles out of that flickering hole in the “family room.”
The family that watches TV together, watches TV together.
Okay, I’ll admit. I’m willing to own this fanatical antipathy as a personal thing, like an allergy or a distaste for parsnips. (Except, who in their right mind would actually enjoy parsnips? Only someone without taste buds. But hey.) I’m willing to actually relate to my TV-enthusiast friends and relations without thinking of them as inferior beings. At least, not consciously. Any more than I think of crystal meth addicts or serial killers as less than human. In every one of us there burns a divine spark, however dimly. However hard network executives may try to extinguish it.
Sincerely, though – and I’m nothing if not sincere – I do see this malady as something peculiar to me. (Well, me and a few other enlightened individuals.) I think maybe it’s built in, something of a protective instinct. A survival strategy.
For an acknowledged obsessive (I prefer the term “enthusiast”) who could readily have lost decades of his life to serials, one-hour dramas and mini-series. For a person who God may have hoped might have something better to accomplish with his time – or at least, who might have had other things he could undertake that would be even more pleasurable wastes of time – than watching all the reruns of “Seinfeld”. In that, I am sure I am unique.
But more specifically, for a playwright. The sort of playwright who hopes to write plays that are fresh, personal, original, unpredictable.
For the artistic director of a theatre company. The sort of A.D. who looks for plays to stage that don’t feel like… Well, like television on stage. Soon after I started my company I started reading submissions of original scripts, and I began to realize how few of them were… Well, how few of them were plays. To my ear, having stopped watching television a decade and a half before (still haven’t caught an episode of that new one, “Cheers”. Or the one about the cab drivers in New York, I think Danny deVito or Robert de Niro or one of those Italian actors is in it? Or the one with all those friends who have fun together in a New York apartment building and take turns sleeping with each other and living happily ever after? Can’t remember the name, but I know my twelve-year-old daughters loved it…), almost every page I turned smelled of cathode rays.
The themes and concerns and story-lines were either cramped and thin and commonplace, or bombastic and inflated and improbable. The comedy was sit-, the drama was melo-. But more troubling, even in the better ones, was the continual echo of half-hour or hour-long or movie-of-the-week story structure, and dialogue patterns, and narrative resolution. I couldn’t always put my finger on it, but they just didn’t feel like plays. Or even like movies, or novels, or short stories. They seemed like TV. All too often a scene would end and I’d think, “Cut to commercial.” Not what we wanted on our stage.
I’m certain this wasn’t a conscious thing for these idealistic young playwrights. They didn’t mean to write crap. It wasn’t their fault that their sense of how human souls journey through this life had been patterned by soap sellers. (Well, maybe it was: nobody chained them to their televisions. But I’m sure they didn’t subvert and cheapen their sensitivity to the human condition on purpose. Guilty, perhaps, of artistic suicide, but in the second degree…)
And so, reading these flattened, TV-conformed stories upgraded my long-time disinterest toward this thing they used to call the boob tube to full-scale antipathy, a fierce antagonism grounded in vocational self-preservation. So it’s safe to say, it’s probably just a Me Thing. Maybe it’s only playwrights and artistic directors who need to avoid the stuff as if it were crack cocaine. (“It’s so mediocre, don’t try it, even once…”) Like government agents trained to detect counterfeit money by handling, for weeks on end, day after day, waking and sleeping, only real bills – so that eventually, when they are given a bogus buck, they’ll know it without thinking: “This is fake. It has no value.” (I’m sure they have machines for that sort of thing by now. Which probably frees up a lot of time that used to be wasted training government anti-counterfeit agents. Time that can now be spent more profitably watching television, which stimulates the agents’ urge to purchase consumer goods, thereby strengthening the economy, and consequently saving democracy. They’ve got this stuff all figured out.)
But I’m not alone in this irrational urge for artistic self-preservation. I think novelist Barbara Kingsolver is a kindred spirit, resisting the spirit of televisceration. In Pigs In Heaven, Cash Stillwell wins the heart of his lady by putting a bullet through the heart of his television. Sometimes it’s even a spiritual thing: there’s an anecdote burned into my memory about gang-banger-turned-Jesus-Freak Nicky Cruz, who came home at the end of the day and couldn’t get the attention of his TV-entranced kids until he took a baseball bat and smashed the bejesus out of their Electrohome, right in front of their “I think Dad’s kind of mad” eyes. Desperate times, desperate measures: “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent shall seize it.”
Raise a child up in the way she should go...
One summer I was guest speaker at a summer camp: the high point was six of us lugging the massive wooden console TV / record player / AM-FM radio home entertainment unit from the fellowship hall out to the bonfire, where we burned that sucker. What was the eye of Satan doing at a Bible camp, for God’s sakes? Sparks in dazzling cascades, pops and booms and crackles and hisses, fearsome explosions, flames of purple and green and vivid magenta, issuing forth an Exodus-scaled pillar of smoke and fire they could see all the way across the Strait Of Georgia. “It only takes a spark.”
Now that was theatre.
Dekalog. The burning TV scene.
All of which is by way of introducing a new Filmwell series. A look at some worthy feature films made for the small rather than the big screen.
It’s iffy territory. At least one “Best Films” list – the second iteration of the A&F 100 poll of spiritually significant films – specifically excluded anything that had been made for television. Until it was pointed out that we’d need to exclude Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, which had been among the top ten films on the initial list.
But as far as I’m concerned, iffy territory is Filmwell territory; “cinema off the beaten track, criticism at the margins of the great conversation.” And what could be more marginally great – especially in the cinematically pure eyes of this particular correspondent – than movies tainted by the Great Square-Eyed Monster itself? Specifically, following the more-or-less mandate of Filmwell, and the mission of this particular Filmwellian – movies that point the way to (as Henry Miller plagiarized) “life more abundant.”
For starters, The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2005). Longford (Tom Hooper, 2006). Wit (Mike Nichols, 2001). Women & Men: Stories of Seduction (Frederic Raphael et al, 1990) – just kidding. Maybe a look at Angels In America (Mike Nichols, 2003). Should probably revisit Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989), though I’ve no idea what could be said that hasn’t already be said – hardly an unbeaten path, but still well worth wandering down.
Any other suggestions? Films with some sort of spiritual flavour – because that’s my beat – that originated on the telly? That I can watch without flatlining?
The Notorious Bettie Page
Last word to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life.
“Baboons who live in the African plains spend about one-third of their life sleeping, and when awake they divide their time between traveling, finding and eating food, and free leisure time – which basically consists in interacting, or grooming each other’s fur to pick out lice. It is not a very exciting life, yet not much has changed in the million years since humans evolved out of common simian ancestors. The requirements of life still dictate that we spend our time in a way that is not that different from the African baboons. Give and take a few hours, most people sleep one-third of the day, and use the remainder to work, travel, and rest in more or less the same proportions as the baboons do. And as the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has shown, in thirteenth century French villages – which were among the most advanced in the world at the time – the most common leisure pursuit was still that of picking lice out of each other’s hair. Now, of course, we have television.”