Archive for the ‘Television’ Category


November 3, 2014


Filmmakers seem to have it in for the news media nowadays. First there was Gone Girl, and now there is Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. (There is also Kill the Messenger, about the media’s trashing of Gary Webb, which I have yet to see.)

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief living in Los Angeles. One night he sees a freelance camera crew filming an accident. He gets the idea that he might be able to make a living this way. He steals an expensive bicycle, and he takes it to a pawn shop and trades it in for a camcorder and a police scanner. He struggles at first, but then he manages to get some graphic footage of a crime scene. He takes it to a local TV station. The station manager, Nina Romina (Rene Russo) buys the film, and she offers him advice on what things to look for. Louis then hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). Louis sees an enormous opportunity for himself when he arrives at a home invasion before the police do.

Louis Bloom speaks in a mixture of self-help cliches and technocratic jargon. At times he sounds almost as though he were giving a TED talk. (I have had bosses who have said some of the same things to me that Bloom says to people.) He is an embodiment of our society’s penchant for hype and boosterism. Yet underneath his glib facade is a man with no empathy for other people, who is willing to commit murder just to get ahead. The film implies that it is these very qualities that make it possible for Louis to be so successful at what he does.

Nina tells Louis that her station promotes the idea that urban crime is spreading into suburban areas. She tells him that she prefers him to cover crimes in wealthy neighborhoods in which the victims are white. She is open and honest about the station’s fearmongering.

Nightcrawler is a powerful indictment of the news media.

Auto Focus

March 9, 2014


I remember seeing the network premiere of Hogan’s Heroes when I was a kid. I liked the throbbing beat of the opening drum roll. I liked the sight of the POW’s rushing to get in line. I liked the haughty look of Werner Klemperer as he put a monocle to his eye under the opening credits. And then my mother turned the TV off. She was indifferent to my protests. I subsequently learned that my parents considered the show to be in bad taste – which it was. I was, however, too young to understand the concept of bad taste. Also, the fact that my parents forbade it made it attractive to me. I managed to find ways to watch it on the sly. I have to admit I found it pretty funny. Years later, though, I read in the newspaper that Bob Crane, the show’s star, had been found bludgeoned to death in his apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona. The article noted that the police had found dozens of videotapes of Crane having sex with various women. At that moment I had the weird feeling that perhaps my parents had comprehended something that had eluded me.

One of the things I found interesting about Paul Schrader’s 2002 film, Auto Focus, is that it seemed to me to suggest that my initial response to Crane’s death was correct. The film begins in the mid-1960’s, when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was the morning disc jockey at a radio station in Los Angeles. He has ambitions of working in movies; he sees himself as another Jack Lemmon. The best his manager, Mel Rosen (Ed Begly, Jr.) can do for him, however, is get him a role in a TV comedy set in a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. Crane initially expresses reservations about this, but eventually he decides to do it. On the set of the show one day, he meets John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), who sells video equipment. Carpenter takes Crane to a strip club, and he and Crane begin double dating. They start taping themselves having sex with various women. Carpenter comes across as a sordid Mephistopheles, who introduces Crane to a world of casual sex and narcissistic voyeurism. Over time, though, they gradually switch roles, with Crane becoming the dominant partner, since his status as a TV star makes it easier for him to attract women. Carpenter becomes increasingly insecure as a result of his growing reliance on Crane.

Crane’s womanizing leads to the break-up of his twenty-year marriage to Anne (Rita Wilson). Crane subsequently marries Patricia (Maria Bello), his co-star on the show. Patricia is aware of Crane’s womanizing and accepts it. After she becomes pregnant, however, she gradually changes her mind and begins demanding that Crane spend more time with her.

After six years, Hogan’ Heroes comes to an end. As often happens to actors who are in a successful TV series, Crane has trouble finding work afterwards. He ends up doing dinner theatre. When Crane tires of this, he goes to Mel Rosen for advice. Mel tells Crane he needs to change his way of living if he wants to revive his acting career. Crane decides to sever his relationship with Carpenter and tells him so. Later that night, someone enters Crane’s apartment and bludgeons him to death. The film implies that Carpenter is the murderer, though it leaves some room for doubt about this. (In real life, Carpenter was tried for Crane’s murder and was acquitted.)

The final joke of the film is that Crane carries his lack of self-awareness into the after-life. As police officers gaze at Crane’s bloody corpse, we hear Crane’s voice, presumably coming from the grave, cheerily remarking, “Men gotta have fun.” One is reminded here of Taxi Driver, which Schrader co-wrote, in which Travis Bickle remains self-deluded to the very end. According to his Wickipedia biography, Schrader was raised in the Chrisian Reformed Church, which is described as Calvinist, meaning, I suppose, that they believe in predistination. Perhaps this explains why Schrader presents us with a world in which people are not redeemed.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

April 5, 2013


The word “beloved” is almost never used to describe a critic, but, judging from the comments I’ve been reading about him, the late Roger Ebert seems to be the exception. I think this is because he managed to give the impression that he was basically a decent person, even when he was being waspish. He was willing to admit that he was not infallible (which is unusual for a critic), and he was courteous towards people who disagreed with him.

Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris had far more influence among cineastes, but Ebert reached a much broader audience, because of his shrewd use of first television and then the Internet. When Ebert and Gene Siskel started their Sneak Previews TV show back in the 1970’s, there was much skepticism that people would want to watch a show that was basically two guys talking about movies. (Critics derided them as “the Fat Guy and the Bald Guy”.) Yet the show turned out to be hugely popular, and it was much imitated. Part of the attraction of the show was the sometimes tense relationship between Ebert and Siskel. (I have a suspicion that they may have deliberately played this up a bit. In that respect, it can be argued that Sneak Previews was the first “reality” TV show.) Their “thumbs up/thumbs down” gimmick irritated many of their fellow critics, but Ebert was in his own way an entertainer who knew how to get an audience’s interest.

Over the years, Ebert praised a lot of movies that I didn’t really think were that good, though in that respect he was no worse than most other critics. One thing I will say for Ebert is that he believed that it’s legitimate to criticize a film for moral reasons, which is something I completely agree with.

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

July 11, 2012

Ernest Borgnine in Johnny Guitar

The most critically acclaimed film that Borgnine appeared in was The Wild Bunch. I have always considered this film to be a bit over-rated. I actually got more enjoyment out of Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray’s campy western with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. Borgnine played one of the bad guys. (Truffaut also liked this movie a lot, so I’m in good company.) I would argue, however, that Borgnine gave his best performance as Sgt. Katczinsky in a television adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The first time I saw Borgnine was on McHale’s Navy. This show was actually a rip-off of Sgt. Bilko, but I was too young to know that at the time. I found it pretty funny, although I remember that I thought it a bit disturbing that they would have the laugh tracking running while a Japanese submarine was blowing up. I came to associate Borgnine so much with the role of Commander McHale, that I was surprised to learn that he was usually cast as a heavy. The first movie I saw him in was Ice Station Zebra, in which he played a Russian baddy. This movie made a strong impression on me at the time. It was perhaps the start of my life-long fascination with the cinema.

Borgnine once said about acting: “The trick is not to become somebody else. You become somebody else when you’re in front of a camera or when you’re on stage. There are some people who carry it all the time. That, to me, is not acting. What you’ve gotta do is find out what the writer wrote about and put it into your mind. This is acting. Not going out and researching what the writer has already written. This is crazy!” Take that, method actors!

Borgnine will be missed.

The Hunger Games

March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in which a group of teenagers are forced to fight to the death on live television. One of the interesting things about this film is its implied criticism of so-called “reality” TV shows. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel on which this film is based, has said that she got the idea for it when she switched from a reality TV show to coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She said the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way”. Indeed, the Iraq invasion was covered somewhat like a reality show. The military and the media colluded, for example, in concocting a fake “dramatic” story about a female army private being held prisoner by the Iraqis. This took place in a context in which innocent civilians were killed. The Hunger Games presents a future in which state-sanctioned murder has become a form of entertainment.

This is a well-made film that is superior to your usual Hollywood blockbuster. It features complex characters and strong performances. I must say, though, that I found some of the fight scenes hard to follow. Also, I would have liked to learn more about the politics of this future world. How does the regime justify itself ideologically? There are extremes of wealth and poverty. Clearly there is exploitation here, but how is it carried out? Perhaps we will learn more about this is the promised sequels.

Early on in The Hunger Games, we see a government propaganda film that starts out by decrying the horrors of war, which then leads into a justification of the blood-letting in the games. This is an interesting portrayal of how, in politics, idealistic language is often used to justify monstrous behavior.

The Academy Awards

March 1, 2011

Thank you, peasants, for this award, which is mine by divine right!

I did not watch the Academy Awards. I find awards shows dull. (Although I would have watched if Ricky Gervais had been the emcee.) By all accounts, I didn’t miss anything. Everyone says that James Franco was boring. (Serves him right for bad-mouthing Gervais.) So instead I used the Internet to keep score.

Just as I feared, The King’s Speech won for Best Picture, even though Winter’s Bone and The Social Network are both better films. It also won for Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Historical Falsification – er, I mean Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). As I said before, the colonials are still in awe of the monarchy. If you don’t believe me, then how do you explain the fact that the 1998 award for Best Supporting Actress went to Judi Dench, for what was merely a cameo role as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love? (Dench herself was astonished that she won.) It seems that one merely needs that aura of royalty to impress the members of the Academy.

I can’t really fault the Academy for giving the Best Actress award to Natalie Portman, even though I thought Black Swan was bombastic and silly. However, I would have given the award to Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone. (I’m told that Black Swan won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film. I guess this shows that people who make indie films are just as clueless as the the people who work for the studios.)

I can’t judge Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor) or Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), because I haven’t yet seen The Fighter. Rotten Tomatoes calls it “predictable, but entertaining”. That hardly makes me want to rush out to see it.

I haven’t yet seen any of the Foreign Language films that were nominated. I will have to wait for them to come to my local art house theatre. Best Live Action Short went to the unfunny comedy, God of Love – unfunny comedies being the only kind that Hollywood recognizes. However, Best Animated Short went to The Lost Thing, so they got that right. And I was glad to see that Inside Job won for Best Documentary.

All in all the Academy didn’t embarrass itself too badly. The King’s Speech may not be a great film, but at least it’s not mind-numbing drivel like Forrest Gump (Best Picture, 1994).

Pernell Roberts 1928-2010

February 15, 2010

I know it’s a little late to bring it up, but Pernell Roberts died last month. He was a respected stage actor, but he was best known for playing the eldest son, Adam Cartwright, on Bonanza, a Western TV show that was hugely popular during the 1960’s. The show told the story of Ben Cartwright, who owns a huge ranch, the Ponderosa, next to Lake Tahoe. Cartwright has three sons by three different wives. The latter all met with untimely deaths. (This sounds suspicious to me. In the days of the Wild West, there weren’t any police around to ask questions.) I watched this show when I was a kid. I don’t remember much about it, except that every character seemed to wear the same clothes every day. I found this vaguely disturbing.

What I find interesting about Roberts is that he quit the show after six seasons. He complained about the bad writing and called the show “junk TV”. This was a gutsy thing to do, considering what an uncertain profession acting is. He also criticized NBC for not hiring minority actors. He took part in Civil Rights marches in 1965.

In the 1980’s, he did a TV medical drama series called Trapper John, M.D.. (The title character is supposedly the same Trapper John character in MASH.) I never saw this show, but I can’t imagine it could have been very good, considering that the writers were apparently unaware that the name, “Trapper John” is actually an off-color joke.

I guess there’s a limit to how principled and uncompromising an actor can be. He’s still got to pay his bills after all.

So Long, Oprah

November 23, 2009

Oprah Winfrey has announced that she is bringing her long-running TV show to an end. One of the factors that apparently led to this decision was her discovery that her own father is writing a tell-all book about her. (Ah, the life of a celebrity!)

If you ask me, Winfrey’s decision doesn’t come a moment too soon. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that Winfrey is an evil influence on our society. Among other things, she started the media hysteria over the absurd New Age book, The Secret. This learned tome claims, among other things, that thinking positive thoughts will cause good things to happen to you. Conversely, bad things will happen to you if you have negative thoughts. I suppose Winfrey believes that all the people in Hiroshima were having negative thoughts just before the atom bomb was dropped on them.

Newsweek has documented Winfrey’s practice of featuring dubious “alternative” medical ideas on her show – including the unproven claim that vaccines can cause autism. I know, people will argue that she isn’t as bad as Montel Williams or Maury Povich, who have had all sorts of quacks and frauds on their shows. I would argue that Winfrey is worse than these two precisely because she has a patina of respectability. People are more likely to believe nonsense when it’s on her show.

Late night talk shows don’t pretend to be anything more than entertainment. (Dick Cavett was accused of taking himself too seriously when he began having writers and intellectuals on his show.) Yet there is a widespread assumption that daytime talk shows can’t be just about celebrity chitchat, they have to be in some way educational. (I have no idea why people think this.) The problem is that, for the producers of these shows, “educational” usually means self-help books, fad diets, “alternative” medicine, New Age sophistry, and, of course, “psychics”. Sylvia Browne is a popular guest on these shows. In earlier days, it was Jeanne Dixon. The claims of these people are always treated uncritically.

Mike Douglas, who was sort of the Oprah Winfrey of his time, would bring Criswell on his show. (Yes, that’s the same Criswell who will be forever remembered for his deliriously bombastic speech at the beginning of Plan 9 from Outer Space. “Some day we will all live in the future!”) Douglas enthusiastically promoted the book, Criswell Predicts, which, among other things, prophecied that the world would come to an end in 1999. I seem to recall that Criswell also predicted that World War Three would be fought using insects that drill through people’s skulls, and that the first human on the moon would be a pregnant woman. Truly, this man was uncanny.

One thing I will say for Douglas is that he didn’t take himself too seriously, at least not nearly as seriously as Winfrey takes herself. One thing that really always annoys me about Winfrey is the attitude of moral seriousness that she exudes. One of the silliest things I have ever seen was the contrived outrage that she showed when it was revealed that James Frey had embellished some incidents of his life in A Million Little Pieces. Of course, people often change details of their lives in their autobiographies. Yet Winfrey reacted almost as if Frey had committed rape. Interestingly, after Winfrey excoriated Frey on her show, sales of his book skyrocketed. Perhaps this shows that some people can recognize grandstanding when they see it.

To be fair, Winfrey did express reservations about the impending invasion of Iraq, which is more than can be said for the execrable Jay Leno. (I’m pleased to note that Leno’s new show is bombing. Heh-heh.) It’s unfortunate that Winfrey can’t show a similar skepticism towards pernicious trash like The Secret.

Update: on Counterpunch, Ishmael Reed has a revealing article about Winfrey’s association with the film, Precious. Worth reading.

Wolf Blitzer Humiliated

September 21, 2009

Wolf Blitzer

According to the Huffington Post, Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN’s The Situation Room completely bombed in a recent episode of Celebrity Jeopardy. He ended up with a total of $-4,600, a rare feat in the history of Jeopardy (I suspect this may be a record in the history of game shows. You can find a video here). He lost out to Andy Richter and Dana Delaney. Does this surprise anyone? Any person who has ever suffered through an episode of Wolf’s program knows that he’s not the brightest bulb. His journalistic skills largely consist of being able to say “situation room” in a melodramatic voice. That’s pretty much it.

It’s interesting to note that Blitzer lost out to Andy Richter, a comedian. According to a recent poll, the most trusted “newsman” in the US is a comedian, Jon Stewart. This may have something to do with the fact that comedians have to figure out how to get people to laugh, which requires thinking. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to be able to say “situation room”.

I remember when I was very young, watching a news program about the relationship between the US and Britain. A woman reporter started the show off by solemnly informing her audience that the US and Britain have been allies “since 1776”. I almost fell off my chair. This was my first inkling that most TV reporters are essentially dumb people. And I know that there are many people who have the same general perception that I have. From Ted Baxter on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show to Kent Brockmann on The Simpsons, the Dumb TV Reporter has become a stock character in American comedy.

I would argue that this is not an accident. Intelligent people who spend all day discussing the news are likely to develop opinions, which may possibly be displeasing to their corporate sponsors. So producers look for people who will swallow whatever nonsense is placed before them. Consider the fact that, during the build-up to the Iraq invasion, no TV reporters questioned the Bush Administration’s absurd claims about “weapons of mass destruction”. (The only exceptions I know of were Bill Moyers and Phil Donahue, both of them marginal figures in the news media.)

With these sorts of people providing us with information, is it any wonder that so many people can’t think clearly about issues such as health care reform?