Thursday, December 21, 2006

Reality, art, and television

did get British shows in the late '70s. Don't think it was all canned Americana back then. But their short tube life proves there was just no audience sizable enough to watch them and no advertising support regular enough to keep them on the local small screen.

Two points on statements in my column piece below:

1. The small screen can--and does--offer the next best thing to reality and art, now that cable providers have succeeded in beaming to our television sets such a welcome multiplicity of cultures and coverages. In the late '70s and early '80s, even local newscasts and live public affairs specials were severely limited in length and scope by financial and political restrictions. Still, keep in mind that scripted television shows, including documentaries, only approximate reality even if they now belong to a legitimate and accepted artistic category.

2. DVDs and cable, as well as big-size television screens, can now bring to our homes the massive and spectacular library of films from all over the world, in glorious color and stunning sound. To me, however, their impact gets diluted when viewed on television.

I would rather that Ingmar Bergman's films remain as emotion-filled images in my mind's eye than watch them lose their power on a small screen.

"Impressions," TV Times, 1-7 April 1979


The New Avengers does not make waves. It's too hoity-toity British, often implausible, and lacks the violence and savagery of American crime series. Not that one is necessarily superior to the other, just that one is a class apart from the other.

That candid and comic acidity about crime, so evident in the series, is thoroughly and uniquely British, blending humor and horror and showing the world just how amusing all the feigned grittiness of American crime shows can be.

Episodes of The New Avengers are at once matter-of-factly violent and self-deprecatingly funny. They also display a dramatic irony that gives them their vitality and poetry. The irony marries laughter and crime, comic action and tragic design, life and death in appreciable doses. A friend dies, but from his death, the new avengers find the clues that will solve the crime. Purdey's pajama bottoms keep falling just as she is trying to get lost among the shop-window mannequins, but when revealed, she finds the perfect springboard for a fantastic kick. Steed and Gambit encounter nothing but sleeping people on the streets as they are pursued by criminals, but among the sleeping figures, they find the perfect cover for their wide-awake selves.

It may be asking too much of a crime series, but I am gratified by the almost automatic juxtaposition of dulcet tragedy and saline comedy in The New Avengers. It acts as a welcome blotter, soaking up the heaviness, the viciousness, the violence, and keeping them from staining our nights.

In the effort, though, it again opens the medium to a long-standing criticism--that television provides nothing more than placebo entertainment. Or to a lamentable one--that it distorts reality while passing it through the lens of fantasy. But anybody who, in the first place, makes the mistake of believing that the small screen can offer him the next best thing to reality or art is already functioning under a delusion that no television show, however brutal or forceful, can feed.

Once in a while, television can be truthful. Once in a while, it can offer something akin to art. But not always, not regularly. The New Avengers, neither reality nor art, is at least fanciful delight.


If anybody wants proof that a bigger and more excruciating attempt at reality and art is out there, untouched and untouchable by television, then Interiors is it. The Woody Allen film--too big to transmit to the small screen--is a pulsing, heartrending, throbbing reality you may never see on television. You can watch it on a Betamax tape, of course, but even on one, it will have been diminished in size and distempered by circumstance.

Interiors is film as art, even more Bergmanesques in some scenes than Bergman's, filled with women's faces and women's fears, overpowering and anguished. In a remarkable departure from previous Woody Allen films, Interiors is angst-ridden and inward-looking, delving into the inner self, exposing the brittle and breaking center.

Yet, film as art--like Interiors--for all its aesthetic beauty, is something we should not expect to see on a television schedule, much less on the small screen itself. The many diverse, varied, interesting people who say they enjoy Three's Company (which I don't) and Lou Grant (which I do) may not watch Interiors on television, even if it were simulcast on all channels (which it never will be, of course). Somehow, art and television do not mix.

It is not television's fault, nor film's. Each one has its own integrity, its own responsibility, its own audience, its own value. Its own limitations, too.

To realize this is to learn the first lesson in the art of appreciating both.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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