|by Erin Free
Ever since TV raised its upstart head in the fifties, it's been seen as the dumber, more eager to please little brother of the cinema. Slander such as "bubblegum for the eyes" and "the idiot box" have been slapped on it with flip sniggers. And the cinema has always been its biggest bully, ready to put in the boot whenever possible. When the "evils of the media," are openly discussed, TV is usually the first to cop it in the neck. Though the movies are just as driven by commercial demands and human avarice, they never hesitate in throwing the first stone at the more humble TV industry.
In the late nineties, this turkey shoot seems to have reached boiling point, with a slew of movies lining up to take a shot. Peter Weir's masterful The Truman Show (starring one time TV star Jim Carrey of In Loving Color) took its aim with subtle grace, showing a TV world that was willing to co-opt the entire life of an unknowing innocent and beam it non-stop across the world. Then Ed TV from director Ron Howard (alias Ritchie Cunningham from TV's Happy Days), about a video store clerk played by Matthew McConaughey who wins a competition that makes him the subject of a twenty four hour TV show. And recent release Pleasantville, where two nineties kids (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are zapped into a fifties sitcom with catastrophic results. FILMINK thought it was about time to take a look at how the small screen is represented on the big screen. With square eyes and remote at the ready, Erin Free digs deep.
Sidney Lumet's seventies masterpiece is an acid soaked, venomous hurl at the TV set. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, a former TV writer with a big chip on his shoulder, Network is about a loser TV station that will do anything to get ratings. An insane TV anchorman who becomes a messiah of misery (a dazzling Peter Finch) and a real life soap opera about a group of urban militant terrorists are all grist for this TV station's amoral mill. This pitch black satire reaches ground zero when the station executives decide to assassinate Finch's prophet on air because he's getting out of hand. Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall give brilliant performances as TV executives (and two of the biggest arseholes in cinema history), and William Holden is profoundly moving as the face of TV before it turned into a circus where the freaks rule. A seminal side swipe at TV that is still unchallenged in its savage depiction of the new opiate of the people.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994)
Who better to take a look at TV than Oliver Stone, the man with a permanent axe to grind. From an original script by whiz kid Quentin Tarantino, this masterpiece of kinetic sound and fury paints tabloid TV shows like "Hard Copy" in the most dreadful light possible. Robert Downey Jr. goes right over the top as an Australian TV journalist who gets a massive hard on for Mickey and Mallory Knox, two vicious thrill killers on a murder spree through the heart of America. He turns them into national folk heroes, and Oliver Stone points an angry finger at TV viewers obsessed with blood, death and the criminal cult of personality. With admirable anger, Stone laments a TV industry that turns killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson into stars. See also: Scream and Scream 2 for like minded tabloid huntress Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox).
BROADCAST NEWS (1987)
Warm, charming but still acerbic take on the TV news industry from James. L. Brooks, who got his start on the small screen. Holly Hunter, as a feisty producer, and a terrific Albert Brooks, as a serious minded reporter, try to keep it real for the viewers but are thwarted at every turn by the success of a vacuous, empty headed pretty boy anchorman played with sharp wit by William Hurt. TV stalwart Brooks parades the news as an industry hooked on sex and glossy surfaces rather than real issues, and makes his point clear when he has Albert Brooks refer to William Hurt as "the anti-Christ." A funny, thoroughly entertaining winner that provides a bit of sugar to help the bad medicine go down. Watch for an unbilled Jack Nicholson as a TV anchorman. See also: Robert Redford's Quiz Show for TV's preference for pretty faces (Ralph Fiennes) over people who really know the answers (Jon Turturro).
Though ostensibly a thriller about a janitor (cunningly played by a very young William Hurt) who claims to be an eyewitness to a murder so he can get close to a glamorous TV reporter (an icily sexy Sigourney Weaver), Eyewitness is much more. Its real power lies in its depiction of the lunatic gaze that television can inspire. The lure of TV is so powerful that Hurt's otherwise intelligent janitor has actually fallen in love with Weaver just by watching her on the box. When you invite people into your home through the TV, sometimes they can actually get a hold of your heart. A tight thriller (also starring Christopher Plummer, James Woods and Morgan Freeman) that also paints TV as a dangerous tonic for loneliness. See also: Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy for a man (Robert De Niro) obsessed with a TV star (Jerry Lewis).
THE CABLE GUY (1996)
Though wildly uneven, this is at times very sharp satire on the evils of TV by former TV performer Ben Stiller. Jim Carrey devilishly plays the title character, a socially dysfunctional cable TV installer whose lonely desperation leads him to latch onto average Joe Matthew Broderick as his new best pal. The audience soon learns that Carrey's maladjustments (of which there are many) stem from his childhood dependence on the TV as his only companion. Sick, twisted and ultimately very, very sad, Carrey's final cries sum it all up: "Turn off the baby sitter." See also: Being There (with Peter Sellers and Shirley MacClaine) for someone raised by the TV.
Leave it to David Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), the king of everything sick in cinema, to turn television into a potential conduit for mind control, degenerate corporeal hallucinations, snuff movies and a literal cornucopia of sex and sin. A superb James Woods is a cable TV operator who discovers a plot to dull the senses of the entire nation with images of pain and violence. A demented exercise in satire that tips the scales for TV as the new devil opiate. See also: John Carpenter's schlock horror effort They Live for TV used as a mind control device.
Though principally a sharp character comedy about gender roles and male-female relations, Tootsie's setting in the world of daytime soap operas gives it the chance to poke some light hearted, but still barbed, fun at TV. Those that put the soap together are a bunch of dills, and the audience, who turns Dustin Hoffman in drag into a feminist icon, is presented as even dumber. Sure, Tootsie might be fun, but it's pretty nasty too. See also: Soapdish and Grief for crazy TV soap operas.
THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
It's the future, and in a totalitarian America the only way the masses can get their cheapies is by watching a blood-and-guts TV show where convicts are given a last shot at freedom by facing off against a bunch of Rock'n'Roll Wrestling style superheroes. The hook? The fight is to the death. Arnold Schwarzenegger might be the muscleman who wins the day, but real life Family Feud host Richard Dawson steals the show as the program's bilious, ultra obnoxious presenter. Though this all might seem a bit fanciful, isn't it just Gladiators jumped up a few notches? See also: Death Race 2000 for TV as a death sport.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL (1996)
A canny mix of A Star Is Born and The Way We Were, but also a good look at news television in the nineties. Michelle Pfeiffer is the spunky young reporter on the rise and Robert Redford is the old hand who shows her the ropes. Like Broadcast News, this blows the lid on TV's preference for all things glossy and slick. But it also shows, through the Redford character's integrity and sense of honour, that TV can sometimes do the right thing. The news pool is still filled with sharks, though. See also: Gus Van Sant's To Die For for a super ambitious wannabe TV star (Nicole Kidman).
PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)
A particularly vicious satire from Robert Downey (Sr.) about a mean spirited, avaricious black guy who takes over a New York ad agency, and staffs it with black militants. Anarchy reigns, and TV (in the form of a series of send up commercials) and its audience (a bunch of idiots), both get a pretty good serve. Even Sidney Poitier gets creamed. As a point of interest, is this the only film that features the US President as a pot smoking midget?
WAG THE DOG (1998)
Art imitates life (or does life imitate art?) in this black hearted comedy from director (and current TV producer of Homicide: Life On The Street) Barry Levinson. When the President is caught slipping it to a teenager, his spin doctors (led by Robert De Niro and Anne Heche) manufacture a fake TV war with Albania (with the aid of movie producer Dustin Hoffman) to draw attention away from the area below the Commander In Chief's belt. TV as a government tool to hide the true evils that lurk within? No, never. Surely not. See also: science fiction thriller Capricorn One for a fake televised landing on Mars.
Okay, this might be an inconsequential, and ultimately pretty bad, film, but the premise really takes things as far as they can go. It's the future (well it was in 1979) in 1998, and America has fallen so low that the only way to save it is to......hold a telethon. Maybe they should just turn off the channel.
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originally posted: 05/09/99 13:15:18
last updated: 05/19/99 02:17:41