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       Play All, p.2

           Clive James
 
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  There will always be formal scholarly work to be done. But it will be done best if contact is not lost with the tone of common speech in which habitual consumers discuss the product; a tone not all that far from the voluble congeniality with which they pass the popcorn. Binge-watching is a night out, even when you spend the whole day in. It’s a way of being. (As Sartre unaccountably failed to note in his book Being and Nothingness, “binge” and “being” are anagrams of each other.) We begin to esteem this way of being at its true worth when we realize that the creators of the brain food that we are wolfing down are at least as involved in it, at the level of imagination, as we are ourselves. From Homer until now, and onward to wherever the creaking fleet of Battlestar Galactica will go in the future, there never was, and never will be, a successful entertainment fueled by pure cynicism. Even the people who once made the final, foundering episodes of The Love Boat had to reach into the depths of their well of feeling. They just didn’t have to reach very far. And when we, alive now in this amazing era of creativity, click on Play All and settle back to watch every season of The Wire all over again, we should try to find a moment, in the midst of such complete absorption, to reflect that the imagined world being revealed to us for our delight really is an astounding and yet necessary achievement, even though we will always feel that we need an excuse for doing nothing else except watch it. We are well occupied. We are taking a long view.

  Taking that long view, we should soon realize that we have been saved. The rack of box sets has provided the antidote for two kinds of disappointment. The long-form TV series gives us reason to take heart when we see the commitment to dramatic fiction of the terrestrial broadcasters shriveling under the pressure of competition from the semicreative phenomenon which has somehow managed to bless itself with the misleading name of reality television. To use the term “semicreative” is, in most cases, putting it a bit high, but it has to be admitted that a reality format takes quite a lot of thinking up.

  Sometimes the thinking is inspired, and a British show like Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here comes lurching and belching into existence, dauntingly well equipped to leave a great broadcasting system looking crippled by its own gentility. At other times, all you get is something like the British show Jump, in which minor celebrities were equipped with skis and goaded into jumping off the end of a very short ramp, to the astonishment of nobody who was watching, and very soon nobody was. Either way, hit or miss, the period of creativity lasts only as far as the moment when the format is held to be established. After that, nothing happens on the mental level except accountancy. The great appeal of such stuff to the more soulless brand of television executive—not necessarily brainless, but always morally obtuse—is that it costs next to nothing. The disadvantage is that intelligent viewers would rather watch almost anything else. In Britain, the main channels still come up with the occasional stretch of must-see fiction like Downton Abbey (i.e. the kind of period piece that the Americans are flatteringly pleased to import under the general title of Masterpiece Theatre), and there is always yet another show about a gifted but rebellious middle-ranking policeman banished to a provincial seaside town who redeems his reputation by solving the sort of murder case in which everyone in the district is a suspect. (When an actor famous for playing Dr. Who was cast as the middle-ranking policeman, he grew a weird half-beard to prove that he was serious, thereby becoming, I thought, the only weirdly half-bearded middle-ranking policeman in England. I thought he looked like D. H. Lawrence after an unsuccessful night with Frieda, but one of my female advisers assures me that I am underestimating both the prevalence and the attractiveness of the weird half-beard.) Now that Inspector Morse is dead, there is always a show centered on the young Morse, or on his assistant Lewis, or on the young Lewis, or on Lewis’s assistant Hathaway. (One day there will be a show about Hathaway’s assistant when young.) The carved limestone Oxford settings look delectable, but in time they can make you long to watch David Caruso standing sideways against the glittering vista in CSI Miami and taking off his dark glasses before putting them on again: not normally something that an intelligent viewer longs for.

  But regular viewers can be excused for finding that the pickings have grown thin. If they go out to the movies, however, they meet the second kind of disappointment, because most of the new movies are blockbusters scaled up from Marvel comics or video games: source material in which young people are reputedly interested. Older people usually aren’t, so back they limp to the television set, having invested in some form of software that gives them multiple channels. Superficially this looks like the answer. Even the cheapest package will have half a dozen channels full of everything in the CSI franchise, whether set in Las Vegas, Miami, or New York. (There is a capital joke in Entourage when the hopeless actor Johnny Drama talks of getting a part in CSI Minneapolis.) There are infinite supplies of Law and Order. They also run movies all the time, and some of the movies, even though made quite recently, are of the old type in which, if the white hats fought the black hats, the mayhem was confined within the limit of physical likelihood. But increasingly all the movies that screen on the sludge channels look as if they were designed to be there. When battle is joined, martial arts are employed. And they are not just the routinely astonishing martial arts of the Kung Fu and Bruce Lee type. They are magic martial arts. Actors, usually devoid of other characteristics, have the ability to rise twisting into the air and somersault over the heads of their opponents. You will see even big-name actors such as Keanu Reeves doing this. Once I had seen him doing it a few times, I never wanted to see him doing anything. And Keanu in the Matrix movies is at the top of the list of somersaulting heroes, along with Hugh Jackman in the X-Men movies. Milla Jovovich, the most beautiful face in creation, is reduced to the status of a cartoon as she somersaults through a cavalcade of robotized assailants: she wields a blade that shatters them like glass. Two blades. And a gun.

  What eyes, but what idiocy. Further down the list, with less of the aerial maneuvering but even more reliance on the mad delusion that feet and bare hands can defy weapons, you get Jean-Claude Van Damme. Determined students are often ready to insist that a cliché meathead hero is sometimes in a good movie, and in Jean-Claude’s case this is sometimes almost true: Timecop isn’t bad. And even Jason Statham, whose usual fate is to spend half the movie employing his kick-boxing skills to wipe out one of those circular, inward-facing clusters of heavies who kindly make the mistake of throwing their guns away and attacking him one at a time, is possibly the right guy to star in The Bank Job, where you can just about imagine how his effortful cockney accent might charm the expensive pants off Saffron Burrows. Steven Seagal, his brow creased with the effort of wondering how he came to put on weight despite his diet of Asian health food, can still frighten a whole platoon of the Yakuza by the way he moves toward them with confident slowness, slowly advancing one pudgy hand in front of the other. But by the time you get down to Vin Diesel, you have to be the kind of viewer who gets an automatic reflex thrill out of watching a muscleman in a vest doing nothing except somersault to evade bullets, kick people in the head, and drive a car. You have to be a zombie: although let’s not even get into the topic of zombies and vampires, who not only populate the big screen in the majority of all movies made for it but also populate those movies that never get as far as the big screen, and instead invade the small one with shambling armies of the undead and chorus lines of otherwise pretty actors of both main genders made portentous with heavy eye makeup, thus to convey the strain of combining procreative passion with a thirst for blood. If only Buffy could have slain them all.

  People who worry about the effect of all this junk on the next generation probably aren’t worried enough about themselves. From where I’m sitting, screen trash becomes an extinction event. See enough somersaulting actors and you’ll have the sort of dreams that make you fall out of bed. In recent years, during this thematic collapse and ethical putrefaction of the film ind
ustry, there would have been little to save us from cortical decay if not for the providential rise of the box set. If you ever doubt the value of watching the buildup to a mealtime massacre in Game of Thrones, think of that sequence in The Return of the King that has Orlando Bloom bringing down the Mumakil, one of those mythical horned beasts which have been eating up the blue-screen sequences ever since The Empire Strikes Back. Orlando’s victory over a digital effect took bundles of money and a factory full of the kind of IT expertise that can morph a film star into a digital double of himself, but the Red Wedding wipeout of a bunch of real live actors in the ninth episode of the third season of Game of Thrones took thought. The essential difference between a good box set drama and a comic-book movie’s relentless catalogue of mechanized happenings is that the first thing leaves you with something to discuss, and the discussion becomes part of the experience. The second thing does all your reacting for you. The recent remake of Total Recall has immeasurably more advanced special effects than the original, but on the human level it doesn’t even have Arnie. When a movie is nothing but spectacle, it is asking us to switch off our brains: a baleful modern precept of which Leni Riefenstahl was merely the pioneer. The will triumphs.

  Nevertheless, the new Golden Age of Television, supposing that it exists, can’t possibly leave Hollywood behind, and not just because Los Angeles is where most of its products come from. The show-runners and the writers, even at their most original, are drawing on a heritage. Just as, in Hollywood, there has always been an actor called Harrison Ford, so there have always been codes of allowable behavior. There was a time when screen lovers, even if they were supposed to be married, could not lie on the same bed unless the man had one foot on the floor. One of the reasons why the box set screenwriters are so determined to populate the screen with a writhing orgy is their accurate perception that liberty is being furthered: what they do now depends on their knowledge of what once could not be done. In fact, they know that kind of thing about movies and the media better than they know the world. (It might be a case of critical wish fulfillment to suppose that Martin Scorsese got his knowledge of mean-streets violence from spending his childhood with the bad boys: it’s much more likely that his strict mother told him to stay away from them, and that he got most of his frame of reference from books and the movies.) The creative teams of today are not really abandoning the idea of codes of acceptability; but they do modify them, and in the box sets they are usually modifying them toward a humane and thoughtful maturity, thereby releasing the intelligent appreciation of the facts of life that generations of creative people were previously compelled to disguise. (Californication is essentially a sex fantasy from the mind of Cecil B. DeMille that arrives on screen without having to go by way of Babylon or ancient Rome.) The actors now may curse much more on screen, but they are even less likely than they once were to say anything provocative to those professing to be outraged by transgressions in the direction of sexism, racism, or any other patrol areas of political correctness. In fact one of the inherent conflicts within recent television is the tension between the urge to speak freely and the convention by which politically incorrect vocabulary must be avoided. You could write a whole thesis about how modern ideological sensitivities rewrite the past. It goes without saying that you must tread carefully if you want to republish The Nigger of the Narcissus under its original title, even though a great writer wrote it. But now that anybody who once might have been called black has to be called an African American (unless, like Idris Elba in The Wire, he was born in Hackney and raised in East Ham), it becomes problematic to refer, without trigger warnings, to an innocent old movie that happened to have the word “black” in its title. I thought for a while of writing a treatise about the politically inspired linguistic cleansing of the past and calling it The Beige Shield of Falworth.

  But then I thought again, and decided to write this book instead. Soon the process of historical oblivion that Peter Bogdanovich was the first to warn us about—the process by which, if you tell young people about Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses, they not only haven’t heard of Moses, they haven’t heard of Charlton Heston—will extend to embrace Tony Curtis, a man whose fame, which reached to the whole world in my youth, had already waned by the time I interviewed him. Perhaps time, if left unopposed, will always Sanforize itself into some form of intelligible fiction, which we discuss with one another all the more learnedly because we don’t really understand what Putin is up to in Ukraine, or what, whatever it is, can be done about it. The names of the buttons we push in order to make this new heritage roll before our eyes are understood by everyone. We all know how to make the sane person’s decision to watch the episodes one at a time or the bingewatcher’s decision to play every episode on the disc. And there’s my title: Play All. There was a time when that instruction didn’t even exist. But now it’s in our lives, and especially it’s in the lives of those of us who have run so short of time that time no longer matters, and who are thus able to choose exactly what we want to see next. Shall I spend the better part of tomorrow afternoon making further inroads into the novels of Sir Walter Scott? Or shall I join my daughter in watching four episodes of Dexter? All right, five. Followed by a learned discussion of whether The Following might not have been a bit more plausible if Kevin Bacon’s character, instead of merely chasing serial killers, had serially killed them.

  The Ducks Have Left the Pond

  A HUGE MAN is on the pool patio outside his house in New Jersey. In the close-up, Tony Soprano’s face is creased with effort on its various levels and terraces. He is wondering where the ducks have gone. Is he reflecting that they must have left for the winter, or has it occurred to him that he, too, might be subject to divine will? Why hast Thou forsaken me? It helps that the face belongs to James Gandolfini. It is massive. Even at only a first visit to the show, the viewer will already have realized that Gandolfini, who can so easily fade into the background in his movies, looms immensely on television. From Get Shorty you can barely remember him: he was just a failed torpedo that John Travolta threw downstairs. But in The Sopranos he is a magnetic mountain, pulling toward him all legends of haunted loneliness and seismic inner violence. Charles Laughton looked that size in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In I, Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, his cheeks puffed with makeup, is eaten alive by his old-age worries about whether his family is up to inheriting the empire whose dizzy limits were set by him in the sly power of his vigor. Gatsby wondered what the green light was worth if it could not give him Daisy. Holden Caulfield wondered what happened to the ducks when the pond froze over. You don’t have to contemplate Tony’s hulking yet tormented image for long before realizing how futile it is to trace the show to its origins, as if the fact that its basic narrative device is a straight lift from the movie Analyze This were somehow proof that The Sopranos is not sui generis.

  Of course it isn’t. It’s got everything in it, including all the Godfather movies except the bad scenes in Godfather III when the plot goes so haywire you get time to wonder about Al Pacino’s hairpiece. Characters in The Sopranos can play all the characters in The Godfather movies. Loafing at the Bada Bing or outside Satriale’s Pork Store, they quote Godfather dialogue by the yard. They can do that without crashing the vehicle because they’re in a bigger story than the one they’re quoting. Anyone who sat through the action-free story line of Rubicon will testify that when the leading characters started referring to Three Days of the Condor, the show was doomed, because the viewer could not recover from the enforced reminder that the show wasn’t a patch on the movie. It was three hours of the condor at the very most. The Sopranos is at least three Godfather movies plus The Magnificent Ambersons and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Not that it has all that much sheer spectacle. But it does have inner scope.

  The Sopranos is so capacious that it can sabotage itself and still keep your devotion. Tony’s liability of a sister Janice, as played by Aida Turturro, is such a flake that she made some viewers switch
off. Those many millions of us who stayed loyal weren’t just fascinated by the post-hippie fecklessness of Janice’s disaster-strewn curriculum vitae—I especially appreciated that she was still drawing insurance checks for carpal tunnel syndrome acquired from her not very strenuous period of actuating a coffee machine—we were fascinated by the effect she had on Tony. She enraged him, and usually when people enrage Tony he gets rid of them. They end up bumped off, cut up, and sunk in the landfill. But he can’t do that to members of his immediate family. There is no real limit to his power, but there is a limit to his ruthlessness. In this respect, he’s a bit like us: or so we would like to think. (We would like to think that our omnipotence is reined in by moral scruple.) In the Brian de Palma movie Scarface, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) doesn’t hesitate to ruin his sister’s happiness. Tony Soprano does hesitate, even when we, his audience, are mentally egging him on, aching for the moment when he switches his huge capacity for violence to the necessary task of eliminating this pain in his butt, but also sadly aware that he will once again talk himself into accommodating her crazy needs. So there she stays, making our hearts sink from week to week. And we stay too: eloquent testimony to the show’s psychological grip.

 
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