Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Game over

This is the column I really meant to write last week. But I got distracted by the apparently imagined connection between the killer of 32 Virginia Tech students and the Korean movie Oldboy. I have continued to look, without success, for any hard documentation that the butcher of Blacksburg ever actually saw the movie. That doesn’t mean we can say definitively that he didn’t. But it does mean that we cannot definitively say that he did either. If any reader comes across any information on the matter, I would be very interested in seeing it.

Those who have read my feedback page during the past week and followed the link contained therein also know that a connection was made in the media between the murderer and the video game Counter-Strike—a connection with even less foundation than the one about Oldboy. Clearly, there are those who do not like certain kinds of video games and/or movies and, when a tragedy like the Virginia Tech one occurs, they rush to make a connection in the public’s mind as a way of influencing popular opinion. This is not a new phenomenon. Baby boomers can recall a time when rock ‘n’ roll was blamed for all of society’s ills. Real old-timers can remember a time when the culprit was (gasp!) jazz.

I do not really blame advocates for using whatever news hook they can find to advance their pet causes (not that I condone making spurious connections like the ones described above, either), but I seriously fault the mainstream media, who style themselves as gatekeepers and voices of authority but then give these advocates a soapbox with no critical questioning or rebuttal from those who have another view. If they are so lazy and sloppy with stuff like this, how are we supposed to trust them with editorial judgment and fact-checking on really important stuff. The answer, of course, is that a lot of us don’t.

But let’s get back to the question I posed last week: Has Paddy Chayefsky’s vision come true? For those wondering who the heck Paddy Chayesfsky is, he was a playwright and screenwriter who won three Oscars during a career that ended with his death at 58 in 1981. His first Oscar was for 1955’s Marty, which starred Ernest Borgnine (who also got an Oscar) as a shy Bronx butcher unexpectedly finding love. Chayefsky also wrote the movie The Goddess, in which Kim Stanley played a thinly disguised variation of Marilyn Monroe, adapted The Americanization of Emily for the screen and wrote the novel Altered States, which he adapted for Ken Russell. (He wound up taking his usual professional name off the screen credits because of the altered state of his work that Russell created.) Chayefsky’s latter two statuettes came in the 1970s for more satirical work. One was 1971’s The Hospital, which was infused with the dark, morbid, absurd humor that would later characterize such TV fare as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere. As a frustrated doctor, George C. Scott was to this movie what Bruce Willis is to Die Hard movies, i.e. the lone sane guy who understands what’s going on while everyone else (especially those in authority) have their heads up one or other of their orifices.

Apart from his considerable work as a writer for TV, the stage and film, Chayefsky had one brief moment in the popular spotlight, when he happened to follow Vanessa Redgrave (winner of an Oscar for Julia) at the 1978 Academy Award telecast. Redgrave, a passionate Palestinian advocate, used her acceptance speech to denounce Zionism. Chayefsky commented (to hearty applause), “I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple ‘Thank you’ would have sufficed.” That cranky riposte indicated a nature that frequently showed up in the writer’s fictional works.

Chayefsky’s real lasting contribution to the movies (in my humble opinion) was his screenplay for 1976’s Network, directed by Sidney Lumet. Part satire, part cautionary, part rant by a frustrated and unhappy man, Network was quite unlike any movie we had seen before. A while back, I heard Mark Kermode suggest on the radio that Network had been eclipsed as the definitive movie about TV journalism by James L. Brooks’s 1987 film Broadcast News. I couldn’t disagree more. Brooks’s movie was a big-screen rom com that was in the vein of Brooks’s own Mary Tyler Moore Show or its successor Murphy Brown. Lumet’s movie, on the other hand, was an bitter attack on the very medium of which Brooks’s film was, at best, an affectionate critique. Network portrayed the people responsible for programming our television as totally devoid of morality or humanity. When an aging news anchor on his way out (veteran actor Peter Finch, who did not live to collect his Oscar) cracks up on air in the middle of a newscast, he is kept on because his mad rants draw an audience. Finch’s signature line in the film became a catchphrase that has endured to this day: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” When he becomes too much of a liability and the network needs another ratings boost, they kill two birds with one stone and make a deal with a domestic terrorist group. By the end of it all, the network is choreographing news events so that they can cover them. Talk about synergy. And all decades before the common usage of the term “reality television.”

In an age when our evening newscast is liable to contain coverage of some controversy over what is going on with American Idol (in the U.S.) or Big Brother (in the U.K.), is it fair to say that we have arrived at Chayefsky’s world of network news covering events that it has engineered itself? Well, yes, although Chayefsky’s dark vision included the virtual contracting out of murder. Surely, that was over top, right? Well, only technically. CNN took heat for running portions of a video produced by terrorists in Iraq, showing how their snipers were killing American soldiers. (Interestingly, the Associated Press has a policy of not using photographs provided by the U.S. military because it doesn’t want to be a conduit for propaganda.) And the butcher of Blacksburg took time out from his killing spree to send off his own media packet, the highlights of which NBC duly aired on its flagship newscast. We’re pretty sure that CNN and NBC didn’t contract for these events and the resultant coverage ahead of time, but the line is blurrier than it once was. There was a time when a major network like NBC would have declined to show any of the murderer’s photos or videos, out of a sense of decorum. But times have changed, and there is too much intense competition among the media and, well, hey, people would just have gone to see it on the internet anyway. We’re better informed because we did get to see it, right? And the fact that the killer sent it to NBC (presumably because it was No. 1 in newscast ratings) or that, when aired, every frame had the NBC logo on it, well, that wasn’t an endorsement by either party for the other, was it?

I always come down on the side of freedom of the press, so I won’t argue that NBC should not have aired the video. (But did they have to splash their logo on it? That was just tacky.) But I won’t absolve the media for doing a less than stellar job in informing us news consumers—the aforementioned instances of non-analytical coverage of un-rebutted charges of causes in popular culture (movies, video games) being cases in point. Instead of bringing the likes of Jack Thompson on TV to spin a tragedy to help his anti-video-game crusade, how about more analysis of how and why terrorists and crazy people, both abroad and at home, find that they can manipulate the media (and, by extension, public opinion) by committing sensational atrocities. This may be a problem without a solution, but let’s at least talk about it.

Pop quiz: Which is most likely to make the next crazy person kill a bunch of innocent people at random: a) easy availability of guns, b) violent video games, or c) the fact that they will be famous worldwide for a week?

-S.L., 3 May 2007

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