Sunday, April 10, 2005

Cultural notes--TV as anti-time machine

I went to see Der Untergang yesterday, but I am not going to write a review of that, except to say that the highly lauded performance of Bruno Ganz failed to capture what I had imagined must have been Hitler's personal magnetism. But maybe Ganz's performance captured all there really was--our Hitler would thus be a product of projection--not a novel idea, but hard to accept. On the other hand Ulrich Matthes's Goebbels was, I think, genuinely wrong--the stupidly fanatical Goebbels of the movie was a caricature. But again, maybe mere projection is at work when we imagine that Karl Rove is an evil genius, when words like mean, nasty and lucky will do.
But that wasn't what I was thinking about afterwards. We have actual movies of that time, and even before. Some of us have pre-TV memories, in my case, childhood memories of the 2nd World War. We of course can hear Roosevelt's and Churchill's voice, and Hitler's, all of which were recorded. But it was a different time.

What I was thinking about is a non-Rip Van Winkle effect.

We got rid of our TV in 1976, I think it was. I know it was after the fall of Saigon, which I remember seeing TV news reportage of, and I know my stepdaughter was still a little girl. Kay and I raised two kids without a TV in the house. The TV set we got rid of was black and white. When I got another TV about a quarter century later, the only thing that had really changed was that it was that it was a color TV. And the quality of the evening news was immeasurably worse.

Kay and I both thought, rightly or wrongly, that TV palsied the imagination of children, which is why we threw away the televison. Not having a television set in the house was not a big deal for us, and kind of a private decision, but sometimes people would take it personally, as if their lives had been criticized, and try to convince us that it was a bad thing. I am sure people who home-school their kids run into the same problem.

But anyway about the time my daughter went to college, I bought an old TV in a pawn shop for $40. Then a couple of years later I got a high speed cable connection for my computer, which included 75 TV channels, naturally.

And nothing has changed.

Well, I will obviously have to take that back: a lot has changed. But it occurs to me that TV has in a certain odd way eradicated the past.

The America I grew up in was the America of the 1950s. Network television really got started in the 50s. The America where large numbers of people come home from work, and turn on the television set, and actually watch it during the evening hours, came into existence at that time and has not left us. My sense of the America we live in is the same as it was in the 1950s. My grandmother, who lived to be 104 and died in 2001, could not have had that sense about the first half of her life. The changes were too vast. She remembered coming to Oklahoma from Missouri in a covered wagon when she was 10. She was an adult during the first world war. She remembered the first time she saw an automobile, and an airplane. Electric lights, radio, movies, the Great Depression, the 2nd world war--all this happened during the first half of her life. Each of these changed America tremendously.
We have had equally important events and inventions (the internets!) but the pace of change as we _perceive_ it, has I think slowed, not increased. And I think TV is the reason we have the perception of things being the same.

It is now the matrix into which we fit events.

Newspaper journalism, even with photography, did not work that way, it seems to me. Maybe I'm wrong about this, and maybe everyone when they reach the age of 60 or so, will demarcate the first 10 years of their lives as radically different from the next 50. But I doubt it.

I watched TV news during the 1960s and early 1970s, and sometimes other stuff. It's the other stuff that has stayed the same the most. It's true that TV news had a dramatic effect on our understanding of Vietnam, but the iconic images were still-photo images--the little girl running toward the camera, burned by napalm, the Saigon police chief caught at the moment of blowing out the brains of a Vietcong suspect. These are images that lost the war, and were far more powerful, even in grainy black and white newspaper reproduction, than television images. I only recently knew that there is a TV clip of the shooting of the Vietcong suspect, and I downloaded and watched it--it is far more brutal than the still photo, but it has not replaced the still photo in my mind. And it can't. Odd. Maybe still photos give us the power to look at something a long time and burn it into our minds.

But even though print journalism and still photography can have great power--think Abu Ghraib-- the framework of American life still seems--to me-- to be televison. I don't know how to describe it except as a framework of some kind.

I stepped out the door and come back 25 years later and found nothing changed, really, at least in the basic configuration of the house. That's just weird.

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