Reporters. Would we understand anything without them?
Whilst watching Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner cavorting to little effect as a press reporter and TV reporter respectively in Futureworld the other night I realised what a seventies phenomenon this was. Hero journalist working outside the system, just give me twenty-four hours chief, all that stuff.
Were there heroic reporters in film prior to this? All the movie journalistic examples I can think of are pretty malevolent ones. Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell Of Success. Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s astounding Ace In The Hole. Then along come the seventies and suddenly we’re knee deep in fact-wielding paragons of integrity, with no deadlines and precious little apparent work to do, like Elliott Gould in Capricorn One (and blimey, that’s a threadbare film, thinner and shoddier than I remembered it when I re-watched it last year).
You can blame Woodward and Bernstein of course, or more accurately Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men. I love that movie, but unfortunately so does every journalist who’s ever seen it and it has fed back into the way a lot of them do their jobs. There seems to be very little impartiality and detachment now. Journalists seem to like to be in the story rather than just reporting it. The murder of Jill Dando in 1999 for example, was awful, but it wasn’t unique. Many women are murdered each year by psychotic sexual obsessives. The story with Jill Dando appeared not to be that a woman had been murdered. It was that a journalist had been murdered.
There is a superb book called Amusing Ourselves To Death by an American academic called Neil Postman which has a lot to say about the presentation of news, particularly with regard to its infantilisation on television. One of Postman’s points is that TV has made people feel inappropriately personally involved in things. He contrasts the attack on Pearl Harbor which was covered by newsreels and newspapers (and so felt like something that happened to other people far away) with the assassination of JFK which was covered by TV live in people’s homes (and so felt like something that had happened to “us”). And with the addition of music and graphics the news has stopped being information and has become more of an entertainment, he suggests.
Worryingly enough Amusing Ourselves To Death was written in the early eighties during Reagan’s first term in office and if things have changed at all since then they have got worse. The deaths of Princess Diana and, twelve years later, Michael Jackson have a lot to tell us about the way people are emotionally manipulated by what they see on TV. I remember the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon and, whilst there was an emotional response, I don’t remember the world crunching to a halt for their funerals. And as for the asinine presentation style there’s a danger that one can get inured to it. The pound’s value has gone down, says the newsreader, and sure enough there’s a big picture of a pound coin and an arrow pointing downwards. Ah, we say stroking our chins, so that’s what that means.
So reporters now think they are the story, and news is now lowbrow entertainment. Are these fair accusations?
This idiocy is most nakedly evident during bad weather, or what I must now learn to call “weather events”. It aggravated me enormously during the 2007 floods when news programmes would cut live, and presumably at some expense, to a hapless fuckwit standing in galoshes in a puddle saying “Here I am standing in a puddle” for two minutes before handing back to the studio for more breaking news on what water is and what we can expect to happen when it falls from the sky in quantity.
This is pertinent just now as we are four weeks into a spell of unusually wintry weather (referred to as a cold “snap” for about three weeks on TV – don’t wish to be pedantic, but isn’t a snap usually a wee bit shorter than three weeks?). I’m in the very fortunate position of working from home so I’ve missed the worst of it, but I have travelled out and about a bit and the impression I have is of a country stoically, often humorously, coping with it. Keep calm. Carry on. That’s us.
That’s not what you see on the news though where it’s absolute bloody panic stations. Fingers are being pointed. How come the councils don’t have enough grit to make the roads safe? Well, because it’s the sort of weather you only get once in fifty years in this country. You wouldn’t expect councils to have laid in the amount of grit they would have needed to deal with this weather. Weather event, sorry. If they had laid in that amount of grit and then not needed it you wouldn’t have been more angry if they’d spent your council tax on a handful of magic beans.
And this is where the reporters are loving it. They get to stand in the snow being the centre of attention brushing snow off their car roof showing you how much has fallen since you last saw them. They are the story. Them.
And if the snow finally comes over the tops of Cameron Buttle’s wellies then we will just have to abandon the country. Leave it where it is with the hazard warning lights flashing and just go.
Lots of work today and out this evening with friends like a real proper normal person. I did find time for one movie though, and it’s a decent enough little curio.
A Kiss Before Dying is a 1955 noir-ish affair from a novel by Ira Levin, the cheery chap who also gave us the source material for Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil and Sliver. It’s an aesthetic disaster from a director (Gerd Oswald) who as far as I can tell made no films of note other than this, and whose career otherwise seems to have involved directing TV episodes.
Direction be damned though, because the plot and cast rescue and redeem this. I think the statute of limitations on spoilers has probably expired after 55 years, but I’ll be careful anyway.
A young Robert Wagner (whose mother is played by The Maltese Falcon’s Mary Astor) is wooing an equally young Joanne Woodward. When he finds out she’s three months pregnant by him he kills her and makes it look like a suicide (some plotting of admirable finesse here). Some time later her sister becomes suspicious (clever clues again) and starts to investigate. Will he get away with it? I’m not telling.
It’s a bit reminiscent of Psycho (albeit five years earlier), another film about a woman investigating the death of her sister at the hands of a psychopath, and that’s a good thing. Great too to see Robert Wagner playing evil. Those who remember him as the affable Jonathan Hart from Hart To Hart (“when they met it was moider”) rather than his wicked arms dealer from Airport 80 – The Concorde (a misunderstood, and criminally underrated film) will be shocked at how plausible a bastard he plays.