Television is funny. It is also pertinent, condescending, troubled, and absorbing. It is probably more like life than any art other than the daily art with which we narrate our lives for our friends. Some of it is without redeeming value: social, personal, or otherwise --pleasurable. Difficult to write about, it is nearly impossible not to think about.
Michael Arlen's "The Camera Age" is a fine collection of essays filled with Arlen's thoughts and writing on the subject. It poses questions about the state of the medium in general and about individual shows in particular.
"Already," he writes, "To a remarkable extent, the television cameras stare out across the world, peering into politics, into space, into backyards, into courthouses, casting their eyes at family life, public life, sports, sex, revolution, war, famine as well as plenty, while we stay home, also staring --living our lives in terms of what we think the cameras tell us."
Arlen writes about TV for The New Yorker (in which all these essays first appeared) on a regular but occasional basis and is free of the burden of reviewing everything that appears. His commentary is thoughtful, helpful, at times funny, and on a few occasions, arch and huffy. He is most concerned with TV's public persona, with the way this medium is our messenger. As someone in his position should be, he is very concerned with our relationship with television and not simply with its quality. And the fact that this is so, that evaluation is only one part of what concerns such a viewer, is itself pertinent and instructive.
TV's place and role are as much factors to regard as are its successes and flaws.The fact of its presence is at least as consequential as the facts or stories it communicates. For Arlen this presence takes several forms. For example, how the Oscar presentations resemble 19th-century parades, how Soviet refugees paraded on TV resemble men on the moon (as paraded on TV), how "Roots" sentimentalizes our childhoods, how "Dallas" is notm like a soap opera -- such questions of place and role are as critical to Arlen as the quality of acting in "Shogun."
At the heart of his view is the value of the camera. "More and more, we see what the cameras see. Our interests become determined by what the cameras are interested in." What TV tells is highly governed by its wish to show, and this touchy, at times debilitating wish propels and unifies this collection and characterizes the way in which this shiny messenger mediates between us and events.
It affects the kinds of stories we watch --news, sports, and fiction -- and can blur invisible subtleties and interior movements. The strategies and manipulations within OPEC cannot be photographed but demonstrations can. Thus, we will witness the Iranian students' understanding of how to use television and will not see the ways that OPEC members do or do not get along. We will learn a good deal more about what groups want publicly to say to us than what they cannot help but say to one another.
Coupled with this, ironically and powerfully, is the evident truth that the more vivid these pictures are, the more cheerfully we invite them home with us. Images are neighborly; they are small mirrors of our peers propped up on a screen amid the bric-a-brac. We are pals, Johnny Carson and I, and have been consorting as long as I've been an adult. And this presence, this transaction is a new one and taps into a system combined of mind, nerves, sentiment, and reflexes, a combination physical and mental and one unknown before 1950.
Deftly, Arlen quotes Thoreau when informed of the first transcontinental telegraph link between Maine and Texas. "But what," Thoreau asked, "if Maine and Texas have nothing to communicate?" It is a quick, bright inversion and a measure of our present expectations that to such an epigram we respond with amusement. Television and its cohorts have permitted us to want to know when and if they dom have something to communicate. Michael Arlen certainly wants to know, and it is his neighborly, engaging wish to do so which animates t his intelligent, communicative book.