'Scream TV' and Obi-Wan speaks

What does an Arts & Leisure editor unearth by scanning magazines, news services, the Internet, and the book bin? Try these items:

In an article in September's "Brill's Content" on "scream TV" (those contentious talk shows like "The McLaughlin Group" and its ilk), writer Deborah Tannen explains why these shows present such a disputatious environment for political discussion. TV is a "performance" medium, she says, where debating ability, not quality of ideas, is most valued.

"By turning everything into a left-right fight," she writes, "the argument culture gives us trumped-up, showcase 'debates' between two oversimplified sides, leaving no room for the real arguments.... [I]n most televised debates, the goal is not to understand but to win. You can't explore nuances or complexities; that would weaken your position."

What is the effect on viewers? Discouragement. Because only the extremes are presented, they "conclude that if the two sides are so far apart, the problem can't be solved, so why try?"

It's not all the fault of the commentators. Tannen reports that if they even hint to producers that they see both sides of an issue, they can be assured of not being invited to participate.

In a new book, "Alec Guinness: A Positively Final Appearance" (Viking), due in October, the celebrated actor and original Obi-Wan Kenobi tells of his concerns about the fascination with "Star Wars":

"Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun," he writes. "Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny first dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen 'Star Wars' over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy's eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

" 'I would love you to do something for me,' I said.

" 'Anything! Anything!' the boy said rapturously.

" 'You won't like what I'm going to ask you to do,' I said.

" 'Anything, sir, anything!'

" 'Well,' I said, 'do you think you could promise never to see "Star Wars" again?

"He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. 'What a dreadful thing to say to a child!' she barked, and dragged the poor kid away."

Meanwhile, it appears that Jar Jar Binks will have some company as a "virtual" actor from a movie star who died in 1992.

London's Daily Telegraph newspaper reports that sultry-voiced actress Marlene Dietrich is being "reborn" as a "digital actress" using computer technology.

A computer program will use existing film footage of the famous actress ("The Blue Angel," "The Devil Is a Woman," "Witness for the Prosecution,") to create a three-dimensional model. As with Jar Jar, a live actor will traipse around the set and the animated Dietrich will be substituted afterwards. Permission from Dietrich's grandson was given for this "virtual Dietrich" to appear in films, TV shows, and ads.

Says a producer at a major studio: "It's an incredible development, and nobody quite knows what the ultimate outcome will be. Will actors no longer be needed? If so, it will come as a huge relief to some producers who are fed up with stars' complaints and demands."

Digital Dietrich, the newspaper says, will make her debut at a German film museum later this year.

*Send your comments on the Arts & Leisure section to entertainment@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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