Even as Unfriended and other computer-screen-focused films continue to reflect our new media-consumption reality, the Film Center‘s upcoming shows of the satirical 1994 Czech sci-fi movie Accumulator 1 remind us that big-screen filmmakers have long been interested in the small screen. Here are five prime examples.
Good campy fun from the combined talents of Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet; Chayefsky was apparently serious about much of this shrill, self-important 1976 television satire interlaced with bile about radicals and pushy career women, and so were some critics at the time. Peter Finch, in his last performance, effectively plays a network news commentator who blows his top and his mind on the air and quickly becomes a self-styled messiah; William Holden plays the wizened TV executive who has the Truth, which pushy, nihilistic program director Faye Dunaway wants; and Robert Duvall, Wesley Addy, Ned Beatty, and Beatrice Straight are around for comparably juicy hyperbole. 121 min.
The King of Comedy
Martin Scorsese’s 1983 movie about an aspiring comic (Robert De Niro) who kidnaps a talk-show host (Jerry Lewis) is clearly an extension of Taxi Driver, both in its themes of obsession and its ambiguous stylistic mixture of fantasy and reality (it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins—my feeling is that the entire last half of the film takes place in the De Niro character’s mind). But the shift in archetypes from Catholic to Jewish, plus the visual shift from extravagant expressionism to flat, overlit TV images, radically alters the point of view; you feel for the first time that Scorsese is trying to distance himself from his characters—that he finds them grotesque. The uncenteredness of the film is irritating, though it’s irritating in an ambitious, risk-taking way. You’d better see for yourself. With Diahnne Abbott and Sandra Bernhard. 109 min. —Dave Kehr
This 1983 shocker by David Cronenberg comes about as close to abandoning a narrative format as a commercial film possibly can: James Woods plays the programmer of a sleazy Toronto cable channel who stumbles across a mysterious pirate emission—a porno show called Videodrome that features hideous S and M fantasies performed with appalling realism. Knowing a ratings winner when he sees one, Woods sets out to find the producer and quickly becomes involved with a kinky talk-show hostess (Deborah Harry), expanding rubber TV sets, a bizarre religious cult, and—almost incidentally—a plot to take over the world. Never coherent and frequently pretentious, the film remains an audacious attempt to place obsessive personal images before a popular audience—a kind of Kenneth Anger version of Star Wars. 90 min. —Dave Kehr
In 1992, Brian Springer used his satellite dish in Buffalo to scavenge 500 hours of television feeds from America’s media power brokers, capturing moments that are normally deleted by local television stations. Edited down to 58 minutes, the resulting documentary (1995) is a remarkable exercise in video voyeurism, reporting unguarded small talk from the likes of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Bush the elder, Pat Robertson, Jerry Brown, Larry King, Dan Rather, and their offscreen handlers. During a break on a call-in show, someone coaches Robertson on how to brush off the callers: “You take the one sentence and turn it around and go on to another issue. . . . You can talk about anything you want.” When King tells Bush that they’ll be watched in 151 countries, the president replies, “Do you think Saddam Hussein is watching this very minute?” King’s behavior is particularly embarrassing: “Ted Turner changed the world. He’s a big fan of yours,” he tells Governor Clinton. “He would, ah, serve you—you know what I mean. . . . I’d call him. After you’re elected. Think about it.” But not everyone’s spin is welcome on the airwaves, as Springer later discovered when the PBS program POV turned down his project for national broadcast. 57 min. —Bill Stamets
The Truman Show
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) thinks he lives in a model island community, but then he discovers that his entire life has been televised without interruption as The Truman Show; his family and friends, along with everyone else in town, are actors and extras, and the island itself is a TV studio. Half-clever and half-dumb, though always interesting and provocative, this 1998 fantasy was written with some wit by Andrew Niccol and directed with some style by Peter Weir. It makes better sense as allegory than as SF premise, expecting you to accept that the viewing public consists of jerks (except for you and me and other media-savvy types) and that the Truman Show creator (Ed Harris, radiating holiness) who services the jerks is a godlike genius. In short, this pretends to be daring while parroting what much of the TV industry already thinks about itself and its audience. But it’s still pretty much fun to watch. With Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, and Holland Taylor. 103 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum