Screwtape’s Screening Room

 

Welcome to the first in a sporadic series of posts about how films and TV shows use dramatic tools to provoke or suppress reactions to manufactured truth. The word Propaganda has such a negative connotation, doesn’t it? We’re going to take the mystery out of it. It’s a word innocently derived from The Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Uncountable publicists, propagandists, and PR men over the centuries have sympathy with the avaricious French poet who sarcastically declared “Here lies the Cardinal Richelieu. And—more’s the pity—my pension died with him.”

From time to time our clinical dissection of an ‘admirable’ bit of craftsman-like deceit is going to seem cynical, even amoral. It’s the old showbiz switcheroo: in Screwtape’s Screening Room, the Ricochet virtuous will pay a limited degree of ironic tribute to vice.

After all, if we’re going to study cultural persuasion, the experts in influencing mass opinion, the masters of technique, we’re going to pay grudging acknowledgment to skills of agenda setting and image making from wherever they come. When you do the job well—really, really, well—a writer makes an eager audience complicit in filling in the blanks of a biased story. Get them to congratulate their own cleverness when they “uncover” for themselves the clues you planted. The Screwtape Letters, the C.S. Lewis creation whose name this post echoes and honors, is a wise guide, and a wise guy’s guide, in how to use a reader’s vanity and conceit to lead them astray.

But first, one special case to be set aside: outright, up-front propaganda by anyone’s definition, not necessarily even sinister ones: a Chinese history of their space program. A federally funded television series about the U.S. Constitution. RT on the cultural distinctiveness of Donetsk. At least you know what you’re getting and can take that into account.

There’s another special category that falls on the border of what most people casually mean by “propaganda”: privately funded films of clear political intention, like Michael Moore’s and Dinesh D’Souza’s films. They are open attempts at persuasion. Nothing wrong with that. They are a special category of our subject that deserves its own look, but for the purpose of the Screwtape posts, we’re less concerned about honest, clearly labeled political wing-ery of any sort, than we are with examining background attempts to influence the culture in mainstream scripted entertainment.

Oliver Stone’s time at the NYU film school overlapped mine. Oliver has had an interesting career, to say the least. JFK is a smartly crafted movie made to sell a viewpoint, like almost every other Stone film. He takes advantage of the Texas and Louisiana accents of many of the major characters to tacitly encourage you to see them as real Americans, traditionalists, and patriots who, far from being left wing nut jobs, are the kinds of people an audience trusts. When examining the history of Lee Harvey Oswald’s return to the USA after defecting to the Soviet Union, D.A. Jim Garrison and their staff sound all the more authoritative “speaking in Southern”.

Even supporting characters chime in to say, “Why, that traitor Oswald should have been clapped in irons the second he got home from Russia!” in the style of 1953 anti-Communist spy dramas like I Led 3 Lives, but now enlisted in the causes of the Left.  

Outright lies are risky; they can be caught and refuted. That’s a risk that a crafty storyteller doesn’t have to take if he’s got the alternatives of innuendo, omission, and sly misdirection in the toolbox. Be prepared! One standard technique is, take a reasonable-sounding fact and exaggerate its flaws, or use it where it doesn’t really apply.

For example, here’s a fact: Plenty of Americans do worry about medical bills and the limits of insurance. Overseas audiences are particularly prone to believe that grandmas are being tossed out in the snow by hospitals all over the country. T’ain’t exactly true. But “medical expenses”, though they can absolutely be an element in a real story, are more usually a lazy Get Out of Jail Free card for any screenwriter. It provides a progressive-approved, can’t-be-questioned motivation for just about anything—a citywide graffiti campaign (Turk 182), pressuring a falsely accused spy to “confess” (Mission Impossible 1, 1996), or turning from the classroom to being a vicious drug lord (Breaking Bad).

In other words, when you come down to it, if we don’t have national health care, can we say we, as a society (man, I hate that phrase) aren’t the reason why people mess up the city, brutalize suspects, or cook meth? Well, er, yes we can. But it’s a righteous convenience for writers.

One of the central plot motivators in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear is the dubious notion, not seriously questioned, that Robert De Niro’s character is understandably vengeful towards his former lawyer over his rape conviction, because “everyone knows” (supposedly) after all, that back in 1977, it’s hardly as if rape was even treated as a crime yet. So, if you believe that, the problem with the Seventies wasn’t that it was a slack time of libertine moral confusion about sex–OK, far from the only possible interpretation, but I’ll put it up against theirs—but that feminism wasn’t strong enough yet to put De Niro’s character away for life.

One of the central assumptions of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is that “everyone knows” that the rich and powerful are always above the law. Sure, there’s some truth to that, and there’s been some truth to it since before the Pharaohs, but there isn’t total truth in that, as Polanski himself would soon discover for himself, as would, eventually, Harvey Weinstein. Even the cynical miscalculate.

An important part of propaganda is making things and people more palatable. It’s like being a defense attorney. You re-frame issues. You make an unsympathetic client acceptable to audiences who walk in ready to dislike them. Don’t expect much on-the-spot corrective righteousness in this OP. That’s the job of the Comments Section.

Sometimes an image rehab takes more than spackle and paint. Jane Fonda’s early Seventies work, like 1972’s live tour film F.T.A., (a slurring reference to the U.S. Army) was so blatantly, repellently political that it made lousy, ineffective propaganda. She realized she was never going to outlive her ‘Hanoi Jane’ image for many people, but by the middle of the decade, Fonda retooled her approach.

She started choosing her films more shrewdly, featuring her new constant role: a normal-sounding, fairly naïve woman, someone of no particular political beliefs, at least at first. But then she encounters a recession and wave of unemployment (Fun with Dick and Jane). Or her tyrannical boss is also a lecher (Nine to Five). Those were played for laughs. No heavy-handed propaganda there. On the contrary: they were light-handed propaganda, with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Fonda’s dramas Coming Home and The China Syndrome also featured this kind of character, seemingly too direct and too gosh darn goodhearted to be clubbing you over the head with politics.  

Sometimes, the image manipulators do fail. In the words of a Mad Men-era cliché, the dogs just won’t eat the dog food. For instance, I’ll give feminist writer Gloria Steinem rare approval here in Ricochet, for saying, accurately, that The People Versus Larry Flynt, Milos Forman’s 1996 flop, told lies of omission, leaving out the seamy and disgusting stuff that would turn off the sophisticated, progressive target market. Another writer dryly compared it to a version of Gone with the Wind that made slavery look like mere sashaying role playing. This stung because it was coming from the left; the Larry Flynt filmmakers expected only criticism from the right.

Propaganda points are like neighborhoods. Over a long period of time, the original groups who live there sometimes slowly die off. Most of their children move away. Eventually, a new crowd moves in. Like castle keeps, rhetoric can change hands. Concern about overbearing police and FBI surveillance shifted from left to right. So did willingness to use tariffs to defend the interests of industrial workers, and caution about getting involved with overseas wars. Two years ago, we saw a sardonic meme from a young German with a long, droll memory: “So: you want us to form and equip a large army, march it across Poland, and fight Russians. Just writing this down so there’s no misunderstanding later.” You never really know what might change.

As for humanity’s prospects in the long run, every outfit with messianic ambitions, holy or unholy, tends to have a taste for propaganda, and successful ones have a real, if regrettable talent for it. I’m reminded of the ad campaign for Alien vs Predator: Whichever One Wins, We Lose.

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  1. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Special effects have taken the propaganda game to new levels. You can make an entirely impossible situation and make it seem real. The movie “Day After Tomorrow” for example compressed a thousand years of climate change alarm-ism into a weekend.

    When global warming, caused a climatic re-balancing that started a new Ice Age…. Its a rough weekend, you’ll be late for work on Monday.

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    There’s a scene in All the President’s Men where Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is tersely laying out the alleged true scale of the Nixon White House’s scariness, including many things that didn’t turn out to be true IRL. Even Carl Bernstein is skeptical. Who is doing it? 

    And Woodward’s answer is so poised and cool. “It’s being done”, he says, and that’s all he has to say. It says so much and so little at the same time, paranoid and vague.

    So Bob, in other words, you can’t answer the question?

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I’m reminded of a scene in The Ides of March, where Philip Seymour Hoffman describes the relentless organization and political prowess of the Republican Party, and how the Democrats need to get their own political game in order.  Imagine telling a lie as bald as that, and knowing that a good chunk of your audience will lap it up.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I’m reminded of a scene in The Ides of March, where Philip Seymour Hoffman describes the relentless organization and political prowess of the Republican Party, and how the Democrats need to get their own political game in order. Imagine telling a lie as bald as that, and knowing that a good chunk of your audience will lap it up.

    We should read Democrats’ assessments of GOP power and unity every now and then, as a soothing balm, as a natural tranquilizer. See things from the other side. 

    • #4
  5. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I had no idea Gloria Steinem ever said anything quotable, or even anything to which someone might allude. Her mere existence seemed to be a form of propaganda. 

    Further on the subject of how misleading that word can be, or of how loosely it can be used: it is or was the standard Brazilian Portuguese word for “ad campaign.” For merchandise. If you were marketing a new or improved product, you advertised it, and those efforts were called uma propaganda. I don’t think there was a cynical connotation, or if there was, it did not exceed that of anything else in Brazil. It did not apply to political figures, at least in the 1980s, which I admit was a long time ago. Anyway, if you were learning the lingo then, this word took some getting used to!

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gary McVey:

    One of the central plot motivators in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear is the dubious notion, not seriously questioned, that Robert De Niro’s character is understandably vengeful towards his former lawyer over his rape conviction, because “everyone knows” (supposedly) after all, that back in 1977, it’s hardly as if rape was even treated as a crime yet. So, if you believe that, the problem with the Seventies wasn’t that it was a slack time of libertine moral confusion about sex–OK, far from the only possible interpretation, but I’ll put it up against theirs—but that feminism wasn’t strong enough yet to put De Niro’s character away for life.

     

    In Cape Fear, Max Cady is illiterate when he is convicted. He uses his time in prison to learn to read, and he reads his way through the prison’s law library. He has convinced himself that his public defender didn’t exercise sufficient zealousness, even though (or perhaps because) he was guilty as charged. He seeks redress. He is a psychopath. 

    To be fair (and it’s been years since I’ve seen it), the audience is told, not shown, so it isn’t as memorable. It also doesn’t much matter. Cady was nuts enough to blame his conviction on his lawyer’s choice of necktie. If you stare into the abyss …

    Excellent post again, Gary.

    • #6
  7. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    I would say there is a line somewhere between trying to convince the audience of something vs. using an only partially true perspective as a plot device. Was Breaking Bad trying to convince the audience that the lack of national health care was bad or were they relying on most people implicitly accepting that medical costs can get out of control so they could use that as a plot setup?

    In any case, a great post. Thank you!

    • #7
  8. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    It’s hard sometimes to draw the line between propaganda and character viewpoint. You can have characters voicing any sort of opinion in your story; it is a mistake to assume that anything a character says is what the writer believes. Of course, the writer can try to influence your perception of those characters, making them seem ridiculous, evil, noble, or wise, whatever serves to implicitly discredit the viewpoints they express.

    This can backfire. We’ve all heard the story of how Norman Lear apparently intended All in the Family‘s Archie Bunker to be a repellent parody of a Republican, only to be shocked when audiences loved the character. Somehow Lear managed to write propaganda for the other side, thinking he was making fun of it.

    And even when you’re not trying to write propaganda, you’re likely to be accused of doing so. Joe Straczynski, the creator and show-runner of Babylon 5, was active online and interacted a great deal with fans of the show. Straczynski himself is an atheist and a liberal, but to his credit, he was very good at keeping his own biases out of the show. He featured both religious and nonreligious characters in a positive way; he liked to set up arguments between characters with different viewpoints, both of them credible and persuasive, without offering pat answers. “If we can start some bar fights,” he once wrote, “I’ll have done my job.” It was hard to discern what his own views were by watching the show; and yet that didn’t stop people from regularly accusing him of pushing some view they disagreed with, just because they’d heard a character express that view.

    • #8
  9. Henry Racette Member
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Great post. I’m looking forward to your sporadic updates.

    • #9
  10. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    John H. (View Comment):

    I had no idea Gloria Steinem ever said anything quotable, or even anything to which someone might allude. Her mere existence seemed to be a form of propaganda.

    Further on the subject of how misleading that word can be, or of how loosely it can be used: it is or was the standard Brazilian Portuguese word for “ad campaign.” For merchandise. If you were marketing a new or improved product, you advertised it, and those efforts were called uma propaganda. I don’t think there was a cynical connotation, or if there was, it did not exceed that of anything else in Brazil. It did not apply to political figures, at least in the 1980s, which I admit was a long time ago. Anyway, if you were learning the lingo then, this word took some getting used to!

    When walking through the Comments, one occasionally spots a specimen of The Sentence that has escaped captivity in a John H. Article.  There is a fine example hidden in the shrubbery above.
    Wry.  Wry, like the best Reuben sandwich you ever had.

    • #10
  11. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    M-W’s definition of propaganda uses a quote from C.S. Lewis as an example:

    They see all clear thinking, all sense of reality, and all fineness of living, threatened on every side by propaganda, by advertisement, by film and television.—C. S. Lewis, “An Experiment in Criticism” (1961)

    As  you’d expect, most of the MW examples of propaganda are pejorative. If we agree with the idea or agenda being propagated, it’s “truth” or “significant” and worthy of award nominations.

    The truly deserving award nominees achieve artistic success through indirection, and evoke themes on a subconscious level. It takes a great writer to pull that off regularly on series TV. Others seem to assume the audience must be taught like first graders.

    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    • #11
  12. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    There’s a scene in All the President’s Men where Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) is tersely laying out the alleged true scale of the Nixon White House’s scariness, including many things that didn’t turn out to be true IRL. Even Carl Bernstein is skeptical. Who is doing it?

    And Woodward’s answer is so poised and cool. “It’s being done”, he says, and that’s all he has to say. It says so much and so little at the same time, paranoid and vague.

    So Bob, in other words, you can’t answer the question?

    Nixon, was setup.

    Bob Woodward was in the Navy 1965-1970, after the Navy he applied and was accepted to go to Harvard Law… He instead decides to become a journalist, and is hired on to the Washington Post in 1971. He got his first big break in June 1972 – being a reporter for less than a year – to report on the Watergate break in… He goes from writing obituaries to the story of the century…

    Doesnt that seem odd? I mean back in the 70s journalists were not well compensated or particularly heroic figures… Why would someone on track to go to Harvard Law, suddenly change course and become a journalist? He already had a Bachelor degree from Yale. (1961-1965) It seems natural that he’d become a Manhattan white shoe lawyer… Make a boatload of cash, become a partner at a law firm – maybe wrangle a judicial appointment and be set for life… But to become a journalist, and in less than 2 years, become the most famous journalist in the world, and destroy a presidency?

    He’s very accomplished, very quickly. Maybe its a good thing he didnt become a lawyer…

    • #12
  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years.  I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story.  Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    • #13
  14. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    John H. (View Comment):

    I had no idea Gloria Steinem ever said anything quotable, or even anything to which someone might allude. Her mere existence seemed to be a form of propaganda.

    Further on the subject of how misleading that word can be, or of how loosely it can be used: it is or was the standard Brazilian Portuguese word for “ad campaign.” For merchandise. If you were marketing a new or improved product, you advertised it, and those efforts were called uma propaganda. I don’t think there was a cynical connotation, or if there was, it did not exceed that of anything else in Brazil. It did not apply to political figures, at least in the 1980s, which I admit was a long time ago. Anyway, if you were learning the lingo then, this word took some getting used to!

    A little more broadly, I’ve read in the past that, in English, Propaganda was the departmental name for what was later renamed Public Relations and essentially meant advertising.

    • #14
  15. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years. I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story. Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    Agreed. I greatly loved the predecessor series “The Practice” which had a number of unique factors … Being in Boston (not NYC or LA like all other legal dramas on TV) being at a small firm, were the day to day struggles just making rent was a pressing concern. Also it seems less political as the characters were far more engaged in the pursuit of their clients interest and their needs to be too uppity about current politics. (although it did occasionally take episodic plots from the news)

    It very much sets the trajectory that would be followed by “The Good Wife” … which while very political I would argue is very anti democrat as it shows the corrupt political world of Chicago… All those corrupt politicians they depict are all democrats… But somehow the audience seems not to notice… Same thing on “Billions” – all those corrupt prosecutors at SDNY are democrats…  The Good Wife, then became the Good Fight, and its where Never Trumpism went on an acid trip… Just unhinged unrealistic garbage… They used Never Trump as a shield from cancellation the way other series would use f-bombs and boobs… Its now on Amazon Prime if you want a trip down memory lane to enjoy democrat dementia.

    • #15
  16. genferei Member
    genferei
    @genferei

    Gary McVey: One of the central assumptions of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is that “everyone knows” that the rich and powerful are always above the law. Sure, there’s some truth to that … but there isn’t total truth in that, as Polanski himself would soon discover for himself

    And had cause to reflect upon every day he spent staring through the bars of his prison cell.

    • #16
  17. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years. I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story. Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    Shatner’s Denny Crane character was intended as parody, conservatives as eccentric nut jobs, self-diagnosed with Mad Cow, etc, but as with Archie Bunker he was often more palatable than his opponents. Often the plots were so “fixed” that I’d tune out. But you risked missing a scene with “Hands” Espenson or another reason to watch, Julie Bowen. Also, the guest cast over the years was wonderful. 

    Kelley has the rare talent to write excellent mystery stories (e.g. the Earl Williams arc in L.A. Law, and some standout early episodes of Picket Fences) but couldn’t resist the soapbox. I challenged him about polemics one time back in the 90’s. He pled an innocent, “really?” Some liberals reflexively think they’re always the good guys and no one they know dares tell them otherwise.

    • #17
  18. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years. I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story. Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    Agreed. I greatly loved the predecessor series “The Practice” which had a number of unique factors … Being in Boston (not NYC or LA like all other legal dramas on TV) being at a small firm, were the day to day struggles just making rent was a pressing concern. Also it seems less political as the characters were far more engaged in the pursuit of their clients interest and their needs to be too uppity about current politics. (although it did occasionally take episodic plots from the news)

    It very much sets the trajectory that would be followed by “The Good Wife” … which while very political I would argue is very anti democrat as it shows the corrupt political world of Chicago… All those corrupt politicians they depict are all democrats… But somehow the audience seems not to notice… Same thing on “Billions” – all those corrupt prosecutors at SDNY are democrats… The Good Wife, then became the Good Fight, and its where Never Trumpism went on an acid trip… Just unhinged unrealistic garbage… They used Never Trump as a shield from cancellation the way other series would use f-bombs and boobs… Its now on Amazon Prime if you want a trip down memory lane to enjoy democrat dementia.

    I found The Practice annoying. Criminal defense lawyers are just a difficult rooting interest. All the more reason to revere Erle Stanley Gardner, and be wary of the rest.

    Season one of The Good Wife was refreshing. Kalinda the P.I. (Archie Panjabi) seemed to get the best plot twists, Chris Noth’s extra-marital politician was a timely foil, and the Chicago corrpution evident. The politics was laid in self-consciously when the lefty senior partner inexplicitly falls for a hardcore #2A man. With that for “balance”, woke politics spreads across the stories like plague. The spin-off was pure propaganda, saleable only in a stream insulated from mass audience discipline.

    Billions was fascinating in year one, and pretty strong in year two, with wonderful Maggie Siff as corporate psychologist Wendy Rhodes right in the middle between Damian Lewis and Paul Giamati. Very original franchise, and just enough verisimilitude for credibility without becoming financially esoteric. Then, for no good reason save getting in early on the trans train, Taylor shows up. Unwatchable thereafter.

    • #18
  19. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    Propaganda needs pre-existing mental landing places.  Leni Riefenstahl did not suddenly convince people to become Nazis–the anti-semitism, bitterness over the outcome and aftereffects of WWI, a yearning for national greatness and a wish to bitch slap all enemies foreign and domestic were all there just waiting for somebody to push the buttons.

    In America, we are forming people who want to hate corporate villains, to raise up noble government saviors, and to  crave a secular technocratic nirvana.  It is pretty easy to caricature normals and denigrate those who accept economic realities and the limitations of human nature.

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Henry Racette (View Comment):

    Great post. I’m looking forward to your sporadic updates.

    Generally, Screwtape Screening Room will probably focus on one film or type of film or show, rather than a wandering smorgasbord like this intro one. And thanks!

    • #20
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years. I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story. Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    On Aaron Sorkin shows, there are three plots going on simultaneously: there’s a workplace conflict that has an easy, immoral solution or a courageous, stand up and cheer liberal one. A romantic couple (occasionally, a pair of friends) are tested by the work conflict. Will he stand up and be the hero she always wanted, or will he snivel and bow to stodgy, outdated, wrong rules? And at the same time, the third plot is still out there, generally something “macro” they can’t control: the Chinese are buying the network. Or a hurricane knocks out electrical power. Or an ominous right wing conspiracy is closing in. 

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    It’s hard sometimes to draw the line between propaganda and character viewpoint. You can have characters voicing any sort of opinion in your story; it is a mistake to assume that anything a character says is what the writer believes. Of course, the writer can try to influence your perception of those characters, making them seem ridiculous, evil, noble, or wise, whatever serves to implicitly discredit the viewpoints they express.

    This can backfire. We’ve all heard the story of how Norman Lear apparently intended All in the Family‘s Archie Bunker to be a repellent parody of a Republican, only to be shocked when audiences loved the character. Somehow Lear managed to write propaganda for the other side, thinking he was making fun of it.

    And even when you’re not trying to write propaganda, you’re likely to be accused of doing so. Joe Straczynski, the creator and show-runner of Babylon 5, was active online and interacted a great deal with fans of the show. Straczynski himself is an atheist and a liberal, but to his credit, he was very good at keeping his own biases out of the show. He featured both religious and nonreligious characters in a positive way; he liked to set up arguments between characters with different viewpoints, both of them credible and persuasive, without offering pat answers. “If we can start some bar fights,” he once wrote, “I’ll have done my job.” It was hard to discern what his own views were by watching the show; and yet that didn’t stop people from regularly accusing him of pushing some view they disagreed with, just because they’d heard a character express that view.

    I met Straczynski when we (American Cinema Foundation) gave a prize to Babylon 5. He was just the way you describe him. I wish they were all like that. 

    • #22
  23. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    It’s hard sometimes to draw the line between propaganda and character viewpoint. You can have characters voicing any sort of opinion in your story; it is a mistake to assume that anything a character says is what the writer believes. Of course, the writer can try to influence your perception of those characters, making them seem ridiculous, evil, noble, or wise, whatever serves to implicitly discredit the viewpoints they express.

    This can backfire. We’ve all heard the story of how Norman Lear apparently intended All in the Family‘s Archie Bunker to be a repellent parody of a Republican, only to be shocked when audiences loved the character. Somehow Lear managed to write propaganda for the other side, thinking he was making fun of it.

    And even when you’re not trying to write propaganda, you’re likely to be accused of doing so. Joe Straczynski, the creator and show-runner of Babylon 5, was active online and interacted a great deal with fans of the show. Straczynski himself is an atheist and a liberal, but to his credit, he was very good at keeping his own biases out of the show. He featured both religious and nonreligious characters in a positive way; he liked to set up arguments between characters with different viewpoints, both of them credible and persuasive, without offering pat answers. “If we can start some bar fights,” he once wrote, “I’ll have done my job.” It was hard to discern what his own views were by watching the show; and yet that didn’t stop people from regularly accusing him of pushing some view they disagreed with, just because they’d heard a character express that view.

    I met Straczynski when we (American Cinema Foundation) gave a prize to Babylon 5. He was just the way you describe him. I wish they were all like that.

    Ditto. A very accessible guy. Very smart. Early adopter of bargain priced digital effects, flying toasters, whatever. And then he won top honors by hiring one of my students!

    • #23
  24. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):
    “Too OTN” (on the nose) describes most of the polemical tirades which concluded episodes of David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal. Otherwise the show had finely blended tones of humor and gravitas reminiscent of L.A. Law, many exceptionally well-cast characters, and was shot in the best-located boutique studio in town. A missed opportunity.

    I watched Boston Legal for a couple of years. I endured the preachy (always left-wing), serious “A” story in each episode, because it was always offset by a comical “B” story. Then there was an episode where the “B” story was also preaching against conservatives or Republicans and I never watched it again.

    On Aaron Sorkin shows, there are three plots going on simultaneously: there’s a workplace conflict that has an easy, immoral solution or a courageous, stand up and cheer liberal one. A romantic couple (occasionally, a pair of friends) are tested by the work conflict. Will he stand up and be the hero she always wanted, or will he snivel and bow to stodgy, outdated, wrong rules? And at the same time, the third plot is still out there, generally something “macro” they can’t control: the Chinese are buying the network. Or a hurricane knocks out electrical power. Or an ominous right wing conspiracy is closing in.

    Sorkin never cheats you on content. You generally get 3 hours of it in a one hour show. It might not all be great quality, but like a semi edible all-you-can eat buffet, he makes up for it in quantity.

    • #24
  25. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    You just had mention Jane Fonda. That <redacted> hussy should either be rotting in a prison cell or have been hung upside down and beaten like a pinada by a bunch Vietnam Veterans. The fact she’s made millions shilling her aerobics videos, marrying nutty billionaires and having a successful acting career angers me to no end and makes me question if there is a just God in the universe. Spot on analysis about her btw.

    • #25
  26. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):

    I found The Practice annoying. Criminal defense lawyers are just a difficult rooting interest. All the more reason to revere Erle Stanley Gardner, and be wary of the rest.

    Season one of The Good Wife was refreshing. Kalinda the P.I. (Archie Panjabi) seemed to get the best plot twists, Chris Noth’s extra-marital politician was a timely foil, and the Chicago corrpution evident. The politics was laid in self-consciously when the lefty senior partner inexplicitly falls for a hardcore #2A man. With that for “balance”, woke politics spreads across the stories like plague. The spin-off was pure propaganda, saleable only in a stream insulated from mass audience discipline.

    Billions was fascinating in year one, and pretty strong in year two, with wonderful Maggie Siff as corporate psychologist Wendy Rhodes right in the middle between Damian Lewis and Paul Giamati. Very original franchise, and just enough verisimilitude for credibility without becoming financially esoteric. Then, for no good reason save getting in early on the trans train, Taylor shows up. Unwatchable thereafter.

    Ok, yea its true. Its tough to cheer for the defenders of evil. Perry Mason was an exception, because he always proved who did it – like a super-prosecutor. It would have been great if one time the twist was his client was guilty…. If you remember “From the Hip” (1987) courtroom drama…. Everyone must know that they’re usually guilty, the lawyer that doesnt defend the guilty would go hungry.

    Kalinda was one of my favorite characters on the show – because unlike the rest, she dealt mostly in reality, facts… She proved who did what to whom… The rest of the cast could get lost in drama, ideology or whimsy. She never did… Just a grinder…

    Again Wendy was my favorite character on Billions… I hope they do a spin off series of her in retirement. Living in a restored mansion in the south all by her rich self… Maybe the kids have disowned her, out of embarrassment, and are in boarding school somewhere. The story I would like her to explore – is what happens to women after a sex scandal? Obviously her divorce and legal messes with Chuck would have been in the tabloids… Whats it like for a woman who are stuck in that place … With google now, there is no escaping it…Even for the moderately famous, the reputation will always proceed you. Deserved or not.

    • #26
  27. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    thelonious (View Comment):
    Sorkin never cheats you on content. You generally get 3 hours of it in a one hour show. It might not all be great quality, but like a semi edible all-you-can eat buffet, he makes up for it in quantity.

    He does cut corners. The Supercut:

     

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    Jim Kearney (View Comment):

    I found The Practice annoying. Criminal defense lawyers are just a difficult rooting interest. All the more reason to revere Erle Stanley Gardner, and be wary of the rest.

    Season one of The Good Wife was refreshing. Kalinda the P.I. (Archie Panjabi) seemed to get the best plot twists, Chris Noth’s extra-marital politician was a timely foil, and the Chicago corrpution evident. The politics was laid in self-consciously when the lefty senior partner inexplicitly falls for a hardcore #2A man. With that for “balance”, woke politics spreads across the stories like plague. The spin-off was pure propaganda, saleable only in a stream insulated from mass audience discipline.

    Billions was fascinating in year one, and pretty strong in year two, with wonderful Maggie Siff as corporate psychologist Wendy Rhodes right in the middle between Damian Lewis and Paul Giamati. Very original franchise, and just enough verisimilitude for credibility without becoming financially esoteric. Then, for no good reason save getting in early on the trans train, Taylor shows up. Unwatchable thereafter.

    Ok, yea its true. Its tough to cheer for the defenders of evil. Perry Mason was an exception, because he always proved who did it – like a super-prosecutor. It would have been great if one time the twist was his client was guilty…. If you remember “From the Hip” (1987) courtroom drama…. Everyone must know that they’re usually guilty, the lawyer that doesnt defend the guilty would go hungry.

    Kalinda was one of my favorite characters on the show – because unlike the rest, she dealt mostly in reality, facts… She proved who did what to whom… The rest of the cast could get lost in drama, ideology or whimsy. She never did… Just a grinder…

    Again Wendy was my favorite character on Billions… I hope they do a spin off series of her in retirement. Living in a restored mansion in the south all by her rich self… Maybe the kids have disowned her, out of embarrassment, and are in boarding school somewhere. The story I would like her to explore – is what happens to women after a sex scandal? Obviously her divorce and legal messes with Chuck would have been in the tabloids… Whats it like for a woman who are stuck in that place … With google now, there is no escaping it…Even for the moderately famous, the reputation will always proceed you. Deserved or not.

    “Mason” episodes were as structured as Popeye cartoons. They were “formula”, but I liked the formula. As I’ve gotten older, I identify more with Lt. Arthur Tragg. He’d smoothly enter the room as Perry was wrapping up a talk with the suspect. “Wel-l-l, Counselor, I see you’ve saved me the trouble of locating this young lady. I’m afraid you aren’t going to lunch. She’s coming downtown with me. To be booked. For murder.”

    • #28
  29. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A really smart manipulator uses a little self-deprecating humor. It can help take the curse off of propaganda. For example, DEFA, the east German government-owned film company, would occasionally sprinkle in some gags at their own expense. The characters in a film would be entering a movie theater. “Oh, good, it’s a DEFA movie. I can catch up on my sleep.” That would get a naughty shock laugh. 

    In All the President’s Men, Nixon staffer Hugh Sloan is being interviewed by Bob Woodward. “I didn’t want to (come out against Nixon) because I’m a Republican” and Woodward, the Ivy League WASP, smiles and says “So am I” (BTW, this was true at the time.) Carl Bernstein has this look of shocked betrayal which is quite funny. 

    I’ve written about 1950’s Destination Moon, which could hardly be more rah-rah pro space travel (In fact, you could say it was R.A.H. R.A.H. pro space travel, wink wink) but when the astronauts detect uranium under the lunar surface, even the dumbest character gets a surprising joke. “Great! Now you guys can blow up the Moon, too.”

    • #29
  30. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    “Mason” episodes were as structured as Popeye cartoons. They were “formula”, but I liked the formula. As I’ve gotten older, I identify more with Lt. Arthur Tragg. He’d smoothly enter the room as Perry was wrapping up a talk with the suspect. “Wel-l-l, Counselor, I see you’ve saved me the trouble of locating this young lady. I’m afraid you aren’t going to lunch. She’s coming downtown with me. To be booked. For murder.”

    Yes, Ive seen enough of them to remember them. The problem is that they’re pre-cable shows. It only has to be better than 2 other shows on at the same time. Once its up against more diverse competition it doesnt work anymore. Its formula is too rigid to allow for twists or to be a mystery. Its funny that these were shot in black and white, because the plots were also very much black & white…

    All tv shows have a formula, its why the audience comes back for more. They understand what they’re about to see before they tune in…Its why a police procedural rarely ventures into a court room. (even though that would make for a low budget episode) I think MASH was one of the few long running shows that would regularly push against the formula. There were some very serious heart breaking episodes, for a sitcom…

    • #30
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