‘For people who only watch a little television’

Last week’s ultimately somber stay in the Gateway to the West melds into Hong Kong’s annual Chinese New Year suspension of normal life. Plus it’s freezing. For those who do not share living space with a huge US$45 dollar handout from Sony, it is one of those occasional opportunities to fascinate ourselves with the technological wonder of moving images on tiny electronic screens.

The higher-fidelity viewing options came in-flight – the only time I pay much attention to Hollywood’s latest releases. In one movie, the actor from The Truman Show plays a New York City-dwelling recipient of a penguin; fast-forwarding revealed that the character is soon housing dozens of the beasts in his apartment. Twenty minutes of the 12-hour journey vanish. In another film, three men commiserate with one another about their hellish bosses. I am guessing that, if I had watched more than a third of an hour of it, they would have found intriguing and entertaining ways to dispatch the tyrants.

Two things were worth viewing in full. Yet another adaptation of Jane Eyre, complete not only with all the costumes, windswept moorland and darkness you could want, but an extremely watchable, indeed mesmerizing, lady called Mia Wasikowska in the lead role. This is more post-feminism than girly love story. And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which somehow recreates the seediness of the period more effectively than the classic late-70s made-for-TV version. (It’s all about atmosphere, which makes me wonder why cinema-world doesn’t do more Graham Greene.)

But it’s back home where things get really interesting, delving and foraging in the less-visited bits of YouTube where the picture is grainy and the sound possibly out-of-synch; people accustomed to 75-inch plasma, high-definition and 3D don’t know what they’re missing.

Behold Left Behind (seven parts), the movie of the novel of the apocalyptic belief known as dispensational premillenialism, in which the second coming of Christ is preceded by the rapture – a scenario that millions of fundamentalist Christians (let’s be blunt: Americans) believe is already underway. This has everything a bad movie should have, including cheap sets and effects, jarringly inappropriate scoring and of course corny dialogue. But what’s really riveting about it is the straight-faced portrayal of this parallel universe. After a bearded and polyglot God thwarts an Arab attack on Israel on live television, all the faithful suddenly vanish (leaving little piles of clothes on airline seats and elsewhere) and the antichrist appears in the form of a United Nations leader pushing global currency union. How many films have this?

But truth is stranger than fiction, and the Found Small Screen Experience of the Year Award must go to Adam Curtis’s It Felt Like a Kiss (2009). Curtis – a sort of adults’ version of TV journalist John Pilger – describes this work as “the story of an enchanted world that was built by American power as it became supreme … and how those living in that dream world responded to it.”

What you get here is HIV, Lee Harvey Oswald, chimps in space, attempts to cure Lou Reed of homosexuality, Saddam Hussein, a Carole King song about a girl whose boyfriend beats her, the Congo, the Manson Family, and a thousand other things from the late 50s-60s, all to a soundtrack of contemporary pop from West Side Story to the Velvet Underground. Thanks to painstaking and inspired footage/sound research and editing, you are bombarded with juxtapositions that reveal connections you had barely thought about. If you are acquainted with the subject matter, this is surely the nearest a TV documentary has come to art; for the benighted, it’s the most elaborate music video ever.

(Parts 2, 3, 5 and 6 in 10-minute segments; part 4 seems to have been swept up into the heavens, but given the stream-of-consciousness nature of the work, you can glide past it.)

Click to hear ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’ by the Crystals!

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6 Responses to ‘For people who only watch a little television’

  1. McSpoonio says:

    Adam Curtis is in a league of his own as a film maker. The Trap is my favorite – it gives a good exposition of the shabby thinking that underlies much of today’s political and social thought.

    His last series was a little weak. The first episode however – which does a good job making Ayn Rand look like the nutter she really was, and indirect influence she had through credulous Alan Greenspan – was entertaining.

  2. Thanks, Hemmers. By the way, the Curtis film can also be found in the darker recesses of the Internet and downloaded in its entirety. Not that i would suggest you, or anyone else, undertake such an endeavour.

  3. Walter De Havilland says:

    Attempting to keep warm we cranked the 42 inch plasma TV to full power. I was treated to the bizarre … The Dirty Dozen followed by Kurosawa’s Dream. No doubt I face a restless night as foxes chase me through the woods, only to be shot up by Lee Marvin.

    I love Chinese New Year.

  4. John Pilger says:

    Glad you have discovered me. Keep on reading. Then start acting.

  5. Royster Doyster says:

    Isn’t ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John Le Carre?

  6. Jason90 says:

    Yes – but I think Hemlock was referring to cinema doing atmosphere and Graham Greene being particularly thick with the stuff – if a little thin on ‘plot’…

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