THE CAMERA AGE: Essays on Television by Michael J. Arlen

THE CAMERA AGE: Essays on Television

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There are three Arlen approaches to writing on television for The New Yorker--two just fine, one insufferable--and they're all represented in this generous collection, which largely reprises (circa 1977-1980) the ideas about how-we-watch-TV that were on display in The View from Highway 1 (1976). Aden is most impressive, perhaps, when being least overtly critical, when he seems merely to report a phenomenon, letting Irony speak for itself; this tactic was the essence of 30 Seconds (1980) and it's on fine display here in observations on ""host"" shows or sexual-innuendo game-shows, in an interview with a ""political media consultant."" And when Arlen really digs in to analyze how TV does or doesn't work on us, he's always compelling, if not always convincing: the success of Dallas (it ""isn't grainy, like real soap opera. It's smooth, like a river pebble, like a dream""); the failure of The Scarlet Letter and Shogun to capture the appeal of their fiction sources; the fantasy elements in Roots; the Shiftiness of docu-dramas; the ""tyranny of the visual"" in news reporting, its corruption of 60 Minutes; the prevalence of adolescent values; the Walter Cronkite persona and the frisson when real emotion pokes through. But the other Aden is here too, unfortunately, often when politics is involved: an arch, laboriously sarcastic Tom Wolfe manquÉ who drowns obvious ideas in a flood of mannered asides--""so to speak,"" ""as it were,"" ""if you will pardon the expression,"" etc. And this smug styling vitiates pieces on the Oscars, the Olympics, the Presidential debates, and the Nixon interviews. . . while also lessening the impact of Arlen's solid comments on TV's Iran coverage or the way that ""media-induced pathos experiences"" keep us in touch with ""the sensibility of pain."" Still, the honest and shrewd moments here outweigh the tinny, show-offy ones--and Arlen remains required reading for anyone with a serious interest in TV as pop culture.

Pub Date: April 3rd, 1981
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux