Split Decision: Television on Film
Welcome back to Split Decision! Each week, we pose a question to our staff of knowledgable and passionate film geeks and share the responses! We may never know if it is legal to park in the center of Broad Street, but we’ll answer movie questions all day long. Chime in on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below!
This week’s question:
This week's question: In honor of Late Night, what is your favorite movie about television?
Hands down: Broadcast News, James L. Brooks's comedy-drama from 1987. Perhaps because I identify a little too closely with the Albert Brooks character, Aaron Altman, who has one of the greatest lines in cinema history: "I'll meet you at the place by the thing where we went that time." I love that he can sing while he reads. And the scene of him breaking out in the worst case of flopsweat on camera is my nightmare. But the best, most hilarious sequence in Broadcast News has to be the classic "tape" scene, where the production assistant, played by Joan Cusack, has mere minutes to get a video into the booth. Let's take a look at the tape:
Broadcast News gets the world of TV news right, even if it borrows its ending from Brooks's TV show Mary Tyler Moore, which, of course, is also a classic in its own right.
Damn, this is a surprisingly rich topic that just made me realize how many films there are that depict TV as being straight up evil (Network, Nightcrawler) or at least banally corrupt (Quiz Show, The TV Set). I can't think of many examples that go the other way, and I realize the separation between TV and movies hasn't been so dramatic for at least a decade, but it sure seems like one medium's spent a lot of time calling out how messed up its sister medium is behind the scenes.
My favorite movie about TV, though, barely touches things that happen behind the camera. The King of Comedy, one of the best movies about anything, focuses on the other side of the screen, and is about how we watch TV. How is it possible that Scorsese made Taxi Driver and then got darker by focusing on late night TV? How did Paul D. Zimmerman's intentionally schlocky jokes sound more sinister in De Niro's mouth than Paul Schrader's monologues about rain washing away human filth? I don't know. Maybe it's because I've never felt as isolated and angry as Travis Bickle, but I can relate on some tiny level to Rupert Pupkin's feeling that he knows the people he watches on TV and has some shred of talent. And as a person who has never "got" and probably won't ever "get" Jerry Lewis, I have to admit he's great in The King of Comedy. Before Tarantino was reclaiming John Travolta as a badass hitman, Scorsese was transforming Lewis into America's greatest entertainer.
I love The Truman Show and Pleasantville very very much. However, I think I need to choose Galaxy Quest. Because it is about our relationship to television as viewers and more importantly, as fans. A love letter to Star Trek fandom, Galaxy Quest is a celebration of keeping characters and shows alive beyond the bounds of our screens while managing to be a winking satire at Trek. It comes to life with pitch-perfect performances from Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Cumming, and many more, making it an absolute joy to watch.
Anyone remember Stay Tuned? If you had TBS in the 90s, you've seen it at least a dozen times. For those not in the know, Stay Tuned was a very weird, legitimately scary "family movie" directed by Peter Hyams (Timecop, End of Days). John Ritter and Pam Dawber play a couple whose lives are upended when they sign up for "Hellevision" a new tv service that unbeknownst to them, is run by the devil himself. Long story short, they get sucked into the TV and have to make their way through countless fucked up versions of classic shows. If they survive, they can keep their souls, if not, it's eternal damnation for them both. What the executives at Hellevision didn't expect was that their new targets are such couch potatoes that they they can outsmart any "show."
Stay Tuned taps into the "tv is ruining the family unit" panic of the time, which seems quaint looking back from the age of smartphones and such. It also has Jeffrey Jones in it, which is something you never see anymore on account of...reasons. You look it up.
How about Groundhog Day? It might be a bit of a stretch, but Phil Connors (Bill Murray) as the TV weatherman covering Punxsutawney Phil and the Groundhog Day celebration gets to the banal absurdity of a lot of television news. Television as theme doesn't play a major role in the movie itself, but it plays a major role in the fake, shallow inner life of Connors, who then uses his neverending repeating days to learn how to be a more authentic person.
Why, Videodrome, of course. David Cronenberg's cathode-ray fueled nightmare about... I don't know, losing yourself to your vices, or capitalism, or somehow the internet even though that wasn't a thing when this was made? What do you think it's about? This might be my favorite Cronenberg movie, and its use of television as a transformative substance is pretty interesting. It's a movie that seems to get better every time I watch it. And more relevant too. There are many different ways people have read into it over the years (and now there's a bonus layer of just what's going on with James Woods' character given who James Woods is) and I think that's what I most appreciate about it. It continues to evolve with us and spur new conversation.
🎶🎶What gives a girl power and punch? Is it charm, is it poise? No, it's Haaaaiiiirrrsppprrraaaaayyyy!🎶🎶🎶
John Waters' original film about Tracy Turnblad, the plus sized girl who helps integrate the Corny Collins Show in the 60's is full of joy, weirdness, and top notch performances. It's also an amazing ode to the "American Bandstand" shows of the day. There's commercials and big smiles and group dancing sections. There's a "weirdo" uprising and a message of acceptance and love at its core.
Divine gives a beautifully understated performance as Edna Turnblad, and it's sad looking back on what Divine's life and career could have been once people stopped only associating the character with eating dog shit.