Sunday, September 10, 2006

It takes talent to make good schlock TV

Haven't written anything on ABC's The Path to 9/11 because the good folks at ABC said it would be wrong to criticize a show I haven't seen, even though the reason I haven't seen it is that I am not a Right Wing media shill like Rush or Hugh with a large audience made up of the only people left in America who believe that George Bush knows what he's doing and think that everything that has gone wrong for Bush is really Bill Clinton's fault and who are therefore the only suckers ABC can count on to watch The Path 9/11.

But after making sure the suckers were hooked, ABC let some real journalists and television critics watch it.

Turns out that besides being full of, sorry...dramatic license, it's not even good bad TV. It's dreck. Amateurish dreck.

Doug Elfman of the Chicago Sun-Times writes:

Controversy could boost viewership, except "Path" is the dullest, worst-shot TV movie since ABC’s disastrous "Ten Commandments" remake. It substitutes shaky handheld cameras and dumb dialogue for craftsmanship. It could not be more amateurish or poorly constructed unless someone had forgotten to light the sets.

Then he gets mean.

Tom Shales is only a little kinder.

In an attempt to layer a coat of visual veracity over the film, it's shot in the style of some news footage -- the hand-held camera jerking, bouncing, panning wildly. Faces are framed in absurdly intense close-up, so intense it's not always easy to tell whom you're looking at. The gratuitous camera movement and the insistence on reducing people to eyes or noses or mouths become oppressive after only two hours, much less five. This isn't cinematography; it's vivisection.

This is not surprising. The director and the writer are both Right Wing true-believers, but that's not why they're not good at the jobs they've taken on.

They're not good at them because they didn't train for them.

They didn't work at becoming filmmakers.

They didn't become filmmakers to be filmmakers. They became filmmakers to make propaganda, which they believe is the same as art.

Naturally, both are proteges of David Horowitz.

Regular readers of Michael Berube are familiar with Horowitz. He’s the once upon a time 60s radical turned Right Wing kulturkampfer whose pet cause is discrediting American universities. According to Horowitz, America’s institutions of higher education are really secret re-education camps established to indoctrinate students in Leftist thought.

His long-term goal is to bully college presidents into muzzling their professors, but the present benefit is that any conservative students who feel their prejudices being challenged in a classroom can dismiss the facts doing the challenging as “biased.” Also, C-student conservatives who have handed their profs evidence of their mediocrity in the form of badly written, poorly researched term papers have an excuse not to have to admit to their own averageness—“The professor had it in for me because I’m a conservative and she’s biased.”

Horowitz did not change his thinking when he changed sides.

At bottom, which, shallow thinker that he is, you can touch without getting your hand wet above the wrist, he’s always been a Soviet-style Marxist whose fondest political dream has apparently been the establishment of a totalitarian regime with himself as commissar of culture, propaganda, and re-education, a title that would be tautological by his own definition of any of those words.

Good crypto-Stalinists know that art, ideas, facts, and scholarship are all merely tools to be used to gain power and control the masses.

At one time it looked as though a revolution by the extreme Left was Horowitz’s best bet for getting what he wanted. By the 80s it had become clear that the Right was a more comfortable place for dogmatists and authoritarians of every stripe and the Right Wingers had a simpler plan for achieving power—Buy it.

Behind Horowitz’s push for a purge in academia, besides the belief that facts and truth matter only in their usefulness to the ruling powers, is the assumption that pretty much anybody can be a college professor.

If a university wanted to hire more Horowitz-approved Right Wing hacks, it could sign them up by the dozen—if only search committees weren’t so particular about things like grade point averages and where applicants went to grad school and how much a potential hire had published and in what peer-reviewed venues.

What’s missing in Horowitz’s view of how the world works is work.

He apparently has no clue that aspiring professionals in any field have to work at it, long and hard, and what gets them through all the years of struggle and toil is dedication.

Talent and brains are not enough. You have to want to be whatever is you are training to be.

The applicant pool is self-selected early on. Young architects want to design buildings. Young doctors want to practice medicine. Young academics want to immerse themselves in their subjects. Young artists want to paint and sculpt.

And young filmmakers want to make movies.

This is so obvious that it sounds trite to say it.

But it’s not obvious, not to most people.

In America we have an old folk tradition that teaches us that any ordinary man or woman with a knack and a will can do any job and do it better than a whole passel of so-called pro-fessionals.

The Monday Morning Quarterback as a type goes back to the days long before there was football.

“I tell you, Jed. If I was in Washington’s boots and I wanted to cross some dadblamed half-froze river late at night in the middle of winter, you can bet I’d a knowed better’n to do it in a snowstorm!”

The country’s full of people who think that if they just got the chance...

If somebody just made them mayor, then, boy, they’d have this city running right in no time.

If somebody just hired them as manager the Red Sox would be back in the pennant race in a week.

If they ran this company they'd have it back in the black by the end of the quarter.

If they had time to sit down at a keyboard they’d pound out a bestselling novel.

If you handed them a microphone they’d show the world what real singing is.

If they got their hands on a camera, well, engrave their name on the Oscar now.

I call it The American Idol Syndrome. Nevermind the fact that most of the finalists on that show have put years into honing their skills, the show’s popularity is based on the idea that any of us can be a superstar if we just got the chance.

And despite the rise of MBA programs, for most of the last hundred and fifty years or so, the business world worked on the principle that it wasn’t what you know but who you know, it didn’t matter what courses you took in school, it mattered what house you pledged.

Chances were handed out like party the right sort of person.

The Republican Party, a wholly owned subsidy of Corporate America Inc., has operated on the same principle and the Bush Administration is the apotheosis of the Greek Guide to Better Business.

Give the job to the son or daughter of the guy you went to school with.

The idea is that anybody of the right background is born with all the qualifications needed to do any job, talent, education, experience, or evidence of past incompetence be damned.

Their handing over the job of reconstructing Iraq to young party appartchiks demonstrated how well this works.

But the assumption persists.

As I said, an ideologically-driven pseudo-thinker like Horowitz doesn’t distinguish between education and indoctrination or between art and propaganda. Facts are only tools and you pick the tools you need to do the job you want to do and ignore the rest.

Idealogogues* like Horowitz can’t imagine that anyone else thinks differently.

So they assume that when a liberal historian writes a book, that book is biased. When a liberal college professor puts together a syllabus, that syllabus is a blueprint for political indoctrination. And when a liberal director makes a movie, the movie is a piece of propaganda.

They can’t imagine that people might be motivated by ideals and ethics that have nothing to do with their politics. They can’t imagine that there are people who are more loyal to their own talent or to their art or their chosen discipline or to truth than to their political beliefs.

They can’t imagine a historian who’d rather get the history right than draw the politically correct conclusions, a professor who wants to help students open their minds and think for themselves, a filmmaker who wants to make a good movie even if it means creating sympathetic portrayals of people they don’t like or whose views they don’t share.

The cells of Manchurian filmmakers Horowitz and other Right Wingers are trying to build in Hollywood to subvert the industry from within are going to be filled with people like the director and writer of The Path to 9/11, partisan hacks too arrogant to pursue the proper schooling and apprenticeships they need to really learn their trades, too ideologically motivated to understand the difference between making a movie, even a schlocky docudrama for network television, and a commercial to be shown at party rallies to inspire the already brainwashed.

*Typo, that should be ideologue, but see esposito's comment and harry's follow-up.

Sources: Avedon Carol, Firedoglake, ThinkProgress, Shakespeare's Sister, Tom Tomorrow, Seeing the Forest, Susie Madrak, Atrios, Kevin Hayden, Glenn Greenwald, The Agonist, Orcinus, digby, and Carolyn Kay.

Cross-posted at the American Street.


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