The Gap

Kerr and Miller

The Gap

Kerr and Miller

The Gap
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 17 1998 12:53 PM

Kerr and Miller

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Dear Mark,

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I suppose I did put a few words in your mouth, then react to them. Sorry. That was before we (America, I mean) were fighting a suspect war; today you will find me properly sober.

Swords to the ground then. But let me correct a few minor misimpressions of yours. I loathe Bill Maher--God help me if I didn't. I more than love Hitchcock, and of course know the difference between the original Psycho and the new one; all I meant to say was 1) the original is not a movie that I personally would pick out of all his greats for nostalgia, and 2) anyway, the remake has been given the gong by audiences and critics. It's the Edsel of 1998. I don't see how it's any kind of threat.

 I apologize, really, if I seemed to imply that you were uptight or judgmental. Might I counter that your tone, I hope not consciously, implies that I (conditioned by generational apathy, unable to fend off the irony virus?) have trouble making important distinctions, and that I look at power imbalances and social disasters and say "what's the big deal?" Each of us is anticipating some kind of stereotyped character failure in the other. It seems important to get beyond this impasse.

I guess I do think that "entertainment" used to be a slightly, just slightly, more reliable finger to the wind than it is today. Maybe because there wasn't so darn much of it then as now. It's a little hard to explain--just something I feel more and more. I suppose it has to do with hype, and incorporated into the hype, a monstrous proliferation of media criticism (not real criticism like yours, but the stuff of daily arts and leisure sections, for example) that speaks knowingly about how TV shows and movies reflect various fears and longings and new under-served demographic points in the audience. Precisely because there's so much of this talk, and so much of it is cheap, I've grown resistant to it, like that cockroach in my first entry. Based on this year 's new shows, Sports Night and The Secret Lives of Men and Buddy Faro and L.A. Doctors and a couple others I can't remember, it's clear that networks felt that young American men were ready to embrace shows that explored the ins and outs of male bonding. A few of these efforts seem semi-ambitious, some cookie cutter or worse. All except Buddy Faro are school of Sincerity, not Irony. (Again, I would argue that the wallowing-in-it irony syndrome that bothers you has seriously calmed down in the last year or two; Bill Maher's show survives on TV but does not seem to me a particularly "representative" phenomenon.) The point is that like the new Psycho, none of these male-bonding shows is doing incredibly well. I don't think they reflect much except the networks' fallible judgment.

This topic is so broad ... time to narrow. I seem to be talking a lot about TV, and I guess it's in TV that I most definitely sense a dip in influence. Obviously, TV is everywhere, throws around more money than ever, is undergoing mergers right and left, moving into new expensive technology, etc. Talk about influence--ratings imperatives and certain hectoring talking heads have essentially thrown a stick of dynamite into our very system of government this year. But all I can say is what I said yesterday. There's a kind of emotional contract between TV programming and a viewer. I think the terms of that contract have changed. TV needs us more, and we need it less. You can see it in the fact that a silent majority of Americans watched "Get Clinton!" all year long but didn't buy into it; we recognized it as advancing the needs of the media, and not of us.

Yes, this recognition hasn't yet translated to any kind of concrete power, and yes--of course, and you're a little unfair to suggest otherwise--I see that this is a problem. But I think there are different kinds of power. It does seem to me you're especially interested in big-picture who-has-the-power questions. Again, I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but that is where the passion comes out in your entries. Well, I basically agree with you on these questions. That media corporations have too much power seems to me sort of self-evident. And for that very reason, I 'm not sure that there's so much new for us to discuss. I'm a lot more intrigued by this tiny gap I pointed to in the graph above. Consciousness-wise, I think the audience does have marginally more power than it used to--a budding resistance to sway. Will the gap grow? What on earth would people do if we weaned ourselves off TV? How fascinating and mysterious it will be to watch.

Well, time to sign off. Thanks for responsive, challenging but friendly entries throughout the week. We've had a few teensy misunderstandings, but I wind up feeling that we're far more simpatico than not.

Yours,
Sarah

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Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. This week they discuss Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, by Neal Gabler (Knopf; 303 pages; $25).