Cable News Cretinism

TV and popular culture.
Dec. 7 2004 7:27 PM

Cable News Cretinism

Blame Canada!

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Ooh, this is a good one, via Wonkette: Ann Coulter and Carlson Tucker (the Barbie and Ken of conservative talk TV) have been taking the South Park boys' advice to heart and blaming Canada—for what exactly, it's not clear, but a little Anglo-on-Anglo xenophobia is always a safe way of blowing off some steam. It seems our neighbors to the north have "become trouble recently," observes Coulter menacingly, before suggesting that "they'd better hope the United States doesn't roll over one night and crush them. They are lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent. ..." (Click here  to view the clip.)

To Tucker Carlson, Canada is "essentially Honduras, but colder and much less interesting." But, Carlson allows, he doesn't mean to stereotype an entire population as anti-American; after all, "the average Canadian is busy dogsledding." ... 4:27 p.m.

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Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2004

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For a brief period in the mid-'90s, I was seriously in love with Buster Keaton. I had it bad; I'd fall asleep and dream my way into one of his movies (a trick Keaton himself imagined brilliantly in the 1924 film Sherlock, Jr.), or laugh out loud on the subway at some remembered gag. I read every Keaton biography I could get my hands on and saw all the films from his great silent period. I even made notes for a book-length project on Keaton that never got off the ground. But I was never able to bring myself to watch any of his sound films from the 1930s, after he signed on as a contract player at MGM. The legend of his precipitous decline was too familiar, and too heartbreaking, to bear. Keaton's deadpan, absurdist sense of humor and his almost supernatural gift for slapstick were ill-suited to the sentimental, dialogue-heavy MGM "talkies," and soon he was being wildly miscast as a sad clown, or worse, a buffoonish foil for Jimmy Durante. Keaton felt suffocated by the lack of creative freedom under the studio system and took to heavy drinking. He was summarily fired by MGM in 1933, initiating a period of personal and professional decline that would last until his "rediscovery" in the 1950s.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Now there's a new Keaton documentary, directed by the film historian Kevin Brownlow, that focuses specifically on Keaton's MGM period. So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton at MGM, which premieres tonight on Turner Classic Movies (8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. ET; re-airing on Dec. 19), examines the technological, artistic, and financial forces that contributed to the downfall of one of the great artists of the 20th century. The film is narrated by James Karen, a character actor and friend of Keaton's, in a tone that's elegiac but not sappy.

At 38 minutes, the film whizzes by too quickly, ignoring Keaton's early life entirely and wrapping up his post-MGM career in a few sentences. But film buffs will be fascinated by archival footage they may never have seen before. In a filmed interview from the '60s, the older Buster bemoans the Marx Brothers' lack of on-set preparation, remembering that "When we made movies, we ate, slept and breathed 'em." There's also a rare clip of Keaton delivering lines in painfully phonetic Spanish; before the days of dubbing, films were simply remade several times in different languages for the international market. In a scene from one of Buster's early shorts, Coney Island, the famously stone-faced comedian can be seen laughing heartily after whacking Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in the head with a mallet. A few clips from the dark days at MGM are truly hard to watch; in one dreadful dance number, Keaton is literally jerked around on strings like a giant marionette, as if to allegorize his loss of creative control. In another scene, he mechanically repeats a painfully unfunny bit of dialogue, his voice audibly slurred by alcohol. Anyone who remembers the imperturbable gravitas of the silent Keaton will watch with his heart in his throat.

If you don't have cable, So Funny It Hurt is also included in a new DVD box set from Turner Classic Movies of the first three films Keaton made with MGM (The Cameraman, Spite Marriage, and Free and Easy, which will also be playing on TCM tonight). These are required viewing for those who are already Keaton junkies. But if you're discovering him now for the first time (lucky you), start with the early silents first. ... 4:27 p.m.

Monday, Dec. 6, 2004

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A CBS promo for last night's 60 Minutes interview with Bob Dylan asked portentously: "Why is Bob Dylan giving his first television interview in nineteen years?" After the 15-minute segment was up, viewers might still be asking the same question, since neither of the participants seemed to much care about the proceedings. Dylan displayed the flat affect of the clinically depressed, avoiding eye contact, mumbling evasively and sometimes visibly wincing at Ed Bradley's questions, which were not just toothless but gumless. Not that there's any need to put the 63-year-old artist through the wringer, but for God's sake, at least ask him something that rises to the level of mildly interesting cocktail chatter.

Grumpy old man
Grumpy old man

For example, when Bradley asked Dylan about Rolling Stone magazine's recent selection of (surprise) "Like a Rolling Stone" as the number one song of all time, Dylan was characteristically unimpressed: "Well, the lists, they change names pretty frequently ... I don't really pay much attention to that." Follow-up question that would be asked by ANY SENTIENT INDIVIDUAL at that moment: So, Mr. Dylan, what do you think is the greatest song of all time? Had the focus shifted for a moment off himself and his status as a legend, Dylan might have opened up a little, smiled, maybe even picked up a guitar and sung a Woody Guthrie song or something. But Bradley neglected to ask his subject anything about music, current events, pop culture or religion. Instead, the interview dwelled awkwardly on Bradley's amazement at the fact that Dylan might not enjoy being a celebrity. The basic Q & A template went something like this: Bradley: "Many regard you as a prophet/god/savior/genius. What do you say to that?" Dylan: "Argh, erm, well, hmmm." Bradley: "Wow, you're so enigmatic."