"I Dunno, It Just Sorta Screams 'TV' To Me...": The title of this post is not a direct quote, but it does sum up the sentiments of a lot of folks who want to express their reluctance to see...or to pay to see...a particular movie, or take a particular movie seriously. And the attitude extends, does it not, to one's considerations of various performers (although not necessarily of directors). And then, on the other hand, there's actual TV that doesn't scream "TV" to certain people.
I'll start with my own prejudices in this realm. Usually, when a prominent performer passes away, I'll make some kind of note of it on my own blog. But a few weeks back, first Robert Culp died, and then John Forsythe. Robert Culp; certainly a familiar figure, and a welcome one, an integral ingredient of at least two television programs that, I am told, were thoroughly significant. Problem was, I don't think I'd ever sat through an episode of I, Spy all the way through, and as for Greatest American Hero, I don't think I could even get through the opening theme. I liked Culp on his occasional guest shots on Everybody Loves Raymond (a rather underrated program, I think, and very far from the toothless sitcom many dismiss it as, but I'm not gonna make a federal case out of it), and I liked him because he was, sure, Robert Culp. But his film work was vestigial, from my perspective. What was I gonna write about? Turk 182!? The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday? Hannie Caulder? Hickey and Boggs, maybe, but it'd been years since I'd seen it, if indeed I've actually ever seen it. Usually with fellows of Culp's age you could find one or two B pictures with auteurial stamps on them, going back to the '50s, say, but not here. So? I got/had nothing. So I let his passing go unremarked upon, and still felt kinda bad about it. Then Forsythe died. One didn't need to find a B picture with an auteurial stamp on it here; Forsyth had worked for Hitchcock, not once, but twice, in feature films. He made a good, upstanding foil for the "kooky" Shirley MacLaine in The Trouble With Harry, a whimsical 1955 film from the Master that plays rather like a live-action, feature-length New Yorker cartoon. Then there's the more middling Topaz. Overall Forsythe's actual filmo is a lot more interesting than Culp's, encompassing not just ...And Justice For All! and In Cold Blood but also Madame X and Kitten With A Whip. But there's nothing in the filmo that actually upends what were his various television personae, from Bachelor Father to the disembodied Charlie of Charlie's Angels to the once-again upstanding Blake Carrington of Dynasty. Not that I can claim any kind of definitive basis for that last characterization, as I never sat through an episode of Dynasty, either. (That's why I don't have an attitude, I guess.)
I don't point any of this out by way of dismissing two very fine performers who were also by all accounts exemplars of their profession. I merely note that within the area of my ostensible expertise, there was really nothing I could say about either of them, or at least nothing that someone else couldn't or wouldn't say better. They did not "scream" TV to me, but they were mostly of TV, and TV has never really been my thing. I've had to bone up on it at times. Well I remember a Premiere editorial meeting in late '99, and somebody was talking about this "Ashton Kutcher" guy, and I was all, like, "huh?" (Happy to see that his film career has turned out to be pretty vestigial too, eh?) In any event, the screams-TV-to-me caveat has most recently been leveled at Date Night, the comedy opening today pairing Steve Carrell, of The Office fame on television and The 40-Year-Old Virgin fame on film, and Tina Fey, of SNL and 30 Rock fame on television, as a married couple whose titular attempt to put some zing back into their relationship leads them to all sorts of putatively hilarity-ensuing misadventure. Mitigating the TV-ish feel of the lead casting, some note, are the presences of "real" movie actors such as James Franco and Mark Wahlberg. The awful truth for this film could well be that it doesn't so much scream "TV" as it screams "Shawn Levy," the film's studio-pleasing, material-homogenizing director, whose formula for success is to take varied idiosyncratic premises and talents and smooth them out into a bland paste that goes down easy and digests instantly. See Cheaper By The Dozen, either Night At The Museum, and so on. (Or don't see them, actually.) The irony being that a random episode of The Office or 30 Rock is likely to have more sass, "edge," and laugh-out-loud material than the entirety of Date Night.
The ultimate arbiter of television with edge, or better still, television as Great Art, is David Simon, whose Sunday-premiering new series Treme (on HBO) is garnering so much anticipatory love from so many particular corners (including this one) that my snarkier stuff is a little surprised that the show hasn't yet turned up on that "Stuff That White People Like" site. Simon's vision is such that it can only coalesce, I suspect, in the longer, multi-story thread concept of the television series, or more specifically, the limited-run television series, a concept that networks have been extremely reluctant to embrace but which makes perfect sense for a lot of programs (see Glee). But what's interesting—and kind of disturbing—is how little crossover Simon's ideas have had. The stereotype-smashing thoughtfulness he brought to The Wire hasn't meaningfully manifested itself in much Hollywood cinematic product that I can see. This represents a potentially discouraging state of affairs for a cinephile such as myself: that to get the Good Stuff, I'm gonna have to start watching more TV. Because I really don't much like TV...