The producers of "To Be a Man," airing tonight on public TV, seem to think that if you string together enough gnarled cliches, banal bromides and trendy pop-thoughts, you will come up with an insightful documentary. Instead, they got an hour of specious chic bilge and pseudo-analytical twaddle about the sexual revolution, if any.
The program, at 9 o'clock on Channel 26, is part of public TV's week-long observance of the National Women's Conference being held in Houston.
Its style is a festival of attention-teasing devices arranged in wan and perfunctory profusion by producer-director Christian Blackwood. Visually, the program is unoriginal to the point of parody, at best, it's camp journalism.
Writer David Alpern, meanwhile, must have studied at the Tom Snyder school of advanced social psychology. His "Monde Macho" history of the United States is a model of oversimplification.
"World War I gave American men the chance to re-asset their manhood," says the narrator.
"Then came the Depression. It was the ultimate assault on the nation's manhood," he goes on.
We also hear the shocking revelation that during the Great Depression, "Some men were reduced to selling apples." Imagine how concerned they must have been about threats to their manhood then.
Alpern has collaborators - a number of guest experts and case studies who all seem to spout the self-absorbed rhetoric of pretentious people put down in New Yorker cartoons.
These interviewees are supposed to challenge old ideas of masculinity and sexual roles, but if anything they suggest that the old ideas may have been the lesser evils. "I want to stop thinking," moans psychologist and house-husband Dan Sullivan. "I want to just BE."
Later he complains that society has forced him to play John Wayne. He would rather play "John Wayne and lor," he says, while some of his child-Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Tayren wander in the background.
Captured at the seashore, journalist and sometime Jackie-date Pete Hamill announces, "There are no heroes in life." Then he declares that both the Vietnam war and Watergate were the direct result of the evil "macho competition" drive.
Perhaps he should also have accused Woodward and Bernstein of macho competition in uncovering the scandal.
The offensive thing is that "To Be a Man" trots out its subjects as if they speak for society, as if they are by some wild standard representative or indicative. Time and again the script maintains that a "growing number of American men" feel this way or that way, without ever supporting such a contention. Instead, Blackwood tries to distract viewers with such irrelevant film footage as two trains colliding while the narrator talks about male urges.
"To Be a Man" is everything a documentary should not be; to call it a documentary is to insult Fred Wiseman, Robert Flaherty, and "The Plow That Broke the Plains, among others."