In case you've missed it -- I did, until now, to my great and continuing rue -- a new media revolution is upon us, one that threatens to leave even profounder traces upon our cultural mores and habits of consciousness than anything we've experienced hitherto.
Yet all it takes to discover it is a trip to your local drugstore magazine rack, where, with sufficiently persevering and diligent search, you will eventually unearth a pair of florid publications entitled "Kiss" and "Darling." They shouldn't be too hard to find because the colors used for the covers suggest a neon advertisement for tropical fruit punch.
These periodicals are made of paper -- a sort of shiny, glossy stuff that feels as if it's waxed -- but make no mistake: This isn't printed matter we're dealing with, but television. TV, which first torpedoed, then scavenged and has now nearly engulfed our movie industry; which has ripped off and disfigured live theater; which has turned the hardcover book into an antiquarian relic of a linear past, brought the billboard inside to become an ubiquitous item of home furnishing and "imagized" our newspapers and weeklies; this same TV, it appears, has now invaded and conquered that last out-post of pop literacy -- amorous pulp fiction of the "true romance" variety.
("True romance" -- isn't it a contradiction in terms? Romance is, by definition, falsification, the substitution of the fabulous and the visionary for "drab" actuality. But the purveyors of pulp are bound to insist on a realistic veneer for their material, to reassure the daydreamers among us that the fantasy of pure, perfect, limitless love can come true in the world. The idea is, if it happened to other real persons -- as opposed to the novelist's made-up characters -- then it can happen to the reader also.)
"Kiss" and "Darling" represent a grand new fusion of good old soap opera, "B" movies, comic strips and wide-screen cinema, all now subsumed under the format of the daytime TV serial. They are "adult" comic books in which hand drawn cartoon figures are replaced by posed color photographs of actors, with printed "balloons" containing the minimal dialogue, and mechanical, if sometimes ingenious, tearjerking plots.
Fittingly enough, though both magazines assure us they are issued by the Omnium Publishing Corporation of New York City, Frederick A. Klien, president, both are printed and obviously also photographed in Italy, in the city of -- you guessed it -- Verona, where, no doubt, the spirts of Montagues and Capulets still haunt the presses.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the treatment of the stories within is the incredible primness -- almost priggishness -- of atmosphere, in the day and age of "Playboy" and "Hustler." "Kiss" and "Darling" are aimed at a readership that longs for a return to Victorian decencies and taboos. Though the teaser lines on the covers -- like, "the story of a passion that defied space and time... and "a woman's love for her husband's brother drives them over the edge" -- promise steamy and possibly even salacious titillation, both the pictures and the dialogue are strictly "G"-rated.
In one of these stories, it is not until page 33 of a 66-page narrative that we are shown the first embrace of the lovers, whose lips are tightly pursed and barely glancing. There are no bedroom scenes involving couples, and a few conventional bathing suits are as near as one gets to provocative exposure. When Fred and Donna, the principal lovers, have to spend a night on the road in a hotel, and the place only has one room with twin-beds, Fred sleeps in his car.
Fred, the hero of "Even Death Couldn't End Their Love" in the January "Kiss," is a photo-journalist, and there's a funny bit of self-propagandizing mixed in with the romancing. He's sent out to locate and do a story on a movie actress who's disappeared. He finds her -- it turns out she's gone blind -- and gets his candids. But Donna, who's tagged along, is horrified at this "invasion of privacy."
When 8red, suddenly conscience-stricken, tells Donna he's destroyed the film, they go into their big clinch. "It would have been inhuman to expose her secret," he says. And Donna: "You should know how happy I am to hear you talk like that... a photographer who acts like you... it's a miracle in today's world." They embrace, under the legend, "the spirit of a brave and beautiful woman inspires them...."
Typically, though, the story of Donna and Fred doesn't come to any conventionally happy ending. Donna has abandoned her ne'er-do-well, philandering fiance for Fred, until, that is, she learns that he's dying of brain cancer. This sends her swiftly back to his side. Fred is left to reflect that "pity is strength in itself, and the pain of waiting will come to an end." In the code of these stories, loyalty is a higher imperative even than love; indeed, proof of the strength of true love.
In such a context, the measure of romantic intensity is the ability to tolerate self-denial and sacrifice. Love is submitted to the ultimate test, of separation. Heartache, not bliss, is the feeling these stories most assiduously strive to communicate -- yearning, rather than fulfillment, is their emotional payoff.
This is even more pointedly illustrated by "How Can I Resist You," the contents of the January "Darling." Andy recovers from his jungle amnesia and comes back home to his invalid mother to find his sweetheart, Lorna, married to his spineless brother Louis. When Lorna, mistakenly thinking Andy no longer cares for her, flees after Louis accidentally shoots himself, Andy wanders the globe in search of her, only to conclude "I'll never see her again." "He's in a crowd," the continuity appends, "but nobody sees him. He cries, but there are no tears. The only sound is the knock, knock of the boats against the pier. And darkness falls." End.
Compared to the story of Fred and Donna, the saga of Andy and Lorna is a major esthetic achievement. It begins in the Amazonian underbrush; it includes an extended flashback; and the pictures feature low-angle shots for dramatic impact, and nocturnal silhouettes for added poignance. There's a dinner-table scene of jealousy and recrimination worthy of Selznick's "Duel in the Sun," and such immortal dialogue as: "Oh, Lorna... I'm still so in love with you. I can't keep up this charade.And neither can you!" "Yes... Andy. I'm too tired to fight it any longer."
But either tale, and such coming epics as "The Death That Started a Life: the haunting story of a man who returns from the grave... and the woman who waited for him...," promised for the February issue of "Darling," should warm the cockles of schlockoholics everywhere. At long last, we can read and watch television at the very same time.