WE DON'T give ironies their full due of concern any more, probably because there are too many of them. Does anybody bother to deride the fact that a TV commercial regularly urges us to "reach out, reach out and touch someone" by using a heartless electro-mechanical device known as the telephone?
We have probably become as accustomed to such impertinent commercials as we have to the impertinence of the telephone itself. And besides, the "Reach out" campaign is so clever, so deviously effective, that it's admirable in its own right. It is also probably the first TV commercial to be the sole subject of an entire book, Michael J. Arlen's "Thirty Seconds," about the weeks and work that went in to just one 30-second spot.
Arlen, 49, had long wanted to tackle such a subject, but ad agency people always acted as if "theirs were the secrets of the crypt," he says. Finally, though, the phone company complied, and now that the book is out, "They seem pleased with the whole thing," the author says. "Which gives me a funny feeling, becaue I wasn't setting out to please AT&T. And I think, 'Maybe I should have taken a sterner tone,' but that wasn't really what I was trying to do, either."
Arlen, The New Yorker's TV critic since 1966, does not take very stern tones with anything, it would appear, especially television. This sets him apart from almost everyone else who regularly comments on television and its output. Stern tones and sky-high dudgeon are the order of the day. But Arlen has, in a resigned and forgiving way, come to terms with the Minotaur, the Gorgon, the old Cyclops of television.
"Television," Michael Arlen says emotionlessly, "is a space, a space for people to escape from people -- which is bad -- and a space for people to, in a way, rest themselves, which is not so bad. I think the interesting thing about, television programming is that, except for commercials, it seems so permeable. When the television set is on, if my home is like everybody else's all sorts of things are going on around it. I am chatting with my wife, though not having a serious conversation. My children -- one would be doing homework, the other talking on the phone to Susie.
"All this is going on through the program, and I think it's no accident that programs are that way, and no accident that commercials are so intense. I mean, you can't do any of those activities while reading a book, or watching most movies, or watching a stage play. But television has that particular quality of permeability. Porousness. Ordinary life goes through it, and I think probably in America right now, people have a great need to have something of that porous quality."
"Thirty Seconds" does not have the seminal, landmarky aura of Arlen's "Living Room War," about how television covered Vietnam. But it is an acrid and alert inside look at a world that many of us may consider a dark, foreign kingdom inhabited by conniving fiends who try to foist upon us designer jeans, headache cures, tooth-rotting sweets and indisputably sheer-sheer panty-hose.
A bemused stranger in this strange and busy land, Arlen takes a steadfast dispassionate tone, keeping his own reactions and conclusion out of it for the most part. The result is a book that's dry and droll, often funny and sometimes faintly frightening.
We meet the people who dreamed up the commercial and many of the dozens it took to make it. These are pros who speak in terms of "Polaroiding" and "bounce-back" and "unaided recall" and "psychographic-segmentation studies." They say things like, "I have an inspiration!" and, "I like the concept, but does it work, structure-wise?"
Problem-wise, a "vignette" commercial like this one (10 scenes that cover five thematically related telephone situations) can be formidable. Mittens the cat refused to walk the correct path in front of the camera, and after 15 takes her mistress pledged. "We're going to try awfully hard" to get it right. A hockey player had to be found who had just the right number of missing teeth. The amount of permissible bare skin in the locker room scene was carefully calculated in advance.
And, of all things, the filmmakers were momentarily stymied when despite the help of even the mighty phone company itself, it looked as though they would not be able to locate an actual telephone booth to use as a prop.
It's all very amusing, but then it also gets cumulatively more and more dispiriting. Here are all these hyperdrive dynamos spending hours and hours agonizing and brainstorming over something as frivolous as a TV commercial.
"Yes, I think it's sad," says Arlen. "There's a lot in our society that's sad. There's a wonderful word called optimization which was coined by a great economist and defined by him as the art or science of doing as well as humanly possible what either should not or need not be done at all. It seems to me that an awful lot of activity in private life and public comes under that heading -- certainly advertising.
"I think that this almost endearing, not-quite-noble continuing effort on the part of Americans to do as well as possible all sorts of things that needn't or shouldn't be done is quite touching when you think about it. It's bound to make one sad. If I succeeded in this book, it would be to somehow evoke echoes or resonances of this sadness, this unsettling quality."
Arlen did not find the people in advertising, especially the actual commercial-makers, to be gnarled cynics grinding out brainwashes for us poor suckers at home, whatever he may have expected in advance.
"I grew up in the 1950s with 'The Hucksters' and that whole sense of the ad man as defrocked priest -- drinking too much, failed writer, and so on," he says. "I found none of that. There were no failed writers, certainly not visibly.
"But one of the things that fascinated me was how nearly everybody had somehow sort of tumbled into this line of work from something else. Everybody had started out into something else and it was as if the artistic impulse had never been that strong."
Sometimes Arlen, with his many interjections of "sort of" and "I-don't-know," sounds definitively equivocating. He is asked whether he "respects" the advertising people he spent all that time with and the work they do.
"Well . . ." he says, pausing. "I . . . I mean . . . as to what they do, I'm not sure that 'respect' is the word. There's a certain level at which you can connect to them very easily and that is that they're relentlessly professional people who are decent and friendly and good Americans, whatever that may or may not mean.
"As to respect, I mean, I think that, you know, that craft to television commercial-making is, uh, superficially sort of commonplace but on a deeper level a rather troubling and unsettling one, I guess. But no more troubling in a way than an awful lot else that goes on in American life."
You can sense Arlen wrestling with some of the dilemmas and effronteries presented by television and neither winning nor losing but stopping to ask if this wrestling match is really necessary. He even suggests that the whole idea of being a television critic may be an exercise in futility, or perhaps optimization.
"It seems to me that sort of second-guessing a popular entertainment isn't always very relevant because the givens aren't very amenable to formal analysis or criticism," he says. "Take an opera. George Bernard Shaw can write passionately about a performance of 'Don Giovanni' because 'Don Giovanni' is a formal structure, and the attempt is to do it as well as possible. But if you're talking about popular entertainment, the formal structure is very vague, and the attempt is not necessary to do it as well as possible. It may be to do it as well as possible within so many givens that are not artistic at all."
At times Arlen's attitude toward television, while refreshingly nonhysterical, seems not so much calm as complacement. It is foolishly impractical, he says, to expect television to be great all that time. Okay -- but never?
"How could television be consistently great? There's never been very much greatness, and it's a kind of entertainment-world madness to assume that it's all around -- greatness, brilliance, mute, inglorious Miltons. There are virtually no mute, inglorious Miltons any more. We've heard from most of them."
He does not believe in throwing stones at the one-eyed monster of television on the grounds that it must be the cause of every societal problem and moral quiver in the land.
"I think all the things that are going on now are to some extent reflected in television, but television certainly didn't create them. Television didn't create the alienation between people and in fact to some degree it helps that situation more than a lot of other things do.
"People seem to want to believe of television that which seems to be on a par with a certain kind of demonology about religion, government, whatever. I do not believe that television 'gives the people what they want' or that it either mirrors society or exists in correspondence to the needs of society. I mean, it's not completely opposed to that, or divergent from that, but it's not very close, either."
TV is given all kinds of socializing responsibilities, and at the same time chastised for usurping all kinds of socializing responsibilities.
"No one is being a parent, or a very good parent, any more," Arlen explains, sort of. "Government is not being a good parent, religion isn't being a good parent, parents definitely aren't being good parents, not in the sense of nurturing, and yet the need for parenting hasn't disappeared. In fact it's there more than ever but no one is into parenting. And I would guess that the media in general -- Walter Cronkite and Mean Joe Green or whatever -- are to some degree filling this parental void. Whenever you have a situation -- whether it's a family, tribe or nation -- where the parents have gone out to lunch, you're going to have a void that can be filled by God-knows-whom. Perhaps we're lucky so far that it's being filled by 'Coke Adds Life.' And not by -- who knows?"
People have an almost primal need to blame and attack television. "It makes the process of adjustment somewhat easier, you know, to yell and scream as you depart from old ways of perceiving and doing things. As people leave home, they usually yell and scream for a while before they reach their next destination."
Perhaps, then, it will all blow over, and we will move on to something besides television as the imagined source of all ill.Michael Arlen would have us sleep peacefully tonight with the assurance that television is not melting our brains and stealing our souls. Arlen watches it, after all, and he's part of that snooty New York intellectural literati set. He doesn't watch it a lot -- "I kind of browse around in it" -- but he does say, and take heart at this:
"I think that if one can appreciate Chaucer and El Greco and the proverbial sunset, one can probably appreciate television."