Writing about television immediately means writing about culture, about commerce, about politics, about manners. For the canny critic, television is a window on the world -- for better or worse, the window through which most Americans see most of the world, and not incidentally, through which they recognize themselves.
Most television critics draw their pay-making gestures of thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the passing shows, scowling or beaming for the guidance and amusement of the home audience. Michael J. Arlen of The New Yorker can afford to be more reflective in his treatments. In fact, his attention is trained less on television programming than on television watching.
"The Camera Age" is Arlen's third collection of essays on television, drawn from the pages of The New Yorker between 1976 and 1980. He is also the author of "Thirty Seconds," a slender volume on the making of the "reach out, reach out and touch someone" television commercials for AT&T. Someone who would write a book about a single commercial is not likely to approach television conventionally. With Arlen, you never know quite where he'll end up, and that may be why you keep reading.
He looks at the Oscar ceremonies, for instance, and is reminded of long parades in Europe in its imperial age, "huge linear displays, wherein the spectators remained stationary, aligned on either side of the great avenues, while the participants (who were perceived as being the important persons of their era) passed by and displayed themselves."
It must be said, particularly when these essays covering five years of television are read seriatim, that Arlen can be guilty of reaching, of concocting theories that his subjects do not, at first glance, have the proportions to contain.
Consider Arlen's memorable essay of last year on the "Dallas" phenomenon. He takes up the casual and accepted assertion that "Dallas" is mere soap opera in prime time, and proceeds, in his quiet and disarming fashion, to argue that "Dallas" is not soap opera at all -- not in the received sense of the term, "a drama of prisoners, first of the larger world of social conventions, then of the smaller world of family roles."
The Ewings of Southfork, far from being slaves to convention, "are liberated from having to relate to a consistent perspective," he writes "They're also free to reinvent themselves, even from moment to moment . . . They can do anything. But since they answer neither to God nor to any known framework of social conventions, it's hard to know whom or what they do answer to. 'Themselves' is probably the missing word, but since these new selves consist of such replaceable circuitry it's not easy to know what that means, either."
"Dallas" is popular, Arlen contends, because so many Americans identify with the Ewings' freedom to reconstitute themselves day by day -- either that, or they envy it. Perhaps. It is equally plausible that that family of walking, talking non sequiturs inspires hilarity more than anything like envy -- or in any case makes even the most morally bankrupt American feel virtuous.
But give Arlen crdit for being original and provocative, and for more than that besides: for working relentlessly to understand television as a creature not of greedy corporate executives or of pandering low-brow scriptwriters but of honest (if at times subliminal) public wants and needs. If anything motivates these essays, it is Arlen's belief in the perfectibility of the medium -- and that alone sets him apart.
The essays in "The Camera Age" are not chiefly one-shots, closely trained on a single program. Those that do fall in that category, by and large, have a more lasting resonance: "Roots" as a prolonged and counter-productive indulgence in fantasy; a "60 Minutes" inquiry into corruption in Wyoming as a dangerous exercise in video prosecution; "Baretta" and "Charlie's Angels" as adult incarnations of adolescent fantasies.
Arlen's insights into the political uses and abuses of television are no less unusual. This book includes brilliant short pieces on Richard Nixon's surface from exile in an interview with Theodore H. White on the "Today" program, playing The Ancient Mariner to White's Wedding Guest; the moment when "Walter Cronkite dared us to see the real terror of the times we live in" when catastrophe struck the Three Mile Island nuclear installation; the televised interview when candidate Ronald Reagan came close to admitting others were putting words in his mouth he didn't fully understand; and an assessment of contemporary campaign advertising through a conversation with David Sawyer, a political media consultant.
The longer and more difficult essays in this book show Arlen's abiding interest in the ambivalent way television treats fiction and reality. "Fred Wiseman's Kino Pravada" is a paean to what the camera does best and most purely; "On the Trail of a 'Fine Careless Rapture'" is a critique of television's absorption in the details of verisimilitude at the expense of conveying truth; "The Tyranny of the Visual" is a lament for what visual storytelling can do to the literature that inspires it.
It is in these pieces that Arlen shows his colors as a literary critic -- a literary critic of television. All the essays in "The Camera Age," short or long, are essentially literary treatments, translations from a foreign language of pictures and sounds into his (and, implicitly, our) native tongue of words and sentences.
Quite consciously he uses literary expressions to elucidate his descriptions of television images -- "the grammar of fast-cutting," for instance, or "energizing bits of visual punctuation or vocabulary." Quite deliberately he locates television in a literary landscape, or on a literary landscape, or ona literary continuum. Television's artistic debt to movies is not ignored, but neither is their ultimate debt to literature.
As such, Arlen's writing has a sufficiency to anyone who speaks his language, and his great and deserved appeal attests to the considerable numbers who do. You donht even have to watch much television to appreciate and believe what Arlen says -- a point of praise for him, but a telling one.
Tom Wolfe suggested something of this kind apropos contemporary painting in "The Painted Word." But television has a massive life of its own outside the words its most astute critics use to help us understand it, a life that is largely unexpressed and is perhaps by nature inarticulate.
Arlen's writing about television, lucid and enlightening as it is, hints at the very distance it is seeking to bridge, between the experience of watching television and the struggle to come to terms with how it works and what it means. As Arlen says in his introduction, the medium is "porous." Words are all we have to cope with it, and words may not be enough.