I have been waiting for 15 years to tell you what is wrong with the whole idea of home videotapes, but I never knew, exactly, until the instant this tape began rolling.
It was over the winter of 1970-71 when I invited Nicholas Johnson to lunch. I was Sunday news editor of the then-new Style section, and was either about to become or had already been transmogrified as editor of the Living in Style section, precursor of today's Washington Home. Johnson was a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, and I wanted to talk to him about the future of the newly developed home videotapes in general and in particular about the likelihood of the American public becoming even more dazed and goggle-eyed and inbred by watching the same things over and over and over. I had a vision of my own children never leaving the house again because "The Sound of Music" would play perpetually, like the music at a Los Angeles drive-through mortuary.
It turned out that Johnson (a) didn't know what I was talking about, (b) didn't care, or (c) didn't want to discuss it any longer than it took him to bolt down a plateload of vine leaves at the Astor. I, of course, had had my heart set on a five-martini lunch and an afternoon of endless prattle.
I have not seen him since. But the home video market has taken off, and many households today would not dream of beginning a weekend without at least two rented movies to drive away the blahs. That's what I wanted to talk about then.
To be specific about this, "Twelve Steps . . . The Video" is a dangerous piece of merchandise to be abroad in the land. It is not at all like "The Wizard of Oz" or "Night of the Hunter" or, God help us, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," which are movies and have the advantage, when played in the privacy of one's own home, of keeping the dangerously non-gregarious off the streets and snuggled in before the glowing eye of Big Brother.
The 12 steps are, of course, the 12 suggested steps of recovery devised by Alcoholics Anonymous and adapted for use by other groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and others, including spendthrifts, the impotent and neurotics of all descriptions.
This videotape is everything you would expect of a production company's attempt to make a buck by dramatizing a process that in real life is a daily life-and-death battle for at least a million Americans, and the product comes off very, very much smaller than life. The music is certainly adequate, and abundant, and at times demanding, so you can get the point, the way Hemingway noted that the way most Americans speak to foreigners is to shout English at them in the hopes that decibels will overcome reality.
The videotape looks a lot like the old cigarette commercials, with lots of sparkling, running water, men on horses in open places and clean hair blowing, in slow motion, in mild breezes. It is very inspirational, and makes you want to fire up a filtertip.
These are professional actors doing these parts, portraying a lot of well-dressed, well-groomed people in nice surroundings, Caribbean settings, clean homes and late-model automobiles reaping the rewards of Not Drinking. All living rooms are vacuumed, which is your first clue that you have left the world of reality.
The opening scenes, a drunken sailor, a child-abuser's guilty face, a gambler's tossing one lost chip after another into a pot, are so much cant and cliche, and address the seriousness of the problem so lightly as to make a viewer wonder why all the fuss.
The steps are all in place, and in order, and largely spelled out in the right words and using the right dialectic, but there are no scenes of one recovering alcoholic dragging another through the rain or wind or snow to a meeting and carrying her there to avoid the pain of other life-shattering experiences, and there is no smell of the projectile vomiting that tends to dull the interiors of the automobiles used in real life by those who are out in the streets trying to help others. And there is no glow of true recovery in the faces of these actors, no matter how accomplished they may be.
In short, the 12 steps of recovery from addictions are not adaptable, like the old trench-foot or VD movies of the World Wars, to classroom use, and certainly not to the living room. Whatever the higher power used in the steps of recovery, whether it be God or an AA group or simply another man or woman, it is a power that acts through other people, not through a cathode ray tube.
It would be very easy to watch "Twelve Steps . . . The Video" over and over and over in a lonely silence broken only by the gurgle of another glass of vodka being poured and the tinkle of another tray of ice cubes.