Photo from iStock. Reproduced with permission.

Losing Reality: TV and Movies Today

David Thomson

For most of my life, I cherished the experience of being at the movies—in a theatre or a cinema, the Granada, the Regal or the Astoria in southwest London. I was terribly spoiled by those gaudy palaces: invariably, even in the afternoon, the theater was crowded—and those places had 2,000 seats. Can you imagine watching a picture with so many strangers? And most of them smoking!  So you could lean back in your seat, look up at the projector beam, and admire the snakes of smoke writhing in its light.

No one knew it then in the late 1940s and the 50s—but this was not good for us. It wasn’t just the smoke, and the rumors of cinemas being hotbeds of disease. We realize now that the romancing in the movies, their stress on what men and women might be, along with adventure, courage and honor, not to mention the happy endings and the lifelike unreality, were so misleading that they might be more dangerous than the dreaded infections against which the usherettes sprayed a fragrant disinfectant as valiant as their flashlights.

Never mind. I was enthralled by the rapture of the movies and all the ways they encouraged fantasy. So I grew up on Meet Me in St Louis, Red River, The Flame and the Arrow, Samson and Delilah, The Red Shoes. It was 1955 before destiny caught up with me. That‘s when I saw a revival of Citizen Kane, a film that had been unseeable since its initial failure in 1941. At fourteen I barely understood Kane (or movies that weren’t meant to be grasped on one viewing), but I knew its mystery was a footpath ahead for my life. One way or another, I would be singing the glorious sad song of Orson Welles.

So I was a sneering idiot when television came along: the picture was so small; the image fluctuated if someone walked across the room; the commercials were demeaning—they told us our attention was not important; the censorship was humorless; and how could anyone endure watching it on one sofa, with Mom, Dad, Grannie and the dog? How could that match the thrill of being packed in with 2,000 viewers, laughing in one shared spasm, and being scared, all of us at the same time?

This made me a snob with the small box. And more or less, that stupid superiority lasted me for fifty years—a hell of a long time to waste. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that I was grown up enough to admit to myself that there were series on the small box that were better than most of the movies in theatres—though by 2000, it was already hard to find a theater that held more than 400 people. In the same way, it was absurd by then to proclaim that the movies in cinemas were better than—or on a par of ambition with—The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The X Files. I could go on, all the way through to Babylon Berlin, The Crown and Ozark.

Think of it this way: over the years, Ozark accumulated forty-four episodes—that made a movie of close to fifty hours. And it was a piercing portrait of how money has undermined family, hope and decency in this greatest of nation (you know that mortifying ad).  It could go from terrifying to comic absurd in two minutes, and in Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner it had some of the most momentous and alarming characters in American fiction.

What’s more, here was a movie—a single force—that you could binge through in one weekend. One episode after another (only fourteen hours a day), the great snake of story. Even if you were alone in its dark.

Of course, the arc of Ozark coincided with COVID and that’s when this chump wised up and realized that the form we still call TV had taken over culture, for good and ill. And in that lockdown, sitting on twin sofas with my wife, talking our way through Curb Your Enthusiasm, Law and Order, Chernobyl, and The Night Of (to name just  a few) I appreciated that the TV was a beast we had let in the house—our previously safe place, but also a model of the isolation or the loneliness that is making us less human. (The illusion of community that made moviegoing such fun hardly exists today.)

I knew I had to write about it because the lockdown and the bingeing were not just enforced habits. They were the measure of what we have become in giving up on reality. We are being occupied by external forces—and television has been their pioneer.

David Thomson is a film critic, a historian, and the author of more than thirty books, including Disaster Mon AmourWhy Acting Matters, and The Biographical Dictionary of Film. He lives in San Francisco, CA.

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