Television: the medium that stole our minds

Howard Bluth

December 13, 1990|By Howard Bluth

At the foot of every bed, confronting the moribund occupant, was a television box. Television was left on, a running tap, from morning till night.

Aldous Huxley, "Brave New World" CRITICS miss the point when they complain that Barry Levinson's "Avalon" lacks a point. The point, rather obvious once you look beneath this film's endearing surface, is television -- its evolution as a mass medium, and its debilitating influence on our lives.

Its initial appearance is harmless enough. Three generations of the Krichinsky clan -- Levinson's semi-autobiographical film family -- are gathered around a funny-looking box in anticipation of something happening.

The adults gradually lose interest (looking at a test pattern leaves much to be desired), but the children, still possessed of a sense of wonder, are fascinated. Eventually they are rewarded, with Howdy Doody, Captain Video and all the old Westerns resurrected to fill the empty screen during television's earliest days.

Soon we are in the 1950s, TV's heyday. The TV set has become a fixture in countless American homes, and Milton Berle, television's first genuine superstar, is changing the way we spend our Tuesday evenings.

In a key scene (sure to rekindle the past for anyone old enough to remember), we find the middle-aged Sam Krichinsky, "Avalon's" main character, at supper with his family. Suddenly a siren sounds, and like automatons, they bolt from the kitchen to the living room: "Uncle Miltie" is on! But Levinson returns his camera to the kitchen, pausing over the abandoned dinner table. Levinson thus tips his hand, suggesting that television also has a dark side.

From here on it's downhill. In one scene after another, each more depressing than the last, Levinson depicts the increasingly isolated nature of television viewing and the medium's uncanny ability to substitute illusory for real experience.

Thanksgiving, once an occasion for bringing five households of kinfolk together, is now reduced to a nuclear family affair. We are with Jules (Sam's son), his wife, Ann, and their two children. They are in their living room, eating their holiday meal off TV trays. They sit silently, eyes glued to a TV set. The absence of feeling is pervasive.

Moments later -- years, really -- we are in Jules' kitchen. Sam, an aging widower, sits at the table talking confusedly. Jules half-consciously corrects him as the rest of the family shifts back and forth between dinner and a portable TV set which sits conveniently nearby.

And then, in a scene so filled with alienation you could cut it with a knife, we are with Jules and Ann alone. They are sitting motionless on their bed, staring glassy-eyed at the TV. Obviously unhappy, they seem unable to admit that something has gone terribly wrong with their lives. Little do they realize that the TV into which they are escaping is a principal source of their anguish.

Several more years go by. We are in a home for the aged. Old Sam is having a visit with his grandson, Michael, who is now grown and married. Michael's young son, whom Sam hardly knows, is also there. As the two men talk, the boy's eyes seek out the nearby TV set which, as always, is on. This is the 1970s, and television by now has become a background assumption, something to which we thoughtlessly turn at the first sign of boredom or frustration. We observe the boy as he watches. He is comfortably merged with the tube, preoccupied, content. The brave new world has arrived.

And what is the boy watching? A parade, one of TV's many pseudo-spectacles. TV makes us think that because so many of us are watching the same thing at the same time, we are somehow a community.

But what kind of community is it whose members are isolated in a synthetic environment of electronic images? No community at all, according to Jerry Mander, one of TV's severest critics. For Mander, the TV audience is only an aggregate of disconnected human beings who, bereft of interior lives, readily surrender their personal autonomy to television's corrupting message. And what is the message? No surprises here: materialism, consumption, immediacy, disposability -- all the false values Jules and Ann so innocently pursue to their ultimate grief.

Barry Levinson may not share Mander's deep pessimism about television, but his portrayal of the medium in "Avalon" constitutes the most devastating indictment yet leveled at the small screen by a major American film maker.

For those who fail to get the point, a second viewing is recommended. And once the point is grasped, it might be well to consider that there was life before TV -- all of human history, as a matter of fact. And though it sounds utterly ludicrous, one can still get along without it very nicely.

Howard Bluth writes from Baltimore.

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