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Who Wants To Be a President?

I did my duty, patriotic and professional, and checked out the coverage of the Republican convention, but it had me on the ropes fast, and I soon rejoined the majority of my fellow Americans in looking elsewhere. I prefer my television fictions undisguised as statesmanship, in any case. The Grand Old Party having cannily defined the “theme” of its convention as bland positivity and the absence of discourse, TV responded in kind. Most of the on-camera interlocutors and commentators I saw seemed only too willing to take the speechifiers, mouthpieces and party pundits at their word, though whether in this regard they were being stupid or clever or lazy or just polite I really couldn’t say. In any case, with little of substance to discuss — or, rather, much to discuss but apparently not up for discussion — the talk was less of policy than of strategy. But I suppose these days they’re pretty much the same thing.

It’s ironic, to be sure, that the public largely ignored an event that was specifically staged to impress it, and that the broadcast networks (which dropped in mainly for the big speeches) declined to air much of what was concocted primarily as a “television event.” (On the night Bush made his acceptance speech, more viewers watched Who Wants To Be a Millionaire — which, whatever it is, is an actual contest — than watched the convention coverage of the three major networks combined.) This was in no small part because there was nothing to watch, everything of import having been decided off-camera and in advance, in order that every minute of airtime should endorse the candidate-product. Of course it is TV itself, with its affection for surfaces and sound bites, and its capacity for simplifying and selling, that has made modern politics unwatchable. So it’s not at all surprising that the first great political convocations of the new millennium are being staged as extremely expensive, extremely tedious infomercials, or as crappy, less suspenseful versions of the Oscars or Grammys — other programs in which awards are almost always given to the wrong people.

Next to such choreographed spontaneity, the artificial reality of Big Brother, CBS’s six-nights-a-week follow-up/companion piece to its phenomenally phenomenal Survivor, looks like a regular slice of life. (With better ratings and keener public interest.) The series mixes Survivor’s social Darwinism with the randy-housemates vibe of The Real World — its cast, or contestants, or whatever they are, are mostly of the MTV Generation, if they’re even that old — and the interactive exhibitionism of the Internet: It has a Web presence, as well, streaming round-the-clock video from inside the brightly colored, stark and ill-proportioned “house” in which the players have been sequestered. There are some novel things here for 8 p.m. TV — grown-up slumber parties, a purple-haired girl with a nose ring, a guy with one leg, and a picture of human

intercourse based more on affection and mutual support (somebody’s always hugging somebody) than fear and derision. (As on Jerry Springer, say, or most any sitcom you could name.) Of course, the rules of the game demand that the roomies eventually sell each other out — as in Survivor, only one will be left at the end — even as they strive for a kind of perfect domestic harmony. The show banks on human frailty — a little envy, a little lust, a little pride’ll do ya — and the tendency of people in a confined area to act like they’re in high school. It seems a safe bet.

The creative minds of television having so regularly failed to mount fictional series of significant interest or useful meaning, I am all for giving a crack to the unscripted natterings of the hoi polloi. Big Brother really is almost a new sort of television; but it’s held back from being truly radical by the producers’ insistence on editing for effect, the hoops the cast are sometimes made to jump through to keep things “interesting,” an awful, sax-driven score, and the live Wednesday-night sessions, presided over by hostess Julie Chen, during which one resident, elected by the viewers from nominations made by the housemates, is bounced from the house (departing in a flurry of hypocritical warm goodbyes), and where an absurd sense of occasion maintains, as if something actually important were going on. The show gets all puffed up in these moments, and betrays its better, smaller self. That’s why I prefer it on the Web (http://we bcenter.big brother2000.aol.com/entertainment/NON), where the proceedings are more or less unmediated by an editorial hand, and one may listen to the inmates snore all night and watch them self-obsess all day. The show is Warholian not only in its application of the “15 minutes of fame” rule — though they are sealed away from the world, the players are ever-conscious of being in its eye — but in its interest in the mundane and the static, and in the way it turns puttering into high drama. Snore on! Sleep may turn out to have been the most important film of the century.

Among his other philanthropic works, Ted Turner has determined to keep the Western alive, like the buffalo, and like most of his networks’ other many excursions into the genre, the TBS remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon has a feel of dusty authenticity and a pleasing evenness of tone. It doesn’t create much heat, but it’s well-made and no sweat to watch. The real-time story of a marshal who must face an old enemy on the day of his marriage to a Quaker pacifist and retirement from office, and of the town that refuses to back him up, it has been taken as a parable of Hollywood in the McCarthy era — the late Carl Foreman, the original scenarist (credited again here, alongside T.S. Cook, who co-wrote The China Syndrome), was a blacklist victim — though it might easily be read as portraying the need for violence to fight violence, or as an attack on stubborn pride. It’s quite possible to regard the hero as a bit of an idiot, and the townspeople as fairly sensible, a bit of lifelike ambiguity that’s all to the good. Original star Gary Cooper is replaced here by Tom Skerritt, who was also a sheriff on Picket Fences, and has the quiet authority and easy way with dialogue that marks all the great pretend cowboys. Homicide’s Reed Diamond, an actor perhaps doomed to unlikable roles, is here as well, as are Dennis Weaver (briefly), Michael Madsen, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Once and Again’s Susanna Thompson, and they all pull their weight.

You have likely never seen a film (or a play, or read a book, or heard an opera) in which a man sells his soul to a devil for some worldly riches or improved skills or love, but you can take it from me that they are all pretty much like the USA Network’s The Darkling, though sometimes funnier and sometimes scarier. There are a few novel twists in this edition: F. Murray Abraham, coming on very much like Old Scratch at the top, and serving up a tower of ham that would give Dagwood pause, turns out to be just another victim of the real demon, a computer-animated baby-in-a-cage who sounds like Ken Nordine; while the ending splits the difference between happy and sad in a not unoriginal way. The film does suffer from a surfeit of style — director Po Chi Leong (The Wisdom of Crocodiles) places his characters not in a plausible world assailed by otherworldly forces, but in the familiar world of the modern stylish horror flick, a place of colors too bright or too bleached, and of angular camera angles in which weird, bad things can’t not happen. Though, as a result, I was never really scared (I am a big boy now, and sleep with the light off — but leave the door open, please), I was occasionally impressed and sometimes creeped out. There is some clever stuff done with shadows and projections, and the film is not predictable every minute. Irish actor Aidan Gillen (Circle of Friends) is the putative protagonist, who doesn’t inspire much sympathy; I was sorry to see his movie wife, Nina Siemaszko, check out so early, as she was the only one whose company I actually enjoyed. Trivialists may note that the story is by Preston Sturges Jr., who co-wrote the screenplay as well, carrying on in his father’s tradition as Jody McCrea and Jim Mitchum carried on in theirs.

BIG BROTHER | CBS | Mondays–Tuesdays and Thursdays–Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

HIGH NOON | TBS | Premieres Sunday, August 20, 7 p.m.

THE DARKLING | USA | Premieres Tuesday, August 15, 9 p.m.

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