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Essays

Stretch TV

   Videodrome


1.

In David Cronenberg’s extraordinary Videodrome (1983), there is an unforgettable scene in which anti-hero Max Renn (James Woods), attuned to a strange broadcast frequency in the air, begins to perceive his humble, homely television set as a living, breathing creature.

 

Taking on the physical features of the person on its screen – who is Debbie Harry, no less – this TV set mutates and stretches to the point where a huge pair of red video lips pout, extending several feet into the living room. Max merrily buries himself in the apparition. Who wouldn’t?

 

Once in a blue moon, watching everyday, normal TV can be a bit like that – even without hallucinogenic prompting. So accustomed are we to the predictability, if not outright blandness, of so much TV, we let ourselves half-doze off, in front of the set …

 

And then, if we’re lucky, something weird happens.

 

A sober newsreader breaks up in uncontrollable laughter; the videotape suddenly gallops ahead in fast motion; an unrelated image or caption from another program or segment breaks in with uncanny, wacky, Eisensteinian precision.

 

You can hardly believe it happened – but you saw it. Will it ever be recorded in the tatty annals of TV history, or are you destined to be its sole witness – the raver whom no one, subsequently, will ever believe?

 

Remembering that indelible image of lips from Videodrome, I give such rare and precious moments the label of Stretch TV.

 

2.

Formula is simultaneously the saddest and happiest fact of popular television as a form and as a medium. What makes sitcoms like Taxi or Cheers rich is the pattern of familiarities and predictabilities they set up from week to week – comically inverting and perverting our expectations (artfully tweaking and fiddling with the series’ template along the way) quite as much as they fulfil them.

 

There is pleasure in hearing a character such as Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) in Family Ties say exactly the same thing we expect him to say in a given situation, perfectly on cue. And there is equal pleasure in seeing how the show, using the device of a dream sequence or a flashback to early childhood, can suddenly, crazily metamorphose Alex into one of the other characters for 25 minutes.

 

Formula is among the elements that distinguish TV from cinema, giving it specific richness as a medium.

 

But formula can also mean boredom and flatness – dull routine. Even the finest, funniest and most inventive TV programs – like Magnum P.I. or The Rockford Files – invariably, inevitably fall in line with all the usual, commercial constraints.

 

Plot information must be clear and direct; stories (and the problems they raise) must be cleanly resolved (hence, resolvable) within the hour or half-hour format; photographic or sonic effects must not be too brazen, lest they interrupt the smooth flow … that flow which is geared to and structured around, naturally, the advertising breaks.

 

TV shows are obliged to conform to a certain rhythm and a particular look, an aesthetic that can become all too familiar. Which leaves viewers secretly wishing for a hiccup, a slip, a gaffe somewhere along the track – a spanner to gum up the well-oiled, institutional machine of popular TV.

 

3.

It is not hard, then, to understand the recent appeal of those endless Dick Clark specials devoted to TV Bleepers, Bloopers, Foul-Ups, Blunders, fluffed takes … And, for an episode or two, it is certainly invigorating to gloat over this parade of rough edges and clumsy crashes from the lofty, professional heights of televisual perfection. (Even scratchy Super-8 movies find their home here.)

 

Intriguingly, the live audiences who attend the taping of TV variety fare such as The Bert Newton Show or New Faces are warmed up, before the cameras roll, by the station’s in-house blooper tape – which is definitely too hot to publicly broadcast.

 

The appeal of Stretch TV is clear; and yet these examples point to something which is a little troubling. Once bloopers and the like are packaged and presented in this way – rumour has it that producers in the US are now even contriving bloopers with the hope of getting them into a Dick Clark compilation – their subversive spontaneity has vanished. They serve merely to bolster and reinforce the same old standards of professional television.

 

Bloopers become the safety vale that lets off the steam. But the machine grinds on, same as it ever was.

 

4.

Stretch TV can be arrived at via another route. If popular TV is indeed, for the most part, a matter of rules and limits, constraints and repressions, then it might be, after all, an easy matter to grasp the nature of these constraints so as to lift them for a time – deliriously falling below or rising above that clear watermark of bland, functional professionalism.

 

This is, in fact, what – on and off – TV has strived to do, providing each of us with memories of some of our favourite programs and moments.

 

In the Lower Depths – whether they ever intended to be there or not – would be Insight, Perfect Match, The People’s Court; not to mention many celebrated, rambling, late-night hosts in the immortal mould of Australia’s Hal Todd [died 1992].

 

In the Higher Realms, those programs that dare to inject a bit more style and intensity into the treatment of their subjects: The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Buffalo Bill, Couples, Open All Night, Family

 

Stretch TV is also a matter of anarchy. A flagrant flaunting of broken rules, smashed conventions, fragmented surfaces. Along with the destruction comes a real multiplication of possibilities: stories, images and sounds ordered and displayed and played in every way imaginable – right before our eyes and in our ears.

 

Think of Australia’s great contribution to the international tradition of Vulgar Modernism (as J. Hoberman has tagged it): Hey Hey It’s Saturday, with its lunatic chorus of off-screen sounds, its wash of scrambled, misspelt computer titles and colour-synthesised graphics, and its performers who regularly abandon a skit in progress because they crack up in laughter …

 

5.

I end this brief survey of Stretch TV by enthusiastically gesturing to the most remarkable show on our small screens in 1985, already the worshipped fetish object of a rapt, cult following: The Young Ones (12 episodes produced across 2 seasons between 1982 and 1984).

 

Anything is possible, and indeed probable, on this program: doorways and closets that open onto parallel video universes (Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel [1962] updated); sudden, dead-accurate pastiches of other TV shows; interruptions of every kind to the fiction; viciously over-the-top, grotesque, black-comedy gags … whatever your heart and mind desire.

 

With its host of new stereotypes (the punk, the hippie, the pseudo-anarchist, the entrepreneur) and its brilliant ensemble performance, The Young Ones embraces everything that is potentially great in existing conventional TV formats. At the same time, it pushes the medium forward, becoming a weird, almost unthinkable, televisual amalgam of Bertolt Brecht, David Lynch, Jean-Luc Godard, The Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, Dziga Vertov and The Three Stooges.

 

The Young Ones at its inspired, anarchic best hits my short list of magic moments in Stretch TV. This general list includes: the sight of a paraplegic man, the leader of an odd religious sect, on a disco rostrum, leading his congregation in a rousing chorus of “Macho Man” (in the sensationalist pseudo-documentary This is America Part 2 [1980]); and the spectacle of a secret platoon of the US Army trained to speak, act, dress and think like Russians so that, when war begins, they will understand their enemy – this, a segment on the “human interest” program More Real People.

 

… Wait, more real people? With a title like that, it has to be, at the outset, Stretch TV.

 

 

Adrian Martin September 1985


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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