I can’t remember when I watched someone weep on television until I saw the interview with Bruce Marsh on CBC’s Man Alive, a calm discussion of his own impending death filmed just weeks before he died in March waiting for a heart transplant. I was startled and embarrassed at first by Marsh’s display of emotion, then deeply moved. My imagination was still occupied by the interview when the very next night I saw playwright Lillian Heilman choke back tears during an extremely frank interview with journalist Bill Moyers on the American PBS network. Those two agonized faces remained lodged in my memory for days, reminding me, with gratitude, of how powerful television can be, and how far it has drifted from our everyday world of pain and death and love, the world we thought it was invented to reflect.
For a long time I have thought that apart from great events such as moon walks and assassinations the most interesting thing to watch on television is the human face. It’s a question of scale. The television screen is too small to accommodate epic scenery and complicated action without diminishing them almost to absurdity — a car chase which knocks you out in cinemascope looks like a dinky toy game on TV — yet the TV screen perfectly accommodates the human face at life size or, if filmed in extreme close-up, exaggerates it to a Brobdignagian blowup which gives the picture heightened intensity, as if you were talking to someone from a distance of two feet. With artificial light and color the effect can be almost grotesque but successful television drama, especially soap opera, owes its fascination to this style of production where all the action takes place in the eyes. Even popular action shows like Cannon (CBC — Monday, 8.30 p.m.) have abandoned their frantic Keystone Kops pace to focus almost exclusively on the hero’s face. The impression of speed is a visual illusion created by tight editing, and violence is largely implied by expressions of horror and disgust which flicker across Cannon’s face. The real violence of this type of show is not physical but psychic, the ugly, brutal per-
sonality projected by the hero and the sadistic emotional climate that personality creates around him.
The human scale of television, the camera’s uncanny ability to expose with a cool, searching eye the warts and crevasses of the personality sitting in front of it, was one of the most important things noticed about television in the Fifties, especially by politicians who found their images smeared by their own humbug, yet it has since been increasingly ignored, particularly by the CBC where, except for the inquisitions of Take 30 and Man Alive, the serious interview has almost vanished. It is partly a misunderstanding but also fear of television’s potential to lay bare the most intimate reaches of the human soul. Puritan conventions tend to keep the most interesting people off TV and those confrontations which do occur are severely circumscribed by all the taboos of our culture. The Watergate hearings were a breakthrough because they made it possible for the first time to talk openly about political corruption on TV; Bruce Marsh has made it easier to talk about death, but there remain powerful taboos against such things as homosexuality and old age and the strongest, the one which made the interviews with Marsh and Lillian Heilman so astonishing, is the taboo against displaying emotion.
Television is the last bastion of the stiff upper lip, a Joe Cool fraternity where status is measured in terms of one’s ability to maintain an attitude of uptight indifference in the face of chaos. Everybody has a television face, a mask of what he thinks he ought to look like on TV. Since both interviewer and victim are usually afraid of breaking down and losing face, most interviews become as ritualized as the mating dance of the prairie chicken.
You are only as good as your interviewer, says Germaine Greer, and most interviewers aren’t very good at all. Probably the best on TV right now are Mike Wallace and Morley Safer of the CBS documentary show, 60 Minutes (Sunday, 5 p.m.), men who seem to understand that when a' big face goes up on our screen we want to know only one thing — Who are you? We don’t care about the topic; we do care about the person. The right questions are usually the simple, even naïve questions which reflect genuine curiosity and respect and which pressure the guest into babbling the secrets of his life. A good interview is an encounter with a personality; it reveals as much in what is left unsaid as in what is explicit. Bruce
Marsh didn’t say much about death, but he did, by denying and evading it, reveal the depth of his own pain and fear in coming to terms with it, and it is that emotional honesty that makes contact with the audience. After all the years of watching Marsh on TV I felt I had, for the first time, met him, too late.
I don’t advocate a return to the TV of the Fifties, but I do feel that there is a need for greater simplicity in television, a need not to pretend that TV is the movies, a need for the immediacy of which TV is capable, for recognition of its unique and eloquent personality.
THIS MONTH’S TV SHOWS
Watch: The Romantic Rebellion (CBC — Monday, May 27, 10.30 p.m.). Start of a Kenneth Clark series on romantic art.
Watch for: Access (CBC — May 30, 10 p.m.). Start of a new public participation series.
America (CBC — May 21, 10 p.m.). A 13-week BBC series with Alistair Cooke.
Beware: VIP (CBC — June 4, 10.30 p.m.). Start of Lorraine Thomson’s summer interview show.
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