He coined such benchmark phrases as “the global village” and “the medium is the message.” He was an ambidextrous intellect who could enlighten and bewilder in the same breath. By the time he died in 1980, communications expert Marshall McLuhan had become one of history’s most famous Canadians. Best-known for his theories about television—“a cool medium” that “won’t tolerate hot stuff”—he became a TV phenomenon all his own, emitting a gnomic brilliance on camera. Consequently there could be no better medium for the first major retrospective of his ideas: Marshall McLuhan—The Man and His Message, produced and directed by one of his daughters, Stephanie, and written and narrated by author Tom Wolfe, stylish interpreter of the 1960s. A one-hour documentary, it airs this week as part of the CBC’s new A Touch of Class series.
Wolfe is an eloquent host, strolling about the lawn of the McLuhan family home in Toronto and discussing McLuhan’s books—among them The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. Framed by Wolfe’s narration, the program consists of a rich montage of TV clips mingled with interviews. Pierre Trudeau muses over McLuhan’s Canadian identity; Norman Mailer marvels at the speed of his thought; and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls him “a very intelligent, very serious man who, for reasons of his own, preferred to masquerade as a charlatan.”
At times McLuhan talked about television as if he had invented it and was trying to show the rest of the world how it worked. Remarkably, McLuhan makes more sense now than he did then. He maintained that TV was a medium that washes over its audience like music; he identified both TV and rock ’n’ roll with pre-literate tribal cultures. In light of rock video’s recent invasion, the equation is considerably more concrete now than it once was.
Stephanie McLuhan’s portrayal of her father achieves an intellectual density rare for TV. It is also fast-moving, entertaining and accessible. And it assembles his ideas into a coherent message via the only medium truly capable of conveying it. -BRIAN D. JOHNSON
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