“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts,’ and in living color, you are going to see another first – attempted suicide.” – Christine Chubbuck, July 15, 1974
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For nearly as long as television has been an honorary progeny of the archetypal nuclear family it’s been in a steady debate with its fellow storytelling mediums as to what exactly goes on behind the cameras projecting a polished version of reality into millions of homes. Where television programs in the 1970s like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) highlighted the newsroom high jinks playfully arising from honest misunderstandings, the cinema countered with explosive live scenarios as played out in Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). In the previous decade, Mary’s fictional TV sketch-writing husband preceded her comedic antics in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) as Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (1966) meanwhile presented the cinematic spectacle of television’s declaration of war against its opposing mediums. In fact, there was an apparent television-based anxiety in films as far back as the 1930s as noted by such paranoid titles as Murder by Television (1935) and Trapped by Television (1936), paving the way for later cautionary tales of TV celebrity such as The Glass Web (1953) and A Face in the Crowd (1957).
The reason behind this disharmony could be traced to TV’s tradition of remaining wary of total inclusivity in storytelling in order to preserve its role as a domestic nucleus encouraging of familial bonding. As these kindling kinfolk began to include demographics outside of the predominantly white middle-class households wealthy enough to possess a TV set of their own, black families, lower-class families, and even Orkian families were also becoming included in the warm reception achieved by a pair of perfectly placed rabbit ears. The popular belief was that disparate pockets of America were finally beginning to feel recognized in seeing their way of life reflected back at them by mainstream media – thus, it became film’s duty to remind the world at large that these images were being filtered through a funhouse mirror.
Perhaps most effectively satirized in film’s 1995 derision of television To Die For, TV’s mission to “bring the world into our homes and our homes into the world” is delegitimized by the utter plasticity of its constituents’ humanity. It’s made clear that those striving to achieve success on TV are the same people who subscribe to television’s warped view of reality, as exhibited in aspiring news anchor Suzanne Stone’s (Nicole Kidman) imagined slow zoom and boxed framing of her husband’s talking head during a domestic dispute. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, her interpretation of the interaction is dependent on a medium totally irrelevant to the confrontation rather than the argument’s message, filtering out any semblance of harsh reality ill-suited for prime-time exposure.
But this idea of cultural representation via televisation refers back to a time when we turned to TV to witness universal problems more trivial than our own being overcome by inhumanly attractive figures, rather than the present cinematic spectacle it has evolved into (ironically, two of the most popular shows of the 21st century have transmitted to our living rooms stress-inducing escapist fantasies of ditching our families either to cook crystal meth or to fill the role of the philandering ’60s ad man). As a unifying medium decades away from normalized scenes of domestic decay, early television’s fictions sought to offer resolution to problems so simple they could be addressed in under thirty minutes. Reality was depicted as a series of brief comedic faux pas to be effectively resolved before the family unit implodes entirely, or a severe (yet unconscionably understanding) boss finally cans his bumbling underling. It’s no wonder the public has had such a hard time digesting a program’s scandalous supplemental content as it transpires offscreen.
One of the major shifts in the public consciousness that has occurred between the Petrie family’s linear sagas of leftover Eisenhower-era idealism and the liberal-minded diversity and utter chaos exhibited by the Obama era’s Dunphy clan is our ongoing segregation of the private lives of a TV show’s subjects and those of the actors bringing these characters to life. With so many television programs, magazines, and websites devoted to the inner lives of those performing the roles of our nightly houseguests, it’s inevitable that these alleged personal truths should be absorbed by the characters they play. Under the guidance of television, visual media has done a number on the public’s object permanence in the time since Lucy and Ricky posthumously filed for divorce, begging their audience to wonder just how many of the past seven years we’d been witnessing a total lie. Similarly, our adoration for one of the medium’s later heroes soured when it became evident that the O.J. we grew to love on the field, on the big and small screen, and even in the courtroom turned out not to be the person we thought we knew so well.
Because film and TV presented the first channels of media primarily based on constructed identities for what has since been dubbed “real people,” these fictions lost the candid, pre-post-produced quality of literature and theater as their characters suffered the bias and dilution provided by their egocentric personifications. With television’s specific mission to transmit their characters’ private lives to an equally private residence on a nightly basis, it’s become harder to believe the realities surrounding the “real” Bill Cosby’s legal troubles than it is to trust the paternal wisdom of the fictional Cliff Huxtable. With the regulation of TV, there were now multiple believable identities being presented in the screen personas of Mary Richards and Richard Nixon, and it became difficult to separate the script from the truth in every telecast.
In fact, “truth” was quick to be absolved in the televisual formula as the spiritual force known as “good TV” was soon to inherit the ethical duty of informing its nation’s public in the 1960s. Despite Frank Reynolds and ABC News having little information on the attempted assassination of President Reagan, one thing they knew for sure was the potential for good television – and Reynolds certainly delivered. In most cases, such factual programming isn’t exempt from the classic formula for quality television maintained by sitcoms and dramas best identified by its insistence on cramming an entire conflict into its designated 30 to 60 minutes, as well as its assurance to leave audiences on a note of positive resolution. In consistently applying this unrealistic formula, TV offers a fatally artificial reality often under the guise of a national empathy, designating prime time as a family reunion to catch up with our old friend Walter Cronkite and unwind with Johnny Carson. As Truffaut suggests in Fahrenheit, television will have us believe we’re all cousins conjoined by antennae.
In recognizing McLuhan’s media-as-extension-of-man philosophy as being both insightful and accurate, it’s important to note his omission of any coherent theories indicating man’s potential to fully embody the artificial realities of the venerated visual veneer and, in a sense, become television. With an image of James Woods disappearing into Debbie Harry’s televised lips, the colossal personalities of O.J. Simpson, our first athlete entirely composed of TV’s genetically modified DNA, and Donald Trump, our first election of a world leader requiring a 12-outlet power strip to properly function, also come to mind. Television made enormous strides in the relatively new concept of personas made public by constant visual scrutiny on a local, national, and global scale, and the O.J.s and Donalds of the world cashed in on their already-wild successes by infusing themselves with the “good TV” ideology constructed by Lucy, Carson, and other prominent humans made entirely fictional by literal behind-the-scenes conspirators.
One needn’t look to the grotesque 1980s science fictions of Poltergeist (1982), Videodrome (1983), or TerrorVision (1986) to heed the prophecies foretold by the caustic medium’s most responsible handlers. The tenets of TV’s manipulative power as chronicled by McLuhan, Jerry Mander, and Neil Postman can just as visibly be observed in the recent resurrection of our country’s infatuation with O.J. per FX’s dramatic miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016) and ESPN’s simultaneous documentary film series O.J.: Made in America (2016). Released within months of each other and spanning nearly equal runtimes, the defining difference between the two is their treatment of the subject matter per their dedication to their formats’ respective traditions: where TV’s dramatic retelling merely provides its audience a seat in the courtroom, it’s the documentary film’s job to tie the story into a significantly broader context. More importantly, the documentary ultimately leaves the audience with an hour of ugly denouement to sit with, providing a significantly bleaker finale than FX’s decision to let its viewer go once the verdict is announced. As film critic David Thomson notes in discussing TV crime shows in his recent biography of television, the medium never requires us to help clean up when the party’s over.1
While juxtaposition serves as one form of dialogue between the two mediums, the conflict is more explicitly spelled out in film’s independent testimonies to the small screen’s shortcomings. Some filmmakers, like Truffaut, have provided brief anti-television PSAs in their dealings with the intermedial arms race, while others have deconstructed the subject in more depth. Rivaling O.J. for last year’s most insightful commentary on the medium is Antonio Campos’s film about Christine Chubbuck, a forgotten black-sheep figure in television’s brief mythology. Violently overstepping every parameter of TV’s heavily mediated environment, Chubbuck’s gruesome on-air suicide at the end of a 1974 Sarasota newscast has resulted in a fascinating parabolic narrative for identifying TV’s flagrant limitations.
In brief, Chubbuck’s story is a frustrating tale of depression enflamed by an inability to conform to oppressive social environments. Whether it’s fanned by a journalistically unethical workspace additionally repressive of her gender or by her scarce extracurricular and familial engagements – which both exclusively revolve around her evasive and irresponsible mother – the overwhelming rejection Chubbuck encountered makes her a tragic figure inviting of a miserablist Hollywood script. In fact, Chubbuck’s “real person” brother spent decades defending his sister’s legacy from the familial defamation a tearjerking film or melodramatic TV treatment would likely bring, hypothetically playing up her lack of male companionship and professional immobility as a means of scoring sympathy (i.e., good TV), rather than opening a meaningful discussion of mental illness in the professional workspace.
But Campos’s retelling is driven by an alternative agenda, one with considerably broader implications than a pity-fueled biopic. In Christine (2016), Chubbuck’s downfall is in large part based on a desire to plug TV’s idyllic hypodermic extensions into her largely unpopulated personhood – and more fatally, her realization that these feelings are far from mutual. In the film’s all-too-real universe, TV is presented as the 20th century’s greatest contribution to the DSM entry on depression, leading the pack in a movement of electronic media touting public exposure as the ultimate metric of existential meaning. Obliterating the exclusivity of screen stardom established by Hollywood, television’s legacy of democratizing public misbehavior continues to influence new media as evident in the inevitable videos of horrific violence streaming on Facebook Live certain to warrant headline news.
Herein lies the true danger of visual media, which is often attributed to the largely false notion that an impressionable mind’s subjection to graphic content will directly influence violent behavior. As Natural Born Killers (1994) and Taxi Driver (1976) circumstantially indicated before it, Christine is to be viewed as a fable for understanding the power visual media possesses over its viewers illiterate to its mindless visual information. Screen violence does not beget screen violence so much as the opportunity to achieve the existential apex of public exposure begets screen violence. Campos makes it clear that Christine’s death in the movie is an act of martyrdom for the medium responsible for an adage as macabre as “if it bleeds, it leads,” utilizing the more liberal medium of film to objectively spell out the power of TV’s sway.
As scrutinized in To Die For a year after Killers, the ambitions guiding those who adhere to television’s doctrine – whether violent or otherwise inhumane – are entirely incompatible with those grounded in reality. While Buck Henry’s screenplay exhibited this through heavily satirical domestic contrast (Suzanne’s growing apart from her husband coincides with his vocalizing an equally ambitious dream of starting a family with her), Christine more starkly pits its namesake’s ambition against her sense of self, presumably the primary roadblock in attaining any form of morally centered social companionship. Ultimately, Christine deems the medium a worthy enough cause to die for, considering the potential legacy of her blood-and-guts television “first” and the deficiency of professional and social success afforded by her discomfort at promoting her network’s sensationalized news stories.
Though the audience is clued in to her inadequate social life, the movie pursues instead Christine’s struggle against her boss’s insistence on their news program showing the “dark side of Sarasota,” an ambition in line with TV’s perpetual desire to push the limits it sets for itself. While TV’s parental guidelines account for its programs’ visual and verbal vulgarities, the medium’s insensitivity to and inability to express depression – a result of television’s severely limited emotional palette, as Jerry Mander points out2 – is implied in Christine’s predominantly comedic lead-up to its dark climax. The movie’s just as much about the independent and unquestionably competent news reporter’s quest to achieve televisual sanctity as it is about the repression of her depression, a key contributor to the inhibition of her professional success.
Campos’s downplaying of Chubbuck’s mental illness and history of attempted suicide emphasizes the wrath of TV’s idyllic realism, which steadily paralleled the advancements in airbrushing technology attributed to fashion journalism’s most photogenic physiques in the 20th century. Unable to find a lighthearted fluff piece to punctuate a lifetime’s accumulation of breaking news coverage of that despair, Christine – per her medium’s lexicon of abrupt endings – signs off with a ratings-wary preface to a television first. Unlike later TV success stories in the vein of Trump and the incomprehensibly popular Simon Cowell paradigm, Chubbuck takes “if it bleeds, it leads” literally rather than cancelling her laudable moral judgment for the sake of holding a cleaver to an unsuspecting Sarasota public’s jugular on a nightly basis.
As an immediate consequence of the real Chubbuck’s suicide, many viewers called the network to question the reality of the event. Perhaps we have TV’s indistinct meddling between “real” and fiction to blame for the incomprehensible ambiguity of such a brutal reality, as well as for the recent “alternative facts” and “fake news” epidemic not coincidentally attached to a politician extracted from the guts of TV. As a direct result of the medium, the public’s reaction to such extreme verbal and visual information now flounders between confused curiosity and polarized emotion within the context of several decades’ subjection to TV’s unique definition of “objective truth” as being facts heavily vetted in favor of good TV’s uncompromising demands.
Staying true to Chubbuck’s legacy of violating the sacred tenets of television, Campos’s film is not only rife with coarse language and an unavoidable scene of graphic violence, but also relies on handheld camera movement and a creative neglect of shot/countershot dialogue to ensure the audience knows the film’s truth isn’t being diluted by televisual standards. The movie even offers the Bechdel test a swift kick in the pants considering the ease with which Chubbuck’s evident loneliness would play into the hands of writers working in the film-equivalent to the industry of good TV. In stark contrast with TV’s cookie-cutter formatting of information, the biopic doesn’t even end upon the subject’s demise, but instead forces the audience to stew in its bleak coda to make us feel the undesirable repercussive sadness of her camera operator, who manages to cope with her friend’s loss by ingesting a carton of ice cream and its multisensory equivalent, an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore show.
The purpose of Chubbuck’s story as a parable of television is to upend the notion that televised content should depend on resolution as a manipulative tool to console an audience made anxious by the very same program, employing the repressed status of female professionals and those suffering from mental illnesses in the 1970s as a parallel for TV’s restrictions in programming. Her suicide was intended to break this cycle, but as Kate Lyn Shiel and Robert Greene proved in their Chubbuck-based pseudo-doc Kate Plays Christine, her message was barely received even within the Sarasota community. Campos’s film is a regurgitation of this message through a medium qualified to reinforce her point much more fluently: due in part to screenwriter Craig Shilowich’s construction of a behind-the-camera environment of submission to TV law candidly framed by cinematographer Joe Anderson’s unconventional angles suggesting an adherence to Werner Herzog’s illicit advice for young filmmakers, the finished product succeeds in placing the viewer in the same dehumanizing setting that incited Paddy Chayefsky’s script for the ideologically compatible Network two years after Chubbuck’s death.
As David Thomson writes,3 TV is the medium that’s “always on” even when we’re “off” – despite the fact that its individual programs find resolution after their allotted airtime, one situation’s rectification immediately begets an entirely unrelated dilemma in its succeeding time slot. Though vehemently defying TV in most aspects of its medium and message, Christine still addresses this concept directly: we see TV sets remaining on long after the networks have all gone off air, seemingly in anticipation of the next morning’s brood of programming, while a model television set frames Christine as she performs puppet shows at a local hospital, implying that she’s still “on” even when she’s off the air. There is no resolution to Chubbuck’s TV first, so there is no resolution to Christine – Campos is committed to depicting her story as being continually “on” in the public consciousness.