FRIDAY, AUGUST 5, 2022
Amusing Ourselves During Trump: We were surprised when we learned who the director was.
We had put the film on pause because we wanted to check. Its representations had become so odd—and, in one instance, so unkind—that we wondered who had been at the helm of the ship.
We were watching The Post, the Oscar-nominated film about the decision by the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers.
The film appeared in 2017. It concerned allegedly important events from the summer of 1971.
We watched the film last weekend. For some reason, we thought that we had already seen it. As it turned out, we hadn't.
When we put the film on pause, we'd already sat through several improbable sequences. That included the ridiculous scene where Ben Bradlee sends a very young, nervous intern off to New York City with the absurd instruction that he should learn what Neil Sheehan was planning to publish next about the war in Vietnam.
These scenes were registering as odd on our internal "representation of reality" meter. But then, about 40 minutes into the film, we met The Shlubby General Assignment Reporter, and we watched the strangest, and the least humane, representation of reality yet.
The sequence starts when The Young Hippie Woman in the Tie-Dyed Skirt arrives in the Post's newsroom carrying what looks like a shoebox.
She makes an extremely dumb remark to the self-identified general assignment reporter, then drops the shoebox on his desk and scurries out of the room.
When the young reporter opens the box, he finds material which seems to be part of the Pentagon Papers—the mother lode his newspaper has been pursuing. He hurries off to inform the bosses—but first, let's describe this good and decent young man:
In cinematic terms, the young general assignment reporter is unmistakably shlubby. He's somewhat short, and he's overweight. His beard is plainly unkempt.
We're also forced to note that he speaks with a bit of a lisp. He doesn't have a confident air. This guy wouldn't make it on cable.
In cinematic terms, this good, decent person doesn't hail from Thomas Mann's land of "the blond and blue-eyed," from Homer's realm of the nobles. When he hurries off to alert Bradlee concerning what has been left on his desk, he interacts haltingly with his cultural betters.
This produces one of the weirdest representations of reality ever brought to the silver screen.
The young reporter is finally able to hand the shoebox off to Bradlee himself. As Bradlee and a gaggle of editors come to see what the shoebox contains, they ask the young man where he got it.
The young reporter starts to explain—or at least, he makes a halting attempt. As best we can reconstruct who stated each line in the exchange, the exchange starts out like this:
POST EDITOR: Ben, I think we got something.
BRADLEE: What is it? Jesus Christ! Sh*t! Are these part of the pages of the McNamara study?
POST EDITOR: Where did you get these?
REPORTER: Somebody left them on my desk.
So far, so perfectly sensible. But as the exchange continues, it ceases to be an exchange. Nobody's listening to the young reporter, but he weirdly continues to talk all the same.
Weirdly, he continues to speak in his ineffectual way, even when nobody's listening. You would have to see the scene to see how weird it is:
POST EDITOR: On your desk?
REPORTER: I didn't—i—it was a woman.
POST EDITOR: What a woman?
BRADLEE: We got over a hundred pages of the McNamara study here!
POST EDITOR: What woman?
REPORTER: She was a hippie woman. She had one of those, uh—
BRADLEE: Hey, Debbie, give me Bagdikian!
REPORTER: I don't know what they're called, but it's one of those skirts—
POST EDITOR: He's uh—
REPORTER: —that looks like you're uh—
POST EDITOR: He's out, he just went—
REPORTER: —swirling in colors.
POST EDITOR: —somewhere
REPORTER: I don't— Probably between 5'4 and 5'6.
BRADLEE: Well, these are the real thing.
REPORTER: Oh, she's uh—
BRADLEE: We are back in the ballgame.
REPORTER: It was a tie-dyed, sir. It was a tie-dyed skirt.
BRADLEE: This is gonna be the front page of tomorrow's paper.
That's the way this site records the actual words which are spoken. Absolutely no one is listening, but the conventionally unimpressive reporter just keeps on talking in his comically ineffectual way.
We doubt that anyone has ever behaved this way in the history of human life. Presumably, we're supposed to be amused by this shlubby young person's discomfort, by his humorous lack of cool.
There's a vaudeville feel to this silly scene—a scene which simply isn't derived from actual lived reality. This is the director's peculiar representation of same, and it struck us as so strange and unkind that we finally decided to pause the film, wondering whose work we were watching.
As it turned out, we were watching the work of Steven Spielberg, who's plainly a good, decent person. That said, the earlier scene with the nervous young intern hadn't made a lick of sense. The scene with this general assignment reporter was unattractive, unpleasant, unkind.
We wondered why a person like Spielberg would want to feature a scene of this type. We wondered why an audience would think this unlikely behavior made sense.
Beyond that, we wondered why an audience wouldn't think that this scene was unattractive, unkind. Here is one possible answer:
As we've noted, major critics seemed to agree that the various scenes of this general type—scenes which litter this Oscar-nominated film—were "thoroughly entertaining."
In the review of the film in the New York Times, we were told that Spielberg had brought three "funnymen" into the cast, providing us with "physical comedy," with plenty of "stumbling and fumbling."
In fairness, that's the way it was, in this and in other strange scenes.
In this scene, the hippie girl who somehow has the Papers makes a dumb remark. The general assignment reporter keeps talking long after everyone has stopped listening.
Later, his betters make virtual fools of themselves, fumbling and stumbling in various ways as they continue to hunt down the Papers. Critics said this was done for entertainment purposes, and those critics seemed to approve.
In a movie about several serious matters, this fumbling and stumbling prevailed. We thought of the 1985 book by Neil Postman [sic], Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
Postman's book is one of those books about journalism which is often cited as a courtesy, but is almost never analyzed, quoted or read or discussed.
In part, that may be because Amusing Ourselves to Death is a bit too academicky. It states an important general theme, but soon gets lost in its high-end academic ideas.
What was Postman's general claim? The leading authority on his book starts its discussion as shown:
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) is a book by educator Neil Postman...In the introduction to his book, Postman said that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, rather than by [George] Orwell's work, where they were oppressed by state control.
Did some such addiction to amusement perhaps exist as of 2017, when a good, decent person like Steven Spielberg thought it made sense to entertain us with physical comedy in telling a story about two deeply serious matters?
Putting it a different way, did some such addiction to entertainment perhaps exist in the minds of people like Spielberg, and in the minds of the people who review our films and even bring us our "news?" The leading authority on Postman's book also describes it this way:
Postman asserts the presentation of television news is a form of entertainment programming; arguing that the inclusion of theme music, the interruption of commercials, and "talking hairdos" bear witness that televised news cannot readily be taken seriously.
Today, the presentation of our news has moved well past the use of theme music and "talking hairdos." We're entertained, each of us in our tribal caves, by highly partisan shouting and ranting, and by the careful selection of facts and scandal themes.
Each tribe is handed its own set of scandals, delivered by its own set of profit-based tribunes. We got no sense, from watching The Post, that Spielberg, a massively popular figure, possesses even the slightest clue about how dangerous this has become.
(Decent people who experience massive success may be inclined to lose touch.)
There's more to say about The Post, but the week has come to an end. We thought the film largely came out of a carnival show, and we thought this suggested something bad about the state of the nation.
Back in 1975, All the President's Men was a fundamentally serious film. Its director didn't seen to feel the need to lard it up with "physical comedy"—with "stumbling and fumbling"—in the way Spielberg apparently did when he directed The Post.
Major critics praised The Post. They seemed to see nothing odd, let alone wrong, with all the fumbling and stumbling. Having said that, we'll close with this:
Big Hollywood has long since succumbed to the goal of Amusing Ourselves. In various ways, Big Journalism seems to have journeyed there too.
As we watch our cable channels, as we go to the multiplex, it may not occur to us the people that we're being amused in the direction of a type of death. That said, Spielberg's movie is larded with representations which are just astoundingly dumb, and reviewers don't seem to have noticed.
Postman's book appeared in 1985. Thirty-seven years later, have our overpaid corporate elites managed to amuse us the people to death?
Things have looked better in recent weeks, but the gong-shows will keep coming at us. The fact is, we're still amusing ourselves, or being directed to be amused, after all these years.