Culture Watch

I missed Gerald Ford’s America, a four-part series of TV news documentaries about Washington, D.C., the first time around, but I’ve now caught up with it, courtesy of cassettes and tapes (Public Broadcasting Service stations will probably be running it this summer), and I recommend it highly. The subjects are Congress, the White House, the Press Corps, and Social Life; the producers are TVTV (Top Value Television) and the TV Lab at Channel 13 (New York); the series was “made possible by” grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations with technical assistance from WGBH in Boston; pictures, sound, editing, producing, and directing were in the hands of young free-lancers; and there’s a good deal of experimental fooling around— fish-eye effects, low-light camera work, and so on.

Structurally, the segments are loose-limbed —rambles or miscellanies, albums of this and that. The program on Congress includes quickie interviews with farmers, merchants, and kids on what’s wrong with the United States and its government . . . Passages from a Hubert Humphrey lecture on this country of ours, declaimed to an office audience of one the Washington correspondent Peter Lisagor. (“It’s a young country, it’s a lively country, it’s an undisciplined country, it’s a-” The senator interrupts himself. “Somebody’s got to get a hold of it.”he says, grabbing Lisagor fiercely by the lapels: “Stand up and fight‘em.”) . . .A conversation with a Virginia congressman who’s entertaining, on the Capitol steps, a flock of schoolchildren from back home. (Asked why he’s doing what he’s doing, the congressman turns and says behind his hand: “They’ll go home, you know, they tell their mothers and fathers.”) ... An interlude in the Capitol lobbies, after the presidential address proposing a tax increase (October, 1974), during which a congressman plays TV reporter, stopping senators as they pass, asking for “reactions” ... A visit to a Democratic caucus where plans are made for post-veto votes on the aid to Turkey cutoff . . . Views of Senator Robert Byrd on the campaign trail, invoking the past (“Thank God for Franklin D. Roosevelt!”) and performing, superbly, while we go on to the closing credits, as country-music fiddler and dancer.

A friend who’s a former Washington correspondent, now editor of a major metropolitan daily, watched with me, and when it was over we told each other we’d just seen more essential Washington than in a year of nightly news and specials. Why so? How could a collection of snippets be so pleasing? The secret lies in style. TVTV’s camera has a disheveled, wayward manner. It’s never at attention, seldom knows what story it’s covering, roots about at random for “telling particulars.” As Representative Brademas inquires about senatorial responses to the presidential address, the subject changes, on camera, from taxes and energy to relationships between Senate stars and congressional workhorses. Catch that deference—wariness?—in Brademas’ face as he goes after Percy, Javits, and the others: he knows it’s appropriate to behave as though he’s among peers, knows he has a right to say Jack to Javits . . . but isn’t his bonhomie uneasy? Is he maybe worried he should salute? See, too, the senatorial self-importance—Javits’ hand on the congressman’s shoulder . . . avuncular, condescending ... In the caucus the camera has time to wait while the whip and others detail the state of their relationships to this or that colleague. (“I thought I was gonna take Holifield. We been quite the buddies lately . . .” “I’ll take [inaudible] I play a lotta ball with him.” “He’s yours.”)

But Gerald Ford’s America matters less as a distinctive camera style than as an episode in a recent media chronicle that hasn’t had nearly the attention it deserves. Three years ago footage shot on half-inch tape with cheap portable equipment couldn’t be transmitted through conventional broadcasting facilities to conventional TV sets; new and inexpensive tape transfer processes (dependent on the socalled “time base corrector”) developed since then have completely altered the situation. In the same period several comparative youngsters in the industry—Michael Shanberg of TVTV, David Loxton of the Channel 13 TV Lab, others–have gained expertise in the newer medium. But while they’ve succeeded in snaring some foundation grants (enough left in the pot to finance two or three new series as ambitious as GFA, Loxton told me the other day on the phone), they themselves argue, convincingly, that the chance for a major breakthrough created by the new technology is in danger of being wasted. And they lay the blame—again convincingly—at the door of the network news organizations. Protective, ridden by a closedshop mentality, the latter are refusing to buy TV pieces from free-lancers, rejecting all material not produced inside the house.

One reason for concern about this is that broader distribution of TV know-how could lead to a highly desirable demystification of the medium. Another is that the development of alternative video styles, especially in news and documentary, could stimulate something equally desirable—the shaping of a freshly critical self-consciousness among network pros. As matters now stand, the nightly news is some kind of holy church unto itself—imperviousportentous in manner, undeviatingly dim about significances lying in what happens between people, monstrously overconfident, not only about the discreteness of assignments and stories, but about the metaphors (“top story”) by which importance is certified. Here is “our” White House correspondent, his knowing, talking head four times the size of the intimidated Executive Mansion behind him. Here is Charles Collingwood or whoever, lipping off at the Paris peace talks, his fanny insouciantly at ease on a table that (as he carelessly lets fall) the negotiators will sit at tomorrow to negotiate. Here is David Brinkley, forever peering sniffishly down from his legal library in the sky. Here is Eric Sevareid, looking–for the ten-thousandth time—grave and deep, and Mike Wallace, scourge of villainy, busting his weekly head. What the free-lancers might offer, to judge from Gerald Ford’s America, is release from this fustian, a hint of new tones—documentary that’s infused with folk feeling, for instance, communal, small-scale, intimate, forgiving. (The portraits of Humphrey and Byrd in GFA— of everyone, in fact—are unillusioned yet affectionate.) And beyond this they might open up commerce between high culture and popular culture, disclosing Borgesian labyrinths in political life, decomposing “official versions,” showing leaders operating in a darkness they only pretend is light.

Wrong to stake all hope for salvation on playful minivideo. But how very telling those telling particulars are! Embassy buffet, birthday party for the Shah of Iran: an elegant matron, clearly Somebody, gushes at Maureen Dean, tells her how wonderful she was on camera during “those hearings,” watched you every day ... so calm, poised, you never moved, beautiful. “Did you take vitamins?” Ms. Dean smiles her symmetrical smile. “I was fascinated,” she explains. “I didn’t want to miss a minute.” I feel more or less that way about GFA, and I think TV news moguls need a rocket.

Antiportentousness Award: To John Chancellor, for killing off “informed sources,” “top White House aides,” and similar vouchers on NBC Nightly News, and for adopting in place of “NBC has learned” the vastly more winning “There are those who say ...”

On the table in front of me—no saying how it came there without breaking a confidence, no talking about the thing without a rush of fury—is a twelve-page, single-spaced description of a new course just offered for the first time at one of this country’s larger state teacher-training institutions. “Social Science [X],” it says, “is a required, integrated, projects-and-competency-based course in the social sciences designed for prospective elementary (K-9) teachers at [the State] College of Education.” The description asserts that “the competencies” students will be required to demonstrate are based upon new goals set last year for learners by the State Board of Education. It then proceeds, in several pages, to define the “competencies,” divided into six “main concerns.” Here is a sample of the stuff:

1. In preparation for the role of learner, each individual will develop

1.1 basic skills of reading

1.2 basic skills of writing

1.3 basic skills of computation

1.4 basic skills of spelling

1.5 basic skills of speaking

1.6 basic skills of listening

1.7 basic skills of problemsolving, involving

1.7.1 locating and gathering information directly indirectly through primary sources indirectly via secondary sources

1.7.2 preparing/contrasting/correlating information

1.7.3 presenting information . . . etcetera

People in the trade will instantly recognize this jargon, which aims at divvying up teaching and learning so that future teachers of your kids and mine will always know where they are and what they’re doing, and never never never confuse skills, say, with knowledge:

6. In preparation for the role of family member, each individual will learn/acquire

6.1 rights of family members

6.2 responsibilities of family members

6.3 skills to strengthen family life

6.4 knowledge to strengthen family life

Why make heavy weather about this? As it happens, the past year has been hell on educational reform, as on everything else. It’s not just the money squeeze; there have been frauds and scandals. First an exploratory private agency in the field of alternative educational forms, headed by Dr. Samuel Gould, blew up when it turned out the backers were ex-cons, charged with ripping off a foundation in the agency’s name. Then came a federal probe of possible misuse of government funds by people in the Ed School at the University of Massachusetts, probably (on the innovative side) the most important teacher-training place in America. Whereupon many a teacher, administrator, and trustee felt new warmth for the local tory academic caucus, and new hostility to complaints against the educationist status quo. It’s right, therefore, to refresh the memory about the nature of that status quo. I’m not for stealing, but neither do I want my kids worked over by teachers who’ve been programmed to believe in this much discontinuity among our parts, this much divisibility in school subjects or anywhere else. “Competencies 1.7.1, 1.7.2, 1.7.3, 1.8.1. 1.8.2, and 2.3.5 are special focusses of the Department of Social Science ... a competency next to which an X appears will also be served in the study of the topic but demonstration of that competency will be accomplished within one of the competencies to which a percentage weight has been assigned”—is it not lunatic to sink back into acceptance of such rot?

A nice way to flush competency chat out of the system is to spend an hour with THE ACKERLEY LETTERS (Hareourt Brace Jovanovich, $15.00), scribbles by .J. R. Ackerley, author of the memorable My Father and Myself (1968) and editor for a quarter-century of the art and book pages of the BBC’s Listener. One letter begins with an account of Ackerley’s friend E. M. Forster’s fury upon receiving an obituary of himself from a lady writer in New Zealand who invited his opinion of her style begins here and develops further hilarity as Ackerley discloses that the very day the author of Howards End told him about the New Zealander, he himself, Ackerley, had been in process of doing a Forster obit for somebody on spec. The book isn’t graveyard humor throughout, and even the workaday stuff-soliciting the great, as a radio “talks editor.” for mouthings to busy the air—is chuckle-full. (“Dear Hugh [or de la Mare or Belloc or Shaw], I am wondering whether I can interest you in a new series of weekly talks . . . under the title of ‘To an Unnamed Listener’ . . .”) Ackerley in no way could pass for a saint, but for swiftness, animation, and fancy he is admirable (see in particular a post-operation letter to S. Spender proposing a hospital ballet). A gloriously shameless gossip as well, and a mind finely adept at not putting life in neat boxes.

“Sample Assignment: Write a letter dealing with your own experience in somebody else’s voice,” said the brochure for a writing textbook atop a pile of papers on my desk. About to fill out a questionnaire concerning Our Winter Vacation, supplied by the management of the Caneel Bay Plantation, a fancy Rockresort on St. John in the U.S. Virgins, I did the assgt. instead— wrote a note in a voice not mine (although very much of the place). Viz.:

Richard Erb, Mgr. Caneel Bay Plantation Box 4930, St. Thomas, V.I. 00801

My dear Richard:
Thank you for once again sending us the little report card to fill out, telling you how you and your staff are doing. If you will check your files, as I have just done my own, you will see that this is the fifth time we have responded–testimony, we think, to our Caneel commitment. as well as to our interest in standards. I remember hearing years ago that, in divorce settlements, a hotly contested piece of property often proved to be the three-week reservation at the Plantation, and while I can recognize hyperbole in that, still it undoubtedly carries truth. Keeping up to that kind of mark requires vigilance.
Five or six years ago, when we first came to you, the rate for two was $90 a day (all meals included)–stiff but conceivable; now, at $140 a day plus 12 percent for service and minus lunch, we think it is at least as important as in the past, probably more so? for you to continue to consult seriously with your clientele.
Both of us want to congratulate you—I am starting with the good news, as the joke has it—about solving the rats problem. As I said last year, when we passed the poor woman–Mrs. Ford, from, I believe, Cincinnati?—weeping in the Turtle Bay lobby the first evening of our stay, we were truly nonplussed. I was certain these hysterics were a result of a misread mongoose, and when the case proved otherwise, I was astounded. Knowing the extent of your anxiety last year, I spared you a report of extensive beach gossip about this episode, which, as I am sure you will have imagined, included a good number of ironical “wisecracks,” the burden of which usually was that the “wisecracker” knew some location in Harlem wherein you could have bedroom pets of this sort for less than $140 a day. But while others thought your strategy—the use of the large trap– was unimaginative, my lady and I admired your “cool”; and when at length it succeeded and the monster was caught, I was all confidence that the word would shortly spread among the rat colony that attacking our little cottages was “a bad scene.” So, seemingly, it has turned out—not a single rat spotted this fortnight! And but one or two beach gossip allusions to sightings by others. Our congratulations.
Now about tennis. I am aware that you have been under pressure to put in a new court. I am also aware that on the face of things it would seem that the present court might not do for a population of– what are we, 250?—when there are only three or four comfortable hours for play and virtually every guest nowadays is a player. Also, I did hear about the outbreak of physical violence at The Court during Christmas week and am far from suggesting that the spectacle of grown men of forty and fifty years, corporation lawyers, surgeons, public officials, and the like, taking bats to each other’s heads in disputes about the obligation to play tiebreakers—I am far from asserting that this sort of thing is seemly. But I believe your lottery scheme is succeeding. We see folk mushing dutifully up to Turtle at 6:30 to pluck their cards and test their fortune, and if some are disappointed, if grumbling was heard from the ranks, there is at least a minimization of the threat of violence. I should think in the future, as more and more tennis-playing folk come to understand that the use of the Plantation’s Court is not merely a privilege but a by-product of a game of chance, as it were, your problems on this front would diminish. In any event my counsel about a new court is: Do not build.

What else? I was delighted by the little altar effect you contrived in the Activities room for the tables holding the TV set for the Superbowl game. As usual there were bitter words about the size of the set, the lack of color, the impossibility of seeing the action unless you were in Row One, the incredulity that “at these rates.” etc. But I noticed as I passed that those forehanded enough to arrive in the pavilion an hour early were surviving comfortably on piña colladas in the front rows, we do not want television here.

Neither, as I am glad you understand, do we want longer bar or meal hours. I heard a man remark that there is not another first-class resort in the world in which it is impossible to be served a drink after 11 P.M., impossible to be served breakfast after 9 A.M., impossible to order a drink at midday except for the length of one hour–and I cut him off at this point, by saying the simple truth: This is how we want it. I am not, perhaps, convinced that the bar personnel need to turn out the lights on Turtle Terrace immediately after serving the last round, while civil conversation is still in course-but I do believe that a night crowd would be ruinous. After two hours of steel-band calypso once a week we Caneelers can say, bluntly, It is 10:45, time to retire-and for the most part we mean it. (I have heard that people continue to hire taxicabs to follow the musicians to their “night-owl gigs” in Cruz Bay, and I hope you will hold to your policy of shaming them on their return. obliging them to climb the gates or contact security for permission to re-enter.)

It is the same with policy forbidding change of reservation dates . . . Firmness must be the rule. And I may add that this clamor for change in the weekly movie seems equally wrongheaded. I continue to enjoy Mother Goose with Cary Grant from year to year and see no purpose to be served by trendiness.

Only one thing more: I believe a serious problem is emerging in connection with lunch. You may—I speak reservedly—willy-nilly be forcing a species of criminality among the guests because of the new $12 buffet. I have seen literally a dozen couples smuggling back breakfast bits–Roquefort, apples, English muffins, salmon, sweet rolls, and other stuffs—to their rooms. I’ve also seen pockets bulging with dishes, silver ... I sense as I glance at faces a trace of shame here and there, and I would ask: Is this finally desirable? Would you not do better to make an explicit statement on the breakfast menu that those who wish to take any extra food for luncheon-makings are at liberty to do so? I am of the opinion that this would markedly improve guest morale.

But on the whole, sir. I should agree that morale does hold up. I suppose we must be prepared for the annual announcement of rate increases accompanying your summer summons to pay in advance. But we shall face up to them manfully. There are those of us in a position to state that judged for air, for views, for comfort, for horticultural elegance and variety, yours is the handsomest estate on earth. May it remain so always.

P.S. My lady reminds me to say that we were also pleased not to be troubled by celebrities during our stay. I know that you cannot refuse them but I believe the record should show that they are not a plus. The Secretary of State’s Secret Service protectors in bathing attire and sidearms sounded an ominous note on Hawksnest Beach. And why should a maître d’ of Vernon’s quality have to deal with those fond fools who harry him to seat them by Dr. Billy Graham? People actually claimed to be eager to see the man tuck his napkin under his chin.

At the end of Fellini’s Amarcord comes the unforgettable moment pace John Simon—after the bride and groom have been dispatched from the wedding picnic. Wind blowing, dust rising, people shouting, and some uncle, half running, full of wine, stopping in the road to pull up a sock, laughing . . . The deed of the film is to give back that instant—indeed the whole of itself— as memory. A voice seems to be saying: That’s how it was, he bent over, hopped sideways, lost his balance, laughed ... I remember from youth. If you don’t hear the voice, the film probably comes across as nothing but ugly discontinuities. I think about this because, just now, watching three riders out the window trying to make it down the hill on the mud road by our fence– mother and father, I think, and a youngster—I imagined I saw memory in the making. The wind is blowing wildly and there’s a washout below and the three beasts turned spooky suddenly, moiling, rearing, blaring eyes, tail-chasing. Daddy calls out instructions, Mom exhorts, the little girl looks scared as hell. Then, zap! the father dismounts, and head down, hair streaming out behind him, strikes out into the mud leading all three horses caught at the bit. What I saw was the surprised, happy, admiring look in the little girl’s face just the second they went down out of sight. Excitement, suspense, fear, oddity of sensation, lovely relief—mightn’t such an instant lodge a while in a child’s memory? Fellini’s movie is about what happens next to these lodgings, pruning, reshaping, remaking. Memory comes out—by its magic—as art.