BY TERRENCE RAFFERTY
TELEVISION MAKES celebrities of the strangest people, and creates them by processes that seem as unaccountable, and as vaguely sinister, as alchemy. It’s such a peculiar medium that its most fantastic, most truly mysterious creatures aren’t the coiffed and Nautilused stars of its cop shows, sitcoms, and soaps bur the people who look straight out from the screen and talk to us, the ones who want to be our friends’, game-show moderators, news anchors, magazineshow reporters, video jockeys, weathermen, and talk-show hosts. Series stars draw life from the fictions they’re in, are given histories by the roles they play week after week; their shows provide contexts for them, worlds that, with repetition, become familiar and make their inhabitants seem like just the sort of people you could talk to, have a beer with, raise a family with, get arrested by, or sleep with. But people who appear as themselves on television are somehow too immediate to excite the imagination; in their high-tech newsroom sets, behind their talk-show desks, or standing next to a carny-colored wheel o’ greed, they look deracinated and sort of . . . functional. They seem to exist only in a weird TV-space that looks like nowhere anyone has ever been, and they are suspiciously confortable there. We might ask ourselves, Where do these people come from? and then discover that we’re unable to visualize them outside their stylized settings. “I’m always interested in talk show hosts,”Andy Warhol once wrote—and Andy Warhol is a man who is stirred only by what is deeply, irredeemably inauthentic.
The most radical, and the funniest, exemplar of the host species is Max Headroom, who presides over a bizarre British music-video-and-talk show running on the pay-cable channel Cinemax through the middle of next month. Max, blond and square-jawed as an Olympic diver, is a Warholian dream of a television personality: a two-dimensional man, whose existence really ends at the edges of the screen. He’s purely and unabashedly a product, a video-age Frank-
enstein monster, billed as “the world’s first computer-generated talk-show host.”Actually, Max is played by an actor named Matt Frewer, transformed by heavy makeup and even heavier audio and video trickery. He is no more synthetic than Boris Karloff was: Max’s creators have simply extended the conceit of the science-fiction film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, which introduced the character and provided him with a kind of instant history. In the hour-long him—shown first on Britain’s Channel 4 and later on Cinemax, and recently made available on video cassette—Max is an electronic simulation of the head, shoulders, voice, and mind of one Edison Carter, a TV investigative reporter for Network 23, a global media conglomerate in a post-apocalyptic world. Carter, it seems, has stumbled onto evidence that the network’s newest form of advertising—commercials called “blipverts,”which compress thirty seconds’ worth of imagery and information into three seconds—has had the unfortunate effect of overstimulating the nervous systems of “some particularly slothful perpetual viewers” and making them explode in front of their sets. The network, naturally, isn’t eager for this problem to become public—nor does it want to discontinue the lethal but
lucrative ads. (As one of the executives points out, only invalids, old-age pensioners, and the unemployed are reallv at risk, after all.) So when Carter gets too close to the truth, the network’s computer mastermind, a snotty sixteen-year-old named Bryce, sets a couple of thugs on the reporter’s trail, and at the end of a chase through the corridors and parking garage of the Network 23 complex Carter has a motorcycle crack-up and is left for dead. The last thing he sees before the accident is a barrier warning: MAX HEADROOM 2.3 m.
Bryce thinks that he can conceal the apparent fact of Carter’s demise by scanning his synapses, feeding the data into the computer, and creating a video replica that will continue to file Carter’s reports “live” on the air: he has already computer-simulated a parrot, and feels that applying the process to a network reporter won’t be much different. Unfortunately for Bryce and the sweaty executives—who find the whole ugly business nearly as nerve-wracking as a twopoint drop in ratings—the real Carter is still alive, and the Carter simulation falls into the hands of a pirate station called Big-Time Television, which, unable to afford any other programming, fills its air time with decades-old music videos. The false Carter, now calling himself Max Headroom, fits right into the synthetic, flashy atmosphere of music-video programming, and his rapid-fire jokes and asides, delivered in a classically deep, mid-Atlantic-accented announcer’s voice, make him a star: all over the post-apocalyptic world derelicts stare fascinated at his image on the discarded but still functioning TV sets piled up, unkillable, in bombed-out lots.
THE DYSTOPIAN SATIRE of 20 Minutes Into the Future aims at most of the familiar targets of the genre—corporate venality, the arrogance of technology, the mass media’s narcotic effect on the audience—but the film’s sensibility is bracingly original, and every bullet seems to ricochet a couple of times before it hits its mark. For one thing, the technological speculations that (as always in science fiction) set the plot in motion are very specific and knowing extrapolations from current media fashions. The advertising industry has, in fact, been steadily whittling down the length of commercials—from the classic sixty-second spot to the now standard thirty seconds to the increasingly frequent fifteen seconds—and at the same time, more and more television ads now “communicate” by purely visual means, creating a mood or an image of the product rather than relying on a verbal message. They haven’t quite achieved the insane, hallucinatory effect of the stroboscopic blipverts yet, but they’re getting there, and Network 23‘s justification for its deadly commercials is just an extension of the conventional wisdom of today’s ad agencies: now that view ers are equipped with remote control, and a fast-forward button on the VCR, you’ve got to get in and out of their consciousness fast, before they can turn you off. The process by which the nightmare whiz-kid Bryce creates Max is a speculative marriage of two current areas of computer research: artificial intelligence, which uses the computer’s power to perform complex logical operations; and the more pragmatic field of computer graphics, recently popular among commercial and music-video producers searching for a new “look” to jazz up such visual banalities as, say, the movements of the human body. (One client of a computer-graphics company spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on a digital simulation of Mick Jagger for a music video: an impressive technical feat, but the computer-generated Mick moved like John Wayne after a mighty hard day in the saddle.)
What makes the satiric inventions of 20 Minutes Into the Future so funny is the speed at which everything goes past and the variety of visual styles that the directors, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, keep throwing at us. The overall tone of the cinematography (by Phil Meheux, who also shot the splendid British gangster film The Long Good Friday) is grungy, in the Blade Runner mold, with browns and grays predominant and a slight blurring of the edges of things, as if the dust had not quite settled from whatever catastrophe produced this blasted future. But there’s hardly a scene in the film that isn’t interrupted at some point by the introduction of a totally different graphic style: jittery, grainy hand-held shots from Edison Carter’s portable video unit; the bleak, ominously still gaze of security cameras mounted in corners; elegant, rotating computer-screen representations of the geography of the Network 23 building; board-meeting-style graphics that show the executives either a graph of the current ratings or a brutally stark little high-tech cartoon of people blowing up from blipverts (after the explosion there’s just an empty chair, a TV set, and, between them, a tiny pair of computer-generated slippers); and, of course, the video-sculpted image of Max himself, with brightly colored parallel lines randomizing jauntily in the background. It’s all deliberately too much, and Morton and Jankel, with cheeky virtuosity, cut from one visual texture to another very, very fast. The lunatic profusion of graphics at this giddy pace is comically disorienting: the directors’ joy in technique induces in the viewer an almost childlike euphoria at the varieties of media magic, the urge to giggle in a roomful of toys.
That effect— the viewer’s suspension of judgment in the midst of sensory overload—is exactly what commercial and music-video producers are shooting for. T he splintery, overbearing styles of today’s ads and music clips mimic, and mean to replace, the heady feeling of high-speed remote-control channelchanging, the TV watcher’s orgy, the sense of freedom in a blur of abrupt transitions. Morton and Jankel, themselves veterans of British advertising and rock video, use these rather suspect techniques playfully and self-consciously, with insiders’ wit that casually both mocks and flaunts their own facility. This is the perfect tone for the story of this media celebrity’s creation. Max Headroom is the latest in a long line of literary and cinematic automata, from Mary Shelley’s monster and the heartbreaking doll created by the demonic alchemist Coppelius in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” to the anguished “replicants” of Blade Runner and The Terminators killing machine, but he is the first of this traditionally alarming breed whose existence is trivial. Max himself is an insider of sorts (he was, after all, already a TV personality in his human incarnation), with nothing on his simulated mind but the video universe he is trapped in. His glib, media-wise patter is so inane, so unselfconscious, that it’s endearing: like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, that idiotic virtuoso of upper-class slang, Max charms us with his total, cheerful immersion in a wmrld that is profoundly inconsequential. Morton and Jankel, manipulating Max’s video world with the technological glee of a Strangelove, finally teach us how to stop worrying and love the boob.
IN THE MUSIC-VIDEO series that followed 20 Minutes Into the Future on Channel 4 and Cinemax, Max’s sciencefiction history was never alluded to. The genial, absurdly confident host simply introduced—and, frequently, interrupted—a few rock videos each week, occasionally interviewing, from his natty monitor, some of his fellow instant video celebrities (Boy George, Sting, a couple of members of Duran Duran). His behavior with his guests was a demented mixture of rudeness (yawning during Sting’s more ponderous remarks) and obsequiousness (offering little gifts, usually of golf shoes). Max was, if such a thing is possible, innocently smarmy, a motor-mouth enthusiast who looked steamed every time a video cut into his patter. The videos themselves were mostly from the extreme, psychosis-inducing end of the scale, but they were like the sort of stuff that might have been dumped on Blank Reg, the elderly punk programmer of Big-Time Television. In fact, there was nothing in the spartan style of Morton and Jankel’s senes of Max Headroom video shows to indicate that this wasn’t still Big-Time Television, that we weren’t watching relics of a bygone video culture with the bums in the vacant lot. These shows extended 20 Minutes Into the Future’s central joke about pop culture—that you don’t have to be real to be famous—and included the audience, too. They marooned us in the same unidentifiable video space as Max, insiders all. We know, more or less, where Max comes from, but when we’re watching him, accepting him as easily as we do Carson or Donahue or Mike Wallace, we might wonder for a moment where we are.
It would be nice to think that the evolution of Max Headroom since the end of that first scries was part of the joke too, hut it doesn’t look that way. In the past year—not coincidentally, since Morton and Jankel left the show—Max’s producer, Peter Wagg, has moved the character further from his satiric, science-fiction origins, past the delicate comic balance between “real” stardom and parody of stardom in last year’s video show s, and into the shadowy world of 1986-stvle big-time television, where nothing seems like anything but today. Max is just about indistinguishable from any other TV personality now: he does commercials as Coca-Cola’s official spokescreature, he is interviewed on talk shows (where he plugs his own scries), and the new Max Headroom Show has, of all things, a live studio audience, laughing dutifully at the jokes coming from the multiple images of Max on the studio monitors. Aggressive marketing—of books, T-shirts, and the sort of “ancillary merchandise” that turns media events like E. T. and the Star Wars movies into full-time megabucks industries—made Max a star in England, and it’s now in progress here.
And Max, sadly and perhaps inevitably, isn’t nearly as funny as he once was. Out of his original context, transported from the video no-man’s-land of 20 Minutes and the first series into the all-tooreeognizable contemporary setting of a studio with an audience, he’s only a comedian—more stylized than most, but hardly different in kind. His oneliners, which were never especially hilarious in themselves, fall a little flat without Morton and Jankel’s hairbreadth timing to put them across. Max actually looks less like a computer-generated image than he used to, and more like what he really is—an actor whose features are exaggerated with makeup and video technique. T he original image of Max was a heightened, pop-poetic distortion of Edison Carter, and had an effect similar to that of Warhol’s silkscrecn portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and other cultural icons; the current Max looks more like a snapshot that’s a little out of focus. Or maybe that’s an illusion: maybe it’s just the lack of context, the loss of that elaborately fabricated history, that makes the 1986 version of Max seem not so much unreal as merely indistinct. The ultimate joke is that Max’s current keepers have thrust their character as a product into the TV marketplace without making him synthetic enough. Just like a real TV star, he’s doing his shtick without the armor of irony or fiction, appearing as “himself,” and nothing’s playing—he’s dying out there. □