24 Frames: Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)

To say that cinema often presents a contemptuous view of television doesn’t begin to capture the extremity of that representation. Ken Russell’s 1975 Tommy, to take just one instance, features one of the better-known, most hysterical portraits of television paranoia. Ann-Margret, playing Tommy’s careless mother, Nora Walker Hobbs, urges Tommy (Roger Daltrey) to respond to her as she cavorts in a white, mirrored room. She wants him to look in a mirror, cure himself of his hysterical blindness, and recognize himself. At the scene’s climax, a television set suddenly erupts and inexplicably spews baked beans throughout the room—and all over Ann-Margret. Certainly the identity of the victim isn’t random. Ann-Margret has traced a passage from one film cliché as studio system sex kitten to another as frustrated and irresponsible mother damaging her male child; or, to put it another way, from ingénue to character actress. This coda to the scene deftly invokes vomit, pornographic ejaculation shots, pollution of the virgin, hurled feces, mud, and gastrointestinal distress. This is what comes out of the television set. The media critique in Tommy often lacks coherence, but the protagonist’s fame within the context of multiple celebrity personality cults is clearly a problem. At his mother’s instigation, Tommy commercially exploits his unusual ability to play pinball. A monitor extruding effluent onto the characters is the inevitable visual metaphor that results.
The sense of pollution associated with television here echoes the polluting nature of commerce itself. It can never be forgotten or put aside that television, at least through the classic network period, is entirely fueled by an advertising model of payment. The power of television is always accompanied by paranoia that arises from our suspicion of its intents and purposes. This is the basis of the ideological critique of television, although television doesn’t always fit into traditional models of power offered by established strains of ideological criticism. The content of television is like a white room filled with baked beans: It certainly makes a big mess, but what else can you say about it?

Television at the Movies: Cinematic and Critical Approaches (Jon Nelson Wagner, Tracy Biga MacLean)

Em tempos do cinema trocar “televison paranoia” pelo “internet paranoia” estranhamente existem poucos exemplos incisivos a respeito, talvez o mais bem sucedido neste sentido tenha sido o Demonlover do Olivier Assayas, pintando um retrato assustador, mas plenamente coerente.

Nota: Lembram do episódio em que Ann-Margret e toda a irritabilidade de Bye Bye Bird foram alvo de Mad Men? Poderia rolar a versão feijão também. Rá.

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