Thursday, June 5, 2008

Smart TV: Mailer and McLuhan debate on CBC

In celebration of my finally finishing Mailer’s last novel Castle in the Forest, I offer the following video "find" (not currently housed on YouTube). In the book, Norman offered up his final surprise, a playfully constructed meditation on human nature, using the most evil figure of the 20th century as a springboard. Thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking, as were all of Mailer’s finer pieces. For those of us who are older than 30, we remember and treasure Norman as both a man of ideas and a public hellraiser. The guy was a dynamo on television, even though he made it evident that he was scared of the power of the medium and his inability to ace it (his reflections on Capote’s charm and utter mastery of the talk show echoed this frustration).

So here we have him at the height of his public visibility, a guy who wasn’t writing fiction and wouldn’t again for nearly a decade. He was too busy "living the era," so to speak, and thus he made the most fascinating series of TV appearances, playing the role of provocateur, and getting in the biggest disagreements with people on his own side of the political fence. His amazing encounter with the still-brilliant Gore Vidal (check out this recent interview) on The Dick Cavett Show is an example of two men of ideas getting in a childish argument and creating kinetic, unforgettable television. Here he has a much mellower opponent, genius theorizer Marshall McLuhan on a 1968 Canadian show called The Summer Way (what a mellow name for a news program!).

To watch McLuhan on television is enlightening, because the man literally wrote the book on the medium, and yet was an academic, so he couldn’t control it (he lacked the personal charisma that was/is the sole criterion for television “stardom” in any era). Here he and a somewhat mellower but still pugnacious Mailer discuss little matters like alienation from society and the modern era, traveling, the use of metaphors, and passing moral judgment. McLuhan is never anything less than brilliant, but perhaps his finest moments here are the evocations of computer language (information overload, pattern recognition) to describe why the artist is more valuable to society than the scientist (at that point, in ’68). Mailer’s best moments come at the end, when he evokes the ultimate existential situation (leaping from a burning building) and starts to discuss one of his favorite subjects, man and violence, just before the credits roll (he’s just gettin’ warmed up!).

I’ve said before on the show and in this blog that, much as I love crap culture to pieces, the saddest part of American society these days is how proud we are of being stupid. Here, 40 years ago, were two eggheads of different stripes being unabashedly smart on television. I mourn the fact that these days we’re left with only sound bites, The Charlie Rose Show (gag), and off-mainstream items on public access and C-SPAN.


1 comment:

Harry Swartz-Turfle said...

Great find!

These are two heavyweights with enough ideas in 30 minutes to fill all of cable TV for a year. The media is in a sorry state in its race to the bottom.

I love McLuhan's imagery, although I think Mailer's right -- the Canadian professor seems to take a lot of delight in the broad development of media without any interest in getting his hands dirty in deciding what kind of "electronic envelope" we're living in. Thank God for Media Funhouse!