The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on April 1, 1998 · Page 29
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 29

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Wednesday, April 1, 1998
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THE SALINA JOURNAL APPLAUSE WEDNESDAY, APHIL 1. 1998 3 The Movie that First Noticed TVs Grip on Politics J. Hoberman N.Y. Times News Service Hegel saw the ritual reading of the daily newspaper as the secular equivalent of morning prayer. If so, the great televised media events that periodically transfix Americans must be'something akin to religious festivals. Less exalted than the form of collective expression developed in ancient Athens, media events — watched and pursued simultaneously by millions — are equally dramatic. Whether the subject is a presidentical cover-up or a trial for double murder, these spectacular narratives are alike in certain key elements: Powerful stars crash and burn while supporting players (even members of the chorus) become new-minted celebrities; phrases are turned and buzzwords introduced. Afterward,the images will be recycled and refracted through ancillary deals until the debris-littered national landscape suggests a New Orleans street on the day after Mardi Gras. Such ghosts of media events past haunt "Point of Order," the 1964 documentary assembled by Daniel Talbot and Emile de Antonio from television footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Opening Friday for a two- week revival at Film Forum in New York, "Point of Order" is the first documentary feature to treat American politics as spectacle, as well as a portrait of the first American politician to achieve full media symbiosis. Sen. Joseph McCarthyOof Wisconsin, the flamboyant hunter of communists, real and imaginary, built a career on events created to be reported. McCarthy's means were less photo ops and sound bites than tabloid headlines and wire-service bulletins, but long before the term "news cycle" existed, he knew how to manage it. As Richard Rovere wrote in this book "Senator Joe McCarthy," McCarthy "invented the morning press conference called for the purpose of announcing an afternoon press conference." While televised hearings had made a national figure of Sen. Estes Kefauver in-1951, the same format destroyed McCArthy. His problems began with the 1953 inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower and the installation of the Republican administration the Wisconsin senator had helped elect. Having(rocketed to fame by denouncing Democratic "treason," McCarthy was disinclined to abandon the issue. He used his chairmanship of the new Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to probe communist infiltration of the Voice of America and the International Information Administration, and, finally, to make a direct challenge to the former general, now president, and the Army itself/ But the military was not without its own resources. On March 11, 1954 (two days after CBS fired a shot across the senator's bow with Edward R. Murrow's critical report on the program "See It Now"), the Department of the Army released documents chronicling the attempts made by a McCarthy aide, Roy Conn, to obtain special treatment for the newly drafted Pvt. David Schine, the subcommittee's erstwhile "chief consultant." McCarthy responded with charges that the Army had tried to forestall further investigation by taking Schine hostage. The Senate authorized televised hearings to begin on April 22. Media interest was not a given. CBS passed on the telecast; NBC dropped out after two days. The full hearings were carried by ABC, a network then so weak that it had no daytime schedule to pre-empt. This gamble proved to be a brilliant coup. Public response was enormous. As the hearings built to a climax in June, CBS and NBC affiliates dumped their afternoon soaps to pick up the ABC feed while the Gallup Poll reported that an astounding 89 percent of adult Americans were following the show. On some afternoons, the audience was estimated at 20 million. Among them was Talbot, then an unemployed writer living in New York. "I was hooked," he recalls. "I watched every second. I Was totally apolitical, but this was a fascinating piece of Americana, I read McCarthy as a kind of W.C. Fields character selling snake oil." Six years later, when he had become the owner of the New Yorker theater, a revival house on the West Side of New York City, Talbot wondered whether it would be possible to present excerpts from the Army-McCarthy kinescopes, perhaps charging viewers a dollar an hour. He joined forces with de Antonio, then an artists' agent, raising $100,000 to secure the rights to all 188 hours of televised footage. Although, according to Talbot, "neither of us had ever seen a moviola before," the partners spent three years distilling the material to 97 strictly chronological minutes. "Point of Order," named for McCarthy's frequently employed interjection, remains a remarkable chamber drama. As in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the narrative motor is the abduction of a princeling; Schine was the scion of a wealthy hotel family. Here too, confusion is rife. As The New Republic's Michael Straight wrote in his 1954 account of the hearings, "Trial by Television," McCarthy "understood that the investigation was not a court proceeding, where order would reign and rules of evidence would prevail, but a vast, disorderly drama whose plot would be shaped and whose end would be written by the actors possessing enough power to take command of the stage." Who is investigating whom? Generals, Cabinet officers, senators, even lawyers are placed under oath. Sen. Karl Mundt of South Dakota becomes the subcommittee's temporary chairman. The chaos produces a se-' ries of one-on-one confrontations, predicated less on rational discourse than on volume, quips and personality. The inquiry meanders from Schine to alleged communist (and homosexual) infiltration of the armed forces, the question of McCarthy's sources and, finally, in a stunning non sequitur, the political associations of a young lawyer who is not part of the hearings but a junior partner in the firm of the Army counsel Joseph Welch. McCarthy is playing to something larger than the committee or even the Senate. The television audience, he says more than once, is "the jury in this case." That the spectacle is being produced for the camera is underscored by the various debates on 'Barney's Great Adventure: Pleasant for Pre-Schoolers movie, which 'opens on Friday at Anita Gates 1998 N. Y, Times News Service NEW YORK — If I didn't know better, I'd say Barney the dinosaur had it in for Cody Newton, a 9-year- old boy whose greatest crime is that he doesn't believe in 6-foot-tall talking purple dinosaurs. Let's just say that when Barney is around, bad things happen to Cody (Trevor Morgan). While ,the dinosaur is doing his first song-and-dance number, he "accidentally" knocks the boy over, then "lets" him be tossed off a wheelbarrow. At another point, Cody mysteriously falls backward off his grandparents' front porch. Well, that's what he gets for be- Radio City Music Hall, takes place in a similar universe. In the film, two little girls—Abby (Diana Rice) and her best friend, Marcella (Kyla Pratt) — who know how to affect beatific smiles are delighted to be visiting Abby's grandparents for a week. Cody, Abby's big brother, is bummed out because the grandparents don't have cable, and no, he does not consider looking out the window and watching pigs frolic an entertaining alternative. Their infant brother, inexplicably named Fig, is neutral. The grandparents live on a farm, so there's a barn to play in and animals to decorate the musi- ing the closest thing to a villain in cal numbers (which include "Old "Barney's Great Adventure," Bar- McDonald Had a Farm," "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and the inevitable "I Love You, You Love Me"). The farmhouse has a front- porch swing, and Grandma (Shirley ney the PBS television star's first feature film, which his young, undemanding fans are likely to enjoy. Barney exists in a gentle preschooler-friendly world of Douglas) must bake all day because make-believe on his television se- she has flour on her nose when we ries, "Barney and Friends," and his meet her. Grandpa (played by the You Oft It! 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Jett, O.D.S. the quality of color-coded charts and photographic evidence. The crudeness of the television image only serves to render the antagonists more iconic. But although appreciated by his fans as a sort of roughneck Mr. Smith gone to Washington to purge the communists, McCarthy had a sepulchral urgency and a mirthless laugh that proved perversely untelegenic. (So too his 5 o'clock shadow, despite the "cream-colored makeup 11 noted by Straight.) It was the prim and punkish Welch, a skilled trial lawyer (as well as a lifelong Republican), who blossomed under the lights. The Army counsel also badgered witnesses — alluding even to Conn's rumored homosexuality — but where McCarthy specialized in menace, Welch proved a master of deflationary humor. Although the frustrated senator attacked his nemesis as "an actor" who "plays for laughs," the Army counsel could also take the high moral ground. The hearings and "Point of Order" reach their climax when, exasperated by Welch's cross-examination of Conn (and over Gohn's silently mouthed objections), McCarthy exposes Welch's partner Fred Fisher as a former member of the left-wing Lawyer's Guild. This gratuitous guilt by association exposed McCarthy himself to Wench's withering scorn. "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?" Welch exclaims to a round of spontaneous applause. Variety subsequently hailed him as "one of the great performers ever to appear on the small screen," and Otte Preminger cast him as the presiding judge in his 1959 movie "Ariato- my of a Murder." After seeing "Point of Order" in the '60s, the critic Dwight Macdonald suggested a revisionist view of Welch's cri de coeur: "It seemed to be a spontaneous cry of moral indignation — 'seemed' because on this viewing, at least, I thought I detected a calculated artistry in Welch's performance." In fact, according to Nicholas von Hoffman's book "Citizen Cohn," McCarthy had recklessly violated a "back door" — or should we say "backstage" — agreement not to mention Fisher if Welch avoided bringing up the subject of Cohn's draft record. Performance defeats character: McCarthy's psychology dictated his divergence from the script. He could not help himself. Nor, perhaps, could Cohn, whose irrational devotion to Schine had dragged the McCarthy juggernaut onto the rocks. (For a contemporary audience,(Cohn — having already figured as a character in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and in Ron Vawter's one-man show "Roy Cohn/Jack Smith" — may well be the secret star of "Point of Order." Mark Rappaport, maker of the innovative experimental documentaries "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" and "Jean Seberg's Diary," is currently preparing "Roy Cohn, or How I Learned to Hate the Commies." Cohn, Rappaport explains, is the key to unlocking repression and denial in the "50s.") Even before the hearings ended, a week after Welch's outburst, McCarthy was the butt of television comedians like Steve Allen and Milton Berle, who mimicked his constant interruptions and shouted points of order. Although the subsequent subcommittee report was ambiguous, the Wisconsin Senator's hold was broken. On Dec. 2, the Senate voted, 67-22, to censure him. Still, perhaps because McCarthy was America's pre-eminent media politician before .John F. Kennedy, his fictional doppelgangers populate the Washington thrillers that characterized the Kennedy era McCarthy is reconfigured as a liberal appeaser in "Advise and Consent" and, even more outrageously, as a communist invention in "The Manchurian Candidate." "Point of Order" is the documentary correlative. The movie had its premiere two weeks into 1964, still in the disorienting aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, at the posh Beekman theater in New York. There it played through the end of February — a run overlapping the Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show, the opening of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign and the release of two more political fantasies predicated on the sedition of right-wing generals, "Seven Days in May" and "Dr. Strange love." Reviewing the latter for Partisan Review, Susan Sontag called "Point of Order" "the real comedie noire of the season." Indeed, in successfully repackaging "live" political theater as a sort of filmed political cabaret, the movie began new careers for its creators. Talbot branched out into distribution: the following year, while De Antonio established himself as a leading political documentary filmmaker. ("Milhouse: A White Comedy," which De Antonio directed and Talbot released in 1970, landed both men on the Nixon enemy list.) McCarthy is as far from us today as the red-hunting Attorney General Mitchell Palmer was from "Point of Order's" original audience. What remains startlingly immediate is the televisu- al. Treating the Army-McCarthy, hearings as a form of round pop art, "Point of Order" is a movie about television — literally. The kinescopes from which it was fashioned were filmed off the television screen. The public drama was already mediated for maximum human interest; its spectacle anticipates C-Span and Court TV as well as Watergate and Iran-Contra. The most powerful demagogue is not McCarthy at all. Nor is Welch the real hero. An electronic cave painting from the dawn f the media-saturated age, "Point of Order" demonstrates the way that television inevitably recasts news as entertainment,, subsumes politics in personality, elevates anecdote to history and,, in the final analysis, substitutes its own flickering image for collective memory. stage actor George Hearn) sings "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to her, although in the real world their courtship song would more likely have been something by the Everly Brothers. When the couple take laundry down from the clothesline together, their wash consists of nothing but patchwork quilts. Not that this will matter to Barney's fans, but the plot is about a large magic egg that the children find, quickly lose and have to chase all over town. That means visiting the parade at the Merrivale Apple Day Festival, a terribly formal restaurant called Chez Snobbe (where Barney does an impromptu floor show), the circus, and a hot- air-balloon race. Baby Bop and B.J., Barney's smaller dinosaur friends, drop in briefly, as does an excruciatingly adorable new character, Twinkin. Shop early for Christmas now. The movie is directed by Steve Gomer and is rated G. It's running times is 75 minutes. No Calories. No Fat. No Cholesterol ...NO KIDDING. Our free Consumer Information Catalog serves up over 200 free and low-cost government booklets you can really sink your teeth into. Perk up your appetite with subjects like saving money, buying a house, educating your children, getting federal benefits, eating right, staying healthy, and many more. So come 'n get it! Whatever your taste, you can feast on the free Catalog. It's filled with plenty of satisfying booklets. Just call toll-free 1-888-8 PUEBLO. Or get a bite on the Consumer Information Center website: www.pueblo.gsa.gov A public service of this publication and the Consumer Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration.

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