Wednesday, November 02, 2005

RED ENVELOPES: Advance Warning

I love hoax movies. You know, the kind where it purports to be a live broadcast or a news broadcast, and of course all kinds of hell breaks loose, and somewhere in America some yahoo tunes in late, and misses all 53 of the warnings that the lawyers made the network put in, and they don't utilize the scientific method at all to figure out why only one network has the biggest story in the history of mankind, and they freak out, and the next day some glory-hog congressman proposes new legislation to control the runaway media. Love those movies.

The grandfather of them all is, of course, The War of the Worlds. I went on at length about the latest movie version yesterday, so I'll try not to spend too much time on this. But it was Orson Welles, in all his prankish glory, who faked out the country in 1938, and created this wonderful notion of using the medium to con the populace. They played it again on Halloween night, and it's funny to think of terrified people staring at their radios. Well, funny now.

In 1988, public radio did an updated version, which I enjoyed so much I bought the CD. It used all the wonderful public radio conventions, including a parody of Stardate which nicely uses some of H. G. Wells' language. This was the first time I ever heard the mellifluous voice of Terry Gross (in her role as vintage radio host Rose Butler), and I suppose if I'd known her as Miss Fresh Air, that might have spoiled it right from the get-go. But I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially as she interjects, in the middle of the chaos, that listeners should remember to mail in those pledges. And it's got Jason Robards and Hector Elizondo, so there's much to love.

Probably the best of the hoax movies is a stellar little piece of TV called Special Bulletin, which does not seem to be available on video, and that's a crying shame. It's a tense film, depicting a group of terrorists threatening to explode an atomic bomb in Charleston, South Carolina. It's very effective, but what's marvelous is the way it criticizes TV news merely by showing it doing its thing. My favorite moment is when the network anchor is interviewing a physician, and the doctor is reviewing tapes of the terrorists to gain some insight into their mindset. And he notices that one of them mentions "white count", which he correctly interprets to be in reference to white blood cells, and a clear indiciation that the terrorist is suffering from radiation poisoning, and that the bomb is most definitely real. And the anchors totally miss it, because they're too busy trying to get to the next item. Marvelous writing, and positively prescient, considering the movie was made in 1983. If they did an update, the news would be even more clueless.

This is what brings me to my recent Netflix rental, Without Warning, a 1994 mock newscast depicting a major asteroid impact on Earth, and the mysterious nature of its true cause. It was kind of fun, watching things go from bad to worse. And it screws with your head, because the cast mixes actors with actual broadcasters. So there's John deLancie (Star Trek's Q) tossing back to the studio and real-life newsman Sander Vanocur. Strange.

If there's a flaw, it's that the film seems too polished. The filmmakers lay out all their cards, so that we can eventually piece it together, even if the media can't. Liek a jigsaw puzzle, we don't see the whole pictures until all the pieces are in place. But it's too polished. It doesn't have the element of chaos, of people trying to keep it together, that makes Special Bulletin such an achievement. In that film, you felt the frustration you often feel with watching the actual news, where you're trying to figure out the story, and you can't get the information you need. Without Warning tells you there's chaos, but it's a very orderly, carefully-controlled sort of chaos.

There has to be a way of transferring the joy of the hoax onto a stage. Must figure that out.


Hudson said...

Yeah- from the guy who loved that crappy Catwoman movie....I spit on you and your are now my enemy.

much love!

Paul Winston said...

I think if "Special Bulletin" were made today, the producers would save a lot of money by only shooting 10 minutes of "live" footage and spend the remaining time with special guests in the studio arguing with each other and telling us who we should blame.

We could have cameos from James Carville and Bob Novak and some professor from an Ivy League school who has never been to South Carolina pontificating on how the South's way of life may have contributed to this tragedy.

Now then, where is my copy of "Final Draft?"