>Time to De-Fund PBS

>The various responsibilities which fall to this poor scribbler occasionally take him away from these virtual pages, gentle reader, and so it is that I return to you today, head bowed and cap mangled uneasily between my fingers, begging your pardon for my absence these last few days. I do hope that said absence was not too troubling to you in your quest to find something to fall asleep while reading. Your patronage is of great import to me, as well as your feedback.

And now let me explain why we should defund PBS.

I watch a great deal of PBS, as it happens. In fact, I watch more PBS than just about anyone else I know in their 20’s-30’s. I watch the science shows, dramas, cooking shows, comedies, mysteries, documentaries, and so on (though not their news coverage for reasons which, if you are a regular peruser of this site, should be obvious.) Indeed, I have watched PBS extensively for as long as I can remember, from Sesame Street and the original Electric Company onwards.

And because I have been watching PBS for three decades now, I can detect how it has changed, in a number of very important ways. I could, for example, describe the significant decline in the level of home-grown drama programming, with virtually everything now being imported from Britain and presumably your tax dollars being used to help pay for budgets at the BBC, ITV, and elsewhere. Or we could discuss the disappearance of challenging, intelligent programming such as “American Playhouse”, and the significant reduction in broadcasts from Lincoln Center – not to mention the absolute dearth of representation of nearly any other venue for classical music other than during the holidays – in favor of MTV-Unplugged evenings spent with marginally talented cultural irrelevancies such as John Legend, the Shia Labeouf of the music world, or pledge drive weepies with stars from the 40’s and 50’s who should have retired with their remaining grace intact rather than wheeling their zimmerframes out on stage, or ageing hippies who never had any grace to begin with doing much the same thing.

No, no, the truth of the matter is, Public Television has moved away from what it once was, a venue for education, even of the Leftist variety, and instead is no longer public: it is commercial. And because it is now commercial, albeit without as many obvious commercials as, say, NBC or the Discovery Channel, it is time to remove its funding. It must stop lying to the American taxpayer and claiming it is a non-profit educational venture, and we must call it to account for not only its deliberate untruth, but also its incredibly poor financial management of our money.

Back in the day, if you turned on the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of that season’s production of “Carmen”, or watched “I, Claudius” or the like on Masterpiece Theatre, you knew that these programs were sponsored “in part” by large corporations such as the oil companies, investment banks, or the insurance industry. Perhaps their corporate logo would appear with a message of thanks to the corporation for their philanthropic gift, and that was all. Those subtle days are, for the most part, now gone.

Those who have not sat down and watched PBS for awhile may be surprised to see the number of actual commercials that are shown both at the beginning AND at the end of a program. The much-loved “Antiques Roadshow”, for example, has advertisements for Subaru motorcars and Liberty Mutual insurance, among others, at the beginning and end of each show: not just a corporate sponsor thank-you message, but actual commercials. We also see commercials for American Airlines at the beginning and end of the ever-snide Rick Steves’ travel programs; Union Bank runs commercials at the beginning and end of the BBC World News broadcasts. And the commercials on some of the cooking programs, from Cuisinart to Oxo to Robert Mondavi wines, boggle the mind – even on programs featuring the late Julia Child. These are but a few examples.

And what of the programming tie-ins themselves?

Where does all of the money from the children’s shows – which are supposedly so much more wholesome than the other things our children could be watching on “commercial” television – going if not to PBS? Are they really that bad at managing the American taxpayer’s money that they cannot negotiate decent royalties from the manufacturers for products featuring their zoo of characters licensing deals which should, in and of themselves, be able to perpetually fund PBS? And if they are not capable of negotiating such agreements, if the executives at PBS really are that inept – for there is no other term to sum up such a level of corporate irresponsibility – then why on earth should we continue to give them our money? If PBS was an average corporation that had failed to protect its shareholders’ rights so spectacularly poorly, the leadership would all have been sacked by now.

All of the local PBS stations hereabouts have been running announcements, asking viewers to contact their representatives in Congress and “tell them how you feel” about PBS. I am more than happy to oblige, and am passing along this blog post to my representative. For in the smokescreen from the Tea Partiers about PBS having a Leftist news department – which it does – and from the Left about some Tea Partiers being narrow-minded and uneducated – which they are – there is a fundamental truth: PBS as it is currently run is a bad investment.

If it is a non-profit, then it should not be allowing outside corporations to profit from its products. If it is for-profit, then it should be held to the same standards of stakeholder responsibility as is any other corporation, and drop the myth that it is somehow an independent institution. Either way, without a significant shake-up to its management, it ought to go.

Nicolas Fouquet by Édouard Lacretelle (c. 1660)
Château de Versailles

The Quivering of the Stiff Upper Lip

Last evening PBS aired the final episode of “Downton Abbey”, a costume drama which was made for ITV in Britain and here in America was run on “Masterpiece Classic”, the subdivision of the venerable old “Masterpiece Theatre”, of blessed memory. If it has been some time since you watched PBS, gentle reader, then you may be unaware that “Masterpiece” has absorbed the formerly distinct “Mystery”, in order to show films featuring characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Kurt Wallender, and the like. “Masterpiece Classic” features works either taken from literature or set in an historic period, while “Masterpiece Contemporary” deals with works set in the present-day. While the divisions make some sense from a programming aspect – and this writer for one has no complaints whatsoever with seeing introductions from the always-charming Laura Linney on the “Classic” showings – it does seem to lend something of a schizophrenic nature to the brand.

In any case, “Downton Abbey” is not in fact a classic work of literature, but rather a period piece developed and written by Julian Fellowes, of “Gosford Park” and “The Young Victoria” writing fame. It follows the inner workings of life at an English country house in the lead-up to World War I, with the Earl of Grantham and his family at the top of the pecking order and the household staff at bottom. The series is beautifully shot, the costumes and attention to detail are wonderful, and there is a golden light that often suffuses the film and gives us a sense of a world unaware that it is about to pass away.

As to the story itself, “Downton Abbey” is little more than a re-hash of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, with more sex and less believability. Fellowes has charted this territory before, in the intensely boring murder-mystery “Gosford Park” which, despite some few, electric moments, was doomed to Yawnsville from the start in being made by the late Robert Altman. In “Downtown Abbey”, the great Dame Maggie Smith, playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham, has little more to do than play a variation on her twittering like a perturbed canary as she did in “Gosford Park”, “Tea with Mussolini”, etc.; one of the guests and the servants carry on a clandestine same-sex affair (“Gosford Park” again); the inevitable maxim that it is tacky to talk about money, but then of course everyone does so, incessantly (natch); and the requisite younger bluestocking playing the Bolly Bolshevik (ditto.)

One of the more “icky” aspects of the script arises through the interactions between staff and family: moments which this reviewer found rather eye-rolling at times. It is very difficult to believe the amount of physical touching, embracing, back-talking with no consequences, and general familiarity on display between the Earl’s family and their household staff. At least “Gosford Park” had, in its one spectacular on-screen moment, a scene in which a servant dares to speak out of turn at dinner – Kristin Scott-Thomas’ face is simply astounding – and knows without having to be told that she is sacked. “Downton Abbey”, by contrast, gives us a closing scene of the butler embracing the eldest daughter of the Earl, out on the grounds in the middle of her parents’ garden party, after her engagement fails to come off. Someone please pass the smelling salts.

There is a tendency in contemporary British film to reduce the blue-blooded to some sort of emotional, tender heap of feelings, presumably in an effort to make them more comprehensible to the masses. One of the writers at The Daily Telegraph, in reviewing “The King’s Speech”, has referred to this as the “Dianafication” of the British monarchy: let’s forget that these people are different and knock them down a few pegs to make them seem somewhat cuddly underneath those forbidding exteriors. Yet in doing so filmmakers and indeed the public forget that is precisely what puts an Earl, a Countess, or a King at a distance from the common people which preserves the system by which they remain where they are, and not merely Louis and Marie Capet from down the street. There is a magic in monarchy that is lost when we know too much, or when the lofty become too familiar.

As a decidedly middle-class, middle-brow entertainment there are worse things than “Downton Abbey”: the work of Robert Rauschenberg comes to mind. We were informed – perhaps the more choice word is “warned” – at the conclusion of last evening’s episode that a second series of “Downton Abbey” is in the works. Oh dear.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, used as the set for “Downton Abbey”

>The Very Fine Line of Discernment

>Last evening on PBS’ “Great Performances”, I watched a new film version of “Macbeth”, starring Sir Patrick Stewart as the Thane and Kate Fleetwood as his scheming Lady. Both gave exceptional performances, perhaps hers the more exceptional of the two, and there were a number of supporting characters who were equally memorable in their roles. Rather than the Dark Ages of Scotland, this production was set in a type of Stalinist Russia of the 1940’s, and brought very much to mind the superb 1995 film of “Richard III”, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Annette Benning, which was envisioned as taking place in a “what-if”, fascist Britain in the 1930’s. Unfortunately, fault must be ascribed to PBS on one particular point with respect to the screening of this production, which has to do with questions of public-spiritedness, decency and taste.

This viewer is certainly not excessively prudish when it comes to works of literature, film, or art. As an adult, I find it quite possible to separate myself from more sensitive subjects or scenes, particularly on screen, when I am given advance warning that there will be such things on display. I do not – as many in the intelligentsia seem to believe – think that anything of strong nature, whether in terms of sexuality, violence, etc., should be watched, seen, or read by anyone who considers himself to be intelligent, merely because there is some alleged artistic value to it. As the Spanish saying goes, sometimes what appears to be book is actually just garbage between two covers.

On the other hand, I do not ascribe to the rather Northern European, puritanical school of thought which says that brief moments of this nature must be avoided like the plague. Such things are reality and, when handled appropriately, they do not diminish the value of an artistic work. I can decide for myself whether such material is gratuitously graphic, thereby either leading me to walk or turn away, or to stay and see how it is integral to the story, thereby reflecting some element of realism which may or may not be pleasant to consider.

However, it must be said that I arrived at this point of discernment, in part, as a result of careful nurturing on the part of my parents. I am eternally grateful to them for having said, when I wanted to read a particular book or see a particular film, “You’re not quite old enough for this yet,” or “Let’s talk about this a bit first.” It is not the duty of the Church, nor of teachers and schools, let alone the government, to be the primary guide for children through the potential pitfalls of difficult material, and particularly today when society has become so obviously de-sensitized to such things. Such institutions are meant to be a back-up for families, who must take the time to shepherd their young charges into adulthood without allowing them a free rein over any materials they happen to come across.

As very good a film as this “Macbeth” is, it is not something for the faint of heart or for more delicate sensibilities; at times it is quite visceral (literally) and sexual. Within the first few minutes, for example, we see the Three Witches – cunningly and cleverly disguised as field hospital nurses – physically rip the heart out of a dead body and put it on display. As terrible to watch as this was, it was nevertheless extremely effective, because the witches are played as clearly demonic figures, not cranky old ladies, and are shot in a kind of jerky style we have become accustomed to in contemporary cinema, particularly in Japanese horror films.

Of course, therein lies the problem: for this very graphic sequence does not take place in the play, and there was no way to know what was coming in order to prepare yourself for it. Perhaps because it was shown from 9:00pm to midnight, PBS did not think it necessary to warn its viewers about some of the graphic imagery that would be on display. However, there was no voice-over or card shown at the beginning of the film, nor when it returned from intermission, warning the visitor that the program contained graphic material which some viewers might find difficult to watch, thereby advising viewer discretion. When did such courtesy to the viewer go out the window?

The development of a healthy sense of discernment in how we see the world around us is extremely important. That line between the embrace of libertine attitudes towards the arts and society, and the rush to an overly puritanical, peevish denial of the more elemental bits of life, is a very fine line indeed. The former is a path that almost inexorably leads to the exploitation of others, while the latter leads to the Pharisaical turn of mind. The former tends to lead to the rejection of God Himself, and the latter to the rejection, if not of the image of the Cross, almost certainly the Crucifix.

I do not mean to suggest that everyone is equally equipped to examine and take in all works of literature, painting, cinema, and so on, without it having a potentially negative impact upon their souls, any more than I mean to suggest that it is only by looking at such things unblinkingly and without flinching that we can come to grips with them. What does matter however, is that we complain when things go too far – not by burning down buildings or throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes, but by contacting our institutions and businesses and pointing out, in a civilized way, that such material should be presented to the public with a bit more caution. It would have taken PBS no more than ten seconds to establish that this “Macbeth” is not just people running around with cardboard swords and red paint on their hands, and as a professional courtesy to its audience, particularly because they rely on taxpayer funding, they ought to have done so.

Sir Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in “Macbeth”