What It Takes

What It Takes

Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star

By Callie Oettinger | Published: January 23, 2015

What would Sir David Lean think of "Downton Abbey?" Image credit: BFI.

In the March 1914 edition of Vanity Fair, James L. Ford discussed movies as a menace to stage.

A hundred years later, in the March 2014 edition of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott called “Everyone Back to the Cineplex” (after two years before writing, in the May 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, that “cinema has lost its sanctuary allure and aesthetic edge over television.”)

In March of this year, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s new Netflix series, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” will be released, and the conversation that will follow this already-buzzing series promises to be a continuation of the old-as-dirt debate that one format is in decay and another is taking its place.

That argument is rubbish. In the late 70’s, the Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but the reality is that a new medium didn’t kill the radio star or the theatre production or film or books or television shows. Lack of vision killed the second-rate versions of all of these, while the classics survived and the visionaries emerged.

In “Film and Theatre” Susan Sontag asked of theatre, “why should it be rendered obsolete by movies?”

“It’s worth remembering,” she continued, “that predictions of obsolescence amount to declaring that a something has one peculiar task (which another something may do as well or better). Has theatre one peculiar task or aptitude? Those who predict the demise of the theatre, assuming that cinema has engulfed its function, tend to impute a relation between films and theatre reminiscent of what was once said about photography and painting. If the painter’s job had been no more than fabricating likenesses, the invention of the camera might indeed have made painting obsolete. But painting is hardly just “pictures,” any more than cinema is just theatre for the masses, available in portable standard units.”

There’s a real difference. If, one day, theatre does fall under the “abandoned” category (which I hope won’t happen), it won’t be because films killed or replaced theatre. It will be because theatre failed on its own.

During a 2007 panel, titled The Critic as Thinker, critic Stanley Kauffmann said, “Every decade, every year, every month, there’s moaning about the condition of the theatre. And it’s all true. Shaw said once, ‘The theatre is always in a low estate.’ If you look at an anthology of great plays from the Greeks to today, you think, ‘My god, what a panorama of achievement.’ Then you look at the dates and you see that hundreds of years elapsed between one play and the next. Sometimes we have the bad luck to be caught between.”

Again, the problem isn’t always with the format. Often, it’s the lack of talent—or lack of vision.

In his 2013 MacTaggart Lecture, Kevin Spacey introduced many of us to Sir David Lean’s 1990 American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement award acceptance speech, which Spacey said was dedicated “to the idea of promoting and supporting emerging talent. It turns out he was concerned, perhaps frightened by the film industry’s lack of commitment to developing talent and the greater and greater number of films the studios were making that appealed only to the pulse and not to the mind.”

Toward the end his speech, Lean said, “I think the time has come where the money people can afford to lose a little money, taking risks with these new film makers. I think if they give them a break, give them encouragement, we’re going to come up and up and up. If we don’t, we’re going to go down and television’s gonna take over. (laughter from the audience here) Anyhow . . . Wish them luck—I do.”

His speech echoed James L. Ford’s words about the business side taking over the stage, rather than sticking to the box office. The result? Money was spent “on carpets, luxurious cushions, costly chandeliers, decorations, lights—on everything, in fact, that would attract the eye. . . . Everything in the theatre was improved except the acting and the plays.”

The writing, performance and production have to be first. If those lead the way, the formats in which they exist will thrive.

I wonder if Lean would say the same of television now. Would “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey” be natural crossovers for him today? Where theatre and film have definitive lines, the lines between film and today’s breakout programming released on television or for streaming via companies such as Netflix, are hard to determine.

Maggie Smith in the “Downton Abbey” series is just as impressive as Maggie Smith in any of her films—and the same holds true for the series production and writing (especially Smith’s zingers). So production and performance and the screenplay don’t define the difference between a TV or streaming series and a film.

Toward the end of “Film and Theatre,” Sontag wrote, “For some time, all useful ideas in art have been extremely sophisticated. Like the idea that everything is what it is, and not another thing. A painting is a painting. Sculpture is sculpture. A poem is a poem, not prose. Etcetera. And the complementary idea: A painting can be “literary” or sculptural, a poem can be prose, theatre can emulate and incorporate cinema, cinema can be theatrical.”

As creativity and risk have faded, and we’ve found ourselves “caught between” a la Kauffmann, it might be best to consider that not everything is what it is. Television can be literary and streaming can be revolutionary and cinema can be low-brow crap (or swing the descriptions around the other way).

The last paragraph of Sontag’s piece:

“We need a new idea. It will probably be a very simple one. Will we be able to recognize it?”

Kevin Spacey and the many others nurturing today’s creative visions seem to have recognized it—that we can bring those very best pieces of theatre and film and audio and painting and photography and writing and sculpture and other art forms together. Instead of working within the constraints of one—or replacing one with another—bring together the best of all (while also ditching old definitions and high-brow/low-brow tags).

Posted in What It Takes

14 Responses to “Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star”

  1. Ivan Chase
    January 23, 2015 at 4:12 am

    Thought provoking piece!

  2. Mary Doyle
    January 23, 2015 at 5:47 am

    There is a cheesy (IMHO) jewelry commercial with the tag line “love will always find a way in.” Your piece reinforces the argument that art will always find a way in. It’s exciting to be witness to and part of the evolution of newly-emerging forms and formats. Thanks for another outstanding post Callie!

  3. January 23, 2015 at 6:16 am

    I think this hearkens back to Steve’s “Nobody Knows Nothin'” post from a few months ago. The only constant seems to be change. I like what Mary said. Greatness always breaks through somehow, be it stage or screen or radio or blog or ceramics class.

    Just saw “Big Eyes” last night and found the idea that Margaret Keane’s paintings were judged as kitche amusing. I believe Woody Allen will have been proven right in time with Keane. The paintings will be seen as influential masterpieces one day.

    Critics and doomsday-sayers have to cry about something. Let it be about the death of things, then someone else can get excited about their resurrection. In this way we can be entertained forever.

  4. January 23, 2015 at 7:18 am

    Callie, this topic has been on my mind in a similar way–and oh how I love that Sontag statement at the end–I’ve been thinking about truth and heart in art pursuits and what is successful. At least in film, so many of our most recognized and honored stories in the past year for example are based on true stories, real people, actual events. Selma, American Sniper, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Wild.

    Even fiction like Boyhood (wow was that great) could hardly seem more “real,” you know? And I know that was intentional, the themes and characters that were dealt with. Real has major appeal these days, it seems.

    Anyway, I can’t shake the acceptance speech for the Golden Globes Best Miniseries “Fargo” (haven’t seen but stunned it beat True Detective, so I can’t wait to revisit the tale from those beloved Cohen brothers)… in which Noah Hawley said the heart of what Fargo was about was “that you can change the world, not through grand acts of heroism, but just by being decent to people.”

    Which is a very simple idea indeed. And then he went on with my favorite part: “As Marge Gunderson so eloquently put it: ‘There’s more to life than a little money, you know.’ ”

    I collect quotes, and I didn’t have that one stored, so now I do. As writers/artists, I feel it’s essential for us feel secure in the potential for our new ideas, and also what more there is in this world besides money.

    Thank you for this post, and for helping us all stick together and press on. Oh cool– Press on, heh, Pressfield. 😉

  5. January 23, 2015 at 8:10 am

    I agree with Mary and Erika above, life is change. Those who keep putting energy into their work, who keep changing for the better, they will always have a place. The complacent ones are the first to get left behind, and they’ll always be the first ones to complain.

    Happy creating everyone!

  6. January 23, 2015 at 8:25 am

    We used to, apparently, accidentally bury people who weren’t quite dead (see the explanation of “saved by the bell”.)

    I’m glad theatre, vinyl, print, movies, all had a bell-string in their coffins so we’d know they weren’t quite dead yet.

    Though some of us, I suspect, don’t need to hear bells ringing to doubt such nonsensical Chicken-Little-ings.

  7. January 23, 2015 at 8:38 am

    You reminded me how important it is to choose what we focus on, Callie. I could focus on the unrelenting reports radio is on its way out. Or I could focus on the people who write to me and tell me how much they enjoy my show — whether they’re listening in the car on the way to the airport, in the kitchen as they make dinner on Sunday evenings, or in the workshop while they’re unwinding from a busy week as a doctor.

    One woman told me that after hearing my interview with a theater professor about how employable those students are, she’ll now support her daughter’s dream of being on stage — after fighting that dream for years.

    Radio is still alive. How strong it’s going is largely up to people like me. And how nice it was to get reassurance in your post that I’m not (necessarily) deluded in thinking that!

    • January 23, 2015 at 9:35 am

      Maureen;

      Do you have a link to that interview with the professor? My daughter is trying for a life in the theatre and I would love to pass it on to her. I keep telling her, “There are so many ways to perform, you just need to find a place that is looking for you.”

      • January 23, 2015 at 9:38 am

        Tell you what. We’ll upload that file to our Dropbox account over the weekend. In the meantime if you would please send me your eMail address by way of the Contact page at MaureenAnderson.com, I’ll let you know how to retrieve it.

        And thanks for asking!

        Maureen

  8. January 23, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Callie;

    This was an inspiring piece. People forget that those great movies they love so much were often adapted from books and stage plays enjoyed my millions before ever gracing the silver screen. Create greatly and with abandon and embrace all the forms of art you can to convey your message.

  9. January 23, 2015 at 1:32 pm

    Thought provoking. Thanks.

  10. January 23, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Very thoughtful and thought provoking post. Thank you! I’ve been painting for (ahem) 30+ years and at least once every five years someone points out that painting is dead. That it’s going to be replaced by performance art, installations or some other form. I think to myself as I pick up the brush, really? Gee, I wish someone had told me! The medium, whatever the medium may be, will survive as long as we continue to create with real passion.

  11. Dave Thompson
    January 23, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Wow! I loved the song (and the video) so I bopped over to read this. Callie, what a wonderful essay. There is so much in it to think about that it will keep me busy over the weekend.

    Now I need to be sure to carry my camera this weekend and make some images. Perhaps the Muse will bring something special to me this weekend. I can hope!

  12. Nik
    January 25, 2015 at 4:55 pm

    Regarding movies and TV, I don’t think we can expect innovation from the major players — they are in it purely for the money, and they are obligated to attempt to make as much money as they can for their shareholders. Thus the retreads, sequels, reboots.

    However, we’re extremely lucky to have networks like HBO, which are willing to take risks, and quite a few A-list actors who seem dedicated to participating in risky projects in between the major blockbusters. I think this is especially true in TV, where we’ve seen “networks” like HBO and Netflix take enormous risks with wildly expensive shows like Marco Polo, Rome and Game of Thrones. And I’m always grateful when a talented, highly regarded actor signs on to a genre film or indie that would normally be considered “beneath” their talents — Saoirse Ronan as a vampire in “Byzantium” comes to mind, or Johnny Depp as the futurist in “Transcendence.” That’s the sort of thing we didn’t see a decade or two ago.