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TV à la Russe
by Chris Gilpin

TV is an entertainment staple. With its subtle blend of immediacy and distance, this savory treat has become the preferred mode of leisure all over the world. But despite its popularity, many people complain that television lacks nourishment. After a few hours of enjoyment, an unpleasant ache sets in and, just like the child who has eaten an entire bag of candy, the TV viewer may feel a vague dread of retribution afterward. Because of this, some mental health zealots recommend we should abandon TV altogether!

Such a solution might be plausible for Buddhist monks, but what about the rest of us? How can we get rid ourselves of this nasty entertainment hangover without losing any of TV's rich flavour? What, if anything, can be done to make television a more wholesome dish? Or is our only choice to dump the entire kit and caboodle down the proverbial drain and move to Tibet?

Don't panic; you needn't start packing. There is a delightfully simple solution. Here are a few tips that will help you, your friends and your family rediscover this traditional leisure-time treat, without any unpleasantness afterward. Welcome to consequence-free TV!

Pause and think for a second. The answer to our leisure conundrum is obvious. What is it about TV that stuns us into bland awe? What makes us watch with our mouths agape and leaves that bitter aftertaste akin to the feeling we've been tricked? Not the content. Both Biography and Baywatch have the same effect. It's something about how the medium itself, how we're serving it to ourselves, that continues to make us think of TV as guilty pleasure, a sinful treat.

Here's a hint. During the glorious nascency of cinema, audiences were boisterous. They would hoot, they would holler advice, they would speculate aloud about the hero or heroine's virtue and chances for survival. Conversation was lush and prevalent. After 1928, audiences grew silent and still. They watched with their mouths agape as though hypnotized or comatose, and began to experience entertainment hangovers.

The difference, of course, was sound. Synchronous sound is something we take for granted as part of the classic TV recipe. But as soon as those moving 2-D pictures began to speak, audiences had to shut their mouths and listen. Conversation, once a nourishing part of spectatorship, was waylaid and, in large part, abandoned. Although you know better, your friends and family may think that sound is a necessary ingredient of TV watching and claim that without sync. sound they are missing the full TV experience.

So, how can you serve them their traditional dish in a different way without being accused of sacrilege? Try some of these handy tips to prepare them for your TV variation.

1.) Lightly, mention how redundant TV sound is. Say something like "Wow! The pictures tell the whole story." Whether you're watching CNN or Friends, you'll be able to say this over and over again (though be careful to modify the expression occasionally so that you don't become tiresome). Soon, they will notice that, in television, sound's prime role is to advertise the image.
2.) Turn off the TV, for two to four minutes, or until the TV watching guilt sets in. Ask your friends or family: what is it about TV watching that gives us the entertainment hangover? Humour their bland verbal shrugs. Suggest that perhaps it might be something to do with that peculiar mélange of noise and voice combined with moving 2-D pictures known as synchronous sound, that magic trick that gives the illusion of presence without any of the demands or threats or possibilities that real 3-D presence afford, which makes watching TV such a guilty pleasure. Suggest this offhandedly as though it was something you thought up on the spot, and then, furrow your brow a little or, if you prefer, raise a finger thoughtfully to your lips, and adopt a ruminating pose. If you're compelling enough, your friends and family will follow your lead and think about what you've said.
3.) Quote Eisenstein. During a tasteless instant (and TV offers a plentiful supply!), throw this into the mix:
"THE FIRST EXPERIMENTAL WORK WITH SOUND MUST BE DIRECTED ALONG THE LINE OF ITS DISTINCT NONSYCHRONIZATION WITH THE VISUAL IMAGES. And only such an attack will give the necessary palpability which will later lead to the creation of an ORCHESTRAL COUNTERPOINT of visual and aural images."

You need not yell the bits in all capitals. This bold quotable is taken from a manifesto signed by Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov just after the advent of the talkie. Being good Russian filmmakers who had read their Marx, they wanted to serve up a tasty dialectic. Eisenstein and his friends believed that synchronous sound did not sweeten the visual montage, but rather retarded it, and so they proposed a different concoction:
"ONLY A CONTRAPUNCTAL USE of sound in relation to the visual montage piece will afford a new potentiality of montage development and perfection."
4.) Remind your TV comrades that variety is the spice of life.

Let your friends/family sit for a few hours and absorb these influential comments. Once they are tender about the morality of TV sound, hit the mute button and witness conversation blossom!

By scraping away the sugary illusion that sync. sound provides, you'll find yourself compelled to contemplate what you're consuming. You've turned simple mindless treat into food for thought. And you've retained the substance of the entertainment, the absurd but delicious moving images of TV. As a garnish, add some soft music. Not only will this background noise fill in any awkward pauses, it will also act as a loosely contrapuntal accompaniment. You've just served up TV à la Russe!

Enjoy your new stimulating TV treat and have as much as you'd like. You won't have to give a second thought to the entertainment hangover ever again!

Chris Gilpin recommends a healthy dose of television.  Daily.


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