Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Whore's soapera

Rousting out junk cupboards, the most peculiar things (and memories) emerge. Malcolm's brain seems to work on a similar arrangement.

Wakened, no doubt, by the 4.30 a.m. flight from Hong Kong arriving into Heathrow, the synapses began to snap into contact. Out of nowhere, Malcolm found himself recalling a film from 1979.

One stimulus might be those misplaced Willie Nelson mp3s he located the previous evening, when fossicking around his back-up hard drive. The film he recalled was Nelson's first outing as a credited film actor: The Electric Horseman, from thirty years ago. It is an essentially ideological movie.

Malcolm attempts a film-synopsis

The story-line is simple: Robert Redford is the lead, Norman "Sonny" Steele, a champion rodeo rider now on the skids. There is nothing complex about these rôle-namings. Steele is converting his Ampco Corp brekkie-cereal sponsorship into a hard liquor habit. Another on the Ampco hay-roll is champion horse, Rising Star. Falling Steele and Rising Star are brought together in Las Vegas. Steele realises the horse is being bulked with steroids while being tranquillised to disguise a tendon injury. He liberates himself and the horse by riding out of the Las Vegas show, through the casino, along the neon-lit-Strip, wearing his eponymous illuminated suit, and then -- lights out -- into the wild:

Ampco have a public relations disaster on their hands. Revelations about their treatment of the horse endanger a take-over bid. Steele and Rising Star must be found; and any hostile publicity suppressed (the Ampco baddy is named, pointedly, as "Hunt Sears"). Cue the statutory Hollywood chase:

The romantic interest is played by Jane Fonda, as a celebrity television reporter, Hallie Martin (is that an echo of the naïf "Holly Martin" of The Third Man?). She has made her name, and her fortune, by exposing media manipulation and hype. She uses her wiles to locate Steele: having escaped one form of media exploitation, he doesn't want another.

Big Biz has other ideas: to denigrate Steele, on the grounds of his alcoholism, thus neutralising his threat to the Ampco's reputation. So Martin, the Fonda character, gets her story, representing Steele as an archetypal Western hero.

The reporter needs the icing on the cake: Steele filmed in the moment of releasing Rising Star into the wild. In the process of Martin's and Steele's journey into
Land, lots of land, and the starry skies above
Steele takes her video-camera (this is late '70s technology, so it's a hefty avoirdupois, besides having symbolic weight) and throws it away.

Deprived of her lens, Martin starts to see him as a person, not another story; and emotional bonds develop. She agrees to keep secret where Rising Star is released. Back in the wider world, her earlier efforts have won Steele public support, and Ampco are obliged to fall into line, with a face-saving approval of Steele's horse-napping. Hence the opening credits (see below) and the emotive moment when Rising Star is shown racing across the grasslands to join wild horses.

"Old West" versus new Glitz

What the director, Sidney Pollack, establishes is a parable of media manipulation. The motif is itself an artifact, the core of the whole Western myth: the cowboy. The story invites us, the manipulated audience, to share Steele's journey from image to nature, out of illusion into some sort of "reality", out of falsehood and manipulation into simplicity and honesty.

Beyond that, the corruption of the media is being depicted -- not argued -- by the medium which most corrupts. The message is being promoted at an emotional, not an intellectual level. Specifically, the news media are depicted as distorter (but, at heart, well-intentioned), while the dream-merchants (who invented the "Wild West" in the first place) are ambiguously corrupt (Ampco) or upright (Fonda's Martin).

So we have squared the ideological circle. The media can manufacture a false image (Ampco exploiting Steele and Rising Star) or it can expose the reality behind the false image (Martin), while the film about this (directed by Sidney Pollack) is both revelator and manipulator. And the fourth participant is the public, who are manipulated alike by Ampco, by Martin, and by Pollack's movie.

And then there is Malcolm's take, here, on the whole thing. Another level of manipulation.

Still, Nelson is something different:

Oh, and Malcolm did find a video of The Electric Horseman, at the bottom of a pile, in the attic. Sphere: Related Content

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