Ever since Upton Sinclair inspired significant alterations in the practices of meat-packing industry, the saying “You wouldn’t be eating that if you knew where it came from,” entered the language, quickly finding appliation to all manner of things besides sausages. Yet while we’re constantly admonished to watch what we eat (part and parcel of the ideological imperative to keep us all alienated, fearful and powerless as much as possible) what goes into other forms of’saugsage is barely noticed, much less questioned.
“I had been invited to appear with Mr. Lee and fellow black civil-rights activist and filmmaker Ossie Davis (1917-2005) at about the time in the late 80’s or early 90’s when Norman Jewison had been scheduled to direct Malcolm X and Mr. Lee had loudly and publicly protested that no white director was “qualified” to bring the story of Malcolm X to the screen. It soon became evident that I was on the program to support Mr. Koppel’s contention that Mr. Lee’s expressed attitude was an example of “reverse racism,” but I was having none of it in view of the shameful racial bigotries that have marked so much of American film history. I said so despite the negativity flowing between me and Mr. Lee—indeed, Mr. Koppel was visibly agitated when I noted at the outset that I seemed to be the “token white” on the program. Nor was he conspicuously enchanted when I suggested that blacks were entitled to employ almost any tactic they saw fit to get into a game from which they had been so long excluded.”
Bravo Andy. But wait — there’s more –
“Nonetheless, throughout the program I was dumbfounded by Mr. Koppel’s singularly totalitarian technical M.O., which served to keep me from making any actual direct eye contact with Mr. Koppel, Mr. Lee or Davis. Before the show, Mr. Lee and Davis sat with me in the studio. Once the show was to begin, we were each escorted into separate booths, each with a monitor and a man operating a camera. When Mr. Koppel wanted to put any of us on the screen, he pressed a button, and he pressed another when he wanted to take any of us off. I had never been on a show like this before, and I have never been on one since. I began to understand what the Stockholm Syndrome was all about once I realized that Mr. Koppel had life-and-death power over the duration of my television exposure. I so yearned to say anything that would keep him happy with me on the screen that I tried to be clever but modest, compliant but original, cheerful but serious. Of course, I failed dismally. Zap went Mr. Koppel’s finger on the out button, and zap went the strings of my heart.”
It’s easy to see what’s going on here. Lee, Sarria and Davis were being forced into entirely artificial embodiments of “Left,” “Right,” and “Center.” And because of said aritficiality, mere casting wasn’t enough. The three had to be segregated into individual boxes and brought to life by Koppel — in the role of his near-namesake Coppelius — pushing a button to make them speak to thousand upon thousand “out there in the dark.” Happily Sarris wasn’t about to play Moira Shearer to Koppel’s Robert Helpmann . Yet for all Sarris’ resistance, and doubtless that of many others, this same artificial formula has been used again and again.
I recall a television appearance I made several years back with the ineffable Bruce Vilanch to discuss Gay Issues of major and minor import. We were in the same NBC studio, yet Bruce and I were required to sit in different rooms to converse with a meat pupet in yet another studio — who we never got around to meeting face to face that day. Perhaps some sort of left/right set-to on the subject was hoped for. We quipped away amiably instead on the same wavelength. Clearly there was no way the producers of the segment could have had us sitting side by side talking to “reporter” who was present as well. There’s something about spacio-temporal cohesion that terrifies the status quo. Anything said can be easily labelled and dismissed. But what’s seen is another matter. And our talking in tandem was not to be countenanced
Obviously they would have been happier with “controversy” in the form of some right-wing pundit or other “with an opposing view.” But L. Brent Bozell demanded a separate interview that day — refusing to be sullied by our morally sub-standard selves, even in televised segregation. And such is his power that he got what he wanted.
Bruce and I got what we wanted too, after a fashion. We spoke freely and easily.
No wonder we were never invited back.