Scott Ellington's Blog

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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

This 1956 Fox film addresses uniformity in postwar, 1950s, middle class American family life strangely.  It touches on the suit.  It presents aspects of the inner workings of a couple of nuclear families.  It centers around the headquarters of a thriving television network (in TechniColor and CinemaScope).  It does these things without actually saying much of anything about them.  Conformity?

The cardinal device employed concerns three American women, the wife of the protagonist, the wife and daughter of the protagonist’s CEO.  Each of these women is glimpsed in surprisingly ugly profiles as bitter, intractable, demanding and fundamentally infantile…yet each is duly worshipped for reasons that aren’t remotely explained in the film.

James Monaco’s commentary track led me to think about other things that only tangentially relate to this odd little big-budget pointless film.  He mentioned that ABC was a latecomer to the 50s television industry.  Competing with NBC and CBS which were prosperous radio-broadcasting networks based in New York.  West Coast-based ABC’s problems with funding resulted in alliances with Disney and Warner Brothers Studios.  The liaison between the upstart television broadcaster and movie studios resulted in a philosophical production rivalry.  Live entertainment from New York’s wealth of theatrical and radio talent was vastly more expensive than recorded television produced in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of archival presentation/representation of entertainment designed to control access by the audience.

The more cost-effective model won, and the East Coast television broadcast industry moved west, modelling itself after ABC.  The decline of live television, conventional radio shows, even Broadway theatrical presentation owe their loss of audience-attention to the success of ABC and the resurgence of Hollywood studio power as the West Coast system converted its sucess in cinema archives to archival television broadcasting.

The natural evolution of complex, serial, longform narrative was likewise retarded by the preeminent emergence of the ABC model of television production because weekly, self-contained 30 or 60minute episodes were deemed more salable (to network affiliates [in syndicated, non-consecutive representation]than treating programs as wholes).  And the revolutionary countermeasures employed by Hollywood to overcome the threat of East Coast television (CinemaScope, stereophonic sound and TechniColor) were likewise deemed by the studios to be less cost effective than constraints imposed by utilization of the existing television medium (4:3 aspect ratio, monaural sound and grayscale).  Rather than continuing competition with the innovative opportunities potentiated by the television medium for the attention of audiences, studios simply muted the importance of color television, stereo sound and widescreen presentation until that stuff enhanced the value of products owned and controlled by studios.

And that’s why The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a TechniColor CinemaScope film in stereo was created in 1956 to draw audiences into theaters yet hasn’t seen much broadcast time until the advent of DVDs when audiences can witness top-flight actors meandering through a pointless story.  It wasn’t about storytelling, but specifically designed to present viewers with an ultimatum that denigrated televison in favor of the more engaging medium of cinema.  The studios succeeded, not by revolutionizing film production, but by causing television to conform to the will of movie moguls who duly came to own the intellectual properties that fuel both cinema and television.  The engine of these changes in the 60 years of television’s ubiquitous popularity is cost-effective production coupled with addictive storytelling that collects eyeballs and glues butts to seats while starving culture of value and meaning. 

That mercenary agenda has very little interest in the cultural significance of useful, innovative, meaningful storytelling.  It’s about making money.  Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Heroes and LOST are prime examples of studio products that don’t rely on dynamic storytelling to garner audience attention to meaningful stories.  They’re the result of ABCs success in subverting two forms of media that might have taught us much more about our world than Edward R. Murrow feared would serve the interests of the captains of mainstream media.  Murrow was right.  We’ve been wronged.

Nothing I’ve said here is substantiated by research.  It’s purely speculative opinion.

13 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in The White Suit

This 1951 Ealing comedy is a perfect film that’s perfectly executed.  It invents a perfect synthetic fabric and populates the narrative with characters whose imperfections polymerize into the antithesis of the putative aspirations of industry, labor and the common man; criminally empty platitudes about development and progress.

The creation of an incredibly strong fabric that repels dirt, never wears out and practically can’t be cut sounds like the ultimate invention of the textile industry, but results in ever-widening circles of absolute and perfect panic as the people in the film who represent capital, labor and customers come to see this product as the  terminating element in their practice of business-as-usual.  Squabbling, pomposity, the vapid adherance to ridiculous rules…the flaws in people, traditional practices and mercantile relationships of producers and customers are used as gags to punctuate and illustrate the inutility of perfection in a world governed by absolute fools.

While the creation of this perfect product consumes the first half of the film, the inability of the characters to recognize value in its creator foreshadows the eventual discovery as generous people of vision and penetrating foresight grace the entire presentation with conspicuousness of their absence.  A cinematic environment filled with subtle and blatant class-intimidation, stupidity and pathological self-interest perfectly contrast and clash with the altruistic character whose sole intent is to realize the dream product.  And the intricate processes by means of which that perfectly-motivated individual achieves the ideal he’s dreamed about are expressed (primarily in pantomime) in this perfect film in perfect gags and situations that procede at a pace that’s uncommonly rapid in the entire body of conventional (slow-developing) British films.

I always object to the industry use of multiple camera-angles in storytelling, which leads me to believe that this perfect story might have been told even more remarkably by giving Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinnes) a constant (small canine) companion to represent a coherent audience-point-of-view throughout the film.  And fluctuations in volume levels (usually involving softspoken women and an incredibly loud, pedantic score) are always disturbing.  BUT these inherent flaws in the continuing evolution of 20th Century filmmaking are practically ubiquitous, and don’t significantly detract from the profound enjoyment of a perfect film.

13 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on The Man in The White Suit