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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