I Like to Watch

Hope takes a holiday! A&E remakes "The Andromeda Strain" while the HBO movie "Recount" revisits the unbearable lightness of hanging chads.

Topics: I Like to Watch, HBO, Television,

I Like to Watch

“Back in the sixties, when I was appearing daily on NBC’s ‘Today’ show, I was living on Seventh Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street … The corner was the gathering place for some of the most attractive ‘ladies of the evening.’ Each morning at five o’clock I would emerge from my building wearing dark glasses, as I hadn’t yet had my makeup done, and I was usually carrying some garment bag. It seemed obvious to the ‘ladies’ that there was some big ‘number’ I had just left … ‘Good morning,’ I would say. ‘Good morning,’ they would answer. And then I would get into this long black limousine with its uniformed driver, and we would glide off into the early morning light. And you know what effect this had on the ladies? I gave them hope. Perhaps this book may do that for you.” — Barbara Walters, “Audition”

Don’t we all want to be just like Barbara Walters, giving hope to the attractive prostitutes of the world? I know I do. And I can only hope that, by compiling complicated analyses of deeply trivial televised entertainments, I can be like a beacon unto all of the overeducated but ultimately shallow and unfocused young people out there, and encourage them to train their powerful minds not on big, important questions and problems, but on trifles and whimsy. Remember, whippersnappers, if you don’t have the energy to be inspiring and famous and powerful and serious — or the thought of that life makes you want to crawl into bed with a bottle of red wine and a 10-pound brick of chocolate — that doesn’t mean you can’t do something kind of fun and lively and ultimately pointless but reasonably well-paid.

Look at Barbara Walters, who knows that appearing on camera with inspiring, famous, powerful people can stoke the illusion that you, too, are inspiring and famous and powerful, even when you’re not — and if you’re good enough at it, they’ll pay you big money and smear a little Vaseline on the lens for good measure. Yes, I know, she’s a pioneering news lady and a great gal, too. I only gloss over the facts because otherwise, I won’t be an inspiration to huddled masses of sluggish whores, yearning to breathe free. If you’re smart and talented but also indolent and addled and ego-driven to the point of distraction, worry not! You, too, can find gainful employment out there, once you give your so-called weaknesses and flaws a new spin.



Remember, you’re not lazy, you’re just choosy about how you expend your energy, since you want to be sure to invest yourself in activities that feel deeply resonant and emotionally grounded when viewed through an existentially rigorous framework. You’re not shallow, you’re simply fascinated by the various ramifications of our current, rather absurd pop-cultural moment. You’re not unkempt, you simply prefer not to contribute to the objectification of physical beauty by partaking of regular ablutions that have less to do with hygiene than with some obscenely meticulous standard established by giant global corporate profit-seekers. Sure, those profit-seekers would prefer if you “washed” and wore “pants” to work, but you don’t subscribe to their strictly enforced, elaborate manipulations of the unseeing, sheeplike populace.

Apocalyptic whore monger
You know who the real hero to whores around the globe is, though? Michael Crichton. Here’s a man who could’ve taken his great big brain and his M.D. from Harvard and used it to find a cure for cancer. But what did he do? He wrote books about secret islands filled with scary dinosaurs, and then brought us “ER,” the undead hospital drama that stumbles through season after season like a zombie, refusing to die.

Michael Crichton applied his perfectly good brain and fine education to scaring the living daylights out of mankind with nightmarish endgame scenarios, and for that, we’ll be eternally grateful henceforth. But was that enough? No. Crichton not only creates living-dead hospital soaps and dinosaur-island sequels that force poor Jeff Goldblum to phone it in on an international stage, but he resurrects his own long-dead endgame scenario for the second-rung cable channel movie market. This man is a true survivor!

Thus do we find ourselves staring down the barrel of “The Andromeda Strain” (9 p.m. EDT Monday, May 26, on A&E), the sophisticated, haunting, computer-enhanced, chewily apocalyptic remake of the tale that first graced movie theaters way back in 1971. Oh, but these days, “The Andromeda Strain” can feature scenes where Benjamin Bratt says things like, “Take a look at the Fourier electron density scans,” and an enormous transparent screen appears with beautiful graphics on it, and we can all marvel at the big, pretty plasma home-entertainment device of the future. Homeland Security can play a prominent role, the president can have a half-Bush, half-Clinton drawl, Eric McCormack (Will from “Will & Grace”) can play a macho, rough-and-tumble reporter, Rick(y) Schroder can reprise his role from “24″ with stunningly little conviction, and most important, random people of all stripes can die gruesome, horrifying deaths as we watch in horror. It’s just like “24,” in fact, except with 10 times more horror and dying, plus double the pseudo-scientific rambling.

All of which might sound pretty great, but it’s not. Half of the two-night movie is spent with the scientists in the underground bunker, scientists dressed like “Star Trek” crew members who pace and tell the computer to do things and then have terse but shallow conversations about Lorentzian and Euclidean worm holes, advances in nanotechnology, futuristic bioweaponry, unfamiliar cellular structures and other far-out scientific topics that easily could’ve been written by a stoned teenager who stayed up all night reading Wikipedia.

The rest of the movie features the go-to moments of every suspense-thriller flick from the late ’80s/early ’90s. The president is freaking out, the generals are trying to hide a top-secret initiative, the scientists in the bunker are alternately theorizing and falling in love — there’s even an innocent little baby in a bubble to keep everyone honest.

But none of that really concerns us, since I’m guessing that you also grew bored with bestselling scribes like Crichton sometime around your 14th birthday. We have much more important work here: analyzing Crichton’s admirable mastery of spin as a means of securing filthy lucre. We’ll begin our study by following this link to Crichton’s Web site, where untold insights into Crichton’s character are provided via a simple head shot — yes, that one in the top left-hand corner of the screen. See how it changes every few minutes? Keep watching. Yeah, he’s a good-looking man, isn’t he? Keep watching. Keep watching. OK, have you landed on the close-up shot, where it looks like he’s been driving a car alone at night, reminiscing about loves lost, or maybe he’s upset because he just ran over a cat?

As much as we might admire and aspire to be just like Crichton, those head shots are a cautionary tale. There’s a certain danger whenever you combine lots of raw talent and smarts with relatively trivial goals and aspirations and lots of highly paid publicists. If you’re successful enough, if the huddled masses of aspiring whores tell you you’re the greatest for too long, you might just wake up one day and find yourself posing for a Glamour Shot behind the wheel of your car. Look into those eyes, kids, because you’re looking at the spray-tanned face of a man who believes his own press. Crichton didn’t run over his cat in that car; he ran over his dignity.

But that shot doesn’t just reflect the side effects of yielding your considerable talents to the jackassian Hollywood realm, it also reflects the problem with “The Andromeda Strain” itself. This is a four-hour movie that’s the dramatic equivalent of a spray tan. Crichton and his posse are just wanking nostalgic for one of the bestest books he ever wrote, back in the years before he started modeling and giving speeches disputing the degree to which global warming is a pressing and important problem facing mankind.

“The Andromeda Strain” is a nice ride for teenagers and children who aren’t familiar with the suspense thrillers of the late ’80s and early ’90s, who can, therefore, enjoy it when a stoned teenager goes to take a dump in the desert, gets bitten by an infected mouse, and then tries to brain his girlfriend with a big rock. And when Bratt’s character tells a reporter, “I think that one of the lessons learned here is that just because we have acquired a technological or scientific capability, doesn’t mean we should rush out to use it,” that teen or child can nod along and say to herself or himself, “Yeah! Just because it’s there, that doesn’t mean we should use it!” And everyone can feel really smart — you know, the way you feel after you get stoned and stay up all night reading Wikipedia, or the way you feel after you go hear Michael Crichton speak about global warming or the deluded religious fervor of environmentalists.

But for the rest of us, A&E’s “The Andromeda Strain” is just a very expensive, very cheesy retread.

Let’s be honest, though. I’m only writing this in the hopes that Crichton will write me into one of his future novels as a small-penised baby rapist like he allegedly did to the last guy who criticized him openly. As Crichton knows all too well, attention — even negative attention — brings money, and money buys you the ability to view your mediocre accomplishments through a Vaseline-smeared lens.

Bad, bad chad!
You know what can’t be viewed through a Vaseline-smeared lens, though? The election of 2000, in which Friend of the Earth Al Gore won the popular vote and maybe even the presidency against Enemy of the Earth George W. Bush, but after a big, messy stink down in Florida, bad Bush Jr. moved to the White House and promptly set about ripping our once-great nation to tiny little shreds.

Now, if the stakes weren’t quite so high and the results of that battle in Florida weren’t quite so tragic, I could watch the HBO movie “Recount” (9 p.m. Sunday, May 25) with a calm mind, taking pleasure in the ways the filmmakers and talented cast bring to light some of the essential differences between Democrats and Republicans at the time. Namely, the former were wimpy, second-guessing bastards, and the latter were attack dogs. Take this lovely bit of parallel dialogue from the movie:

James Baker: Now listen, people, this is a street fight for the president of the United States. I’m told they have a well-oiled operation just waiting to clobber us.

Cut to:

Warren Christopher: We want to proceed as if this is a proper legal process, not a political street fight.

Baker is a man who knows how to spin everything — himself, his party, the entire universe — and he uses this gift for spin every step of the way. Christopher, on the other hand, appears as the stubborn idealist who flinches early and often, and (inconveniently enough) always has the best interests of the country in mind. “There is no shame in placing country above party,” Christopher tells his team, while James Baker worries more about appearances, telling his associates, “They have Jesse Jackson down there in Palm Beach, holding hands with those old Jewish folks screamin’ count all the votes. Who the hell is gonna argue with that?”

Needless to say, Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary are both lively and funny in their roles as members of Al Gore’s team, but it’s Laura Dern who really steals the movie with her hysterically self-involved portrait of Katherine Harris. If you can stomach the technicalities and legalities and the very detailed discussions of hanging chads that get bandied about, knowing all the while that Gore’s going to lose, then Dern’s take on Harris is probably worth the price of admission alone.

But in the end, spin wins out over substance, just as it does in every modern American fairy tale. The real moral of “Recount” may be that in some fights, honoring your ideals and beliefs is tantamount to losing.

On that note, instead of hoping that this fall’s presidential election won’t get dirty (it will), we should hope that the Democratic presidential candidate is willing to get his or her hands dirty. Let’s try not to balk, as we lily-livered liberals so often do, when our candidate does the hard but necessary work of spinning and prevaricating and making careful, seemingly inorganic choices about what to say or what not say, where to appear, and how to act. You can’t win the presidency without shoveling a hefty load of horseshit, and it’s about time we accepted it. Because if we don’t, we’ll lose again, and the rest of the population of planet Earth will (justifiably) hate us for it.

Like the attractive hookers of Barbara Walters’ fond memories, let’s look to the overeducated, overpaid, spray-tanned charlatans of the world for inspiration. Look at how they craft melodramatic tell-all memoirs without second-guessing themselves. Look at how they squint into the camera for a glamorous head shot without the slightest trace of self-consciousness.

They give us hope. They really do.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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