A TV Tempest

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 14 10:15:25 PST 1998

If I hadn't written about "The Tempest" recently, I wouldn't have bothered to turn on NBC's made-for-TV movie version last night at 9pm, an hour that I customarily devote to the X-Files. What's noteworthy about this reasonably serious version of "The Tempest" is that it was done at all. The typical TV movie is about an alcoholic mother, usually played by Angie Dickinson, searching for her runaway teenage daughter who has become a street hooker. A gay Catholic priest might be thrown into the hopper to reunite the two, played by Richard Chamberlain.

The "angle" of this Tempest is that it is set in the south during the Civil War. The Prosper brothers have had a falling out over how to treat their slaves. Gideon Prosper, played by Peter Fonda, is benevolent while the other is a Simon Legree type named Anthony. Gideon is a premature version of today's white kids who affect black culture. Instead of wearing baggy jeans and listening to Wu Tang Clan, Gideon hangs around the slave's quarters where he is learning magic from Ezeli, a female conjurer.

When the evil brother orders her son, named Ariel, to be whipped, Gideon intercedes and allows him to flee from the plantation. He then upbraids Anthony not only for cruelty to the slaves, which amounts to improper maintenance of equipment, but embezzling plantation funds. He tells Anthony that is henceforth discharged from all duties.

Anthony takes matters into his own hands. First he tracks down and shoots the escapee Ariel, while leaving him for dead. Next he has his brother arrested for aiding and abetting the runaway, and organizes a lynch gang. As Gideon is being strung up, the sorceress Ezeli casts a spell and brings the tree crashing down, including the limb from which he is noosed. Once again, the careless Anthony leaves another enemy for dead. No wonder the south lost the Civil War. Gideon recovers in short order, tracks down the wounded Ariel and retreats into the deepest swamp. With Ariel, his young daughter Miranda, and magic books in tow, he becomes king of this mosquito-ridden bayou and plots revenge against his evil brother.

To round out the cast we have a Caliban who appears to be some kind of Cajun who goes by the name of Gator Man. Gideon has used his magical powers to bring Gator Man under his control and forces him to build houses for his crew. Gideon also has become so good at the magic thing that he can transform Ariel into a crow and send him about the swamp on reconnaissance missions. There are no credits to Walt Disney's "Dumbo" in this made-for-TV movie, as far as I can tell.

All this is background for the main action of the movie, which involves a pending clash between northern and confederate troops. The evil brother Anthony has taken a northern soldier prisoner and hopes to turn him over to the confederates where information about northern troop movements can be extracted. While flying about the swamp, Ariel spots them and reports back to Gideon, who conjures up a storm. When the two brothers are reunited, this Tempest gives up any pretense of being in the Shakespearean tradition and turns into a silly tale of which military unit will come out on top. Ariel wants to join the northern army but Gideon says that "their war" is of no concern to him and his subjects. Over an hour-and-a-half, we see Gideon coming to his senses and joining the northern cause.

There are big problems with this juxtaposition of Shakespearean elements and military intrigue a la "Eye of the Needle." Not only does it leave both elements underdeveloped, it also is an evasion of the real drama of the 1850s and 60s which could have lent themselves to a Tempest type interpretation.

This flaw is demonstrated most dramatically in the Caliban character, who is of strategic importance to Shakespeare. The TV Caliban is just a backwoods miscreant in "Deliverance" style. Not only does he try to force himself sexually on Miranda, he has bad teeth, a sure sign of villainy on network television. But "The Tempest" is first and foremost a tale of usurpation, where Caliban's island has been taken over by Prospero. Their conflict is not only one of the play's central dramatic underpinnings, it also represents an important moment in intellectual history, when Europeans first became aware of the "savage". Some advocated that the savage be hunted down like wild animals, while others like Montaigne and de Las Casas, the Benedictine monk who accompanied Columbus, advocated tolerance. This TV Caliban has no such dramatic or intellectual significance.

The Ariel character instead functions as the Caliban figure in this play, but unfortunately the screenwriter Jim Henderson lacks the subtlety to draw out the full dramatic possibilities. Mostly Ariel pleads with Gideon to give him his freedom so he can go fight with the north, while his master simply repeats the same speech over and over again: "Their fight is not our fight." When he finally changes his mind, we are supposed to feel cheered by his conversion. The problem, however, is that the characterization is so superficial that we can not feel transformed by the experience. It is much more in the vein of Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" than the dark and multilayered Shakespeare play. At least with the "Christmas Carol", you get Dickens' unforgettable prose style and colorful characters. In the TV Tempest, we get wooden dialogue and an obtrusive, purple soundtrack.


While the experience of this TV movie is already receding from my consciousness, a day after it was aired, I continue to be haunted by the question of what motivated NBC to produce it to begin with. It is not accurate to describe TV as a wasteland today. That would be too generous. When Newton Minow used this term to describe TV in the 60s, he probably had the Sahara in mind, but even the Sahara sustains organic growth even if adapted to a very dry and hostile environment. The TV of the 90s is beyond wasteland, it is instead an abyss of commercials, bad taste and mindlessness, like the River Styx.

PBS was created as an alternative to the commercial networks, but as I switched from channel to channel while the every-ten-minute commercial break from "The Tempest" was being aired, I found myself staring dumbfounded at what was being shown on Channel 13, the local PBS station. They are in the middle of a fund-raising drive and are relying heavily on Gary Null, the "alternative health" guru from the local Pacifica FM station. This guy is completely wacko and thrives on the desperate and often neurotic search of New Yorkers for a sense of emotional and physical well-being. His recommendations center on such things as having a positive frame of mind and drinking wheat-grass juice 3 times a day. In between Null's fundraising pitches, there were scenes from a big Pavoratti concert where he teamed up with pop stars, including the Spice Girls. It was beyond kitsch. Lawrence Welk would have run away screaming.

Back in the 80s, I used to spend a fair amount of time in Hollywood, where I had friends, a husband and wife team, in the screen-writing business. Both were deeply sensitive souls with a commitment to left-wing politics. They were always talking like Barton Fink about the "statement" they wanted to make, but somehow always ended up turning out commercial schlock which paid the mortgage while keeping them supplied with cocaine.

I imagine that Jim Henderson, who wrote this TV Tempest, is not that much different from my old friends. He also wrote another TV movie called "Attica" so at least we understand that there is a consistency of belief at work. The problem is that either he can not divest himself from commercial considerations, or the men in suits at NBC will not allow him this freedom. They are much crueller than the Prosper brothers at their worst.

The decision to overlay Shakespeare's play with an essentially trivial military intrigue story was obviously made to keep the audience tuned in so they can see the next commercial. As another old friend, an executive in the FM radio business, once told me, the purpose of programming is to fill in the gaps between commercials. NBC must have calculated that a play that would explore questions of race and domination would not be sufficient to keep people glued to the tube. You had to thrown in the equivalent of a car chase.

The degeneration of culture, both high and low, is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. The recent discussion of opera, art and revolution on various mailing-lists has begun to focus my thinking. Over the next week or so, I will post a series of articles that address these questions in some depth.

Louis Proyect


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