Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A star is found

David Carr tells his colleagues What Is
Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011) is either metafilm if you are a philosopher or Pirandellian if you favor theatrical analogy.  The title promises a PBS-style process piece about how a newspaper is turned out.  But the film is about a newspaper reporting its own death and (it hopes) resurrection.

We get a little process -- a couple of Page One meetings, what All The President's Men called budget meetings -- but the bulk of the film focuses on the Media News department reporting on the dissolution of print media both at the hands of digital media, which certainly destroyed the classified advertising business which was the economic basis of all local newspapers, as wellas by the blindness, greed, fear and incompetence of the managers of traditional media.  It is notable that the Times, after a decade of mistakes and attempted cover-ups now so courageously charts the course of the cancer that may just kill it.

So far, we have a good episode of Frontline.  But what happens in Page One is what often separates theatrical documentaries from television nonfiction, the arrival of a star performer.  In this case, it's David Carr, a too-good to be true beat reporter who literally keeps his head down, yet plows ahead toward the facts driving his stories and devlin-take-the-hindmost.  It helps that Carr has his own dramatic biography, touching the absolute bottom of addiction and desperation and coming out the other end, the most conventional and humble of suburban single dads.  He is a compelling character, with a raspy voice doubtless damaged by living on the street and/or cocaine addiction, an odd compulsive forward tilt of the head and a Columbo-like disingenuous manner of interrogating his targets, like a cat carelessly toying with a mouse, delaying the moment of the kill.

Clearly Carr has no animus toward the malefactors of the media, but he has no hesitation in calling out greed and stupidity, and backing up his claims with names, dates and numbers.  It's a wonder that he isn't now being fictionalized into a character for a new USA Network series (maybe he is). 

There are a lot of other good, well-meaning folk, Carr's bosses, whose names can be found in other discussions of this film, but to me, Carr's unintentional wresting of the spotlight from the historical trends and concepts with which the filmmakers undoubtedly embarked proves one essential truth of film narrative -- character beats ideas every day of the week.

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