Keeping an eye on freaks and geeks: Digital cable is a welcome window on the outer limits of television
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 February 2006)

Two of the most frequently visited places on my television set, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and the Documentary Channel (Docs), are found just four numbers apart, the first at 316, the second at 321. That's one reason I've occasionally confused them. Another is that they both started about five years ago, when a swarm of digital stations appeared so quickly that no one but professionals could sort them out.

And these stations -- for both of which I now feel great if qualified affection -- add to the general befuddlement when one of them shows something that might more reasonably appear on the other. At seven this morning, for instance, the IFC has Town Bloody Hall, about Norman Mailer's epic battle in 1980 with Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, and other feminists. It's by any standard a documentary, but it's on IFC, not Docs.

Given these chances for misunderstanding, I've developed a simple formula to distinguish between the two: IFC is for geeks, Docs is about freaks.

Admittedly, not nearly everything on the Independent Film Channel emphasizes geekiness. Its feature films, ranging from McCabe and Mrs Miller to The Killing Fields, would deserve attention in any context. But many of the programs closely identified with IFC play to film-crazed customers, the kind who give the impression that they would rather answer a tough question (name five films in which Bogart was featured but not starred, extra point for chronological order) than actually see a movie. Moreover, IFC's program-pickers seem to think viewers feel compassionate about the difficulties experienced by directors and producers when they try to raise money for their projects.

In the world as depicted by IFC, everyone makes films or yearns to do so. You know it's IFC when you hear someone say, "So I put the camera rental on my mother's Visa." One IFC series, 90 Days in Hollywood, concerns brave young folks trying to get started in what the program's publicity calls "the toughest place in the world." It is accepted in all such discussion that making a film is inherently more difficult than, say, curing cancer or bringing permanent peace to the Middle East; and that Hollywood is infinitely more dangerous than Baghdad.

Then there's the chatty Dinner for Five, in which assorted actors or directors (they have included Rod Steiger, Daryl Hannah and Peter Falk) mull over their career experiences. For off-the-charts geekiness, IFC offers Ultimate Film Fanatic, whose advertising suggests "GET YOUR GEEK ON!" Obsessive-compulsive movie fans compete in trivia-knowledge tests and display their memorabilia collections, the winner being declared the Ultimate Film Fanatic. IFC's only consistently boring series, The Actors, is so vapid that it unintentionally explains why actors should confine themselves to acting: They can't talk without a script.

Hoping to escape show business, if only for an hour or two, an IFC viewer may note with relief the appearance of a charming Wayne Wang film from 1995, Blue in the Face. But even here, if you look in at the wrong moment, you find Jim Jarmusch, the film director, telling Harvey Keitel about how he became a smoker by imitating movie stars. Another film about films. And even when IFC puts on a terrific animated piece, such as Ryan, by Chris Landreth, it turns out to be about Ryan Larkin, the film animator who fell from a promising National Film Board career to alcoholism and poverty -- further proof that this is a punishing, heartless business.

There are other ways to tell the difference between channels. For example, if the word Bacon were to appear in the IFC listings, it might be announcing Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), about the British painter Francis Bacon and the crook who became Bacon's lover after breaking into his studio. Or it might signal an interview with Kevin Bacon, the prolific star.

But when the title Bacon did in fact appear on Docs this week, it came with an explanation: "A young director travels all over Quebec to meet with major stakeholders in the hog industry."

Docs shows quality documentaries, from My Architect, the excellent film by the son of Louis Kahn, to The Volcano, Donald Brittain's brilliant account of the life of Malcolm Lowry. It also plays many films on standard- issue documentary subjects ("A group of Honduran men hop a train in search of a better life in North America" or "Noise is becoming a growing urban problem"). The channel sometimes lists a must-miss item, honestly flagging it with words that seem to be intended as fair warning ("Environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki travels to Johannesburg, South Africa, to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development").

Sometimes the Docs publicists helpfully announce the moral of a film so that you won't have to waste precious minutes thinking. To advertise Army of One, for instance, they tell us in advance that it concerns young Americans, "fed on television idols," who sign up with the U.S. army in search of "an instant identity because they don't know who they are. The army, with its slick ad campaigns, seems like an attractive answer, but can become a devastating trap."

The freakish quality of Docs comes across in its fascination with one often-shown film that concerns couples yearning to become threesomes and their urgent quest for the perfect No. 3. A current show depicts a couple who "show off their sexual paraphernalia" and in a film called Cathouse we learn all the details of life at The Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada, where the manager apparently test-drives the professional staff. Docs currently offers Private Parties ("Suburban mom is also a high-priced escort; corporate translator works as a fetish guru") and Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu ("Four she-male and transgendered prostitutes turn tricks in Hawaii").

Those who have not yet dealt with the digital era (about half of TV viewers) should know that it involves a certain annoyance. To acquire these film channels or anything else, we have to worry our way through a thicket of arcane language concocted by government regulators and cable companies, in which tiers, bundles, basic digital, and extra-value combos all play a part. Annoying or not, however, the digital revolution has won my heart by taking me, through the IFC, Docs and several other channels, to places where I never dreamed TV would go.

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