Turner Classic Movies, the closest thing to a national film outlet on television, has succumbed to political fashion with its recent month-long series Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror. Responding to the current political revisionism, TCM subjected its content of “beloved classics” to the oversight of politically correct agitators.
The network’s five regular hosts, Ben Mankiewicz, Alicia Malone, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger, and Jacqueline Stewart opined on the “problematic” aspects of films that were made before wokeness — putting them through the now standard race and gender sieve, testing them against self-righteous Millennial standards. Not surprisingly, none of the classics — The Jazz Singer (1927), Gone with the Wind (1939), Dragon Seed (1944), The Searchers (1956), The Children’s Hour (1961), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), among others — were found to be woke enough.
This process of reexamination greets the vagaries of art with disapproval. It’s part of the dangerous new reconciliation fever, more reckoning. Not quite cancel culture, TCM’s Reframed still steps in that direction. It follows the same revisionism that distorts the history of Hollywood’s late-’40s to late-’50s blacklist: Everything is seen in terms of victimization and offense. TCM’s hosts, an Our Gang mix of age-race-sex political identities, discussed each movie according to their respective representation specialty. But the result was almost always the same: blame and condemnation, although film-noir expert Muller usually backed off from the latter, thus coming closest to scholarly appreciation.
Like the justice commissions appointed by progressive politicians, TCM’s Reframed looked for flaws, errors, and offenses. Filmmakers were judged unfairly as guilty or naïve but never credited for their principles or convictions — the reasons that art endures, the qualities that keep viewers fascinated, attentive, and loyal. While the series focused on Hollywood production practices, making it easier to apply the same generalities as today’s “systemic racism” canard, TCM’s jurists had difficulty equating the primarily liberal bent of Hollywood employees with the imagined offenses pointed to in their films. That’s why the series dealt only with movies made before 1968, the implication being that contemporary Hollywood is totally enlightened and sin-free.
This could be because TCM’s liberals, like all others, find it difficult to scrutinize themselves. Thus there was no honest mention of the quirks of personality and the subtle eccentricities of nature and nation that occur in popular culture, such as the ideas about masculinity that inform the range of behavior in Gunga Din (1939), from roistering Westerners to the emaciated title Asian (rather than facile alarm at racial misrepresentation). Or the ideas about femininity explored through the drawing-room shock and awe of The Children’s Hour, with its urbane defense of nonconforming sexuality (rather than the complaint that the utterly sympathetic lesbian character was lynched by Hollywood intolerance).
TCM got an undeserved compliment when Martin Scorsese credited its programming as an aspect of “curating.” Fact is, TCM uses its vast catalogue of Hollywood’s historic output indiscriminately, relentlessly repeating classic films so that they lose distinction.
British writer David Flint recently exposed TCM’s conceit that the old films needed to be “contextualized by people who are cleverer than us, lest we don’t spot the dodgy representations.” TCM has taken on the typical attitude of the journalistic establishment regarding everything, whether COVID, politics, or movies. TCM’s perspective is retrograde for sure, going from knuckleheaded “magic of the movies” fanship to censorious culture ministers.
TCM has joined the censorious mob, rather than help them to see past their egotism and shallow perception. TCM blames the Production Code (Hollywood’s self-censoring body in effect from 1934 to the late Sixties) but doesn’t explain how the most creative filmmakers triumphed over the Production Code’s restrictions. Instead, TCM’s snideness would favor new PC production codes.
If NPR and PBS follow TCM in the familiar leftist guise of “smartness,” the fact of their government sponsorship will make such rank reprogramming into an official government mandate, thus a scandal. Its cable subscription viewership is converted from connoisseurs to buffs and now into couch activists. TCM isn’t reframing, it’s attempting to rewrite film history — an effort for which the network, with its crass wine store, is totally ill-equipped. Why not take the more interesting (if challenging) route of explaining how the best films of the past surpass today’s sanctimonious films? Otherwise, TCM is the movie-station equivalent of Fake News, enemy of the movie-watcher and suppressor of thought.