The TV Watcher
August 11, 2011
The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men in with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
– Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
The Moviegoer is a wonderful novel about Binx Bolling, an easygoing fellow from an old New Orleans family. Binx leads a charmed life in which he makes money, seduces his secretary, and fulfills his modest social obligations with apparent ease. But his glib exterior conceals a crippling lack of purpose, and an internal and mostly ineffectual search for meaning that Bolling relates to the reader (and no one else) in prose that is both funny and poignant. It is a modernist novel, but Percy anticipates the cinephilia common to postmodern writers like Robert Coover or Steve Erickson. Lacking his own reservoir of substantial incidents or ideas to draw upon from his own life, Binx Bolling recalls moments from films or television shows as a means, once removed, of relating his thoughts and feelings.
Binx is not merely a moviegoer, but also a regular watcher of television. On two occasions he describes the plot of a television episode he has seen recently:
In recent years I have noticed that the name Stephanie has come into fashion. Three of my acquaintances in Gentilly have daughters named Stephanie. Last night I saw a TV play about a nuclear test explosion. Keenan Wynn played a troubled physicist who had many a bad moment with his conscience. He took solitary walks in the desert. But you could tell in his heard of hearts he was having a very good time with his soul-searching. “What right have we to do what we are doing?” he would ask his colleagues in a bitter voice. “It’s my four-year-old daughter I’m really thinking of,” he told another colleague and took out a snapshot. “What kind of future are we building for her?” “What is your daughter’s name?” asked the colleague, looking at the picture. “Stephanie,” said Keenan Wynn in a gruff voice.
I switch on television and sit directly in front of it, bolt upright and hands on knees in my ladder-back chair. A play comes on with Dick Powell. He is a cynical financier who is trying to get control of a small town newspaper. But he is baffled by the kindliness and sincerity of the town folk. Even the editor whom he is trying to ruin is nice to him. And even when he swindles the editor and causes him to have a heart attack from which he later dies, the editor is as friendly as ever and takes the occasion to give Powell a sample of his homespun philosophy. “We’re no great shakes as a town,” says the editor on his deathbed, teetering on the very brink of eternity. “But we’re friendly.” In the end Powell is converted by these good folk and instead of trying to control the paper, applies to the editor’s daughter for the job of reporter so he can fight against political corruption.
At first I racked my memory, and then skimmed the videographies of Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell, in an attempt to identify these TV plays. But, while every film that Binx Bolling sees is a real one, I have a suspicion that Percy invented these two television episodes. Binx’s (and Percy’s) attitude toward movies is sometimes bemused but often reverent, as in the quote at the top of this post. There’s a long, lovely passage in which Binx, his girlfriend, and his disabled half-brother go to a drive-in and see an obscure Clint Walker western, Fort Dobbs (1958). The two brothers take a shared, unarticulated pleasure in certain familiar western tropes, which pass over the head of the young woman in their company. The cinema is a common language that offers a special pleasure to the initiated.
By contrast, Percy holds television in somewhat lesser esteem, and his descriptions of the two TV shows Binx watches take on a mocking tone. The plots of these TV shows are a catalog of sentimental cliches which, unlike the moments from Stagecoach and The Third Man that Binx recalls, offer not even a second of iconic truth in which Binx can find meaning. I suspect that Percy constructed these plots with too much specificity to have cribbed them from real teleplays.
But . . . I could be wrong. I haven’t seen all, or even many, of the obscure anthology dramas in which Keenan Wynn and Dick Powell guest-starred during the late fifties (when The Moviegoer is set). The Wynn segment could be any number of things; the Powell could be one of the several dozen Four Star Playhouses that Powell headlined. Does anyone out there in TV Land recognize either of these as an actual television episode?