Books: Visions Before Midnight — Cant-struck | clivejames.com
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Cant-struck

The best documentary of the week was the second episode of Spirit of ’76 (BBC1), Julian Pettifer’s trio of programmes about America. Concerned with marriage and divorce, this show was not quite as probing as the first, which had been about race — a less amorous topic. Defeated in advance by the amount of solemn rhetoric the Americans attach to love, Pettifer unwisely sought assistance by filming a lengthy interview with one Dr Urie Bronfenbrenner, a super-bore billed as ‘America’s leading authority on the family’.

Dr Bronfenbrenner had a way of stating the obvious that glazed your eyeballs like crockery. Assembling tautologies at the rate of a small child getting dressed for school, he raised a wise finger to ram home phrases like ‘ethic of confrontation’. His opening remarks were overwhelming evidence in support of the theory that the chief problem Americans face concerning sex lies in the language they use to talk about it.

A marriage guidance radio programme hosted by ‘Bill Balance and resident sexologist Dr Laura Schlesinger’ at least had some speed. But as a rule glacial ponderosity prevailed. We saw a disintegrating couple in the hands of a counsellor. ‘He looks at everything I do as naïve and stupid,’ complained the wife, condemning herself out of her own mouth. ‘I’ve changed my personality for you!’ she moaned, piling Pelion on Ossa. Almost too bored to speak, the husband summoned the energy to observe: ‘I might think you’re dumber than I am in certain ways, but it’s got nothing to do with how old you are.’ At this point the counsellor intervened, speaking very clearly, so that both parties would be able to understand her. ‘It seems clear to me,’ she enunciated, ‘that the two of you aren’t going to agree on this issue.’

This was where Pettifer should have thrust his head into shot and asked whether the concept of a private life can be said to exist at all, once married couples start inviting TV crews to a discussion of their personal griefs. But there was not time for contemplation: there was too much material. Onward to a group grope organized by Single Scene, a nationwide organization for the lonely. People were shown feeling one another up. This was called a ‘caring-type massage’. The various kinds of shack-ups were grouped together under the heading of LTAs — ‘living-together-arrangements’.

In this miasma of sociological cant Pettifer had real trouble finding anyone intelligent enough to talk to: they were lobotomizing themselves as fast as they spoke. A mother who had left her child at home so that she could come to a meeting about how to be a better mother worriedly announced that her child hadn’t wanted her to come to the meeting. The constant assumption was that boredom and lack of love would turn into their opposites if you could find the right words.

23 May, 1976