October 28, 2015

How television reduces death to a "very special" moment

It occurred to me earlier this week that television really does a bad job handling death. It was on Sunday, after the news had broken that Flip Saunders, the coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, had died from cancer. Naturally, this was big news on the sports networks, who filled their reports with properly somber reports, coupled with testimonials from many of the players and coaches who'd worked with Saunders.*

*Saunders isn't the point of this article, but as a native Minnesotan I have to take a moment to mention that by all accounts, he was not only a superior basketball coach (the only coach in the history of the Wolves to lead the team to a winning record in even one season), he was, in the words of a colleague, an even better man. 

And then, either in the background or as the report went to commercial, the music would play. Awful music, whether from a real piano or a synthesizer I can't say, but that's about par for how TV handles these somber moods. It's often sentimental, mawkish, manipulative, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings and perhaps engender a tear in the eye; new-agey music from the Oprah school of emoting, brought to you by Hallmark. I don't have a clip handy, but I trust you've all seen enough of these kinds of memorial tributes that you know what I mean. If you're not all teared up, you're probably like me, rolling your eyes and reaching for the remote. It cheapens not only the theological meaning of death but the dignity of it as well.  Remember those "very special" episodes that used to plague television (and still do from time to time)? It's like that.

It wasn't always thus, of course. Back when American culture treated death as something worthy of gravitas, television responded with music that projected gravitas. Below is an example of this, after which I'll return with some final thoughts.

The music you hear, played by NBC while people filed past John Kennedy's casket, stars with about a minute of Robert Gauldin's "Pavan,"performed by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony, followed by the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, probably by Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Not only was this music appropriately somber, it also showed some discernment on the part of the person selecting it. Gauldin's piece was written around 1959, which meant that it was contemporary not only in its style, but in that it had only been around about four years. Likewise, while the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh is among is most famous pieces, the obvious choice might have been the funeral march from his Third Symphony, often played for such occasions. The Third was likely used at some point - after all, NBC broadcast throughout the night - but neither of these would have been obvious choices, which means the music director had some taste.

A sidebar to this is how well the music matches up to the visual element, particularly the use of the Seventh as the cameras pan over the paintings and engravings lining the walls of the Rotunda, artwork that depicts various moments in the history of the United States. As far as video composition goes, it's almost perfect television work. And yet I don't think it could have been planned much; the Rotunda coverage, as was all the video work over the weekend, came from the network pool, which meant all three networks had the same pictures to choose from. Unless NBC controlled the pool coverage from the Rotunda (which is possible), it wouldn't be as if the director could order the cameras to pan down and pick up the paintings on the walls and then cue the music to match. It was pure happenstance that it came out this way, which just goes to show you can't always plan for everything, but oftentimes it works out all the same.

Perhaps it's more detail than you need (and when haven't I done that?), but it shows how much more mature television was, relatively speaking, in dealing with an emotion as grave as death. I don't mean to suggest that we have to pull out Barber's "Adagio for Strings" every time we do a video tribute to someone or commemorate a somber moment, but surely we can do better than we do. Can't we?

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