Movies about Other Media
In total, then, these films knock television around. It is a threat, artless, tawdry, exploitative, and feminized, where the latter is framed as inherently problematic. What of other media, though? One might expect that in an era of proliferating channels, platforms, devices, and options for entertainment, media might be inclined toward competitiveness and toward rivalries. In strict economic terms, such a strategy would be self-defeating for studios that often rely upon television revenues as much as on box office returns, even for their films, but we might expect writers and directors to engage in some low-level defense of what they perceive to be their field, craft, and realm. We might also expect writers and directors simply not to understand other fields, crafts, and realms, and hence to handle them clumsily. Do all other media suffer at the level of depiction? Though we do not have the data to answer this question with anywhere near the detail or resolution that we have drawn upon to answer the question of how movies portray television, we are struck by the comparative regard and respect we see directed toward several other media.
Book reading and literature in particular seem generally to be depicted with considerable respect in a variety of films. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018), for instance, offers a recent depiction of a book club formed in Guernsey following World War II. Based on a novel of the same name, the film portrays the book club lovingly, as a site for personal improvement, communitybuilding, and healing for those involved in it. More famously, Dead Poets Society (1989) garnered Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director Oscar nominations for its tale of a private high school teacher inspiring his students to love literature. Also released in 1989, Lean on Me similarly offered another magic teacher tale, loosely based on the real-life experiences of inner-city high school teacher Joe Louis Clark. 1995’s Renaissance Man introduced another magic teacher, this time working at an army training base. This message of books providing hope and healing is also on show in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), in which our protagonist Andy finds solace in the prison library (indeed, consider how commonly prison movies signal who are the “good guys” by showing them working in the prison library). Andy is not alone in letting books whisk him away, though, as the joy of getting “lost” in or enveloped by a good book is literalized in some other films, as in The Neuer Ending Story (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987). Meanwhile, one finds no shortage of films about literary figures, told in ways that hold the figures up, such as Wilde (1997), Shakespeare in Loue (1998), The Hours (2002), Sylvia (2003), Finding Neverland (2004), Capote (2005), The Brothers Grimm (2005), Becoming Jane (2007), or Bright Star (2009). And even if not entering literature, movies’ encounters with book stores can be loving, often quite literally, given the oversized role that book stores have often played as backdrops for meet-cutes and for burgeoning romance in romantic comedies—see, for instance, Funny Face (1957), When Harry Met Sally (1989), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Notting Hill (1999), Before Sunset (2004), Dan in Real Life (2004), and They Came Together (2014).
As alluded to earlier in the chapter, the newspaper industry often glows on film. Even when movies focus on corruption or malfeasance (witness Citizen Kane 11941] most famously), that corruption is painted as so egregious precisely because the general hopes expressed for newspaper journalism’s potential to serve as the nation’s beating heart are huge. As might be suggested by Hollywood’s liberal use of comics as well for ideas, comics also do well. Even beyond drawing stories from comics, numerous comic book adaptations have very lovingly aimed to transfer or cite comic book style in ways that implicitly hold up and honor the medium and its artistry—most notably Sin City (2005), 300 (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)—while comic book artists are themselves in films including Crumb (1994) and American Splendor (2003).
Radio has also fared well. Even when not the star of a film, radio often gets to play the voice and resolve of a nation in many World War II films, where speeches by Winston Churchill or Franklin Delano Roosevelt are shown as broadcast around England or the United States respectively. Witness, for instance, Pearl Harbor (2001), in which FDR’s “A Day Which Will Live in Infamy” declaration of war against Japan carries over a montage of images of people suffering in Pearl Harbor, and people of different walks of life listening earnestly, tethered to their radios. Radio once again plays the voice of the nation in The King’s Speech (2010), a film that is ostensibly about George VI overcoming his stuttering to lead England, but whose opening close-ups of radio microphones underscores is as much a tale about the power of radio. The film begins with George needing to make a speech to a stadium and live on radio, but as we hear radio announcers set up the importance of the address, we see a POV shot of him approaching the radio microphone up some stairs, and hence taking a low angle that allows the microphone to preside over him. He then looks out at the crowd, the out-of-focus microphone blocking his view. Radio obstructs his relationship with the nation, we’re told visually, and yet in his radio speech that concludes the film, we now see his face reflected back off the shiny microphone, as the two have become one. He can now talk to the nation, it’s suggested, and radio has made this possible.
Meanwhile, radio features prominently in a handful of other films, variously bringing information, messages of national importance, or simply fun to the masses. These include Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), memorably starring Robin Williams as real-life Vietnam radio personality Adrian Cronauer entertaining American troops; Talk to Me (2007), a biopic starring Don Cheadle as talk show personalist and activist Ralph “Petey” Greene; Radio Days (1987), Woody Alien’s nostalgic look at the Golden Age of Radio; and Do the Right Thing (1989), in which Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Señor Love Daddy regularly speaks for and to the community. Radio on film is not a complete love affair— Talk Radio (1988), for instance, follows an abrasive, often hateful, radio host— but it receives nothing like the cold treatment its broadcast peer television does.
The music industry has certainly been satirized on film—from This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to Frank (2014)—but one need not struggle to find an abundance of romanticized depictions. Just as bookstores bring characters together in romantic comedies, record stores have regularly served as the fount springs of coolness, youthful edge, and friendship, as in Empire Records (1995), Human Traffic (1999), High Fidelity (2000), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Good Vibrations (2013), and Hearts Beat Loud (2018). Or films about the music industry and/or famous musicians are far too numerous to number, including recently Yesterday (2019), which imagines a world in which nobody else has heard The Beatles, allowing Jack (Himesh Patel) to take credit for their songs; Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), a biopic about Queen’s Freddie Mercury; A Star Is Born (2018), the remake of a story of a seasoned musician who discovers a brilliant young talent; and The High Note (2020), about a personal assistant who longs to become a producer herself. Film and music are as reliant on each other as industries as are film and television, but film’s regularly reverential, nostalgic, romanticized, and celebratory depiction of music and the music industry could thus serve as a film negative for the more suspicious, conflictual, critical, and pejorative images that film tends to offer of television. Films about the music industry also contrast with films about television in sheer number, as the music industry features prominently across film: IMDb, for instance, can include a fan’s list of the “Best 100 Music Movies” (omidpacino 2012) or Rolling Stone can list, more specifically, the “30 Best Music Biopics of All Time” (Kreps et al. 2016), when there are nowhere near 100 films about television of any quality, and nowhere near 30 television biopics of any quality.
Newer digital media, from the Internet to video games to social media, have often been criticized on film. From Existenz (1999), a horror film about the dangers of virtual reality, to Gamer (2009), in which humans can control others’ actions in a massive game called Society, and Trust (2010), in which a teenage girl is groomed for sexual abuse online, the threats of losing one’s identity and sense of reality, and/or the dangers of digital media to one’s safety center many a cautionary cinematic tale. The dangers that lurk behind the business of such networks of identity feature prominently in several films, too, from science fiction action film Ready Player One (2018) to Mark Zuckerberg biography, The Social Network (2010). But digital media are regularly the deus ex machina that allow heroes to “hack into the mainframe” and save the day, from War Games (1983) to Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996) to a variety of other films across genres. The sheer fun, style, and coolness of video games are on show elsewhere, too, starting with Tron (1982), in which a programmer ends up inside a computer, needing to escape it via highly stylized battles, and The Last Starfighter (1984), in which aliens get a teen to pilot a starship via game controls, and leading up to Wreck It Ralph (2012), an animated film that shows us the lives of a video game arcade’s various digital characters at night, and its sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), in which they go online. The Internet itself has also brought together lovers in You’ve Got Mail (1998) and Must Love Dogs (2005), and thus as much as it appears as a den of catfishing rapists in some films, the Internet can also play a more innocent, benevolent matchmaker on film.
As this quick survey should show, one can find flattering, loving, and/or ennobling depictions of almost every other medium on film. Those depictions exist alongside peers that might criticize or outright villainize the medium, and a closer examination would surely reveal more determined patterns cutting across the totality of films about any given medium. But relevant for our purposes here is that better depictions of other media are far easier to find than of television. When television finds itself on film, we’re either seeing a great journalist (who must fight their corporate bosses and “the system”), or we’re seeing a depiction that at “best” is slightly unflattering (as in a film such as Bewitched), at worst is deeply unflattering (as in a film such as The Truman Show). Whether movies frame television this way through ignorance, a sense of rivalry, or both, this section’s survey and its highlighting of several films that approach literary culture, the newspaper industry, comics, radio, the music industry, and digital media with more kindness, at least at times, suggest that television occupies a very particular place in that ignorance and/or competitive disdain.