PRINT February 1989

The Cave

Talk Radio

WHEN DOWNTOWN MEETS UPTOWN, or when performance art meets television, the theater, or the commercial cinema, the assumption is that something of the original inspiration will be lost. This, at any rate, was the attitude of the pre-’80s generations of avant-garde artists who saw Broadway and Hollywood as the antithesis of their every aspiration, and to be avoided at all costs. One of the many issues was the question of narrative: a lot of ’60s and ’70s performance—body art, Happenings, the work of a range of artists from Yvonne Rainer to Chris Burden—avoided or subverted narrative conventions almost as a matter of course, which virtually automatically removed it from the market mechanisms made available to conventional drama. Much of the present generation of artists, however, lives on more intimate terms with mainstream entertainment. They’re not necessarily uncritical of its values, which can often be seen as the very subject of their work; but even when they attack it, they’re looking in its direction rather than resolutely the other way. And the forms they use to critique the popular media are similar enough to actual TV or cinema conventions that some of these artists can relatively easily make the jump to becoming popular entertainers themselves. The latest of these is the New York performance artist Eric Bogosian, whose play Talk Radio was recently made into a film directed and coscripted by Oliver Stone. Like the play, the movie stars Bogosian himself.

“This is a true story” is a sentence that begins many a film, charging the work with an added drama, a higher level of pathos, or of bathos, by its claim to recreate real lives and real people. But Talk Radio, based on the murder of Denver radio host Alan Berg by a neo-Nazi listener to his program, presents an uncompromising and often offensive lead character who keeps the film’s viewers at a distance. It is concerned not so much with a “real” person as with the dynamic between that person and his audience, between the media and the people who consume them.

In the stage version of Talk Radio, previously presented in 1987 at the Public Theater, New York, Bogosian’s insistent voice recreated the harsh cadence, the abusive banter, that characterizes “shock radio,” a genre that makes entertainment out of the pain and humiliation that the talk show host inflicts on his telephone-call-in protagonists from among the general public. Typical of Bogosian’s earlier work, Talk Radio explored the power of the spoken word to invade spaces and minds, and its ability to threaten and to incite. But in that the play moved a live radio broadcast, a purely auditory event, onto a stage, it also revealed the actions and the characters of the people behind the aural spectacle. Furthermore, at least in part, the play made visible the radio audience, which was represented not only by the telephone calls (in the voices of actors offstage) received by Bogosian’s talk-show host, Barry Champlain, but also by the incursion of one of its members, a drug-crazed kid named Kent, into Barry’s space. Allowed into the studio as a representative of the audience that feeds and feeds on Champlain, as a reflection of Barry himself, Kent suddenly pulls out a camera and, in a tense and symbolic moment, snaps Champlain’s picture, making a portrait of a powerful and usually invisible man.

Bogosian’s earlier performance mode was to present shorter, more intense fragments of men’s lives. His portraits—he may do half a dozen or more in an evening—are of people on the edge, or sometimes perilously close to the middle: madmen, torturers, suburban husbands. Bogosian’s presentation of his material is impartial, his parody blank. Never cuing viewers as to his attitude to the role he is playing, he may lead them to find themselves tentatively sympathizing with the motivations of a rapist, or yearning for the banality of suburbia. What gives this tendency its dynamic tension, and what has undergone the greatest transformation in the evolution from performance to play to film, is the work’s nonnarrative form. Traditional drama obscures its author and even, often, its performers: the characters of the piece predominate. The fiction is posed as a real event for the viewer to observe, and to take part in vicariously through a secure system of identification. Since the story is sealed off as a fiction, the viewer experiences the guilty pleasure of invisible participation from the safety of the theater seat. In Bogosian’s truncated fragments, on the other hand, the performer/author comes intermittently into focus, breaking up the fiction, and startling the viewer into an awareness of whatever identification has developed between him or her and the character. Seen in this way, the title of Bogosian’s 1982 performance Men Inside refers to his characters as they reside inside you.

Do Bogosian and Stone transfer this effect to the screen, or was that even a goal? Even before the film was made, Bogosian had shown signs of moving away from his earlier alienation devices: in its replacement of a series of characters with a central one, the play of Talk Radio varied significantly from his typical style of fragmented characterizations. Here the callers to the show provided the intermittent portraits, while Barry maintained a consistent personality, though changing in attitude (or at least in topic under discussion) with each new interaction. The play edged toward extended character study and story, with the repeated calls from Kent, his invasion of the studio, and the photograph he shoots providing the rising action and denouement. If the piece as a whole presented more disorienting information than easy insight, more of the texture of the symbiotic relationship between Barry and his callers than narrative velocity or conclusion, still it was a departure for Bogosian, and seemed in some ways tamer than his earlier work.

That failing has been more than corrected in the cinema version of Talk Radio, in which Stone manages both to apply the strengths of Bogosian’s past and to dynamize his work with a new level of meaning. Talk Radio the movie opens up the play, not simply by the exploration of larger spaces and additional characters, but by a manipulation of the film medium, and of its status as a cultural vehicle.

Stone’s mise-en-scène is thoroughly cinematic. The movie takes place primarily in the radio studio, with the camera moving in, out, and around Barry Champlain as he paces, fumes, and gesticulates, alternately pouring venom, encouragement, and moral judgment into his headset mike. It breaks up and dynamizes the space, and also Bogosian’s face—side view, front view, close-up of the mouth or of the eyes. As the depth of the field is flattened, this dramatic portrait of a man becomes almost a literal one as well. Stone often composes layered images, superimposing different planes of action simultaneously by means of an intervening reflecting glass. In one scene, for example, Barry, at his desk, unfurls a Nazi flag that has been sent to him by a caller, while his engineer and producer talk in the control booth in the foreground. The glass that separates the two rooms then reflects the figure of a fourth character, the station manager, who is standing in a space essentially behind the camera. Sound too is layered, conversation in the foreground, say, being accompanied by the softer tones of a commercial aired during Barry’s break. This layering of sound and image emphasizes their status as mediated records—as the plastic tools used to represent a performance that is itself a representation of a performance, a live radio broadcast.

The plot of this filmic transformation of Bogosian’s play refers to the story of the real-life Alan Berg, which the play did not. Berg’s conflicted relationship with his exwife, his identity as a Jew, and his murder have been worked into the film to “flesh it out”—to provide the narrative development a Hollywood movie demands. But Berg’s particular personality has not significantly altered the character of Barry Champlain, which Bogosian originally fashioned as a type, a composite recalling such media personalities as New York radio host Howard Stern and television’s Morton Downey, Jr. And the audience’s identification with Barry is no more secure than it was with the characters in Bogosian’s early work. He is simultaneously likable and unpleasant, moral and obscene, a victim and an attacker. How is the viewer to respond when he tells a black caller friendly to Jews that all blacks hate Jews as slumlords, owners of decrepit housing that blacks have no choice but to live in; and then when he tries to reason with a caller who insists that the Holocaust was a hoax? When listeners call to say they hate Barry, he seems hurt, and attacks them for not understanding him. When they say they love him, he hangs up on them. The viewer of Talk Radio, then, is in constant flux, pulled into the film by a series of partial identifications but soon expelled from it, finding no stable center. This unease is confirmed when Barry tells his audience that he despises them—he seems to be talking to not only his radio callers but also the true hidden audience, the cinema audience that listens and watches and is entertained by human spectacle, the viewers of Talk Radio, who sit indicted in their seats.

The cinema audience of Talk Radio is put on the spot in a way that the theater audience was not, for there Bogosian’s indictment seemed safely aimed more at his call-in characters than at his viewers offstage. Popular film, too, is more often associated with the kind of exploitive cultural practices that Barry seems to exemplify than is downtown performance art; the theater audience perhaps felt a superiority to the material that the movie audience is denied. More important, however, is the friction that the film Talk Radio sets up between the real and the fictive. The various tensions between the character of Champlain and the real Alan Berg, between a live radio show and a film of one, between a show of a show and its narrative rendition, and between the viewer’s identification with and alienation from the central character, are all kept in flux. By affirming the instability of these fictive systems, Talk Radio pushes its viewer toward a position in the real rather than in the passive suspension of the movie consumer.

Talk Radio can profitably be compared to the recent Meryl Streep vehicle A Cry in the Dark, directed by Fred Schepisi, and also about the vicissitudes of the mass media. Also based on a real-life tragedy—the killing of an Australian child by a wild animal, and the false conviction of the baby’s mother as the murderer, in a media carnival of inaccuracies—the film claims the status of “true” yet delivers an airtight fictional world. Its aim is to show how the media and its audience can distort information and revel in that distortion, in a process ending in actual human disasters. But the audience of A Cry in the Dark need not see itself as part of the loop. Instead, it watches a film that indicts some “other” audience—an audience set, quite conveniently, in distant Australia—though it itself is similarly making entertainment out of images of a child’s terrifying death and the subsequent abuse and punishment of the mother. The audience of A Cry in the Dark is not confronted with its problematic consumption of this type of material, or with its contribution, in a very specific way, to the cycle by which such representations are produced.

Bogosian’s and Stone’s Talk Radio evades being an example of what it purports to criticize because it takes this voyeurism and the sadism that underlies it as its very subject. The satisfaction, ultimately cruel, that one gets from listening to an abusive radio host insult a caller comes from one’s knowledge that what is happening is real, not simulated. Bogosian’s play lost that sense of reality, making the audience’s reaction to the material more analytic and detached. The achievement of Talk Radio the film is that it has returned the material to its source, to a mass-media format, and then manipulated that material to point directly at you, the mass consumer.

Vera Dika teaches film at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Her book Games of Terror will be published by Farleigh Dickson University Press in the fall.