ONE of the strangest achievements of "America, Inc.," a special program for television shown last Friday on NET Playhoase, is that it succeeds even when it fails. The film, which was directed by Fred Barzyek, "stars" David Silver, whose weekly program "What's Happening. Mr. Silver" won a National Educational Television award.
America, Inc. is a sort of plotless collage of film. One may say, finally, that the nature of life in America is its theme, but there are many thematic elements in this film and perhaps any one of them could be considered central. One theme, most important at the beginning of the program, is Silver's personal search for a lost creativity. An attempt to rediscover this ability takes him and another freak on a trip to New York and then Washington, and here we have another theme-two freaks in search of America (you remember that one).
A third theme, I suppose, is to be found in the commercials for a company called "America, Inc.," which periodically interrupt the story. (America, Inc. is advertising a pamphlet concerning "America's Greatest Challenge"). We get another look at America through the eyes of Jean Shepperd, who provides some nostalgic remarks on drive-ins, turnpikes. Howard Johnson ses, etc. The last theme, which runs throughout the program and which is dealt with both implicitly and explicitly, concerns the way in which the presence of the television camera alters reality.
The 80-minute program fails to focus on any one of these themes and so fails to deal completely with any. It presents the themes to us as fragments, not as parts of a unified whole. If this film is making a statement, it is an ambiguous statement. If it is presenting us with an experience, it is an experience to which we must react ambivalently. Yet, the media do not generally present us with a clear image of events in this country, and so it seems appropriate that this film should not.
This, the program frequently reminds us, is a country influenced by television. Television influences the events it covers and television is omnipresent in our homes. The average American watches nearly six hours of television a day, a woman's voice tells us during the program. This is an exaggeration, surely, but not so far from the truth.
Especially during the early part of the program, Silver is preoccupied with memories of his own appearances on TV. doing interviews for his old show. Then, out walking, he is shown being stopped by a girl who recognizes him from the show. Halfseriously, she insists that he can't be real-that he exists only on television. Though Silver's part in America,. Inc. may be autogiographical, the same questions are posed for us as we watch the show on our televisions.
Talking about what it is to be an American, Jean Shepperd suddenly asks, "Do you ever get the feeling that your life is on a piece of tape that's been badly edited?" America, Inc., erratically edited though it is, reminds us that we do.