Television: The Thousand and One Nights

Roberto Merino

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

1. Educating the Libido

I reached the “age of reason,” as I recollect, with the arrival of television in my household. I have many memories from before then, but only fragmentary ones. I can see myself in different moods, wearing different outfits, in different parts of the house, but I cannot give any continuity to these episodes. In my earliest memories, for instance, I can just make myself out standing in the green-flagged courtyard of a house, but I have no idea what I was doing there.

This was a good way to live, an extended sojourn on the fringes of unreality. I exerted my ego without being very aware that any such category existed. I vaguely numbered myself among the good children. Sometimes it would rain and I would be taken indoors to be near a heater. One moment I would be at the seaside with my mother, the next I would be waking up on a darkened street in Santiago, being carried home by my father. Or I would be in bed, settling down for the night and looking at a picture book about some cats that I kept under my pillow.

Sometimes I went with my mother to drop off scripts at Radio Minería in the city centre, and I never tried to understand what Radio Minería was. I know now they were scripts she was delivering, but I didn’t at the time and I never asked what business took her to that zone of reality called Radio Minería. This was all before the age of whys. I just focused on the specifics, like brass: the brass on the great doors to the building, the brass of the bannisters and doorknobs, and the perforated plate showing the floor numbers above the lift. No, there was no continuity: later instead of brass it was the smell of leather in some upholstered offices, lights burning in the daytime and someone pushing open a double door, so that by craning your neck you could see a stage with instruments and cables on it and people hurrying about.

The first television set I saw was in an apartment in the centre where one of our outings had deposited us. I had no idea what my mother had gone there to do. The set was off and it left me unmoved, except when I learned that it had been brought from the United States.

Television had its own way of training your attention. This was something that began with the test card (equivalent to a long wait) and ended with a closing image of Christ with outstretched arms (equivalent to a farewell) that I already knew because it stood above the entrance to the Catholic University in the Alameda. Gradually the day began to be measured out in programmes, and the programmes subdivided by advertisements. Some of these advertisements were no more than fixed placards over which music played and a voice read out a message, and you could almost perceive the hand that switched the placards every minute and a half. Adapting to this new form of time was a slow process, for perplexity was never far off in those early days: I thought the man who advertised Yo-Yo sweets (which were round, unlike Cri-Cris) was Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker. And the human capacity for stupidity drove me to despair whenever I saw that commercial where a ball was kicked into an empty net and the voiceover said: "But what’s the goalie up to? He’s eating McKay biscuits!"

Television helped me realize that the world was something too large for me to grasp in its chaotic simultaneity. Perhaps the first notion I had of distance was from the Iberia commercial: a succession of grave, portentous individuals raising their eyes to an unseen aircraft passing in the sky. The feeling of vertigo: an inverted abyss. Only something travelling a very long way would be raised up so high.

My parents schooled me in television. I liked watching the programmes they did, not for the sake of the programmes themselves, but because I could eavesdrop on their comments. Through this mechanism I learnt that there was such a thing as “politics” and that some of the politicians in the debates were buffoons, show-offs, nincompoops, and bores, while others were steady and thoughtful—gentleman one could rely on. From a film whose name I forget, but which may have starred Gregory Peck and Sue Lyon or Carol Linley, I discovered that the loveliest girls could be very wicked: the usual formula of the stooping, grimy, hook-nosed witch with a hairy mole was turned inside out.

So, too, television was where social differences first became apparent. Very young children are essentially democratic: they only see individuals and would never think of dividing people by rank (they do know that terrible, degraded beings exist: thieves, but these are denizens of the night, never seen, almost imaginary). When children begin to become aware of the world, though, they are appalling snobs. Television brought together representatives of the whole Chilean menagerie. People laughed at the coarse speech of footballers. Comedians made jokes about rotos, the uncouth lower orders, by delivering themselves of a long catalogue of solecisms. At one time I wanted to work out whether people being interviewed were “decent” or not. I put the word in inverted commas because I gave it a very technical meaning back then. As the 1970 presidential elections neared I began to realize that, puzzlingly for me and maddeningly for my grandmother, there were decent people on the side of the left-wing Popular Unity coalition. The exemplar of decency for the world I grew up in was Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez. When later I started at his old school, the National Institute, my image of the conservative former president was reinforced. I was to model myself on Alessandri, the best pupil ever to pass through the school. Although I was only nine I travelled everywhere by bus or trolleybus. Once, a very elderly gentleman spoke to me in a trolleybus going along Avenida Ossa. Learning what school I went to, he began to hold forth about Jorge Alessandri, who had been a classmate of his, lauding him in terms familiar to me. Regardless, this conversation was “decent” by the very fact of its existence. I was to learn later that others used, or rather spat out, a different word: “bourgeois.”

Bringing all this to mind makes me think that normal families were more actively conservative forty-odd years ago. The Beatles were arraigned for their excesses even before they veered into hippiedom, drugs, and oriental disciplines. Some fashionable singer had only to appear on the screen, toying with the elastic of his guitar strap, for one of my uncles to call out: “Oh, change over and get that idiot off!” These were people who did not suffer fools gladly—though they made an exception for the slapstick and innuendo of comic folk duos like Los Perlas and Los Caporales.

My present distaste for folklore was born in those far-off days, for I could not reconcile all the hype and the self-promotion of its practitioners with the reality I saw around me. We were given to understand, particularly in the special programmes around the national day celebrations each September, that all the hoopla—the massed serenading of dignitaries by cueca bands and dancers, the traditional games, and the chauvinistic songs, operatically delivered—was something essential to our lives as Chileans. But I could find no evidence for this proposition in life itself. One cloudy September morning, as draughts blew about the house, a greasy pole competition came on. While the rascals heaved up the posts, I saw the resin of their roguery dropping out of their pockets.

This kind of thing made me feel an early contempt for the idea of “cheating,” chiefly because of the poverty of its aims: a prize of half a dozen empanadas and a litre of chicha. And those panels of judges with their incongruous earnestness, a severity otherwise only seen in courtroom dramas—it was ridiculous. The leisurely games of pitch-and-toss were just as inexplicable, and the players were uncharismatic, in hats two sizes too small, corpulent from sausages and chickpeas, their toothbrush moustaches a leftover from another era.

I know vanity is natural, but television was a stimulus to it for our generation. We were older now, of course, libido stirring in us prior to waking, but that was where we found our models: those teenagers on Música libre, so musical, so liberated. Oddly, this was a body of youth that had no ambitions to become a political force. I suppose some of the young dancers were left-wing, some old-fashioned conservatives, others uncommitted. They did not lack the power of choice, in other words. But it would never have crossed anyone’s mind that youth in and of itself constituted a collective force. Now everyone is a politician: transvestites, cyclists, animal lovers, car owners. Even the people who come out and throw stones at shop windows and passing cars could perfectly well organize to assert their rights.

What happened was that vanity—dressing like our teen heroes from the daily dance shows—and libido awoke in a single movement. Being cool (the word was not used then, one would rather speak of being “in”) was the logical procedure for getting within range of those wonderful women, hardly more than girls, with their inevitable long hair and miniskirts. No man now approaching fifty can gainsay his miniskirt fetish. It was our lot to be driven wild by Mary Hopkin’s pleated miniskirts, and equally by the versions improvised out of Caritas flour sacks. Twiggy was the protozoa, as it were, of that erotic reality, but we were not interested in Twiggy but in Chilean counterparts who were very far from her famished look. A Sunday session of Tugar, tugar, the dance programme which Baila domingo later replaced, was a protracted sexual torment. Ah, what ochre sundowns were whiled away in fantasies of oneself waiting outside the Manuel Plaza gymnasium for the most ravishing of the contestants before sauntering off with a careless arm around her, drinking in that longed-for blend of odours: the scent my mother would have disdained as “cheap,” the sweat, the cigarette smoke infused into the denim jacket, the fading sweetness of Adams or Bazooka chewing gum in the brazen kisses.


2. Neither out nor in

I remember one Saturday evening in spring, probably in 1967: my parents and I were in the street outside the studio where the long-running variety show Sábados gigantes was made, waiting for the singers to come out. The crowd was vibrant but respectful of the boundaries imposed by the channel’s staff. It was a long wait for very little, since we only saw a smiling Luz Eliana and Don Francisco. I was unenthused by all this—which tells me that at that point my personal configuration of reality was not fully complete. My tender age meant that I was unconscious of the abyss we establish later in life between the zones separated by the screen: our own real, everyday world, and that other world of performers, presenters, and all the figures who appear fleetingly or as fixtures on television. I looked at Luz Eliana and Don Francisco, and was struck only by the former’s evening gown and the latter’s sequined waistcoat.

Certainly there is a time, early in our long lives as television viewers, when we are unable to clearly distinguish the here from the there, the inside from the outside. Another memory: I was sitting on the floor in the living room (in my house it was known as the “hall”) watching a children’s programme hosted by a girl with long, fair hair who went by the name of Aunty Daniela. Before signing off each afternoon, Aunty Daniela was good enough to look through a mirror and say the names of the children she saw there: Francisco, Pedro, Carlos, common names back then. On this occasion she said “I can see Roberto,” and I ran off to the back of the house, my heart pounding, to tell my mother that Aunty Daniela had seen me. This to me was no representation, or illusion, or stage effect. It was simply reality: I never doubted that this lovely schoolmistress of a girl had conjured up my living room in her mirror, with me right there in the middle. My identity was rudimentary, but sufficiently well-formed. I knew no other children called Roberto, only some old men. Once, on television again, in a history programme, someone mentioned a Chilean lady from the past called Roberta, giving rise to mockery on my relatives’ part and impotent embarrassment on mine.


3. Solace for the Weary

Altering a phrase of Mario Praz’s, “music heard from a nearby dwelling,” we might speak of “television heard from the next room” as being among the things that set the tone for our life today. The noise of a television set from an adjoining room, its unsteady cathode light coming to us indirectly, cast on the ceiling or filtering through cracks, often exasperates us and makes us feel our privacy has been invaded. Sometimes, though, we welcome it as the last companion in the drowsiness before sleep. Knowing that people are still up nearby: we turn this domestic happenstance into a friendly aid to the dissipation of wakefulness.

I remember a delightful nocturnal routine I had one summer when I was living in a tree-shaded guesthouse apartment with no television, next to a bakery that made Middle Eastern pastries: dropping off to sleep, with the windows open to the garden, I would smell the fresh dampness of the watered earth and a whiff of newly baked cakes, but what I most remember is the late-night news bulletin from a television two doors down, the day’s events carried to me from afar.

The cinema has done more than literature to capture this background noise and indeed those times when television pictures act as background images, an absurd, indeterminate continuum paralleling the drama of the plot.

In Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, the television set that is never switched off in the main character’s parents’ house is like an implosion of the emptiness extending across the landscapes outside, so that the desolation of bare, frosty fields, of wet pavements in crossroads towns, is concentrated into a rackety leitmotif for a handful of failed or late-suspended lives. In dramatic or existential movie scenes, television pictures in the background often mimic the indifferent automatism of life itself: a character at his wits’ end sits head in hands on a sofa, while a teddy bear’s face looms through the windows of a doll’s house on the television screen behind him. Perhaps the most irreconcilable image of this type is in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, when the body of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, is seen swinging from a beam in front of a cartoon show. Oddly enough, the emotional redemption in this story also comes through television. Joy Division’s producer, a journalist on a news programme, happens to be interviewing a town crier in full regalia when he is told of Curtis’s death. He has this passing crier intone the mournful news, just as might have happened in the seventeenth century, but on television. Slowly, in a worn, strong voice, the old man calls out two or three times as he brandishes a bell:

“Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, has died today. Oyez, oyez, oyez, Ian Curtis, writer of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, has died today.”

But I don’t want to push this too or even very far. I suspect that, to speak of television, some kind of phenomenology would have to be implemented. The furthest thing from daily life that television gives us—and ultimately it is only made for daily experience—are the analyses and admonitions of experts.

Its main value now, to my way of thinking, is companionship, and the starting point for needing company is to have your guard down. In other words, it is when we are in a state of semi-convalescence with consciousness reduced to lethargy by the pounding of daily life, when we cannot bear to face even one more problem, that we drop helplessly in front of the screen. The company it offers is discreet; at least, we could take this broadside of signs as a discreet communication. In these circumstances, a debate between presidential candidates will interest us not for the objective information so heatedly traded, but by the proliferation of gestures, tics, rhetorical devices. We will bring a kind of profound understanding to a run-of-the-mill comedy: we will see the frailty of the stage curtain, the shelves with their bottles of alcoholic cheer, the hairstyles, the ties; we will fully possess the lineage of the most facile gags.

translated from the Spanish by Neil Davidson