Hollywood has been knocking TV since its inception, viewing it as a force no less malevolent than the Communist conspiracy— it came from outer space to steal the hearts, minds, souls, and dollars of formerly loyal picture-goers. With the two mediums now so intertwined that it’s impossible to tell which is ancillary to which, you’d think the time had come to stop all the TV bashing. No way. Within nine months, we’ve had The Truman Show, Pleasantville, and now, EDtv, the slightest but most inadvertently revealing of them all.
Directed by Ron Howard (himself a former sitcom star), EDtv is the story of an affable, 31-year-old underachiever named Ed (Matthew McConaughey) who is chosen to be the star of a national cable-network program. The program, which is the brainchild of a San Francisco documentary television producer (Ellen DeGeneres, another sitcom refugee), is cablecast 24/7 and shows every minute of Ed’s waking and sleeping life. There seems to be some arrangement that allows Ed time out to perform certain bodily functions but since Ed is a natural exhibitionist, in addition to being from a Texas white-trash family, he doesn’t always close the door even when he’s allowed. EDtv (the program, not the movie) opens with a shot of Ed, half awake, toying under the covers with his morning boner.
Viewers immediately are addicted, not only to the comely Ed, but to his family and romantic life, which plays out like a veritable soap opera. Ed’s older brother (Woody Harrelson, and we know where he appeared) is pissed off that he wasn’t chosen for TV fame and glory and he gets angrier still when he discovers that Ed has poached his girlfriend (Jenna Elfman of Dharma and Greg). Ed’s father (Dennis Hopper), who deserted the family when Ed was a kid, shows up on his doorstep and reveals a not very interesting secret about Ed’s mom (Sally Kirkland) and her second husband (Martin Landau). Then Ed’s girlfriend splits because she’s sick of the TV cameras and the network finds him a new supermodel girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley) who turns on viewers, but not Ed.
It’s a lot of plot but none of it is particularly funny or compelling. What keeps the film chugging along and also gives it a depressive aftertaste is a
middle-aged male sexual anxiety subtext that intermittently sputters to the surface. It begins with that shot of the TV suits ogling McConaughey’s morning hard-on, takes form when Ed’s brother hauls a former one-night stand on camera to testify to his sexual prowess (she grudgingly gives him a four), and shows its true colors when it’s revealed that the network’s top suit (Rob Reiner) uses an “erectile device” to compensate for his “erectile dysfunction.” Ergo EDtv— although I haven’t a clue whether the actual creative team behind the film is consciously aware that the title stands for something more than the name of the main character.
Stranger still is the fact that
director-producer Howard, producer Brian Grazer, and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel— the Imagine Entertainment team that created some of the biggest box office hits of the ’80s and ’90s— focus their fears exclusively around TV with nary a mention of the Internet, home to Jennicam and its spawn. But it’s the Internet, the name they dare not speak, that makes the guys who run the film industry feel as if they’re already in decline— and anatomy is only part of the picture.
In another sphere of reality entirely is Hilary Brougher’s The Sticky Fingers of Time, an East Village time-warp mystery for female sci-fi addicts who’ve never before had a film they fully could call their own. (The Alien series isn’t exclusively for girls.) Brougher’s protagonists are a ’50s sci-fi writer and her slightly younger, slightly more scattered, ’90s counterpart, who keep bouncing into each other’s lives thanks to some mix-up in the DNA coding of their souls. The hydrogen bomb experiments of the ’50s may or may not be a causal factor.
Brougher’s conceit is that time has five fingers. In addition to past, present, and future, there is also “that which could have been and that which yet could be.” These two realms, which literary theorists term the subjunctive, are where desire and the imagination function. And they’re where these two women are drawn together by a maternal, erotic bond that triumphs over ordinary time and space.
The film is psychologically resonant despite the intermittently clunky performances. Given her tiny budget, Brougher achieves minor miracles in her recreation of New York circa 1953. The set and costume designs point up how time transforms fashion into fetish and back again; Ethan Mass’s cinematography adds a subtle dreamlike edge. The Sticky Fingers of Time is one of the only Amerindies in recent years to match intellectual with formal ambitions. That it’s fun to watch as well makes Brougher a filmmaker to be reckoned with.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 23, 1999