Killing Time

Tape's Rolling


Thursdays at 7:30P

12:00 a.m. From the chair where I am sitting, I can see a stack of eight videotapes adjacent to my VCR. Seven of the tapes are VHS-formatted T-30's manufactured by the 3M corporation; one is a T-60 of the same make. The dimensions of each tape are as follows: 7 1/4" by 3" by 1". In aggregate, the eight tapes weigh between 18 and 22 ounces. A white printed label identifies these cassettes as dubs of the KTCA regional documentary series "Tape's Rolling."

"Tape's Rolling," now in its fourth season, is shot in the "verite" style, sans voiceover or other conspicuous trickery. Thus illustrating a quirk of standard English syntax: The distinction between disinterested and uninterested. For while the hands-off editorial approach of "Tape's Rolling" presumes to be disinterested (dispassionate, neutral), its practical effect is to render an audience uninterested (indifferent).

1:16 a.m. The episodes play on Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m. The first two, Grudge Match and The Girls at La Femme have already aired. Still to come are Crowning Miss Verndale; Summer Camp; It's About Sin: The Billy Graham Crusade in Minneapolis; The Final Rite: A Hmong Funeral; Bear Medicine; and White Tie Affair at Canterbury Park.

Most of the titles need no elaboration. A few brief points of clarification should suffice. The titular Grudge Match is between Northern Premier Wrestling nemeses Kenny "The Sodbuster" Jay and his nephew, J.B. Trask. The Girls at La Femme are boys in a burlesque. Bear Medicine is a talking teddy for sick kids. White Tie Affair is a racehorse.

2:37 a.m. More on the pratfalls of verite and its aspirations to impartiality. In the hands of masterly documentarians like Frederick Wiseman (High School) or Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven), such an aesthetic can be used to great satiric effect. These directors operate under the principle that self-incrimination is the funniest kind of incrimination. The camera provides the rope; the subject ties his own knot and climbs the gallows; the editor drops out the floor.

But the kind KTCA camera operators and editors are no hanging jury. Instead, their labor is employed in the cause of impersonating a SuperAmerica surveillance system: they collect a few miles of tape, then drape it loosely around the subjects in a bland montage. Ultimately, as much effort is expended editing together such a formless imitation of "reality" as might be spent splicing together a persuasive narrative.

Beware those who purport to worship at the altar of Objectivity.

3:36 a.m. But then maybe the last provocative act left on television is to refuse to provoke. As with the commendably responsible NewsNight Minnesota, "Tape's Rolling" is earnest before all other things. Perhaps at the apocalyptic endgame of our Age of Infotainment, the shiny first shall come last and the dull last shall come first.

4:08 a.m. Have I mentioned that 3M fabricates the videocassettes from textured black plastic, fuses the two concave hemispheres along a longitudinal seam, and then coats the tape with a magnetic ferrous oxide?

4:58 a.m. Give drag back to its rightful, royal owners. God Save the Queens.

6:15 a.m. Watching a perceptive six-year-old girl with leukemia describing a spinal tap while a Buddha-shaped bear sings supportive songs is a wrenching experience.

7:20 a.m. Wrestler Kenny "the Sodbuster" Jay, a contestant in Grudge Match, appeared on the Prima-Donns, a local cable access show, a month or so ago. There, in grainy video stock, on a naked set, below dim lights, the Sodbuster came alive. He relived Minnesota wrestling's glory days, demonstrated his signature move on the cameraman, narrated a Japanese dub of his thrashing at the hands of Muhammed Ali. This is passionate, partisan public television.

8:50 a.m. The sad fact is that I like the idea of "Tape's Rolling" a lot. I have watched the series before of my own volition; the disappointment is one of unrealized potential. For there are moments of near beauty in Summer Camp and Hmong Funeral. Pubescent girls mug like Madonna in their cabin, use the word "retard" without self-consciousness, fold an American flag beside a campfire while singing the whitest version of "Swing Lo" ever recorded. Hmong elders tie a rooster to the toe of a three-day-old corpse to lead the dead to her ancestors. Here, the cameras capture humans in the singular state of being human.

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