Late Word #3

by Curtis White
(c) 1995

(many of the Late Word columns seen at Alt-X have been previously published in Andrei Codrescu's Exquisite Corpse)


Highway Patrol, starring Broderick Crawford, ZIV Television Programs, Incorporated, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Madison, Wisconsin
Depression is now described, by those whose job it is to provide fresh descriptions of our sadness, not as a tendency toward an exaggerated or distorted view of one's condition but as realism. The depressive is simply more realistic than others. When your melancholy sister concludes something fatal about time and death (elsewhere curiously known as "life"), she is not wrong. Of course, it could be compassionately suggested to her that the appropriate emotional response to her insight is not necessarily depression. After all, aging Buddhists do not despair when bone starts to make its way to the surface. They are far more likely to say, "Oh this body, it is worn out," and then giggle.

I conducted my own meditation on matters morbid atop a bone mound in Madison, Wisconsin, known as the Wisconsin Center for Film Research. This archive holds all of the episodes created by ZIV Television Programs. ZIV was one of the most important production companies for the television serials of the late fifties and early sixties. Among its shocking holdings are Broderick Crawford's "Highway Patrol." This half-hour cop-drama-on-wheels was shot in a dusty, long ago California where behemoth Pontiacs roared destructively but indifferently up and down deserted country roads. Fin-tailed Buicks, bizarre and unlike as any pterodactyl, raced the extinct Studebaker toward an arid brink. Watching "Highway Patrol" now is as strange as seeing real footage of dinosaurs plodding and plundering through the mesozoic. The grill of the monstrous DeSoto is exactly a set of chewing teeth. The cars in "Highway Patrol" say, "I am the beast that I am. The world is large. I roar through it. I eat what gets in my way."

In watching many episodes of this disturbing entertainment, I observed two things that make plausible the idea that depression is realism.

  1. Broderick Crawford as Captain Dan Mathews filmed thousands of individual gestures--pushing his sweaty fedora back on his head, pulling the short wave radio "mike" through an open car window, drawing a sweaty blunt-nosed thirty-eight from under his fat arm--these gestures had as their only purpose a determination to understand death/time. Why else would ZIV bother to commit them to film? Captured on film, each gesture is infinitely repeatable, a simulacra of the Eternal Now. (I'd be happy with a Long Lunch. I mean, cut me some slack, Father Time.)

    Unhappily, I am the only person ever to ask to see any one of the extant episodes of "Highway Patrol." Patient archivist Ruta, who lives with her legislative aide husband there in Wisconsin's lovely capitol, has assured me of this. However, it should be obvious that if I am the only mortal ever to dip lingering eyes into these depths, there is a major flaw in the logic of ZIV's assault on mortality. Of what value are Crawford's eternally repeatable gestures if they are never repeated? Wouldn't it have been better to record just one five second moment--Dan Mathews tugs at his hat brim against the cruel valley sun--loop it and project it endlessly on the enormous SONY screen in Times Square? We could in this way put Hollywood to work on something important. People could meditate to the sacred "Broderick Loop." It would be our high-tech equivalent of Tibetan skull beads.

  2. The problem with the above notion (#1) is that it would seem to cast watching television reruns as heroic. But that is not so. I am not here to offer comfort for the lost years you have spent watching "Three's Company," "Cheers" or even the noble "Mash" in syndication.

    It is not so easy as that, my friends!

Make no mistake, to watch "Highway Patrol" at its "regularly scheduled time" in 1957 was a stupefying waste; to watch "Highway Patrol" in syndication on cable nostalgia channels in the 1990s is no less deadening; but to watch "Highway Patrol" in the monkish, climate controlled confines of the Wisconsin Center for Film Research, in the greedy, self-indulgent dark, is to be presented with an opportunity for a meditation on time worthy of St. Augustine. Broderick Crawford as Captain Dan Mathews rubs his jaw speculatively. The moment passes. Thirty-five years later I watch him rub his jaw speculatively. The moment passes. I am writing about Broderick Crawford. The moment passes. The moment of the moment passing passes.

A lot of what is ordinarily referred to as mental illness is really just thinking about things that pass notice.


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