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Talk RadioTalk Radio

(United States, 1988, 110 minutes, color, 16mm)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Eric Bogosian . . . . . . . . . . Barry Champlain
Ellen Greene . . . . . . . . . . Ellen, Barry's Ex-Wife
Leslie Hope . . . . . . . . . .Laura, Barry's Producer
Alec Baldwin . . . . . . . . . . Dan, KGAB Manager
John C. McGinley . . . . .Stu, Barry's DJ

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Oliver [Stone] furrowed his brow. . . "I've been looking at the rushes. . .and, uh, the film's just not working; it's not coming together. . ." The fatigue drained out of my body, replaced now by fear. I squared my shoulders and returned to the set. Nothing could stop me. "Stone may not believe in the film, but I do!" It didn't dawn on me until months later that I had been a victim of director's psychology." - Eric Bogosian, New York Times, December 18, 1988.

"Tell us what a mess this country's in!" This is talk show host Barry Champlain's call-to-arms from radio station KGAB, in Dallas, and Texans are ready to rage. Champlain's "Night Talk" show is about to go national, syndicated by Metrowave, a giant media corporation who imagines millions of listeners, each in their own tiny psychic cave, addicted to Barry's perverse combination of support and mockery, and ready to buy every fad diet and nostrum the show's advertisers pitch. Barry's insults skewer everyone, and that includes the nutcase Right, for whom Barry's tirades against anti-Semitism strike a bitter chord. As Barry is about to go national, one of the disembodied voices he is used to dominating makes it clear that Barry is in the cross-hairs of something more deadly than the verbal abuse he feeds on.

Barry's high-powered screed is exquisitely embodied by Eric Bogosian, along with Spalding Gray, one of the 1980's finest monologue artists. But of course, this is also an Oliver Stone film, which means that paranoia and conspiracy is woven deeply into its plots and characters. Barry's callers are more than wacky, even for talk radio, they are deranged; lonely women who fear getting AIDS from postage stamps, crack-smoking 19-year olds who drink a bottle of whisky to calm down, serial rapists… They speak into the darkness, and Barry answers them. For the callers, their conversation with Barry are privileged, therapeutic moments, as they weepingly confess things to him and his thousands of listeners that are intimate, disturbing, surreal. For Barry, as for all talk radio hosts, every call is a pretext for a sermon invented on the spur of the moment. The world is his straight man. He disposes of callers methodically, either with a compliment transparent to everyone but them, or a slander they can't answer because he's already cut them off. But they can't stop listening to a man one of them calls a "sick, foul-mouthed disgusting person who makes people nauseous 365 days a year." She should know - she's out there every night.

Cinematographer Robert Richardson offers us strange counterpoint to the simmering rage of Barry Champlain's listeners. Richardson's camera patiently circles Barry, eyeing him, analyzing him, as dispassionate as Barry is passionate. Barry is a strange bird in a glass cage, his anxieties and hot air filling the big, empty studio. Richardson's lighting gives the nighttime hallways, control rooms and offices at KGAB a cold tranquility that contrasts beautifully with Barry's fulminations at the mike. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Richardson gets closer and closer to Barry, cramping him into a smaller and smaller psychic space. Then, the image itself becomes as unhinged as Barry; is the camera moving around Barry, or is Barry's world revolving around him? Talk Radio's long-take, mobile framing style is one of the bravura performances by a cinematographer of the 1980's.

The film is based on Bogosian's play of the same name, leavened with material from the chilling story of Alan Berg, the liberal Denver radio personality gunned down by Right-wing terrorists in 1984; the filmmakers also did research by following Los Angeles talk radio host Tom Leykis. Talk Radio appeared during a transitional moment in the history of the peculiar cultural form it documents. Hosts like Joe Pyne and Alan Burke had pioneered confrontational talk in the 1960's, and by the mid 1980's, talk radio had metastasized into a collection of self-help gurus and `straight-talk' personalities, the best of them hyperkinetic, opinionated practitioners of sadism over the airwaves. Whether third-base coaches in the culture wars like Laura Schlesinger, or niche performers like conspiracy-monger and Area 51 buff Art Bell, talk radio was set up to be a powerful cultural force, developing a gigantic constituency and a mighty advertising base, all of it operating beneath the contempt, and thus the radar, of the "legitimate media." When the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was repealed, late in the Reagan Administration, talk radio turned its attentions to conservative politics. By then, a cadre of resentful, loyal listeners had found its voice, and the rest of the media made it itself over in the image of talk radio. Politics and much of the public sphere followed, joining the bully's chorus in telling everyone else what was wrong was wrong with them. What has been lost as a result of talk radio's ascendancy is more than mere civility; what has been lost is the virtue of stillness and the acknowledgement of what is truly human in others that can only be found through the practice of stillness called listening.

By the end of Talk Radio, Barry's world is a shrunken and paranoid as his listeners. For him, the microphone is never off, and the "cut" signal never registers. When a cab driver, imagining himself a sidewalk philosopher, tells Barry, "I know people," Barry brusquely rejoins, "I wish I did." Each of Barry's callers talks as if he hears voices in his head. So does Barry.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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