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Cable companies have always sucked, a classic comedy reminds

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Raise your hand if you love your cable company. Now raise your hand if you didn’t raise your hand just now. There we go. As I write this column, analysts are justifiably wringing their hands about the recent court decision that effectively ended net neutrality, but the more fundamental problem with cable—and with the delivery of high-speed Internet in particular—is that most of us have no alternative to whatever massive conglomerate is dicking us around. If your area is served by, say, Time Warner Cable, your only options are TWC or TCBY; either you accept their terms or you head for the nearby yogurt place and hope to hell they offer free Wi-Fi. Consequently, the handful of cable giants can do pretty much whatever they like, without being overly concerned about customer satisfaction. So universal is the grumbling that South Park recently devoted the bulk of an episode to cable employees rubbing their own nipples, while sarcastically mocking filed complaints about their service.

But this problem is hardly new. In 1967, a filmmaker named Theodore J. Flicker devised a satire of spy movies called The President’s Analyst, starring James Coburn in the title role. Initially, the film is exactly what it sounds like: a comedy about the difficulties involved in plumbing the psyche of the world’s most powerful man. (Decades later, the same idea would be applied to mobsters in The Sopranos and Analyze This.) As it progresses, however, The President’s Analyst turns increasingly bizarre, with Coburn’s hero, Dr. Sidney Schaefer, being repeatedly pursued, kidnapped, and otherwise manhandled by a series of nefarious organizations ranging from the CIA (here called the CEA, for Central Enquiries Agency) to Canadian Secret Service agents posing as a British rock band. Only at the very end of the movie do we learn who’s been pulling the strings all along, and it’s not a naturally suspected entity.

At the time that The President’s Analyst was made, there really was a single, monolithic phone company: AT&T, which ran the entire country’s telephone business under the umbrella known as the Bell System. It would be another 17 years before the Justice Department succeeded in breaking up this monopoly, opening the door for all the carriers that exist today, and Analyst’s exercise in paranoia comically reflects the negative perception of Ma Bell in the public eye. Here, The Phone Company (TPC) isn’t satisfied with its complete control of the communications network—it wants to be integrated into every U.S. citizen’s neural architecture from birth. Flicker opts to leave the dystopian fallout of this plan to the viewer’s imagination, in order to keep Arlington Hewes (played with superb robotic unctuousness by Pat Harrington Jr.), TCP’s president, relentlessly chipper. But just the concept of replacing names with numbers (which anticipates THX 1138 by several years) is plenty discomfiting. 

There’s also a great deal of paranoia about the burgeoning computer age reflected in the scene’s production design. Personal computers were still some years off in 1967, and room-sized behemoths involving multiple banks of circuitry still dominated the cultural landscape. Flicker thus crams the set with as many flashing lights as possible, while keeping the overall ambience dark and sinister. I haven’t been able to determine whether these machines were constructed expressly for the movie or whether Flicker just used existing technology—if pressed, I’d guess the former, because it’s hard for me to think up a useful function for all that constant blinking. Either way, the close-ups of Hewes, in which he’s always framed by out-of-focus lights rapidly switching on and off, convey an unmistakable sense of menace, which Flicker accentuates with repeated insert shots of computer-related imagery so abstract that it nearly looks hallucinogenic.

Coburn spends the entire scene trapped in a phone booth—the way it occasionally rotates around the room to provide him with a new viewing angle is a hilarious touch—and does an excellent slow burn as the insanity of his captor’s world-domination scheme is revealed. Most of the exposition arrives in the form of a short animated film, which today probably calls to mind Jurassic Park’s explanation of how dinosaur DNA is recovered. Contemporary viewers, however, would have immediately recognized it as a parody of the The Bell Laboratory Science Series, which included such titles as “Our Mr. Sun,” “Hemo The Magnificent,” and “The Strange Case Of The Cosmic Rays” (all directed by Frank Capra). These fun essays were broadcast on TV between 1956 and 1964, and would still have been fresh in the public mind at the time. Flicker expertly mimics the look and tone of “Hemo The Magnificent,” in particular, putting a Machiavellian spin on something much beloved. 

What seems most accurate here, and most relevant to our situation with high-speed Internet today, is the blithe way that Hewes, representing TPC, dismisses the public’s negative perception of their business model as some sort of weird aberration requiring legislative intervention. It’s been well documented that cable companies could offer much faster speeds at much cheaper prices than they currently do while still making a hefty profit—just not an obscene profit. With no competition to worry about, however, there’s no reason for them to refrain from gouging the consumer. Instead, they’ve used their muscle to achieve the legal right to restrict traffic as they see fit. Odds are this will soon be remedied (most likely by reclassifying the Internet as a common carrier), but so long as a single company serves most regions of the country, abuses will continue. Here’s hoping that someone will eventually concoct a satire of the situation as memorably nutty as this one.