Myth-Making in the Fullness of Time

By Kate Hawley

Less than a week after his death, it’s impossible not to be numbed by the relentless sameness of network TV news’ pope talking points. We get the biography so simple it seems the stuff of folklore, followed by his battles with communism, liberation theology, the sins of our material culture and, finally, Parkinson’s. It’s tough to produce a deeply felt, personal story about a man whose life was defined by an institution, and obituaries are hardly vehicles for originality, especially those about people who have carefully cultivated their public personas. The pope, like Ronald Reagan (also a supposed defeater of Communism) is less a man than a myth.

How to convey a myth on TV? It’s especially tricky when the myth isn’t made by TV, the way Reagan, or Kennedy, or any of the icons of American movie culture were. But fortunately for the networks, John Paul II was a clever media strategist, taking the popemobile within range of the cameras, creating a vast visual legacy. Not so much CBS, which showed fairly straight footage, but ABC and NBC gave us double-exposed images of John Paul II and Christ on the cross, the pope caught in a freeze-frame looking heavenward, and montages of holy gestures. I haven’t seen the FOX two hour special, but I’m sure it trumps them all.

Frequently, the pope’s stately movements make him seem to be moving in slow motion, and in fact Frontline’s pope special makes frequent use of the technique. Slow motion is a dramatic shortcut borrowed from the Hollywood lexicon, but in this case it serves another function. It’s the video version of kairos, God-given time. To slow down is to at least give the appearance of transcending the medium, and from transcendence it’s a short leap to Godliness. At any rate, in television or cinematic language, speed rarely connotes goodness. Think of the movies Boys Don’t Cry or Nixon, with their ominous shots of speeded up clouds.

The Frontline story showed something other than the holy trinity of the [ope, the crowds, and interpretive talking heads. There are surprising interviews, one with the cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci, about spiritual yearning, and one with a brokenhearted woman who was denied the priesthood. But I was attracted to the almost rote simplicity of the network coverage. The repetition of the images (unlike the drone of the talking points) had a mesmerizing quality. It carried the weight of ritual, and why shouldn’t it, when the sign of the cross, the kiss on the forehead, the beneficent wave, the adoring crowds, the Medieval red, white and gold color palette have been repeated for thousands of years? Catholicism has long been the master of visual media. After all, it’s a mystical religion of symbols, and in the last week the TV coverage has cemented its iconography through sheer volume. Merely by trying to define faith (and that is all the networks are trying to do) they begin in a way to disseminate it.

I couldn’t stop watching. I’m not Catholic. I’m not religious. But I couldn’t stop watching. The pope is dead, but I have his imprint burned into my brain.