TELEVISION / Video takes you nearer to the onion's core

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SOME critics of BBC 2's series Video Nation, an attempt at mass self-observation, have argued that these little glimpses of people's lives are worthless because they knowingly construct their own images - the confessional format promises revelation, they protest, but delivers no such thing; what you get is an 'acted' personality. You have to wonder whether these people also stand up at magic shows and denounce the conjurer for doing it all by sleight of hand.

Of course Video Nation offers you performances, because the human character consists of a series of performances, ranging from almost unconscious habits of presentation to calculated impersonations. The fascination of Video Nation is that those taking part act as their own director, so there is at least a sense that you are one layer closer to the centre of the onion. The thrilling candour it offers is that of the strip-joint that goes just a little further than the club next door, while still remaining safely within the law.

It also recognises that video technology has involved an enormous leap in the ability of ordinary people to make themselves persist in the world. Cheap home photography was one leap and cine-film another - but neither of those technologies offer video's generosity of means. Undeveloped film is a slightly precious object, so people behave in a slightly precious way when they know it's being used up. Video tape is more forgiving and more patient - it won't run out on you as quickly if you begin to bore it.

Some of these virtues were demonstrated in Silverlake Life - The View from Here (C4), garlanded with film prizes since its first showing last year. I missed it first time round, so I don't know what an innocent viewing would have felt like, but the awards rather press you to be on the lookout for cinematic brilliance. I couldn't find it myself, but that's not to say that it isn't an extraordinary film, even if what's being honoured is an exercise in dying rather than an exercise in direction. Tom Joslin set out to make a film about his lover's life with Aids and when his own illness accelerated he kept the camera running.

The result has that odd quality often associated with video - engrossing tedium. This is everyday life, sharpened by the fact that the routines are the quasi- ritualistic ceremonies of holding Aids at bay, and by the fact that ordinariness is fading day by day. A shopping trip becomes an endurance test, an excursion a test of mental strength.

In the end even the close scrutiny of video finds it hard to register Joslin's passage from dying to dead man - the sound of his lover, Mark Massi, stumbling through a broken version of 'You Are My Sunshine' tells you what's happened, but you can't see death on Joslin's face, perhaps because it had been there for days already. The transition is so tiny that you wince a little at the claustrophobia of the body-bag, zipped over his head.

The film ends with a startling scene in which Massi transfers Joslin's ashes to a jar, spilling fragments on the floor. He jokes ('You're all over the place, Tom') and cuts himself with the knife he's used to open the original package - 'I'm bleeding,' he says, matter-of-factly. It's a black joke about grief which most directors wouldn't have the nerve to construct but which the blank gape of video is designed to preserve.

An insomnia cure: Arthur Uther Pendragon used to have trouble sleeping. 'Now I go to bed and I think, 'Who are you?' 'King Arthur.' 'What are you here for?' 'Re-unite the Celt, fight for truth, honour and justice.' No problem. Straight to sleep. Works for me.' Arthur, profiled in 3-D (ITV) is clearly several knights short of the full Round Table, but perhaps we should all be so crazy.