Thursday, 22 December 2011

Archives, libraries, television and television studies

Screen 52.4 (Winter 2011) was recently published, and contains an excellent debate strand, 'Mourning television', with articles by Jeremy G Butler, Jason Jacobs and Helen Piper, plus a report by Lauren Jade Thompson about the recent workshop 'Histories of the digital future: archives of the audio-visual'. It just so happened that I read these pieces at the same time that I was sorting through my own film and television studies 'archive' - not of films or TV programmes, but of photocopies of articles and chapters from books. I had an ugly pile of such copies on my filing cabinet, which had mounted up over the course of the term. At the same time that I catalogued and filed these items, I also decided to sort through my module folders from my days as an undergraduate, and work the photocopies from those folders into my main collection. Towards the end of last term I also became the custodian of the department's collection of old issues of Screen and Screen Education, so I was sorting through and shelving those lovely old objects too.

Only connect
Fears of distortion and the distancing of the archival researcher from the object of study [...] dominate current debates about the relationship between the physical and the digital archive [...]. The sense that digitisation, despite its utopian discourse, is not a loss-free project pervades such discussions. (Thompson in Screen 52.4, p524)
Towards the end of her workshop report, Lauren Jade Thompson notes a moment from a presentation given by Charles Barr (entitled 'Archival trial and error') where he recounted his 'reconstruction of Churchill's wartime film-viewing through thank-you notes written by his private secretary to film distributors' (p526). Thompson describes Barr's paper as 'demonstrating the necessity of travelling back to the original source wherever possible and warning against approaching the archive with set expectations'. We might add that there is a danger of constructing an archive with set expectations, taking us back to Thompson's point above. One can imagine material appended to physical copies of, say, a film or television programme, which would allow one to reconstruct a history like Barr's of Churchill's wartime viewing, being discarded in the process of digitisation. Leafing through the old copies of Screen and Screen Education that have found their way into my office, at the same time that I simply enjoyed the weight of the objects, and holding these things that had been in the world longer than me in my hands, I absorbed material and made connections that I do not think I would have if I had been accessing Screen's digital archive (a resource which, I must hasten to add, I am extremely grateful for!). I saw an advert for a newly created Film Studies post at a university - something which would come in handy for any discussion of the institutional history of UK Film Studies. I also saw a collection of short pieces written by the people who held some early university film studies posts funded by the BFI - Richard Dyer, Robin Wood and (I think) Peter Wollen. I was not looking for these things - which takes us back to Barr's point about set expectations. Of course, an exhaustive click through Screen's digital holdings would uncover most of this material (though possibly not the job ad, and certainly not the loose subscription form that fluttered to my feet when I opened one edition), but it is in fact easier to nimbly move between articles when they're there at the flick of a thumb rather than the click of a mouse - as part of the 'flow', might one say, of a publication, to evoke a figure of speech derived from Television Studies. Digitisation subdivides a journal into its separate articles more decisively than a print version.

And there are of course other matters of how one engages with 'the text'. A visitor to an archive would not, I hope, dream of adding their own annotations. And making direct annotations upon the copies of film or TV texts that I own is still beyond my technological capabilities. But when it comes to one's own personal print 'archive' - of books, or photocopies - it is a different matter. I have some .pdf articles stored on my hard drive and memory stick. But I can't engage with them in the way I can paper copies. I overheard a scholar-friend of mine announce with some revenance that his copy of Cavell's The World Viewed bore the stains of his life, having been his constant companion for so long. When I use some of my photocopies now, some of them ten years old, I can also revisit, through my annotations, my own earlier reactions. Many of my photocopies are stapled or paper-clipped to a second piece that is in some way related. I particularly treasure some of the pieces that also bear the annotations of the person who copied them for me.
The specificity of the archival object in the digitization process is [...] important [...], as indicated by the discussion of the process of digitizing VHS tapes - a task currently being undertaken by many film and television departments and archival institutions, as well as by individual researchers. As Richard Wallace asked, is our object in this case the isolated television programme that the VHS was set up to record, or is it the physical VHS tape in its entirety, complete with advertisements, interruptions and analogue 'defects' of the tape? (Thompson, p524/5)
'Archive' versus 'library'

I placed quotation marks around one of my uses of 'archive' above - when I was referring to 'one's own personal "archive"' - because I do not think of my collections of DVDs and books and photocopies as archives, at least not exclusively. I think of them predominantly as libraries. Obviously there is no clean distinction here, but I think the difference in emphasis is sufficiently significant to be registered. An archive implies, for me at least, a collection of documents (and I don't just mean written ones, of course) to be consulted for the purposes of reconstructing a history. A library seems like a less historically-oriented thing than an archive. Might it imply a collection of resources that are of ongoing concern? A formulation is harder to arrive at, but I hope the distinction I am suggesting is sufficiently clear, and I think it relates to matters explored by Jason Jacobs in his intervention in 'The Mourning Television debate'.

Documents versus artworks

In his 'The medium in crisis: Caughie, Brunsdon and the problem of US television' (Screen 52.4), Jacobs begins by engaging with Caughie's 'Mourning television: the other screen' (Screen 51.4) and Brunsdon's 'Problems with quality' (Screen 31.1). Jacobs's article also needs to be understood as a further development of arguments he has elaborated elsewhere (principally, in his 'Issues of Judgment and Value in Television Studies', in the International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, and 'Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder', in the Journal of British Cinema and Television 3.1). Here is one culminatory passage from 'The medium in crisis', which needs to be quoted at some length:
What seems to me to be particularly worthy of further investigation is the way that [...] US dramas from the early 1990s onwards have incorporated a nationally specific kind of anxiety, a deep introspection. [...] It is the kind of achievement that, as we know from other cultural forms, tends to give the work a life beyond the time and place of its making. And this is the essence of cultural value. It is its distinction; the way in which, unlike other forms of value, artworks may accrue it precisely through their persistence beyond the time and place of their making and their continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns. In earlier times we might have called this 'absorption into a tradition'; instead I suspect we are seeing the establishment of one. This is what the past fifteen years or so of US dramas have offered us: a serious engagement with cultural, historical and political matters beyond the 'relentless spectacle of the present'. Some, like Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, adopt the mode of costume drama, while others appear beneath the canopy of contemporary relevance but, like Rebel Without a Cause offer shadow narratives which point to far deeper, cosmic concerns. [At this point a footnote cites George M Wilson's reading of Ray's film in his book Narration in Light.] Breaking Bad appears to be a recession narrative about a teacher who chooses to manufacture drugs in order to pay for his medical costs, but it regularly exposes the moral tension between the cost and rewards of individual enterprise on the society under erosion by a corporate narcotics industry that provides its central stimulating energy. Like The Wire, it explores the implacable shredding of human subjectivity by modernity not by rejecting the commercial or mercantile instinct but by exploring its deepest foundation in the desire to nurture, thrive and adapt. (p509/10)
(Before I enagage with the argument advanced in the above, it seems useful to make clear what Jacobs is, in part at least, reacting against. In a footnote on an earlier page (I say footnote but I mean 'sidenote' - one of the felicities of Screen's particular layout), Jacobs states 'Though this is not the place, in order to truly open up the debate about television and value it is necessary to challenge the territoriality of the insistence on the everydayness of the medium, to moderate claims for "specificity", and to highlight the ways in which its boundaries have been regularly policed by the repeated hygienic exclusion of approaches from the wider critical repertoire of screen studies, as well as humanities as a whole' (p506). I see Jacobs's point, but (like him, in fact) I am also sympathetic to the intellectual tradition he identifies.)

Jacobs is surely correct to suggest that artworks 'accrue [cultural value] precisely through their persistence beyond the time and place of their making and their continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns'. I would want to add, just because I think it's probably useful to spell it out, that what I think we're talking about here is a canon that is cosmopolitan rather than national. (Robin Wood touches upon this issue in the introduction to Personal Views. The idea and the prospect of a television canon is one raised by Jacobs in his 'Television Aesthetics: An Infantile Disorder', and responded to by Matt Hills in his 'Television Aesthetics: A Prestructuralist Danger', Journal of British Cinema and Television 8.1.) Jacobs makes a similar point from a different perspective when he states at the end of a paragraph in which he is discussing Brunsdon and Caughie's work that 'one cost of [framing the issue of aesthetics and value as anchored to national and cultural policy] is that the universalizing opportunities of thinking about aesthetics, those that offer the general rather than the specific as points of comparison, tend to be throttled back in favour of the particular, the national and the local. We get a very municipal sense of the medium' (p506). This takes us to what I really want to talk about: the relationship of the general to the specific in aesthetics and evaluation.

Reading the long passage quoted above uncharitably, one might construe it as suggesting that 'the general' should automatically be valued more highly than 'the specific' (or even more uncharitably, that allegory is the highest form of artistic achievement). For an artwork to ascend to the status of 'culturally valuable' it must transcend its context. I recognise that an artwork's attainment of a life 'beyond the time and place of its making' necessarily entails some such transcendence, but we have to be very careful about how we develop this idea. I have not seen Breaking Bad so I am not in a position to comment upon it, but it does seem to me that there is a mismatch between the structure of Jacobs' sentence on the show, which suggests that we must choose between something that it 'appears to be' and something that it 'is', and the content of that sentence, which seems to me to offer two very closely-related descriptions.

Artworks are susceptible to being described at varying levels of generality. I agree with Jacobs (via Wilson) that Rebel Without a Cause offers its more 'metaphysical' (my word) themes as existing on a 'deeper' (Jacobs's word) plane than its ostensible subject matter. However, in the case of The Wire, my strong sense is that it is wholly committed to the specific thing it is representing, and the general points we can extrapolate from this (about human subjectivity and modernity) are not being offered to us as a superior meaning, the thing we should really be looking for, but rather exist as something in the manner of a paraphrase or summary, unavoidably available to us as a description, but not what the programme wants us to experience.

'Persistence beyond the time and place of [...] making' might be thought to entail 'continuing relevance to audiences distant from their immediate concerns'. But again, we have to be careful about what exactly this means. The Wire has taught me a lot about my own environment, and is in that sense 'relevant' to me. But more than this, I believe I value it because it has vividly opened up a realm of experience that was closed to me before I watched it (which we can cash out in 'realist' terms, or in terms of art's capacity to 'renew perception'). Perhaps we should be talking about art's ability to communicate (foreign) experiences ('to speak to us across time', as Jacobs puts it in the sentence after I leave off above) as well as be relevant to the beholder's existing experiences. I value The Wire for the fine-grained way that it articulates the complex operations of and connections between a series of institutions. I can think of no better example of a programme that achieves its widespread (general) and deep appeal through a commitment to a thoroughgoing specificity. Such things are hard to articulate, and I am not saying that I disagree entirely with Jacobs - just that there is more to be said on these matters.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Weight of the Past

(This is a companion blog to my previous entry, which used 4'33" to think about what happens when the medium used to (re)produce music shifts. The current entry thinks about photography, with the help of a book and a television programme.)

A few weeks ago, in a cafe or a restaurant, I noticed a couple looking through a set of photographs that they had just gotten back from being developed - a commonplace sight as recently as perhaps six or seven years ago, but much less so now.

Nostalgia touches photographs in many ways. In her beautiful book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote:
A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.
Looking at the couple looking at actual, material photographs, not images on a screen, I felt nostalgia for a photographic process that is now a residual technology.

In On Photography, Sontag has a lot to say about the relationship with the past that photography invites. At times she is markedly critical. When she states that 'photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation', she is pointing to what she sees as photography's illusory offer of easy access to complex realities.

In another passage, Sontag suggests that photographs act as a substitute, and perhaps a poor one, for an older kind of link with the past:
Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans — the used things, warm with generations of human touch, that Rilke celebrated in The Duino Elegies as being essential to a human landscape. Instead, we have our paper phantoms, transistorized landscapes. A featherweight portable museum.
I recently revisited Sontag's book alongside the BBC television drama Shooting the Past. The latter tells the story of a photographic collection which is threatened with destruction when the old building it is housed in is bought by American developers so that it can become the site of a business school. The developers arrive under the impression that the staff are aware of what is happening and have made arrangements for the collection to be re-housed, but find out that they are wrong on both counts. The matter then becomes, as the chief developer puts it, one of hard economics: the photographs have a monetary value less than the cost of even a few days' delay in construction, so they will have to be destroyed.

The problem that the collection represents, and that those who wish to preserve it face, is that, en masse, these photographs constitute not a 'featherweight portable museum', but a bulky, decidedly material, set of objects. One could facetiously observe that if it were a collection of digital photographs, there would be no story: the staff could put their memory sticks in their pockets and be on their way. But as well as all the other questions this leaves unanswered, it runs the risk of succumbing to a form of digital utopianism which ignores the material basis of even these new technologies, a hubristic blindness which both their producers and consumers often participate in.

The point is that just as media have a history, so too does the way we think about those media. What seems featherweight to one generation, whose point of comparison is something that came earlier, becomes bulky to another, who have moved on once again. The current pace of technological change means that we can witness this process take place over the space of less than five years; think of mobile phone technology. Now that celluloid is on its way out (and the stars of classical Hollywood are almost all dead), theorisations of film based on movement, or even absent-presence, are receding, and newer theories linking the moving image with death are coming to the fore. We ought to be at least a touch more precise and acknowledge that, like nostalgia, death has been associated with photography, including moving photograpy, for a long time (Bazin once observed that if photography were subject to pyschoanalysis, one of the key motives behind it would be the embalming of the dead). So it is more accurate to say that whilst there will always be competing theorisations of media at any given moment, there will be a historical variation in the prominence of these models.

There's another way of reading Shooting the Past that appeals to me at this particular historical moment. The programme tells the story of capitalists encountering an institution which they now have control of, even if they do not understand it. And all of a sudden, the guardians of that institution are told that they must face 'reality', or, to decode that term of blackmail, a certain brand of economics (as if up until this point they had been living in a dreamworld). The imperatives of a balance sheet and a timetable become the only ones that matter. In this situtation, the value of what is preserved and disseminated by the institution can only be conceived of in financial terms, terms which, of course, completely overlook the institution's real value.

But that's another blog entry...

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I'm going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage's 4'33" as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that 'always renewed itself'. I don't know if he's right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

I can't remember now if I found out after this or before it about a campaign to get 4'33" to Christmas number one in the UK. In a nod to 'Killing in the Name' having achieved the same feat last Christmas, in our era of musical downloading, the campaign is entitled 'Cage Against the Machine'.

It is interesting to think about what it means for a piece originally experienced by a crowd gathered in the same room as the musicians to become a downloadable audio file, and what it would mean for that audio file to be number one at Christmas.

A huge amount of the music that we listen to is created and recorded in the knowledge and with the intention that it will be heard by individuals, or small groups thereof, on their radios, or stereos, or personal stereos (to use that slightly antiquated term), at home, at work, or on the move. The amount of attention given to and respect afforded the music will vary, but the fact will remain that it is a recording to be switched on and off at times convenient to the listener, and that it is received in spaces which do not have the sole purpose of housing musical performances. In this sense, even though recorded music is a record of a performance, it is more like a book - a personal object to be picked up and put down at will - than a theatrical performance - which one must attend and which has a set performance time and duration, and which cannot be stopped at will by any individual audience member.

It is a less unproblematic transition if the recording is of a piece of music originally written to be performed to a gathered and present audience. 4'33" highlights this troubled transition to an unusual degree. All music written before the age of mechanical reproduction was not written to be reproduced outside of the occasion of the original creation of the sounds we hear, so all the music composed by, let's say, Vivaldi, undergoes a change when it is made available to us via the medium of the compact disc recording. However, when I listen to Vivaldi, I am not particularly troubled by this fact. What's more, the recordings I have were performed to be recorded, much like contemporary popular music. That was the purpose of the performance, even if the piece was not originally composed with such a possibility in mind. We are not 'overhearing' a performance to a gathered audience (although of course there are recordings which fall into that category).

It is strange to put it in these terms (conceptual art will often lead us to strange formulations of our experience of less experimental material), but when I hear Vivaldi, or Springsteen, then the sound of strings on the one hand or an electric guitar on the other provides the evidence, if you like, that such instruments were present at the recording, and created the sounds that I hear. I was not present at the event, but its traces are preserved to some extent (even if I cannot be sure in some cases whether what I am hearing is a synthesised equivalent, or whether all the elements I am hearing were created simultaneously - sometimes, as when Marvin Gaye double tracks his own voice, to wonderful effect, on What's Going On - I can be sure they were not).

But with 4'33"... the silence means that the instruments are not proving their presence in the same way. (Again, a strange formulation, though it does point towards the pleasure of anticipation when we know that there is a saxophone in the E Street line-up but haven't heard it yet on this or that track, or that of surprise when an instrument we did not know would be contributing to this particular piece makes itself heard.) Indeed, one could create four minutes thirty three seconds of silence with no instruments whatsoever. In a performance space, the presence of a latent piano, or full orchestra, is an important part of the experience. What about during the production or reception of four minutes thirty three seconds of silence on a CD, or a digital audio file? (It is worth noting parenthetically that 4'33" consists of three movements, and some cd and digital versions honour these divisions, but the Christmas number one candidate is a single track.) (I hope it is unnecessary for me to explicitly state that I am not attempting to dismiss Cage's work with one of the most common arguments levelled against 'modern art' - 'I could do that myself' - even if in this case it is partly true.)

The Christmas campaign is valuable in that it can help to remind us that not every artistic experience can be bought and taken home without destroying the original meaning of that experience. It is a challenge to the 'platform neutrality' of the contemporary consumer.

It is also something more. When I pay good money to play on a jukebox songs that I have on cd at home, I am partly paying for the pleasure of making other people listen to what I want them to listen to. 'Cage Against the Machine' and last year's campaign represent this logic writ large. Those who download this piece will not just (and perhaps not chiefly) be buying the track itself and the experience it offers. They are, of course, casting a vote for what they want everyone who is going to listen to the Christmas number one on radio or television to hear (and also for what they don't want everyone to hear: The X-Factor is the object being protested against by some who support the campaign).

This does not quite take us full circle, but it does reinscribe the situated social occasion of listening so crucial to the original meaning of 4'33". We may not have the latent instruments in the same room as us, but on Christmas Day, the track will exist not just as an audio file for us to treat as we will, but as a broadcasting event, part of the meaning of which is the fact that we are all listening together.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


I am currently revisiting Raymond Carney's American vision: The films of Frank Capra, and in the chapter 'Frank Capra and American Romanticism', Carney offers a quotation from Emerson's 'The Divinity School Address' which I also feel compelled to reproduce:
All attempts to contrive a new system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason - today pasteboard and filigree and ending tomorrow in madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they become plastic and new. The remedy of their deformity is first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can uplift and vivify.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Social Network

I got to see The Social Network on Saturday night, a film I had wanted to see for some time. It begins with a character returning home (well, home on campus) after a night out and venting his frustration via the internet. After the movie, I wanted to do the same. A couple of days later, the impulse to get out what I want to say and the opposing one not to spend time and space simply being negative about something are still battling, and are in fact proving a distraction, so I am just going to make a few observations, which make no claim to completeness or balance, so that I can get them out of my system! My points are reactions partly to the movie, and partly to positive things that have been asserted or suggested concerning the movie in its reviews (see David Denby's piece in The New Yorker for the piece where praise multiplied by prestige of outlet is highest).


In the case of The Social Network, jumping back and forth in time does not add to the movie's complexity, but consistently and intentionally works against it. Having characters discuss what happened in a legal setting just before/after we cut to the events in question removes any ambiguity concerning i) what is going on as the original story unfolds and ii) how we ought to evaluate the truthfulness of the subsequent testimony that we hear. The two strands are mutually reinforcing and defining, and leave little room for speculation concerning character psychology or factual veracity (I am talking here about the 'truth' offered by the movie, not its adequacy or otherwise as a record of 'what actually happened', something which could not be determined by examination of the work alone, and which I am not interested in here). The Social Network seems to me to be a film devoid of mysteries.

The screwball connection

The most galling thing about the movie's reception is to read repeated comparisons with the dialogue of screwball comedy. Roger Ebert writes that 'in an age when movie dialogue is dumbed and slowed down to suit slow-wits in the audience, the dialogue here has the velocity and snap of a screwball comedy' (see also Denby). Again: I cannot think of a single plot point, inconsequential or otherwise, that is not relayed redundantly to the audience in this movie. (As well as the back-and-forth timeframe, think of the voiceover, motivated by blog writing, that accompanies the protagonist's first frenzied night of creation, in which he repeatedly tells us that he is hacking into campus networks to access photos; in the unlikely event that we have failed to grasp this, we get an on-campus trial afterwards where it is explained to us again. Think also of the scene with Bill Gates, after which we are told 'that was Bill Gates'.) The dialogue does indeed have 'velocity', and also has 'snap' - in the sense that it is brittle, which the best screwball dialogue never was. Listening to the dialogue in the famously fast-tongued opening sequence, I may as well have been reading it on the page - which, again, is something that one would never say of screwball dialogue. The characters speak in strict alternation. They interrogate one another's language, but at the level of vocabulary. It does not really matter how what is said is said (apart from it being fast and descending into acrimony): there is no play with tone, or really (in this peculiarly joyless movie) with anything else. This might be seen to speak to what has been termed as the slight 'autism' of the Zuckerberg character when it comes to social interaction, and to the fraughtness of contemporary communication more generally. These may be achievements of the movie (at whatever cost such achievements are bought), but they are far from the achievements of screwball comedy. And instead of the whole-body performances of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn et al, who keep us interested and make us laugh with their actions, which support and counterpoint their lines, in The Social Network our two characters are rooted to their chairs and framed in medium close-up.

Screwball comedy interrogated and worked to redefine gender roles and break down bourgeois heterosexual gender roles. What about The Social Network?

Women in The Social Network

The movie begins with an exchange between Zuckerberg and Erica that leads to the former taking revenge and in the process sowing the seeds for Facebook. It ends with Zuckerberg, at the end of a long day of legal wrangling, staying behind in the office and compulsively refreshing Erica's Facebook page just after he has sent her a friend request, to see if she accepts. (A comparison with Citizen Kane has repeatedly been drawn in reviews, one which I can see the structural logic of, but which is still irritating because it mainly stops at the level of namechecking and so serves as an indicator of mutual esteem between reviewer and suitably informed reader, rather than as a means of saying much of interest about The Social Network itself.) So a woman can be a muse to the male creator figure in the movie. An interning lawyer can also deliver a verdict on Mark which echoes Erica's and is given the further structural significance of providing (I'm pretty sure) the movie's final line. So a woman can have insight into male creator figures. What else can women do in the movie? They can strip to their underwear and dance on tables, as happens in the opening passage - whilst our creator figure furiously works away at his computer elsewhere. They can obligingly walk around in pants with 'Stanford' written on the back, with their rear to the camera, as a means of enlivening the introduction of the movie's second male creator figure, Sean Parker. They can (in another joyless scene) be 'groupies', and take Mark and his then-business partner Saverin to the bathroom and perform fellatio. But look out, because one of them might be a possessive psychopath who puts a burning bin on your bed whilst you try and conduct manly business on the phone. They can attract the attention and praise of Mark for their good work, but then be 'shamed' and evacuated from the narrative in the next scene because of their drug use, which might compromise the cleanliness of the male's pristine creation.

After watching The Social Network, I find myself wanting to say similar things about it to what I said after seeing Zodiac. In Se7en, Fincher's noirish lighting and brooding Reznor soundtrack were a good fit with the movie's plot, setting, and themes. Seeing the same features in The Social Network, it seems that style has been unmoored from meaning. Am I missing something?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Small, Striking Moments: The Corner and The Wire

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject - a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) - as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

Gary enters a corner grocery store. The camera remains outside, and executes a three hundred and sixty degree survey of its environment. What is dramatised, however, is not the camera’s capacity for revelation, but the fact that its presence alters that which it would observe. It pauses first on three stationary youths, all of whom in their own ways exhibit a desire to give nothing away. Next, it stops on a man in a tracksuit crossing the street towards us, who meets the camera’s gaze, turns on his heel halfway across the street and crosses back. Finally, it catches a man walking past close by. The offscreen voice offers him an open opening gambit (‘Hey how’s it going?’), but he returns the greeting before it has even finished in a tone that ends the conversation, and moves past the frame without breaking his stride. Thus do we see figures variously frustrate the curiosity of the camera by doing nothing, turning around, and ploughing onwards.

Gary exits the store holding a cigarette. They are sold individually, he explains, for 25 cents. ‘Be a lot cheaper to buy a pack wouldn’t it?’ the offscreen voice ventures. ‘Yeah well, you know,’ Gary responds. ‘Why buy a whole pack ’cause you gonna wind up giving half of ’em away.’

The device of having the character who will turn out to be the episode’s protagonist speak to an embodied observer and enquirer is used in the introductory sequences of all six episodes of The Corner. The title card then acts as a watershed: afterwards, the camera is no longer tied to a following figure. Douglas Pye has argued that often in narrative fiction (he is specifically discussing Hollywood movies) ‘the initial overt marks of the presence of narration cue us to a relationship between narration and fictional world which we are expected to carry forward without the overt marks being retained’ ('Bordwell and Hollywood, p48). The Corner is based upon a six hundred-plus page book of investigative journalism of the same name (co-written by David Simon and Ed Burns). The opening sequences of the television episodes embed this provenance and method within the adaptive medium. Even after the initial mode of narration drops away, our viewing should continue to be informed by a way of seeing that places at the centre of its quest to understand the world the observation of human lives and the asking of questions about them.

'You want to know if a dope fiend's for real, check the bottom of his shoes.'

We are in an office basement which serves as the headquarters of a newly-formed special unit of the Baltimore Police Department, a unit whose purpose is to investigate the Barksdale drug organization. Detective Sydnor (Corey Parker Robinson) enters, dressed as a drug addict for an undercover operation. He plays to the other detectives, first adopting the language and gestures of the fashion world (‘Detective Sydnor’s ensemble is the latest in Westside project-wear [...] torn cammies by Versace, stained sweatshirt by Ralph Lauren…’), before declaring: ‘I ain’t showered in two days, I ain’t shaved in four. Right now I am one ripe, nasty son-of-a-bitch’. The most appreciative audience member is Carver (Seth Gilliam), who immediately joins in with Sydnor’s strutting, ribbing his fellow detective but also joining him in a loudly-voiced holding at a distance of the category of person Sydnor is imitating (‘Look at this piece of shit!’).

Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), another detective, looks on more sceptically. After Sydnor has finished regaling the group with a rundown of his costume, she turns to her confidential informant, Bubbles (Andre Royo), a drug addict who will be accompanying Sydnor on his round of ‘buys’ from Barksdale dealers, to seek his opinion. ‘Clothes is torn down enough,’ Bubbles concedes, ‘but he could use a little bit more stains, more dirt.’ His first major criticism is of the wedding ring on Sydnor’s finger. ‘Shit, you married to the needle boy’ Bubbles chuckles. ‘That shit been pawned off if you for real. It’s a dead giveaway.’ After more criticisms, Sydnor protests that Bubbles surely cannot have a problem with his footwear. Bubbles, sitting down, places Sydnor’s heel on his knee, showing the sole of Sydnor’s shoe. ‘See? You walking down them alleys in the projects man, you stepping on the dead soldiers.’ ‘Dead soldiers?’ an uncomprehending Kima repeats. ‘Yeah, empty vials. You can’t walk down a Baltimore street without that shit cracking underneath your feet. You want to know if a fiend’s for real, check the bottom of his shoes. OK? Have him dance on some empties before we go out there.’

The limits of Sydnor’s costume are an index of the limits of his empathy and understanding. The attitude towards ‘dope fiends’ exhibited by Sydnor and Carver in this scene is one of contempt. If one views a category of person through such a distancing lens, it is not surprising that an attempt to emulate their appearance will tend towards caricature - a generalised set of undesirable attributes. In this case, Sydnor’s dope fiend is ‘tore down’, unshaven and malodorous. But, as Bubbles points out, because he has not walked a mile in such a person’s shoes, his masquerade will not withstand the scrutiny of true players of the game.

What is at stake here is more than ‘surface realism’ - although the series and the discourse that has bloomed around it clearly have a strong investment in this too. The point is not, or not only, to reproduce the way things look. The Wire constantly invites us to extrapolate meanings, and modes of existence, from small details of appearance and behaviour. When Bubbles points out the limits of Sydnor’s ‘inhabitation’ of his dope fiend character, he points out the stories told by the presence or absence of a wedding ring on one’s finger or of broken glass on one’s shoes, for those who are able to read them (‘See?’). Similarly, the availability for purchase of individual cigarettes in corner stores is at once a neat little detail and a neat little story - a small window onto a mode of existence where even the most temporary accumulation of the most minimal ‘property’ renders one a target, leading to the formalisation of novel methods of buying and selling basic commodities that answer to such an economy.

-- -- --

The moments described above, and my description of them here, were a starting point for an article I wrote about The Wire. However, I couldn't find a place for them in the flow of the article in its final form, even though the ideas contained within them remained relevant to it throughout its development.

'The Rhetoric of The Wire' has now been published in the first issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism. I am deeply honoured to appear alongside the likes of writers such as Ian Cameron, John Gibbs, V F Perkins, Douglas Pye, Deborah Thomas, George Toles and Michael Walker, whom I have long-admired, as well as my friends and peers James MacDowell and Lucy Fife Donaldson.

(NB This would have been my first post with images, but my DVD capture technology pixellated them [I think Bubbles's magnetism was too much for my PC] and I couldn't get Blogger to lay them out like I wanted - it's worse that Word!)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Holiday reading: The Road

This blog contains spoilers.

Most of last week I was camping in the Lake District, and I managed to read a novel that I've been wanting to get around to for a long time.

I spend more time than might be healthy worrying about fuel and food shortages, resource conflict, and social collapse - thinking about all the things that need to keep happening to keep society going, and about how I'd cope if I found myself in the position of Robinson Crusoe, or the 'castaways' on Desert Island Discs. Should I be spending time learning how to grow my own food? Build drystone walls? Fashion spectacles for if my eyesight continues to deteriorate?! For this reason, and because I was so gripped by No Country for Old Men, I felt primed for The Road.

The novel follows a man (who remains unnamed throughout) and his son as they traverse an America in which society has collapsed, nothing grows, and the sun barely shines - effectively, a nuclear winter, although the specifics of whatever precipitated this ecological state are never gone into.

Language and imagery are the novel's main strengths. Alan Warner puts it well in his Guardian review when he suggests that
what propels The Road far beyond its progenitors are the diverted poetic heights of McCarthy's late-English prose; the simple declamation and plainsong of his rendered dialect, as perfect as early Hemingway; and the adamantine surety and utter aptness of every chiselled description.
Around halfway through the novel, when we have become accustomed to the extreme precariousness of the lives of the man and boy, as they wheel a cart along asphalt, picking up what food they can and preciously guarding what they have, the man discovers a family's long-abandoned bunker, hidden under grass in their garden. It contains cans and cans of food: 'chile, corn, stew, soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished world'. The moment of discovery is a truly affecting one by virtue of its context.

The 'vanished world' of the novel is precisely a world where there's enough to eat, and a world in which food can still be produced. The loss of art, architecture, science, knowledge... these things are not considered directly. This is a consequence of the restrictions the novel observes. It mainly limits itself to describing the two main characters and their actions, and does not create within these restrictions occasions for reflection upon the lost civilization in broader terms.

As well as no longer having any meaningful past, wiped out as it has been, the characters are also robbed of any future. The underground bunker full of food represents not just the richness of the past, but the ability within that past to have a future; to have the wherewithal to save, make plans and think beyond one's immediate needs, and the faith that it is worth one's while to do so.

This is stark and effective, but it does present structural challenges that I did not feel that the novel entirely overcame, or at least did not sufficiently compensate for. When your characters live in an eternal and precarious present, how does one develop a story? Can one create a narrative that feels other than episodic and arbitrary?

My other main reservation is partly to do with the book, and partly to do with its critical reception. I confess that I love the critical fawnings that are used as pull quotes on book covers and inside them. I always read them in order to whet my appetite for the main course that is the novel itself. I am promised various kinds of brilliance in various authoritative, taut phrases; by reading this book I will experience this promised brilliance; the time I spend reading will be fuller and better living than if I was doing the washing up or sitting on the sofa eating biscuits; and afterwards perhaps I will have some taut phrases of my own, or at least I'll be able to inhabit rather than just observe and assume the fittingness of the judgements of the quotes on the cover.

There are the usual cliches. Kirsty Wark is quoted describing The Road as 'shocking and harrowing but' - of course - 'ultimately redemptive'. Reading the quotes back after having read the novel, I found myself temporarily transformed into Bertolt Brecht, feeling contempt for 'the scum of the earth who want the cockles of their heart warming'. However, I was also slightly troubled by something more specific to this novel's reception. In describing it as 'a warning', I think there is a danger of a self-congratulatory display of concern and social consciousness which amounts to very little and serves no useful purpose.

The Road ends with a one-paragraph coda, after the business of the plot is concluded. (In its muscular simplicity and subject matter, it reminds me of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.) Here it is in its entirety:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
We should not reduce The Road to the message or warning that this paragraph contains. Nevertheless, this is a rhetorically privileged moment. It is the first time we break away completely from the man and boy, and the last thing in the novel. We are no longer being presented with narrative, but with poetic and pointed description standing alone.

It probably seems churlish and uncharitable to begrudge McCarthy a one-paragraph coda after a 300 page novel characterised above all by economy and restraint, especially a paragraph so beautifully written, the sentiment of which one surely could not disagree with. However, it seems to me to provide the invitation to the kinds of interpretations referred to above.

The Road is, throughout, all about effects and not causes. How did this nuclear winter come to pass? We do not know. McCarthy's tone throughout is elegiac, regretful and humane, and this tempers and makes more palatable but does not eliminate the fact that he is also fatalistic and despairing, perhaps even nihilistic? When faced with the terrifying spectacle of an unexplained and total destruction of society, ecology and food production and supply, I would not say I had been 'warned', because a warning suggests that if I fix my ways there's still time to make everything alright, and I do not think that is what the novel suggests - and it certainly does not suggest how one might go about doing the fixing. If McCarthy is a climate change thinker, he is a James Lovelock. Again, the lost world evoked by The Road is not a world of excess, despoilation or rapaciousness: it is primarily a world where people simply had enough to eat. The novel does not present us with any past figures or actions who contextualise its calamitous present and would therefore serve as objects of blame. And a bit of tinkering at the margins by the reading public will not save us.