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.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Discourse vs rhetoric

Over the past few months, I've attended a small handful of academic events at the University of Warwick: a workshop on gender, social reproduction and depletion; a graduate Security Studies conference; and the third annual Film-Philosophy conference. And now that FPIII, which I helped to organise, has been and gone, I have a little more time to write about some thoughts that these events have provoked. It was the Security Studies conference that got me thinking about the topic that gives this blog its title, but that topic is an important one for academia (particularly, I think, the humanities and social sciences) in general. It is also a topic that overlaps with the cover feature of this week's THE: 'scholarly writing'.

In 2008, there occurred in UK higher education the Research Assessment Exercise, in which academic departments of UK universities and their research 'outputs' were evaluated, with the results influencing the distribution of funding. The RAE has been replaced by the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The new UK government has postponed the REF until some kind of agreement can be reached about a controversial element which, it is proposed, ought to influence how departments are evaluated - and, therefore, funded. That element is 'impact': the reach of university research beyond the academy.

I have written about this in passing on this blog before, and linked to Stefan Collini's excellent article on the subject. For the purposes of this particular entry, the initial point that this prologue leads me to is that consideration of, and worries about, the extent to which what academics write is or should be accessible to non-specialists is nothing new.

When non-specialists are confronted with the technical language of an academic discipline, it is often dismissed as jargon. As Terry Eagleton has noted, the use of such language is often felt to be particularly scandalous when the object of study is something that it is assumed can be understood without the need for study: films, novels, music, newspapers. (As a Film Studies person, I was interested to stumble across this piece recently.)

I think any academic discipline, whatever its object of study, is entitled to and probably requires its own specialist language. However, I do think distinctions can be made concerning the ways in which such language is used.

The danger of a specialist vocabulary is that it can become a substitute for thought. It can become, as David Bordwell has put it, the one hammer that makes every problem look like a nail. The speaker/writer's language becomes a reified, dead 'thing'.

In the 1988 introduction to Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Robin Wood writes of returning to academic Film Studies in the UK after a few years away to find a significantly changed intellectual landscape, in which a supposedly scientific language had displaced and discredited, and left no room for, the individual critical voice:
If criticism is scientific, then it has fixed rules, which anyone with a sufficient IQ (something very different from Leavis' 'intelligence') can master; having mastered them, you can write criticism. The notion of an individual voice becomes not only irrelevant, it becomes anathema. [...] Unlike Leavis, semiologists are not elitist. If there is the small problem that only a tiny group of intitiates can understand them, that is because everyone else is too lazy to learn the rules (or master the jargon). If we bothered to write the rules we could all write like that, indistinguishably. So democratic.
Wood identifies Stephen Heath as a person with the methodological commitments of the group he is critiquing, but whom Wood nevertheless admires, because Heath distinguishes himself through his personal style and intelligence, which demonstrate commitment and understanding.

In my terms, Wood is praising writers who employ rhetoric rather than simply using an available discourse. For such writers, writing is an act of discovery and communication - and, we should add, joy and love. It is not a more elaborate form of painting by numbers.

At the Film-Philosophy conference, I had several conversations with people at various career stages about where we find ourselves now. A discussion with an older academic about how things were when his career started (I asked whether there was the same imperative for him to slog across the conference circuit, presenting 20 minute papers on small topics to small audiences; the answer was no) reminded me of something Charles Barr said in his Guardian obituary for Robin Wood:
While film studies, the discipline he had helped to establish, inexorably followed a familiar academic trajectory, becoming staidly respectable, a field for careers based on narrow specialisms, he remained the best kind of generalist, continuing, as he had from the start, to engage equally with classical and contemporary cinema, and with films from many countries, and to place them in a wider cultural context, informed by his expertise in literature and music.
For those of us who want a career and an intellectual life similar to our old Film Studies idols, the big names who established the discipline, it is sad to ponder that the nature of academic Film Studies today makes such a thing much more difficult.

And 'specialist language' might appear to be the natural companion of 'narrow specialisms', but I would still want to insist that any piece of academic writing, however 'large' or 'small' its topic, need not dispense with such language, but must simply not use it mechanically, or unthinkingly. To repeat, language should communicate and clarify thought, not substitute for it.

(I apologise if this entry has not gone very far. It is not quite the entry I thought it would be when I set about composing it an hour or so ago, but it has gotten across some of what I have been thinking about whilst engaged in the events mentioned above, and on the eve of the publication of a newly relaunched journal in which some of my writing appears - a journal which has always valued the individual critical voice, and exhibited a healthy suspicion of, to use the terms of the above, mere discourse.)

Friday, 9 July 2010

Crisps on amazon: end times?

My wife just mentioned Fearne Cotton, and I always get her mixed up with Fern Britton. Anyway, this led to a brief conversation about This Morning, during which I learned it is now presented by Peter Andre and Holly Willoughby. For some reason, this reminded me of a couple of Tweets that I saw a few days ago about the fact that one can now buy crisps and other snacks on, whose authors suggested that this portended apocalypse.

I was having lunch the other day with a newly appointed (lucky fellow) lecturer in International Political Economy whose research specialism is the political economy of food, and we got talking about supermarkets (principally Tesco) and their economic vacuum effect, as outlined in the excellent book Tescopoly: the way they suck money out of a local community rather than allowing it to circulate within that economy, and at the same time de-skill the labour force, narrowing and reducing the quality of the types of job available. Someone else chipped in to talk about a man who used to go door to door offering video rental! - sadly too a thing of the past.

Amazon extending their repertoire is clearly more economic consolidation and vacuuming, but there's also something peculiar about using an interface geared towards selling music, DVDs, books and consumer electronics to buy Snaps Spicy Tomato (21g). There are only 3 left in stock - amazon urges me to order soon! These particular crisps aren't available from sellers other than amazon, but I believe others are - though not second hand, I would hope ('used, like new?'). I can read some product details to do with the crisps: how big the box they come in is, how quickly I should eat them. I can write a review to say how much I like or dislike the crisps, and give them a star rating. Not only can I buy them, I can add them to my 'wish list' - make them something I aspire to one day own. (Going back to the apocalypse theme: this kind of reminded me of the quiz show sketch on Mitchell and Webb which takes place after what is always only referred to as 'the event' and which repeatedly and to great comic effect exhorts its audience to 'please, remain indoors', where a pile of fuel is a similarly coveted item:

Scrolling down, I am disappointed to report that this is actually, apparently, not a new thing at all: Snaps Spicy Tomato were first available on amazon in December 2007. Or perhaps, 1984-style, amazon are re-writing their history. I sense I am probably now going too far...

Friday, 2 July 2010

Shrek Forever After

This blog contains spoilers.

When I got back from a nowadays all-too-rare trip to the cinema and its wonderful absorption last night, I had a telephone conversation with my good friend James MacDowell about the movie I had just been to see, Shrek Forever After. Unsurprisingly, given James's abiding concern with the topic, happy endings were one thing we discussed (a topic I shall return to below). He also mentioned that he had seen advertising for the movie around London featuring Shrek in an England strip, accompanied by the punning caption 'They think it's all Ogre. It is now!'

The Shrek franchise has always riffed on surrounding culture to humorous effect. And like most contemporary franchises, it surrounds itself with merchandise: action figures, duvet covers, video games, clothes. This sort of activity has been around for a long time. However, I discovered this evening another form of diffusion/repurposing that is at least a little newer. There is a particularly memorable 'turn' early in the movie, and at what turns out to be a crucial narrative juncture, which involves a young boy, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, repeatedly demanding that Shrek 'do the roar'. The repetition, editing pattern and timing of this in the movie make it very funny. And 'do the roar', a web search reveals, has, to use an ostensibly vague trio of words which in fact precisely captures the nature of the phenomenon we are faced with, 'become a thing'. When I google 'shrek do the roar' this is what I get: There is a YouTube video that re-edits the movie to MC Hammer's 'U Can't Touch This', to great effect. There is a link to a Facebook group page which bears the following description: 'Welcome to a Facebook Page about The kid from shrek who says "Do the Roar!" Join Facebook to start connecting with The kid from shrek who says Do the Roar!"'. And, perhaps inevitably, there is an iTunes App: 'Do The Roar, will allow anyone to annoy Shrek, and cause him to bellow out his enormous Ogre roar. Use Butterpants to help you annoy Shrek, ...' And those are just the first three hits!

A recurrent line of argument in film studies is that the contemporary commercial and media environment in which popular cinema exists mean that movies must appear across several different platforms, and that the pressure of such a commercial imperative causes their narratives to become incoherent. (A related line of argument is that the era of the blockbuster shepherded in the 'movie as rollercoaster', a thrill-ride of sensations, a mechanical series of ups and downs, rather than a carefully worked out story. 3D aesthetics, and the resurgence of 3D, invite us to revisit this analogy, and we will touch upon 3D aesthetics below.) Such arguments are not entirely negligible. In the Matrix Trilogy - the cinematic component of the Matrix franchise (and the dominant part of that supertext, to which all other parts ought to be subordinate??) - to take a good example, it is true, I would say, that the power station sequence in Reloaded seems at least a little thin and undermotivated - and when one learns that the Matrix videogame involves a much more elaborate treatment of the same location, things start to make more sense. It is true that the thinness of the power station sequence in Reloaded or what one might tentatively call the 'excess' of the sequence with the young boy in the latest Shrek do pull us out of the narrative flow somewhat, and make the moviegoing experience less smooth, but then, i) it is not only intertextuality that does this; ii) complete 'smoothness' is neither a desirable nor even a possible state for narrative fiction, predicated as it is on development and conflict; iii) neither moment radically endangers the narrative coherence of the movie (or supertext) of which it is part.

Indeed, Shrek Forever After possesses a very carefully worked out plot, one which, as we shall see, owes certain debts to 'classical' movies and genres of the Hollywood cinema, and some of its most interesting elements of 'un-smoothness', tension and excess have nothing to do with the fact that the studio that made it also wants to sell toys and the people who see it want to make YouTube videos or set up Facebook groups. Rather, they emerge, in a much more old-fashioned way, from aspects of narrative, character and genre (all of which, of course, rely upon intertextuality, albeit of a different form).

We can see Shrek Forever After partly as a form of what Kristine Brunovska Karnick calls 'reaffirmation comedy' and what Stanley Cavell calls the 'comedy of remarriage', where 'the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again' (Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness). The reader who has seen Shrek Forever After will know that I am cheating here slightly, because, oweing to its alternate-world narrative, only Shrek knows that he and Fiona are already married, and Fiona is a completely different person who does not know Shrek at all. But I'll get to that.

The moment that made me think most strongly of the comedy of remarriage was a sequence where Shrek and Fiona have been chained by the villainous Rumplestiltskin in such a fashion that when one moves towards the other, it causes the other to be pulled away. There soon follows an action sequence where 'the camera' swoops around through the space, joining Shrek and Fiona in a dance of movement as they work together and use their chains to turn the tables on their antagonists. As Dr Martin Pumphrey, a truly superb teacher at the University of Warwick, taught me in a final year undergraduate module on film comedy, the heyday of the reaffirmation comedy/comedy of remarriage/screwball comedy cycle occurred at roughly the same time as the rise of censorship, and we can see both the sparky dialogue and the pratfalls and physical comedy of the central duo in those movies as a sublimation of sexual impulses and desires. To see a plot work itself out bodily is one of the great pleasures of comedy, along with other even more disreputable genres.

And during this sequence, I felt that the movie's 3D presentation added something to its achievement and its expressivity. I am generally skeptical of 3D, mainly because movies are not computer games, and are the better for it, and as such the worlds of the movie and the audience should remain separate, and will remain separate even if something jumps out at us to give us a scare. We are not in a straightforward sense participants in movie narratives: we do not affect their outcomes. (We are, however, 'participant observers', to borrow a term used by V F Perkins in relation to film, and movies rely upon our consent and our mental acitivity for their fictions and stories to work). But perhaps this is an argument against the misguided rhetoric of those selling 3D rather than 3D itself, promising to put us 'right there in the picture'. And this is not exclusive to 3D: the same empty promise accompanies every new technological innovation. As a compositional tool or mode, 3D can definitely enhance the eloquence of certain framings, and the effectiveness of the physical and bodily working out of narrative, and as such is not 'mere spectacle'. To evoke V F Perkins (again), so long as 3D creates possibilities rather than imposing spurious demands, then it is to be welcomed.

The main reference point for me as I watched Shrek Forever After though, perhaps predictably, given that it is one of my absolute favourites, was It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek, like George Bailey, ruins a gathering for a special occasion by venting his suppressed rage at a life of domesticity and self-abnegation. And also like George Bailey, Shrek, via a bit of magic (although Shrek's magician is malevolent, and decidely not an angel like Clarence), gets to see what the world would be like if he had never been born.

The result, in Shrek Forever After, is that the kingdom of Far Far Away is ruled by Rumplestiltskin. Like the Pottersville of the alternate world of It's a Wonderful Life, it is a fallen world of unproductive labour, cruelty and vice, and in both worlds this is fundamentally because the person in control of the circulation of money is not a benevolent figure. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life is an acquisitive capitalist. 'Rumple' in Shrek Forever After is more like an absolute dictator. As well as living in an opulent palace surrounded by his witches while the rest of the kingdom falls into ruin, he has control of the airwaves, issuing edicts via his magic mirror, and a pied piper whom he pays to make his subjects dance like automatons to his tune. Another of his strategies to keep his subjects supine and divided is to dangle in front of them the promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams - the equivalent of a lottery win - if they will buy into his system and do his bidding.

In It's a Wonderful Life, George's wife Mary is in the nightmare world of Pottersville a spinster-librarian, and clearly the worse for having missed out on marriage and motherhood. In Shrek Forever After, by contrast, Fiona is the potent leader of an underground resistance movement of trained warrior ogres committing to overthrowing Rumplestiltskin - that is, to enacting a revolution. She was not rescued from the tower by Shrek: she rescued herself.

Andrew Britton has written that 'A peculiar interest accrues to works which have radically contradictory invitations - works which, in seeking to accommodate ideological disturbances, are compelled to allow them a space in which they become available to readers for purposes which the work as a whole cannot endorse.' In the case of Shrek Forever After, the movie makes the alternative Fiona such a compelling and positive figure that we might well prefer to see her remain a radical, living as part of an alternative community and seeking to overthrow the unjust status quo, rather than revert to being Shrek's wife and the mother of his children.

We must be careful not to exaggerate. The movie does represent the alternative Fiona as unfulfilled, and still yearning for true love and its kiss which, like all fairytale princesses, she has been taught to wait for in order to give completeness and meaning to her life. And eventually, Shrek, by being able to point out Fiona's personal and intimate idiosyncracies (unchanged across worlds) such as the way she doesn't like her feet to be constricted by bedsheets, is able to lay claim to what is often taken to be the truest and deepest knowledge one person can have about another, even though we might question why details such as this might define a person more than their public life does. The process is completed when, just before he expires (for the magic contract means he is living on borrowed time - the movie's narrative deadline and part of its ideological 'emergency exit'), Shrek opens his hand to reveal the squeaky toy of the ogre baby (like It's a Wonderful Life, Shrek makes good use of objects and other motifs). There are tears and a true love kiss, and Shrek's quest is complete. He gets his old life back (but gains a renewed appreciation for it).

But whilst we can take great pleasure in seeing Rumplestiltskin's empire crumble before his eyes (another boon for animation and 3D), and can feel the rightness of the way the plot has worked itself out, I suggest that we feel an unresolved and uncompensated-for sense of loss in seeing this alternative set of possibilities for Fiona evaporate, and being left with the original Fiona, who remains none the wiser. The movie's narrative logic and emotional dynamics reaffirm marriage, motherhood and domesticity, but they are unable to completely eliminate the contradictory invitation to acknowledge and experience the fact that there is fulfilment and value to be found in roles for women other than - or at the very least, in addition to (we must be on our guard against 'either/or' thinking!) - marriage or motherhood.


Another 'excessive' turn in Shrek Forever After is Rumplestiltskin's sidekick, a giant goose, who only honks throughout the movie, but had me in stitches with his blank malevolence. I was even going to break my 'no-images' policy and grace my blog with an image of this creature, but amazingly, I was unable to find one. During my search, however, I did find this page. Someone has ventured that the goose might 'represent somethign deeper , like perhaps the global economy meltdown in 2008, with Rumple being all administrations, until finaly the goose destructs after becoming grossly inflated.' As you might imagine, I got a big kick out of this, as well as the admirably balanced first response:
Claiming that the demented goose is nothing more than a funny side character is a little dissatisfying, though I do think it's a bit of a stretch to claim that it represents an inflated economy. Your guess is as good as mine, though. I'm a big proponent of reading into movies when you find something interesting or provocative (even when it's an animated kid's movie). When I first saw the creature, it did bring to mind a demented Mother Goose figure. That reading makes sense--the film is so entertaining because it puts a comical spin on all kinds of familiar fairy tales. It is a little disturbing to portray Mother Goose in that way,'s a very grotesque-looking goose with its pointy fangs and beady eyes. Very funny, though. I laughed every time it honked.
So did I, Answerer 1, so did I.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Artists crossing mediums

Tom Waits is the guest editor of the July 2010 MOJO music magazine. Many of the issue's features possess a Tom Waits seal of approval: a small picture of a a somewhat vaudevillean Waits, raising his hat to us over his shoulder, surrounded by the words 'Tom Waits Approved and Edited'.

Waits is an artist whom I have long admired, but I've always viewed him from a slight distance. When one of my housemates in a giant student dwelling I lived in a good few years back tried to get me more into Bowie, I joked that there was only room in my life for one weird old musical male at a time (and at that time, the position was most thoroughly filled by Bob Dylan). And looking back on my musical obsessions, this quip actually holds a lot of truth. My major ones tend to run successively rather than simultaneously - with offshoots and sidelines, of course.

Identification as a dimension of one's engagement with art is something that I've taken a long time to come around to. I still disagree with many of the ways in which the phenomenon is conceptualised, but I no longer believe that it can be dispensed with entirely. My engagements with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in particular have crucially involved identification, albeit of two very different sorts.

Which takes me back to Tom Waits. I have never felt quite able to accept the invitation to the particular kind of identification that the Waits persona might be seen to offer. I am neither a great raconteur nor a drinker, so straight away I'm at a disadvantage! I feel as though I can understand and appreciate the appeal and artistry of Waits in a limited way, but I remain on the outside looking in. And whilst I think some art will deliberately strive to keep all its audience in such a position, in the case of Waits this is my particular position and not the only one available. I see that Waits has a brilliant and coherent artistic voice, part of which is a set of vocal chords whose timbre tells as much of a story as any story they tell, but I remain aware that it is not nor ever could be my voice. To which I must immediately add that I don't think for one minute I could 'achieve' the voice of Dylan or Springsteen. What I mean is that I would (do?) elect them to speak on my behalf. They articulate what I believe (and lead me to a greater understanding of what I believe) in a way that Waits does not.

So much by way of introduction (the above is something I've been grappling with for a while as I try to write a book about, amongst other things, how we engage with characters in the Hollywood cinema). What I really want to talk about emerges from the fact that in this particular issue of MOJO, we learn about the art that Waits enjoys: music, but also novels and movies (my three key mediums). Why do the artistic tastes of artists hold such fascination for us? To some readers the answers to this question may seem obvious, but I'd still like to separate them out, and end with a point that I'm particularly interested in.

1. We are interested in the tastes of anyone we respect/love. Love makes us want to understand another better, and respect can make us want to be more like them. Both desires will be fed by immersing ourselves in the culture that has helped to produce the object of our esteem/affection. In the case of an artist, who produces her/his own art, then if we harbour artistic aspirations of our own, then this takes on the specific form of reading what he/she reads to try and be able to write like he/she writes (insert references to other mediums as appropriate).
2. If we enjoy the artworks of a particular artist so much, then pursuing what that artist identifies as informing context is a way of prolonging and extending our contact with the loved object(s).
3. If we wish to understand the artist's work better, the things that the artist is interested in may provide clues or even direct references, indicate abiding concerns, help us to understand the genre the artist is working in better, and so on.

(Before my fourth and more extended point: what did Waits actually choose? The cover CD, compiled by Waits, is like many other MOJO cover CDs in content (and I don't mean that as an insult), and echoes especially many of Bob Dylan's key musical reference points: the Delta blues of Son House, the country music of Hank Williams, the electric blues of Howlin' Wolf. The film picks are solid. I was pleased to see The Night of the Hunter in there, and the inclusion of Wise Blood made me more determined to get around to watching it (John Huston's adaptation of a Flannery O'Connor novel; I want to see if I can write something about Huston's adaptations of female Southern authors - he also adapted Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye). 'All Carl Dreyer films' was an impressive declaration - and Babe: Pig in the City the biggest surprise. Despite being 'Tom Waits Approved and Edited', though, some lazy rhetoric gets in there. We are told, for example, that Leaving Las Vegas's 'tragic denouement is a rumination on an age-old adage: life's too short'. The novels, like the music and film picks, lean heavily towards the American, and suggested a few things I'd like to follow up if I ever find the time, including a Leadbelly biography.)

Reading about Tom Waits's tastes in films and novels also got me thinking again about something that's been on my mind for a while. How well can the art of an artist, and its particular appeals, survive the transition across mediums? I'm sure that there is no general answer to this question, and it would have to be dealt with on a case by case basis (especially given that some artists successfully work in several different mediums - which is not to say that the appeal of their work in each medium is necessarily analogous). In doing so, however, we might discover some general principles.

I have yet to discover much about Bruce Springsteen's taste in movies. I do know a little about things he has read at various points in his career, and this has already led me to read Caril, an account of the Starkweather murders across Nebraska in the 50s. Reading this book, a pleasure in its own right, has filled in a bit of the background context of the album Nebraska for me (and it is also informing context for Malick's film Badlands, based loosely on the Starkweather murders - and Badlands in turn is context for Nebraska; for example, the latter draws images from the former). It also piqued my interest in Flannery O'Connor's output, after I read Springsteen's comment that 'There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a part of the American character that I was interested in writing about ... some sort of meanness'.

How well would Springsteen's tone and rhetoric transfer to the screen? Part of me thinks it might not be a felicitous transportation. To return to Dylan for a moment: I have yet to see a film associated with the man and his work that I have thought an unreserved success. Don't Look Back probably comes the closest, but Masked and Anonymous is meandering and pretentious, and I'm Not There seems to me to suffer from similar problems of diffusion (and I also think of Dylan more as a modernist than a postmodernist, but it's through the latter lens that Haynes's film treats Dylan and his persona(e)). One should never judge films one has not seen, but the prospect of sitting through Renaldo and Clara fills me with dread.

In the case of Dylan, I find that the captivating images, admonishments, phrases and textures of his songs are not served well by a visual medium or by the dramatic modes that one usually finds there. I would never accuse Dylan of indulgence in his musical output, but on the screen that's what I feel one is presented with. (I am prepared to acknowledge that this is partly a result of my being most attuned to and appreciative of dramatic fiction in film.)

Springsteen presents a different problem. The narrative is there, but it's too economical for a feature length narrative fiction film. 'Then I got Mary pregnant, and man, that was all she wrote/And for my nineteenth birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat'. The temporal compression and pared-downness of detail is intrinsic to the effectiveness of the song. Linking the events through a rhyme and reporting them all in the space of a few seconds reinforces the idea of a causal relationship (getting your girlfriend pregnant means you must marry and support her - in the world that the song depicts) and of the protagonist's experience of looking back on a series of events that seemed both inescapable in their logic and rapid in their succession. If the narrative were expanded out so that we got a scene of lovemaking, then later a scene of revelation, then a wedding, and so on, the original effect would be lost. (I should add here though that thinking about how Springsteen might or might not transfer to the screen is what led me to articulate this small point about 'The River': like many thought experiments about art, it generates critical insights and helps one to better articulate the effects of the text as it exists.)

Listening to the voices of Springsteen's characters in his songs, I am able to respond to them in the way I intuit the song wants me to. These characters are telling me the stories of their lives. They are narrating and summarising their experiences. But if I had to accompany them for the duration of a dramatic fiction, and see them live their lives rather than just hear them talking about them, would I feel the same way about them?

This will have to remain an open question for now. I will close by saying that George Pelecanos definitely manages to achieve a lot of 'Springsteen moments' on the page in his novels. As for the movies, I think my investigation should begin with Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, the plot of which is extrapolated from the words of Springsteen's 'Highway Patrolman', one of the songs on Nebraska.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Twitter: first impressions

Having a conversation with another person about the appeal of Big Brother, or how - or why - it works, is impossible if that person has never immersed themselves in the experience of the programme. And although Twitter has not attracted the same kind of hostility, it is another 'text' (I'll come back to that word) that has emerged from an evolving mediascape, creates channels/possibilities/modes of self-presentation that did not hitherto exist ('at all?!' my 'nothing-is-entirely-new' inner voice demands), and needs to be participated in to be understood.

I deactivated my Facebook account some time ago, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to enter the world of Twitter, posing as it does, or so it seems to me, some similar drawbacks and dangers.

But first I'll focus on a few differences (and apologies if my Facebook knowledge is now outmoded). Twitter seems in some ways to be less of a 'me' medium (resisting the coinage) than Facebook. The subject of a Facebook status update, almost unavoidably, is the profile owner him or herself, because each update starts with their name. One could say this is true of Twitter too, but I've so far only encountered one person who systematically treats their tweets like status updates, making their name the first word, as it were. The default mode is for the name to act like a character name in a script: it merely identifies the person, and is followed by their utterance, of which it is not a part (to be boring about it, most people start tweets with a capital letter, but continue status updates after their name with a lower case one).

And I'd say there's a much greater tendency for tweets than status updates to be non-autobiographical. They are often not about something that is happening to the person, but something happening 'out there' (where?) that the person is moved to comment on. My good friend Tom Hughes (@yestomhughesyes) once told me about something New Media scholar Henry Jenkins wrote about Twitter, which I think I'm remembering correctly as: 'it is a combination of "I am here" and "Look at this"'.

Time to dip into some of Twitter's textual features.

A minimum of personal information

No favourite movies, quotations or books fields to populate, thank goodness. You even only get 160 characters for your 'Bio' (note abbreviation). The Twitter self is only minimally a static or achieved thing.


I wonder what the average Followers/Following ratio is. Public figures often have thousands of Followers but themselves only follow a handful of people. I expect that ordinary members of 'the public', like myself (and the majority of Twitter users) will follow more people than they are followed by, as they will follow public figures, organisations, etcetera. I myself feel a lot more comfortable 'following', say, Mark Thomas, than being his 'friend'. Twitter as a whole seems to offer a much better interface with people one could not in any meaningful sense describe as friends than Facebook.

Retweets and hashtags

Another indication of one's Twitter stature, besides the number of Followers one has, is how many times one's tweets have been retweeted (I still await my first!). Looking at it from the other and more important angle, Retweets are another manifestation of Twitter moving away from autobiography and towards something more like a public sphere. They will often register and promote solidarity and public awareness in the face of injustice.

Hashtags are a filtering device that, so far as I can tell so far, act as discussion threads.

I do not yet understand how 'Favourites' work, even having skimmed the information about them on the 'Help' section (perhaps I was reading too fast? - more on that shortly).

140 character limit

The most frustrating thing about this so far is that I've sometimes been moved to put up a quotation - usually from a pop song - but when I've cut and pasted it into the box, I'm overdrawn.

I've already seen that this limit lends itself very well to certain forms. The Facebook status update equivalent is one, of course. I've also been happy to reconnect with Gary Delaney (@GaryDelaney), whose comedy form of one-liners is a perfect fit with the medium. A lot of Tweets allude to some external phenomenon, often a current event which the reader is assumed to possess prior knowledge of (and if they don't, a quick search engine excursion will soon solve the mystery). Many - especially those by news organisations and their representatives - summarise a story or event and provide a link to a fuller account.

(I must quickly express my admiration for the tinyurl system, which is so easy to use and such an innovation! At the same time though, whilst there is an elegance to the brevity of them, their sheer randomness does make them seem a bit ugly/chaotic to me.)

Back to my Google Reader

I suddenly realised this afternoon that whilst I'd been assiduously refreshing my Twitter page throughout the day (encouraged by the parenthetical number which tells me how many new Tweets I have to read), my iGoogle page with its Google Reader gadget had been closed for some time.

My Google Reader has become a bit less compelling lately partly because I get links to some of the same subscriptions more quickly on Twitter.

But there's a larger point about the relationship of Twitter (a 'micro-blogging site') to blogs. I've found myself that some of my blogging energy has been siphoned off to Twitter. Things that I might have previously blogged about, I've simply 'pointed to' in a Tweet.

And then there's the question of how Twitter makes you read. It's all about brevity, and speed. I don't follow many of the links that are offered to me, and even when I do, I'm still in Twitter mode, reading at the driving equivalent of motorway speed, so I tend to tear through the longer piece, often thinking at the end that the Tweet gave me the meat anyway! Which leads me on to my next point...

Lost in the ether

My blog subscriptions sit and patiently wait for me in my Google Reader. But if I'm not on Twitter 24/7, I lose out. In theory I could probably catch up with all the Tweets of those I'm following, but that's because I don't follow that many people. Does Twitter have the capacity to deliver and retain all of the Tweets on the feed of someone following, say, 300 people (not uncommon)?

The 'text' of Twitter cannot be mastered, and is different for every one of its users. How would one go about analysing it? What parameters would (could) one set?

Perhaps it's best to think of Twitter as something one tunes into and out of. The default graphic of the clouds makes sense to me in that way - when signed in, one is plucking voices from the ether for a while.

To end

Twitter has made me feel more political. This might partly be a result of my signing up the day after the UK general election, but of course the site lends itself very strongly to the discussion of contemporary issues of widespread import.

And in this dark new era of public spending cuts, where the humanities will certainly take a further hammering and instrumentalists are likely to tighten their grip on 'knowledge production', the value and importance of the critical study of media (the quintessentail 'Mickey Mouse' degree subject and a perennial favourite whipping boy of the tabloid press, who would rather citizens did not possess the tools to deconstruct what they read) need to be championed.

I have been generally positive about Twitter as an instrument for reinvigorating the public sphere, and my personal experience of it these past few weeks has been exciting and overwhelmingly positive, but I have my doubts and reservations about this new medium's speed, brevity and transience. We are all encouraged every day to marvel at the possibilities of technology: how shiny it is, how efficient, what it can do. But technologies always fit into existing social structures, even whilst they have the potential to transform them.

Visions of a brave new world of digital citizenship carry with them new possibilities for exclusion - of the old, the impoverished, the disabled, the illiterate (Professor Charlotte Brunsdon in particular has helped me appreciate the importance of this point).

Who does Twitter exclude? What kinds of citizen does it create - or, less deterministically, what modes of citizenship does it encourage? These are among the questions we need to be asking.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Notes on Springsteen, part one

Even though I'm not an American, no longer young, hate cars, and can recognize why so many people find Springsteen bombastic or histrionic (but not why they find him macho or jingoistic or dumb - that kind of ignorant judgement has plagued Springsteen for a huge part of his career, and is made by smart people who are actually a lot dumber than he has ever been), 'Thunder Road' somehow manages to speak for me.
Nick Hornby
It was quite a thrill yesterday to momentarily contribute to the output of Radio 4 rather than merely listening enthusiastically. On last week's Saturday Live, Tracy Chevalier (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring) chose Bruce Springsteen's 'The River' (taken from his 1980 album of the same name) as one of her 'Inheritance Tracks'. This week, the following e-mail was read out:
Far from disspelling American stereotypes, Miss Chevalier's tracks and musings served as a reinforcing catalyst. Bruce Springsteen in 'The River' sums up all that is bad about the USA: redneck racism and insular allegiance to a flag, not a free-world ideal, and a nation which shirks its responsibilities. The American Dream is merely an American delusion.
(Now it is just possible that the writer is saying that Springsteen is depicting and diagnosing 'redneck racism', rather than simply propagating it, but this was a ten-second but in a magazine-style programme, so dominant impressions are what we have to consider.) I could not let this go unchallenged. I went to the programme homepage, and fired off a comment. Imagine my delight when about twenty minutes later, my e-mail was read out, pretty much verbatim:
I have no idea why on Earth you chose to read out such an ill-informed dismissal of Bruce Springsteen. He might perhaps be accused of a brand of macho sentimentalism or unuseful nostalgia but the charge of racism leaves me baffled and rather angry.
But for someone with as much of an investment in Bruce Springsteen and his music as I have, these few words only mark the start of a conversation I would invite.

The original comment that the editors chose to broadcast is close to being a rant - especially as it claims to find all of the negative attributes it outlines contained in 'The River'. In that song, a man tells the story of his life: he gets his girlfriend pregnant, marries her, works construction, struggles later to find work, measures the distance that has grown between him and his wife, and remembers going down to the river with her. It's a highly condensed life-story, and the details that Springsteen uses to bring his sketch to life are objects ('a union card and a wedding coat') and emotions ('I just act like I don't remember/Mary acts like she don't care'). Macroeconomics play their part in the narrator's woes, but he simply states 'Lately there ain't been much work/On account of the economy', and leaves it at that (Simon Frith has noted that Springsteen's focus in his songs on 'individuals' fate[s]' make his brand of populism ambiguous). Whence 'redneck racism' or 'insular allegiance to the flag'?

In my reply I tried to acknowledge arguments that have been levelled against Springsteen and which I can see the reasoning behind, even if they are still arguments that I would still ultimately aim to counter. Saturday Live's stand-in presenter (the Reverend Richard Coles) got closer to aesthetic and cultural issues that I think are genuinely at stake when, after the original comment, he asked his guest, 'When you hear the Boss, Jodi [Picoult], do tears spring to your eyes and do you want to hoist the stars and stripes in front of your clapboard house with your apple trees nodding around?'

Immediately after firing off the e-mail I began to think I had conceded too much (see the Nick Hornby quote at the start). But that need not trouble us if, as I suggested above, we treat the above comments as simply the opening rhetorical moves in a much more extended discussion.

Unfortunately it has taken me longer than I though to write even this much. It's almost midnight, the last song on Nebraska has just started ('Reason to Believe'), and I need to go to sleep, so I shall have to end with a promise to continue this at a later date, in the I-hope-not-too-distant future.
I know you're lonely
For words that I ain't spoken
But tonight we'll be free
All the promises'll be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road
In the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they're gone
On the wind, so Mary climb in
It's a town full of losers
And I'm pulling out of here to win
'Thunder Road'

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Stories and the internet

New technologies have an effect upon the way we 'consume' fiction (amongst other things), but they also have an effect on the kinds of fictional scenarios that are plausible if stories are set in the present. 'Don't let a mobile phone ruin your movie' is the tagline of and premise behind a still-current series of Orange cinema adverts (which, although they do not 'ruin' my trips to the cinema, certainly constitute a source of irritation).

Mobile phone technology has affected dramaturgy. It is now less likely that someone who finds themself sharing their house with a killer will not be able to get to the phone. Surely they can just reach into their pocket? Thankfully, loss of battery power and failing reception can still come to the rescue, so to speak - but there is a difference, and possibly a thematically significant one, between being cut off from contact with the outside world by a malevolent force on the one hand and failings of technology on the other.

I used my mobile phone at work today to text my good friend James MacDowell to pose an open, film-related question, as I often do. 'Can you think of instances where characters in fictions use internet search engines'. The first one that sprang to my mind was actually from a novel: in George Pelecanos's The Turnaround, a character goes on the internet to research an old local news event. James replied that the old trope in horror movies of characters going to an old dusty library to find out a key piece of plot information appears to be being replaced by them looking on the internet.

As is so often the case with film studies questions, it pays to start with Hitchcock. James's mention of the library made me think of the scene in Shadow of a Doubt where Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) runs across town to the local library - catching the stern, spinsterish librarian just in time, after being reprimanded by the traffic cop for stepping out in front of a car - to read the news of the 'Merry Widow Murderer', putting together a few other things she knows and deducing that it is her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten). Following this revelation, as a shocked Charlie walks numbly across the library floor, Hitchcock's camera executes a rhetorical flourish, moving up and away from Charlie and taking up 'the high angle of knowledge' (is this William Rothman's term?).

If we were in the twenty-first century and not the 1940s, Charlie would not have to interact with the members of her local community or worry about closing times (much as the contemporary television viewer does not need to worry about getting home in time for their favourite series, and therefore does not necessarily watch it at the same time as everyone else, thus feeling part of a communal experience). She wouldn't have to leave her laptop in her bedroom, thus precluding the social encounters and spatial possibilities that are so readily available to Hitchcock.

As James also pointed out to me, the bookshop scene in Vertigo would probably have to go too, at which point I ceased to be able to think analytically, and could only reply with 'Nooo!' (a response that James admitted was also the way he had thought of ending his previous message). Perhaps Pop Leibel and google are interchangeable to Vladimir Propp, but they are not to me.

Music and lyrics

As part of my ongoing curiosity about web-based information sharing, I am considering signing up to Twitter. So today I thought I'd have a little look at some Twitter feeds. I'd heard Evan Davis mention his on the Today programme. I wasn't compelled to sign up by the tweets themselves (although looking again now, just after the final Leaders' Debate, I can see Twitter working the way it should), but I did like his capsule 'bio' ('Yes, this is the bloke on the Radio 4 Today programme, Dragons' Den and the Bottom Line. These are my views, not those of the BBC.'). I was disappointed that Jay-Z's was run by someone else.

The best one was the tireless Catherine Grant's Film Studies For Free feed. It performed what I take to be one of Twitter's main functions; that is, to provide me with a summary of and link to other things of interest - perfect for a magpie like me. So now I've bookmarked a District 9 article which will help me with the editing of a piece on that movie that I'm working on. And I also couldn't resist 'Jewish band serves up kosher Lady Gaga'! This linked to this page, where you can both hear a Jewish American a capella group recreate chart hits but substitute lyrics that speak to Jewish culture. For example, the chorus to 'Poker Face' becomes 'Can’t eat my/Can’t eat my/No you can’t eat from my/Kosher plate/Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz' (that last part is a Hebrew blessing over bread, and scans perfectly).

I enjoy the eloquent juxtapositions that arise when something new is added to a song. I love 'One song to the tune of another' on Radio 4, and particularly enjoyed Phil Jupitus singing to lyrics of Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' to the tune of Frank Sinatra's 'Theme from New York, New York'. As Chris Evans recently demonstrated on Radio 2, 'Love Me Tender' to the theme tune of The Archers also works surprisingly well, and might cause one to ponder the clash of cultures that would be represented by The King visiting Ambridge.

Culture clash is also what makes 'Amish Paradise' such a highlight in the output of a man who has devoted his life to rewriting lyrics to humorous effect, Weird Al Yankovic. We have the urban, gangster's milieu of Coolio in our heads, but we hear about the lives of members of a religious community who eschew modern technology.

A similar thing is happening in the more recent Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Zach Galifianakis 'version' of Kanye West's 'Can't Tell Me Nothing', only in this case, there's no lyrical substitution, but instead of an impeccably groomed and supremely confident black man in the music video, we have two rather shambolic, hairy, out-of-shape white men out in the country, miming along to the lyrics (sometimes letting fly some spit whilst doing so). We ought to remember that the fact that the original video is set in the desert, thus avoiding much of the conspicuous consumption of many a rap/hip-hop video, and that Kanye West's appearance is pretty 'conservative' overall, mean that the Oldham/Galifianakis video is not a straightforward lambasting of the excessive trappings of hip-hop culture. It's a bit gentler and stranger than that. And, of course, the joke appears to be partly on Oldham and Galifianakis, who appear to be bringing attention to rather than downplaying their physical demerits. (This said, one bit of the video that never fails to crease me up is the moment where we see a tractor in profile, and its front and rear lifting mechanisms are demonstrated. Surely we're meant to think of the ludicrous suspension on the bonnets of cars filled with girls?)

All this has provided me with the context (or, if you prefer, an excuse) to share something that I've been sitting on for a while. I was originally going to let it stand alone, in a blog entitled, 'Bone Marrow and Giblet: A Travesty', but I will now put it here, with thanks to Zborowski, Falconer, and Lawton - and apologies to Knopfler:
A love struck Romeo
Brings the streets a marinade
Laying everybody low
With the meat sauce that he's made
Finds a street light
Steps out of the shade
Says something like
'You and meat babe, how about it?'

Juliet says, 'Hey it's Romeo
You should've brought me a lamb kebab'
He's underneath the window, she's singing
'Voila, some pudding black!
You shouldn't come around here, marinading meatballs like that,
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?'

Juliet, the pies were loaded from the start
And I bit into a tasty piece of heart
And I forget, I forget, the movie song
When you gonna realise I make the best beef bourguignon, Juliet?

Came up on different meats
Boths were meats of shame
Both dirty - but lean
Yes and the dreams were just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you, and now your dream is veal
How could you look at meat as if it was just another one of your meals?

Well you can fall for brains and liver
You can fall for brains alone
You can fall for streaky bacon
And the promise of T-bone
You promised me everything
You promised me chicken wing, yeah
Now you just, oh Romeo yeah, you know I used to have a spleen with him

Juliet, when we made duck, you used to fry
Said I'd love you like steak and kidney pud
I'd love you 'til I die
There's a steak for us
You know - the venison
When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong, Gi-i-i-blet?

I can't do the pork, like the pork on the TV
And I can't make biltong, like the way it's meant to be
I can't stew everything, but I'll stew anything for you
I can'd do anything 'cept be in love with you
And all I do is miss you, and the way we used to eat
All I do is cut the meat, with blunt cutlery
All I eat is brisket, and the rib that is prime
Julie I miss your calf's liver all the time...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Search engine serendipity

I idly typed 'jobs for bibliophiles' into google yesterday, and it led me to an entry on an interesting website called which I've now started following. Tagline: 'Living large on a small budget'.

I reluctantly consented to and sat through a sales pitch today from a guy trying to sell keywords so that every time someone types certain words into the search engine on their website, our 'product' comes out on top. So much for democracy, or indeed meritocracy.

But then, there are some types of information that can't be controlled, even by political parties with relatively deep pockets. Watching 'Bigotgate' unfold today, beginning with a Sky News microphone that Mr Brown forgot about, and then attracting tweets, blogs, tv and radio coverage, fed by playback-on-demand, I thought again about how the way we share information is changing, and what an exciting thing it is to think about. What is the best way to write about these phenomena? Perhaps the upcoming event 'Where Does History Happen?' will furnish me with some more tools.

Bigotgate may also, entirely fortuitously, provide a boost for an artist whose 'emotionally charged work ranges from the comic to the forlorn', whose only connection to Mr Brown's gaffe is to share a name with the voter he complained about. Google the name 'Gillian Duffy' and you will probably see near the top of your search results a link to, the artist's website.

Such is the communications world we live in: a Rochdale pensioner is generating the sort of publicity money can't buy, or in Mr Brown's case, bury.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

'Small, Striking Moments'

This is the comment I wanted to leave on Girish's latest blog entry, which has the same title as this one, but there wasn't enough space in the comment box!

I've been working on Hitchcock's Rope for some time now. It's a film full of striking moments (like the moment, already discussed by V F Perkins, where a swing door's movement is synchronised with a character's actions, perhaps suggesting complicity between the director and the murderous protagonist).

There are two great moments that sprang to mind after reading this blog. Perhaps I thought of them because they're arresting moments, moments of thought, for the characters as well as for the viewer.

The first comes after Brandon (John Dall) has decided he'll serve party food not from the dining table, but from the chest where he and his accomplice have stowed the body of David Kentley, a supposed 'inferior' whom they had a right (a duty?) to dispense of - according, at least to their Nietzsche-inspired worldview. The moment I am thinking of is the one where Brandon lays the tablecloth over the chest. He is already pleased with his latest 'artistic touch' of serving food from David's grave (as Brandon's ex-house master and teacher, Rupert/James Stewart, will later put it). As he lays the cloth, though, he slows down - both in thought and speech - and these elements of performance signal to us that an additional layer of significance to his act has just this moment occurred to him, during the execution of the act itself: his laying of a table is also a draping of a coffin.

The second is the moment where Rupert's suspicions are finally confirmed by an object. Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), the housekeeper, passes him the wrong hat by mistake - David's hat, as confirmed by the initials embossed inside. This is a key plot moment, but after watching a few times, I realised that of course there's a joke, of sorts, in there too: the hat is too small because, as would befit an 'inferior', David's head is smaller than Rupert's!

Two of the most rewarding parts of studying and teaching film for me are working with film sequences - on the page and in the seminar room. I love discovering new things or refining my understanding/articulation by turning moments over, looking at them in new contexts, or just searching for the right phrase to describe something that is happening in a sequence.

And taking all these great moments and observations about them and turning them into a more sustained overall account is often where the hardest work lies. I would add that, as well as the thinking about individual films in a sustained way often beginning with moments, a key rhetorical device in much writing about film is to do the same. One of the most promising beginnings to a piece of film criticism is 'There is a moment in X where...'!