Youth, representation, and the contemporary history of Canadian TV

15/Love

15/Love

Many scholars, fans (especially adult fans), and producers whose work/object of admiration might fall under that vast parachute called “youth” or “teen” TV will attest that, despite the cultish quality of so many such products, their regard within both broader segments of the cultural industries and audience cohorts is often marginal, verging on the disdainful. Much teen TV inhabits a potentially lucrative yet paradoxical space that is often seen as unavoidably mainstream and yet attracts a vast number of avid viewers of the type associated with decidedly non-mainstream media texts. Youth products tend to win few awards even when they are highly innovative and intensely adored. They are largely ignored in the press as well, unless they feature taboo storylines or debauched, barely-dressed celebs. The most visible examples of American teen TV are often considered guilty pleasures of some kind or other—because they are “bad” network products (Gossip Girl, The O.C., The Hills) or the hybrid offspring of “bad” cult genres (science fiction, gothic horror, animation).

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl

Anglo-Canadian TV does offer a few examples of both of these particular forms of teen TV spectacle, into whose looming and almost all-purpose maw we could put everything from Buffy to the aforementioned O.C. We do, and have long, however, produced a good deal of youth and teen TV—more than our share perhaps—of a different variety, owing at least in part to a slightly different heritage/parentage[1]. Here I refer to the debt the public-TV, documentarian tradition Canadian English-language television owes the National Film Board of Canada and to the public funding structures to which all our national TV producers are beholden. Thus a great deal of teen TV produced in Canada “looks” and “sounds” more like My So-Called Life or Saved by the Bell than Buffy or The O.C.[2] The fact of this (over)production, as well as the types of products being produced (and for whom) tells us something about one of the roles Canada plays in the global TV market; further, in examining the televisual youth culture produced in Canada, we can learn about the spaces in which technological innovation and the production of national cultures and voices intersect, and how this renders these cultures and voices visible or relegates them to the still relatively invisible margins in very particular ways.

I see a pattern emerging between the marginalization of teen TV as a multi-generic text type (for lack of a better term, calling it a genre seems awfully reductive) and the marginalization of Canadian TV more generally. In talking to producers there is a sense that teen TV is often overlooked by the industries, but it is precisely this marginalization that has allowed Canadian producers to carve out this niche for themselves while the more traditional strong-armed players (in this case Hollywood/the U.S.) produce more conventionally recognized adult fare[3]. Canada thus plays its particular part in the TV market, producing a variety of products for youth.

The Canadian youth market, of course, isn’t monolithic. There are shows that are co-pros or that can, do, and have traveled out of Canada with relative invisibility. You might say they are able to pass as American and in so doing circulate with impunity through American markets and through global markets in which Americanness is privileged. I am thinking here, for example, of a lot of shows that are produced for YTV and its subsidiary channels (15/Love, Danger Bay). Other shows work through more traditional—that is largely public and national—funding structures. They adhere more visibly to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandates about the representation of social difference and the uniqueness of Canadian identity. Some have gained great popularity (and sometimes also notoriety) in other markets; one group through the production of community-centred historical narratives of white–Anglo youth (Road to Avonlea, Emily of New Moon), another through the narration of youth-centred stories of urban multicultural life (Degrassi, Northwood, Edgemont). While these narratives have tended to be marked—literally or figuratively—as Canadian products detailing Canadian stories, they have garnered wide acclaim for their importance in producing social difference while maintaining the capacity to circulate widely. At least one other category also exists. These are still more marginal, sometimes locally-produced, televisual products. They sometimes have production values that are equal to those of the other shows discussed, but they have little chance of circulating beyond limited regional or national spaces (Renegadepress.com, Moccasin Flats, Drop the Beat).

Road to Avonlea

Road to Avonlea

Technological innovation, especially the development and widespread use of digital technologies, has leveled the international playing field in TV production somewhat. For a long time a major criticism of Canadian TV was that it was immediately identifiable by its “cheap” look as not being American. The professionalization of actors, especially with the prolific growth of the youth culture market, also changed the “look” of Canadian television. Today, viewers are less likely to notice the Canadian mark on internationally-circulated televisual products because of their production values or unfashionable, chubby, acne-riddled actors. But what, if anything, does this do to the potential for a distinct voice to emerge from Canada’s TV industries that deals with the youth market?

Moccasin Flats

Moccasin Flats

The idea of a national voice is of course problematic itself, suggesting the potential for some sort of unified culture. There idea of a national voice has, in Canada, largely meant a voice which is not American or Americanized, that is, produced to be legible as American rather than Canadian (again, to “pass”). It is interesting that Canada has established itself as a global purveyor of so many goods on the youth TV market. But the way that these products circulate, and their ability to circulate in particular ways that articulate something that might be recognizable as distinctly Canadian voices, is marked by their ability to pass (relatively) unfettered by this distinctiveness[4].

Notes:
[1] As Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond noted in 1996, “By 1996, Canada was holding the position of the second-largest creator and exporter of children’s television in the world” (116). What they consider children’s television is a bit up for debate, as they include in their list of “hits” shows from Mr. Dressup to Degrassi. However, this resonates with the fact that youth TV has not historically had its own department in production houses, and has often fallen within the production parameters of children’s or family TV.
[2]As Serra Tinic has eloquently addressed, Canada is a tremendous zone for the production of cult American TV, especially science fictions series like The X-Files and Battlestar Gallactica. Canada had produced some noted teen science fiction as well, such as the series MythBusters and Deepwater Black. However, most of these were co-productions with few links to Canada as a unique narrative site.
[3]This is resonate of how netlets have operated as somewhat marginal spaces within the broader US TV grid.
[4]At least within the TV market. How these products circulate within broader online matrices is a more complicated issue.

Images:

1. 15/Love

2. Gossip Girl

3. Road to Avonlea

4. Moccasin Flats

Please feel free to comment.




Institutions That Fail, Narratives That Succeed:
Television’s Community Realism Versus Cinema’s Neo-Liberal Hope

Television isn’t exactly known for portraying the lives of the urban poor or the rural lower-classes in honest and realistic ways. And it certainly hasn’t offered such portrayals as compassionately as it did in last season’s episodes of The Wire and Friday Night Lights—or so it seemed to me as a former resident of Baltimore and a person who grew up in the rural Deep South. Both series offered narratives of tremendous warmth and empathy toward characters that viewers could care about and embrace, yet simultaneously wrapped such feelings within heartbreaking stories that dealt with the tragic components of these characters’ lives and worlds.

The WireMarlo Stanfield of The Wire

(a) The Wire (b) Marlo Stanfield of The Wire

At one level, tragedy is an overriding theme of both narratives. In The Wire, we see lives lived in the midst of an almost total breakdown of social institutions and civil society. The writers and producers—former journalist David Simon and former police officer turned junior high teacher Ed Burns—tell a tale of contemporary Baltimore where inner-city residents struggle to survive within, around, and under an obliterated urban landscape. The institutions of politics, police, schools, and the economy are beyond dysfunctional, tending instead toward the toxic. Yet amidst the chaos, lawlessness, violence, and despair, citizens somehow still struggle by. Last season’s focus on four junior high school kids portrayed the critical juncture of adolescence in inner-city America—would these kids be sucked into the underground economy (and its almost certain ticket to the morgue) or could the institutions of civil society (i.e., the public education system) provide them another alternative? What we learn is that the results are predictable, but not guaranteed; more the play of luck (both bad and good) than fate. What we also learn is that these narrative fictions are also stand-ins for real lives in real communities with real-life consequences, which truly makes it all very, very sad.

Duquan \"Dukie\" Weems of The WireRandy Wagstaff of The Wire

(a) Duquan ‘Dukie’ Weems of The Wire (b) Randy Wagstaff of The Wire

In Friday Night Lights, the tragedies of small town Texas are writ small in the lives of its characters. The star quarterback of the high school football team becomes a paraplegic because of the game, and then watches in horror as his parents sue the coach and school because they need the money to provide for his care. The cheerleader’s storybook future as his wife unravels with the injury, while her family is crushed by the weight of her father’s persistent philandering. A running back and his brother raise themselves because they can’t stand their alcoholic father. The running back’s ex-girlfriend watches her single mom make one bad choice after another with men. And the replacement quarterback must care for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s because his father is fighting the war in Iraq—and seemingly prefers war to being at home. The broken institution here is not school, but family. And as with The Wire, the portrayals are all too real.

The Cast of Friday Night Lights

The Cast of Friday Night Lights

Yet all of these tragedies are not something that can be solved by the coach, the central character of the drama. In fact, his personal success (as a man with ambitions beyond coaching high school ball) is dependent on his players’ ability to overcome these tragedies through their own initiative, skill, and perseverance (as opposed to the typical trajectory of such a narrative which usually inverts these roles). But the coach is no fool. He realizes what is at play in the field, telling his team to remember that “what we have is special, that it can be taken from us, and when it is, we will be tested.” This is not some rah-rah half-time speech, but a recognition of the harsh realities of existence that have only just begun to test the kids in the larger game of life. Football is not an elixir in this narrative, and if anything, football creates additional pressures and stress for the individuals involved. Yet it also serves as a powerful unifying and rallying force for people who typically have little to cheer for in rural small town life.

Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

What also made these two television narratives stand out as exceptional for me was their stark contrast to two similar narratives appearing simultaneously in movie theatres—Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank, and We Are Marshall, with Matthew McConaughey. Both stories mirror the setting of these television narratives, as well as their focus on tragedy. Freedom Writers is the tale of a public high school English teacher in inner-city Los Angeles working with students whose lives have been decimated by gang warfare and broken homes, yet who nevertheless participate in an educational system that is little more than a holding station before they meet their inevitable fate. We Are Marshall is a football drama set in a rural West Virginia college town trying to overcome the loss of its team and community members in a fiery plane crash. Both films are based on “real-life” people and events, and hence, are sold to audiences as true stories.

What distinguishes these two films from The Wire and Friday Night Lights is how simplistic and thoroughly reductive their narratives are. Both feature communities that have suffered from violence, traumatized to the point of hopelessness and despair. Yet both films employ the mythological hero tale to provide the redemptive narrative. The saviors appear from outside the community, arising from seemingly nowhere (perhaps the organic matter that is the dirt of American “goodness”). As outsiders, they are immune to the pain and suffering that cripples those around them. It is through their irrepressible spirits and naiveté that they are able to overcome doubt, cynicism, fear, and institutional obstruction and intransigence. Both heroes embody the neo-liberal hope of American society—the lone individual who through sheer force of personality and perserverance rises, against all odds, to success and victory while helping the less fortunate along the way.

Jack Lengyel of We Are MarshallFreedom Writers

(a)Jack Lengyel of We Are Marshall (b) Freedom Writers

In Freedom Writers, the teacher has no conception or understanding of the war taking place between her black, Latino, and Asian youth when school is not in session. Once these kids teach her the realities of urban life, the message she returns to them is that all they need to do to overcome the pain and suffering in their lives is to believe in themselves and their inner feelings, and when they do, all the violence, drugs, illiteracy, racism, ethnocentrism, mistrust, brutal cops, lazy teachers, deadbeat dads, predatory boyfriends, vengeful peers, teenage pregnancy, and historical record will disappear. Indeed, as the narrative proceeds and the kids begin following her therapeutic advice of “telling their own stories” in journals, these dysfunctional yet all too real communal realities simply drop out of sight. In the end, the audience learns, society, institutions, family, and community don’t really matter—only the will of the individual. Write a different narrative, the teacher seemingly says, and all your troubles will disappear. Furthermore, embrace the story of other victims (Anne Frank and Jewish Holocaust survivors) for your inspiration. See how they survived state-sanctioned violence (never mind the six million plus who didn’t) to see that you too can survive the same. But first and foremost, believe in the white liberal do-gooder wearing pearls and smart business suits.

Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

The narrative of We Are Marshall isn’t much more nuanced. Rather than cancel the football program after the tragic accident, the university decides to field a new team the following year. The problem is that no one in the community—either the town itself or alumni of the university—is willing to take the job as head coach. Yet a new coach magically appears from outside the community, and in turn, overcomes all obstacles to lead his team of upstarts to victory in their home opener. Grief and tragedy are overcome through competition. There has been a disruption, but the return to normalcy occurs thanks to the courage of, and belief in, the heroic individual—the coach. At one crucial moment, the head coach lectures another coach on the importance of simply playing the game as the only true means of communal redemption. “What matters is that we play the game,” he argues. “One day we are going to be like every other team, where winning is everything, and nothing else matters. And when that day comes, that’s when we’ll honor them.”

We Are Marshall

We Are Marshall

We Are Marshall and Freedom Writers represent the classic American narrative that Hollywood has mastered and replicated with great frequency and alacrity: through competition and self-reliance, individuals can overcome the constraints of community and failures of social institutions. But also, it is that lone individual who refuses to succumb to (even thumbs his or her nose at) these constraints that we should follow. Through the leadership of such individuals, we will find redemption for the tragedies that consume our lives. The message here is neo-liberal, but I suggest it is also one with fascist overtones (the celebration of the will of the charismatic leader; the belief in his/her vision and triumph, despite the costs1). Furthermore, it is exactly this type of repeated Hollywood fiction—one that feeds our “hunger for consolation, meaning, and hope”2—that lays the ideological groundwork for public belief in such go-it-alone figures as George W. Bush in similarly tragic and traumatic historical times.

Although derived from real-life communities, The Wire and Friday Night Lights are fictions that ultimately reveal much more honest truths. The heroes to rally around do not exist, have departed, or will not alter the world by the twinkle in their eye. The institutions that fail them nonetheless continue to play important roles in structuring their lives. The tragedies experienced cannot be washed away by fleeting victories or introspection (which only provides temporary solace). Communities are awash in tragedies, both large and small, but only through community can such tragedies be understood, if not entirely overcome. And despite the breakdown of civil society in inner-city America, such communities are still inhabited by human beings—including innocent yet fearful children—who deserve more than our seeming lack of empathy, attention, or resources.

The Wire

The Wire

In that regard, television has offered us stories that are more real, humane, and pluralistic than the mythology Hollywood regularly provides. Television’s narratives cast an unblinking eye on characters and facets of American life that are rarely treated with honesty or respect. They offer much needed pluralism to the stories that permeate public life. David Gutterman summarizes Hannah Arendt’s argument about the importance and availability of such narratives within society: “The ‘meaning of public life’…is found when a common object or story can be seen and heard—and assessed and judged—such that ‘human plurality’ rather than ‘singularity’ or the ‘unnatural conformism of mass society’ defines the shared world.”3 [And if anyone has studied the fascist potentials of a culture overly fixated on the singular individual and mass conformity behind his indomitable will, it would be Arendt!]. Television’s realistic portrayals of communities trump the tired neo-liberal formulas of Hollywood. Institutions will continue to fail us, but only one set of these narratives succeeds in offering “human plurality” in all its messy and complex reality.

Notes:
1 Hillary Swank’s marriage is secondary to her mission, and as a result, she ends up destroying it in the process. In We Are Marshall, the university president, who resisted the team’s reformation, loses his job as a result of his efforts and the team’s embarrassing losses.
2 David S. Gutterman, Prophetic Politics: Christian Social Movements and American Democracy (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005): 21.
3 Ibid.

Image Credits:

1. (a) The Wire

2. (b) Marlo Stanfield of The Wire

3. (a) Duquan ‘Dukie’ Weems of The Wire

4. (b) Randy Wagstaff of The Wire

5. The Cast of Friday Night Lights

6. Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights

7. (a) Jack Lengyel of We Are Marshall

8. (b) Freedom Writers

9. Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers

10. We Are Marshall

11. The Wire

Please feel free to comment.




“A-loan A-gain:”
In the Shadows of Lifestyle Television

“Without doubt the practical establishment of this world of struggle would not succeed so completely without the complicity of all the precarious arrangements that produce insecurity and the existence of a reserve army of employees rendered docile by these social processes that make this situation precarious as well as the permanent threat of unemployment” (Bourdieu, 1998).

PayDay Loan TV Ad

PayDay Loan TV Ad

In the UK home-ownership is at the centre of national identity. Since the Tory governments of the 1980s allowed council tenants to buy their properties, owning one’s own home has become a crucial badge of much sought-after middle-classness. Much of lifestyle television is given over to both promoting and maintaining this dream. However, home-ownership is a precarious thing, as the recent collapse of the Northern Rock building society has revealed. A more telling indicator of the fragility of middle-class membership is the millions of people who take out loans. The explosion of consumer credit that began in the 1980s grows apace. Recent estimates suggest that “13 million people take out loans to consolidate their existing debts, of whom more than 8 million go on to build up further debts, and more than five million believe they will always be in debt” (Inman, 2007). But we are unlikely to discover this in the prim confines of Lifestyle television. This genre has no time for those whose can ill-afford the latest in curtains, cars or shrubbery. However, there is a form of television perfectly designed for those struggling to keep up with their neighbours. I write, of course, of the myriad advertisements for loan companies that are a staple of daytime television.

Loan ads come in two categories – the mini-soap opera and the crudely symbolic. In the latter we see people moving from red spaces (“debt” – even marked as such on the floor) into black spaces (marked as “debt-free”). This is very simple indeed but done in this fashion to catch the attention of the daytime audience who may have the television on while attending to other chores. More complex scenarios are presented in the mini-soaps which make getting a loan look like child’s play. In one typical playlet, a housewife wanders around the house requesting a mere £25,000 ($50,000) loan while picking up toys and laughing with her kids. Of course this all takes place in a pristine home. The message is clear – nice middle-class people deal with their problems like this, so why shouldn’t you?

One reason might be the psychological cost of personal debt. Research on consumer psychology indicates that the “increase in psychological distress is greatest when outstanding credit is measured at the individual as opposed to the household level” (2005, Brown, S, Taylor, K and Price, S.W). Not a few surveys have concluded that working longer hours and going deeper into debt to satisfy the ever-increasing “needs” people have is deepening the mental health crisis in the UK (James, 1998; Hamilton, 2003).

But never mind all that: the loan ads suggest that transferring all of your debts into one “consolidated” loan is not a measure of desperation but a representation of shrewd financial sense. The individual taking this step is an enterprising one. Here then are subjects active in their own government. Loans are not the responsibility of the state – it is entirely down to the individual to sort out their own situation. Thus scenarios representing phoned-in loans normalize debt. Handsome friendly people are waiting to talk to you right now! Thanks to them and the kindly folks at the bank, all your problems will soon be a faded memory. Alas…

“Debt advisors say that many of the people who fall behind with repayments from a secured debt consolidation loan just didn’t realise that their home was in jeopardy” (Inman, 2007).

It’s telling that these ads are often sandwiched between lifestyle television programmes while on daytime. The principal audiences comprise domestic engineers (home-makers with an intimate understanding of where the money goes), students (with lower real money and greater debts than ever) and the elderly – a cross-section of our culture that has been educated into familiarity with the world of debt. Despite having lower incomes and a more precarious economic situation, keeping a nice stylish home has to be a priority. A counterweight is provided by “threat TV.” In programmes like Cheaters or talk shows like Maury, domestic violence and imminent collapse are only misjudgements away. The loan ads that fill the commercial breaks serve as warnings: take out a loan now or you too could be plunged into the darkness of a life without lifestyle!

A perfect symbiosis has now emerged in the shadows of lifestyle — audiences are being sold anxiety. Trusted TV personalities (who may also be part of the lifestyle schedule) trade on their reputation to sell loans to people who don’t always understand them. Some economists believe that debt behaviour is part of the dynamics of capitalism and that “problem debtors may be created to satisfy the needs of an inherently unstable macro-economic system” (Camra, 2005). And so the insecurity then goes all the way down – from the caller wondering whether to “magic away” their problems out to an economic system built on the individual’s willingness to see themselves as rational cost units maximising their choices.

The home that we are encouraged to love and cherish more than ever has shaky foundations.

Image credit:

1. PayDay Loan TV Ad

References:

Bordieu

Inman, P. (2007) ‘Desperate Debtors Risk All With Secured Loans’ The Observer. 16/09/07

James, O. (1998) Britain on the Couch. London, Arrow

Brown, S, Taylor, K and Price, S.W (2005) ‘Evaluating the Psychological Cost of Credit’ Journal of Economic Psychology. Vol 26, No 5

Hamilton, C. (2003) ‘Over-consumption in Britain: A Culture of Middle-Class Complaint? Sept. tai.org

Cameron, S (1994) ‘Household Debt Problems: Towards a Micro-Macro Linkage’ Review of Political Economy. Vol 6, no 2.

Please feel free to comment.




Urban Fortunes:
Television, Gentrification, and the American City

Recently I was surfing on the ABC’s website, searching for an explanation for why the season premiere of Lost would not arrive until, alas, February of next year. That’s when I stumbled across this cast photo promoting Grey’s Anatomy.

Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy

As a student of both television and urban politics (admittedly an odd combination), I was struck by the prominent role played by the Seattle skyline. The image seemed to suggest, in short, that it mattered where this relationship drama was set. The inclusion of Seattle’s skyline (along with, of course, the ubiquitous Space Needle) meant something to the show’s fan base of college students. But what was that “something,” anyway?

Further “study” (i.e., watching TV, surfing YouTube) confirmed that Grey’s Anatomy was by no means alone. Establishing shots of glittering city skylines and vibrant urban street scenes proliferate on contemporary television—to the point where one might conclude six decades of rapid suburbanization have been abruptly reversed. Not quite. If many American central cities have stopped hemorrhaging residents in the last five years, population growth remains, as it has since the New Deal, a largely suburban phenomenon.

So what explains the seemingly sudden “back to the city” movement on American television?

One answer is that TV never left actually the big city. And this is true enough. The fate of the American metropolis has been a key subject of dramatic television for decades. Yet, until recently, as Steve Macek points out in his insightful new book, Urban Nightmares, media representations of the city have most often dwelled on the negative, depicting with seeming relish an urban America caught in a never-ending cycle of crime, drugs, and moral decay.[1]

During the Reagan era, for instance, Escape from New York presented moviegoers with a dystopian urban future in which the authorities had exhausted all solutions to the “urban crisis” and had instead turned the entire island of Manhattan into an open-air prison.

On television, 1980s cop dramas like Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets mined the same ideological vein, if from a slightly less reactionary position. On these shows, viewers were presented with an urban landscape bursting at the seams with disorder and deviance—the de rigueur drug dealers, gang bangers, and serial killers—all set in a crumbling urban landscape marked by graffiti, abandoned buildings, and homeless encampments.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Homicide: Life on the Streets

If our heroes in these Reagan-era shows (almost always cops and prosecutors) gamely labored to sew up the moral and social fabric, suburban viewers knew their efforts would be for naught. There would in short be no solution, no stepping back from the urban brink.

For his part, Macek argues that these bleak media representations of the American city amplified conservative political discourses about the causes of the “urban crisis.”

Thoroughly mystifying the role global economic restructuring played in undermining urban economies, conservatives instead blamed the city’s poor for their own poverty, along the way constructing menacing (and thoroughly racialized) folk devils like the “welfare queen” and “drug kingpin.” In doing so, these discourses labored to consolidate white suburban support for “get tough” policies like welfare reform and the patently racist “war on drugs.”

To be sure, such reactionary images of a decaying, pathological inner city persist on American television. The opening sequence of Jerry Bruckheimer’s CSI, for example, trades explicitly in urban nightmares, interspersing shots of the Vegas strip with quick cut images of firing handguns, yellow-taped murder scenes, and forensic scientists looking thoughtfully at decaying bits of flesh.

Fans of the franchise know that in CSI-land, the streets of Vegas, Miami, and New York play host to the most gruesome murders imaginable, with human corpses offering up the secrets that eventually allow investigators to catch the bad guys. In such shows—NBC’s Law & Order franchise comes to mind as well— the urban landscape is still presented as a threatening space of violence, deviance, and moral decay.

Yet, it seems to me that dramatic television has also produced an alternative set of urban images in recent years, images that are now taking their place alongside the classic, “crime on the streets” motif. In short, in addition to presenting viewers with images of urban mayhem, American television now offers a new vision of the city as a bourgeois playground—a bright-lights stage upon which popular fantasies of wealth, power, and distinction can be indulged.

Boston Legal

Boston Legal

Consider how Boston Legal handles the transition between segments. Coming out of commercial, the camera swoops over and between imposing steel-and-glass skyscrapers. Then an establishing shot anchors us outside an impressive office building, and we stare admiringly up from street level to the top floor offices of Boston’s most glamorous (and ridiculous) law firm. Together, these energetic shots of the urban landscape subtly communicate messages of vitality, power, and authority. This is the heart of the city, we are told. This is the place where big fish swim in a big pond and live big, important lives.

And on it goes. Sitcoms featuring twenty-to-thirtysomething casts—from Friends to Sex and the City to How I Met Your Mother—now seem contractually obligated to take place in Manhattan. Presented as an enticing landscape of bars, cafes, and exclusive boutiques, the city becomes a place to for middle-class college grads to challenge themselves and pal around with friends while building a life and career. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting on Long Island.

Indeed, particular cities seem to act as “brands” communicating glamorous messages to favored TV audiences. If, for example, Seattle’s tourism officials trade on the city’s “dot.com” image of youthful, bohemian creativity, what better setting could there be for a show about young doctors finding their way? And if your franchise is flagging a bit, as MTV’s Real World has for years, filming in “name brand” cities—from San Francisco to London—can add spice to a tired idea.

The Women of Sex and the City

The Women of Sex and the City

In all cases, our young urban protagonists must be housed in trendy lofts located in gentrifying neighborhoods and pursuing the kinds of knowledge economy jobs that get urban planners so excited. The brave new urban world presented on American television is thus a resolutely upscale world of architects, lawyers, doctors, art dealers, and fashion editors. Given these images, who wouldn’t want to move to the big city?

We have indeed come a long way from “crime in the naked city.” Yet, this said, there is still something about this recent celebration of the gentrified city that rankles.

I think what bothers me is my suspicion that urban leaders have internalized these televisual images of the urban good life. When they think of “urban vitality,” they envision the city as a playground of upscale consumption and leisure. And, in doing so, they have increasingly committed themselves to policies of gentrification and displacement.

Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Indeed, one of the reasons that revitalization guru Richard Florida commands big lecture fees is that he tells city officials exactly what they want to hear. If you want to attract growth and prosperity, he argues, you need to turn your city into the kind of place that “the creative class” enjoys (and by “creative class” Florida means highly-skilled professionals very much like city officials themselves). Once you attract the creative class, Florida argues, high-end employers—who are always searching for deep pools of creative talent—will soon follow.[2]

So get busy, city leaders. Nurture those loft districts. Subsidize those museums and performance spaces. Turn key neighborhoods into real-life versions of Sex and the City, complete with art galleries, funky clubs, and sidewalk cafes. Urban vitality and prosperity await us all.

Well, maybe not all of us. As Neil Smith has pointed out, celebratory discourses of urban revitalization often work from a frontier narrative. In this story, upscale gentrifiers are viewed as urban “pioneers” and praised for bringing civilization, in the form of Starbucks and Pottery Barn, to the “urban wilderness.”

Of course, as Smith wryly notes, before the urban wilderness can be tamed, the “natives”—in the form of the inner-city poor and working-class—must be removed. But this time, in the new urban frontier, the only hint that the cavalry is coming to kick you out is the eviction note on your door.[3]

Ultimately, this is the dark side of prime time’s celebration of the gentrified city. If in the past, television portrayed an urban America at the mercy of a demonized underclass, today’s televisual city has been re-conquered by a phalanx of bourgeois-bohemians drinking soy lattes on the way to pilates class.[4]

In between the demonization and displacement of the urban working-class are the real, everyday challenges faced by families living in America’s cities through good times and bad. Their lives and dilemmas would make for some very compelling television, but, alas, it appears that the gentrifiers have moved in and the eviction notices are already up.

Image Credits:

1. Grey’s Anatomy

2. Homicide: Life on the Streets

3. Boston Legal

4. The Women of Sex and the City

5. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City Goes Shopping

Footnotes:

[1]Steve Macek, Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right, and the Moral Panic over the City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
[2]Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class…And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
[3]Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996).
[4]I owe the term “bourgeois-bohemian” (or “bobo” for short) to David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001).




White Channels

Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

Approximately eight years ago, a racially motivated murder on the campus where I teach led me to research white supremacist websites.[1] Recently, I thought that I should revisit those sites and check for new developments. But this is demoralizing work and I wasn’t exactly anxious to log on to Aryan-nations.org. Then I tuned into Democracy Now’s extended coverage of the Jena 6 case and heard a snippet from one of David Duke’s radio broadcasts.[2] So, last week I bit the bullet, bought a quadruple-shot, 12-ounce cappuccino, opened my laptop and began surfing the web for “European” sites.

Some statistics

Membership in white supremacist groups is difficult to track. During the 1980s, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith estimated that total U.S. membership fluctuated between approximately 11,500 people in 1981 to 5,000 in 1987.[3] The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors organizations rather than individuals, claims that the number of hate groups in the U.S. is on the rise, currently totaling 844.[4] These numbers, however, can be misleading, since some of the “groups” have only two or three members, and an increased number of groups does not necessarily signal an increased number of participants. White supremacists tend to be a contentious lot, and groups often feud and splinter.

Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

Since the 1990s, many scholars have preferred to rely on government hate crime statistics rather than on guesstimates of group membership, in part because they provide a more meaningful picture of actual activity and in part because they give a more accurate portrait of the real impact these groups have on people’s lives. In November 2005, the US Department of Justice chronicled 7,649 criminal incidents that law enforcement agencies reported “as motivated by a bias against race, religion, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation” (total crime figures for the period were approximately 5.4 million offenses). The number of hate-crime victims was estimated to be 9,528; the number of offenders: 7,145.[5] While the actual number of hate crimes remains proportionately low (relative to other violent crime), its impact on a community can be enormous. Eight years after the Won-Joon Yoon murder in Bloomington, many businesses and homes still display the Bloomington United “No Hate” signs that date from that era.

Kids “planting” lawn signs

Kids “planting” lawn signs

Not all hate crime is perpetrated by members of supremacist groups, and not all perpetrators of hate crimes have visited “nationalist” websites. But racialist sites do continue to advocate violence, and often provide information that makes it easy for people to act. On September 21, 2007, for example, Bill White, Commander of the American National Socialist Worker’s Party, listed the home addresses of the Jena 6 on the American Nazi Party’s website. “Get in touch,” he urged. “Let them know justice is coming.”[6]

Reviewing the sites

The way in which the websites conceptualize race has not substantially changed in the past eight years. But the target of essentialist race hatred has shifted; Anti-Semitic “news” items have increased significantly. Aryan Nations has always featured dramatically anti-Semitic reports on its site, and did so again this week. But most of the other major white nationalist sites led with Anti-Semitic items, as well. David Duke posted a radio broadcast on the Jena 6, but the majority of his site exposes what he considers to be “Jewish hate crimes” perpetrated by the State of Israel and American Zionists.[7] Even the official Klan website was more concerned with Mexicans and Jews this week than it was with the Jena 6 trial. Illegal Immigration—a plot fostered by illegal Mexicans and Jews to challenge the white Christian way of life—was the hot topic on both the Klan site and its weekly post of White Pride TV.

The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

If the Jew did not exist, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote, it would be necessary to invent him.[8] That certainly seems to be the case here. The immediate cause motivating the increase in onsite anti-Semitism appears to be white nationalist opposition to the Iraq War. Duke’s site is the most explicit in this regard. “No war for Israel” reads one sidebar and the lead story for October 1, 2007 stresses “the threat that the Jewish lobby poses to national security.”[9] Aryan Nations and the Klan similarly blame Israel for a war that is killing white Europeans. “Support our Troops! Bring them home!” reads a sidebar on the KKK website. “Put them on OUR border.”

Throughout this column I have mentioned radio broadcasts and television transmissions; the most striking change on the websites involves technology. Most sites now feature mediacasts and post links to other media. And it is the possibility of wider “knowledge” dissemination—through media—that currently drives many of the sites. While white supremacist broadcasts are not as professionally polished as evangelical broadcasts, nationalist groups seem to aspire to the same media success that Conservative Christians have enjoyed.[10] And it is important to note that white nationalists often have strong ties to fundamentalist Christian organizations.

Media outreach on the sites also translates into increased outreach to women. When I first looked at supremacist sites eight years ago, they had a distinctly masculinist appeal; the few articles addressed directly to women had mainly to do with home schooling. That has changed. The Klan site now has a special link, “woman-to-woman” with “articles, news, and views of interest to women—about religion, politics, family and more.”[11] Duke’s ex-wife Chloë Hardin is one of the co-founders of Stormfront; she has maintained close ideological ties with her ex-husband and frequently interviews him for the bulletin board. Duke himself sponsors a special page supporting Cindy Sheehan.[12] Even Aryan Nations, the most unapologetically violent of the groups (“Our Motto: Violence Solves Everything”) recently ran a spate of non-racialist pro-life videos, designed as media outreach to young pregnant European women. These seemed to be designed with possible Church use in mind. The Klan and Aryan Nations also link to an adoption service which offers support to young, pregnant, white women.

More Stats

The Simon Weisenthal Center has identified “close to 7,000 ‘problematic’ websites, blogs, youtube [postings]and other on-demand sites.”[13] So the sites covered here are just a small smattering of what’s available. Many webpages exploit historical ignorance and healthy skepticism about received ideas. Often, postings (especially on youtube) can skate under the radar, since they don’t necessarily identify their sources as racialist. All of them claim to have uncovered part of the suppressed “Truth”—about history, about current events. Unfortunately, we have no reliable figures to measure how successfully they spread disinformation.

______________________________

Special thanks to Mark Benedetti, Robert Clift, David Coon and Skip Hawkins.

Notes:
[1] See Joan Hawkins, “ ‘Click Here if You’re White’: the construction of Race and Gender on White Supremacist Web Sites,” Concerns, Vol 27, Numbers 1 and 2 (Spring 2000) 45-58.
[2] Democracy Now, The War and Peace Report (September 21,2007).
[3] Joseph Berger, “Report on Hate Groups Says They’re Weaker,” New York Times June 11,1987.
[4] “Intelligence Report: The Year in Hate.”
[5] Posted on the United Way website of Greater Los Angeles. accessed Oct 2, 2007. The Bureau of Justice Incident-based statistics site was revised in Aug 2007, but still appears to be using the 2005 figures. Accessed Oct 2,2007.
[6] American Nazi Party. Accessed Sept 21,2007. When I tried to re-access the list on October 2, it had disappeared.
[7] See David Duke.com. Accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[8] Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew excerpts. Trans George J. Becker, New York: Schocken Books, 1948.
[9] See Michael Collins, AFP, “Zionist ‘Gorilla’ Now Being Discussed,”
David Duke.com Oct 1, 2007; accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[10] See Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
[11] See (“Woman to Woman”). Accessed October 2, 2007.
[12] See (David Duke.com Posting). Accessed Oct 2, 2007.
[13] See “Digital Terrorism and Hate,” Simon Weisenthal Center site. Accessed Oct 3, 2007.

Images:

1. Pastor Thomas Robb and Klan Spokeswoman Rachel Pendergraft on White Pride TV

2. Signs that appeared in Bloomington during the time that Won-Joon Yoon was murdered

3. Kids “planting” lawn signs

4. The Iraq war as a “war for Israel”

Please feel free to comment.




In Search of Bigfoot:
The Use and Obsolescence of Bionics

1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

I vaguely recall a trip to a county fair in Connecticut with my grandparents in the mid-1970s; what caught my attention was a display in the science exhibit. One in a series of shadow boxes hung underneath a tent at the furthest reaches of the fairground contained a prototype for a bionic arm, and was contextualized by a didactic panel that suggested the arm would likely be a part of everyday life in the not too distant future. As this is indeed such a vague memory, I can’t testify as to the authenticity of the artifact, but I do recall some mention that the arm had already been field tested on an amputee. Regardless of the truthfulness of the claim or the arm itself, science was clearly capitalizing on the popularity of broadcasting’s dual odes to bionics; and I was hooked. Like many boys in my peer group, I didn’t simply watch The Six Million Dollar Man; I indulged in the fantasy of being bionic. Though I was equally enamored with The Bionic Woman, I did not make that fixation public.

NBC’s resurrection of (The) Bionic Woman has prompted me to think through the contemporary relevance of bionics, and map its reintroduction against the popular imaginary of the mid-1970s. The seventies is a decade marked by a resurgence of science fiction and fantasy programming, developed by ABC but replicated across all three major networks, exemplified by programs such as The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, The Invisible Man, The Man from Atlantis, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Amazing Spiderman, and The New, Original Wonder Woman. The television landscape of the 1970s reflects a general turn in programming away from the documentary boom of the 1960s. Yet there is a specific turn toward relevance manifest even across those fictional series developed during the decade. A number of televisual and extra-televisual factors inform this shift, including the refinement of demographic measures (with the development of A.C. Nielsen’s people meters), the changing face of the industry (with the rise of independent production companies), and the specific dynamics of the social and political climate. For advertisers, these trends were captured by new demographic categories, which also took into consideration a recessionary cycle that forced more women to seek employment outside the home. In the mid-1970s, socio-economic shifts pressured advertisers and networks to further narrow their notion of the audience and to modify programming practices during prime time. CBS capitalized on the many anxieties of the period by turning to urban realism (with such sitcoms as All in the Family and M*A*S*H), developing interests across the generation gap, while ABC engaged in counter-programming for the youth market by resurrecting the science fiction and fantasy genres, a cyclical return to proven terrain. Yet this industrial history does not account for the success of such industry trends, nor does it answer the more ideologically inflected questions about television’s relevance as a cultural forum.

Title Sequence from the original Bionic Woman

The cultural climate of the 1970s was one that reflected a growing disillusionment with government (and the television industry was a window to the world, made quite apparent by Nixon’s televised resignation in August 1974), while significant technological advances reshaped domestic entertainment and revitalized scientific exploration, yet also threatened national security and redefined the very sense of self. Against this socio-cultural backdrop, the programming trends in the 1970s recount the fantastic elements of the quotidian and the surreal horrors of everyday life. Watergate, Love Canal and Three Mile Island were undeniable signs of institutional failure and neglect within national borders, while the Vietnam War and the siege at the Munich Olympics were just two of several events on the international stage that signified more significant failures in foreign policy.

It is not surprising that science fiction and fantasy found a renewed place on television in the 1970s, as these particular genres are often the site at which cultural and technological anxieties seem to intersect. These anxieties seem to be a principle part of the formative dynamic and subsequent function of the superhuman as a stalwart signifier across network television throughout the decade; primetime television featured superheroes employed by a wide array of clandestine research corporations and government intelligence agencies (Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) at the IADC, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) and Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) at the OSI), all invested in protecting truth, justice, and the American way either through active defense or informed scientific inquiry.

Alongside these fantastic indulgences, on a weekly basis during the second half of the decade, Leonard Nimoy helped explain away a broad range of mysterious phenomena on In Search of…. Merging fantasy with reality, the investigative program adopted a loose journalistic approach as it tackled both historic events (e.g. the sinking of the Titanic and Lincoln’s assassination) and real persons (such as Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, and Jack the Ripper) that had become subjects of folklore, and scrutinized timeless paranormal and pseudoscientific matters (such as ghosts, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster). The Watergate probe had its legacy written across the face of television; inquiry had no bounds.

Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

It is on the matter of inquiry that I turn my attention to more recent incarnations of bionics. My goal is to consider the tenuous nature of fantasy. My investment in the childhood episode that introduces this essay is part of an ongoing struggle about the assignment of meaning, perhaps symptomatic of a perpetual engagement with the old academic hat trick of reading media “through” a decade. Jane Feuer’s Seeing Through the Eighties (Duke University Press, 1995) is a prime example of an effort to solidify meaning; yet the most satisfying part of her enterprise is the foundation that is sketched out, the traces of the landscape, industrial or otherwise. The difficulty I have with such projects is in the close analysis; and this not a critique of her project but rather a consideration of a problem endemic to such analyses, including my own. I am suspect of any enterprise that tries to succinctly connect the dots, to neatly map form and content onto context. But these exercises form an important part of any developmental trajectory in scholarly inquiry.

Perhaps the difficulty I am having is a reaction to the all-too prevalent push toward fixity in popular television criticism. NBC’s launch of Bionic Woman was preceded by a pre-air pilot that circulated on the Internet as a torrent after being screened at the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2007, while more than one blog was launched (or at least reserved) prior to the episode’s Comic-Con debut. Several months later, in September 2007, a reworked pilot (the series premiere) was made available at no cost through both Amazon Unbox (and its joint venture with TiVo) and various cable on-demand services. The attempt to fix meaning was set into action even before the series began its broadcast run.

Program blogs such as The Bionic Woman Blog and Watching Bionic Woman weave a complex intertext about fandom, stardom, and industrial discourse. As I pour over the efforts of a few bloggerati to claim the cultural relevance of a text that has not even aired, I’m struck by a gesture that simultaneously seems antithetical to the “populace” embedded in popular culture (as site authors sift through cultural detritus to construct an overly narrated and overly saturated meta-text) but also part of the very fabric of popular culture, endlessly decentering the text at hand and making it ever more porous. The problem of locating the text is part of contemporary television discourse, reflecting the fragmented nature of the broadcast landscape, scattered across multiple media platforms and viewing practices.

Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

At the same time, however, Bionic Woman wears its cultural relevancy on its sleeve. The series premiere is quite self-aware, littered with observations about the laws of science and nature, and the physical and psychical tolls of warfare. A slide lecture on bioethics includes images of a victim of a Baghdad car bombing, and ends with a question about the threshold of intervention. Contemporary bionics is positioned as an aspect of military research and more pointedly as a tool to benefit casualties of the Gulf War, in line with the goals of real-world research undertaken by DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program.[1] Within this framework, the show’s central characters give voice to the narrative’s ethical musings, and shape science into melodrama. Sarah Corvus (Katee Sackhoff), the first bionic woman, voices a desire to cut away all of the parts of her that are weak; and Jaime Sommers (Michelle Ryan) learns that her relationship is built on a foundation of difference (brought to fruition by her technological makeover). All has not materialized as predicted in Donna Haraway’s manifesto on the cyborg. While a certain number of crossings are made manifest, and the cyborg myth of “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work” is given form, why is the payoff in the series premiere one big chick fight?[2] Why are women situated as visible evidence to the dictum that science fiction is no longer purely fiction? And why are claims of difference temporarily overcome by hetero-normative coupling?

The relative success or failure of the program, not in ratings, but in the critical field, is partly about the answers to these questions. The problem at hand, as one begins to consider the role of bionics in the current popular imagination, is the degree to which speculation is already leading to certain foregone conclusions about the activities of the television text, while it still has yet to confront the uncertain resonances of any collision between fantasy and reality. The smell of desperation lingers in the fall air, as a number of industry players attempt to attach meaning to their products prior to their formal seasonal debut and far ahead of their first run denouement.

Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

In his book, Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, author John Napier comments on the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967: “One can hardly quarrel with a movie taken at a range of approximately 100 feet.”[3] Convinced that Bigfoot does exist, but never making a firm conclusion about the film shot by Roger Patterson on an expedition with partner Bob Gimlin, Napier muses instead about the status and claims of evidence. While I doubt very much that Bigfoot will stage a return in this season’s Bionic Woman, I am still intrigued by his very absence, a specter from the seventies that for me, at least, will linger over the reincarnated series. Fantasy programming in the seventies had a cultural value that was oftentimes overlooked, obscured by the overt presence of the absurd. Understandably, one can draw distinctions between products in the same genre that are aimed at decidedly different audiences; while Bigfoot’s appearance on both bionic shows of the seventies was a crossover bonanza, it was hardly a scenario constructed for adults. Yet as the signifiers become ever clearer, the metaphors less metaphoric, and the fantasy more proximal to reality (as the Gulf War gets written into the text), does the program become necessarily more useful as a climatological measure or simply more diffuse? What happens to reality as it gets embedded in a fantastic enterprise without play or irony? What statements are there to be made about our times, and what statements are still unspoken, signaled by the chatter of the bloggerati but never fully articulated? Napier asserts the value of proximity, which begs the question: How close should we be to our subject? At what point does it go out of focus again?

“Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

“Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

Notes:
[1]http://www.darpa.mil/dso/thrusts/bio/restbio_tech/revprost/index.htm
[2]http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html
[3]http://home.clara.net/rfthomas/bf_pgfilm.html

Image Credits:

1. 1970s Bionic Bigfoot action figure by Kenner

2. Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors on the set with their Bigfoot co-star

3. Promoting Bionic Woman’s first showdown

4. Frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

5. Patterson-Gimlin frame

6. “Bionic Woman” Claudia Mitchell

Please feel free to comment.




S, M, L, XL: The Question of Scale in Screen Media

by: Alex Munt / Macquarie University

The proliferation of screen media has been so swift that many questions remain unanswered. In convergence culture [S]mall, [M]edium, [L]arge and [EX]tra-[L]arge screens all compete for ‘eyeball attention’. The contemporary screenscape is fragmented due to rapid advances in digital compression formats and distribution platforms. What to watch? When to watch it? On which screen? For me, these questions instil a certain level of screen-anxiety.

Focus is often toward the technical ‘quality’ of competing media, such as the mp3 debate in the digital distribution of music. But screen media is a visual medium. And one significant issue, often glossed over, is that of screen size, or scale. The lack of attention paid to the aesthetics of scale sits at odds with its place in the history of the visual arts. Scale remains relevant to the other art forms – the fine arts, architecture and urbanism. Does size matter for screen media?

Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

[S]mall

Mobile/Computer Screens Chuck Tyron wrote an interesting Flow column looking at ways in which “the computer appears to be supplanting both the movie screen and the television set”. Tyron points to the first (legally) self-distributed feature film on YouTube: Four-Eyed Monsters. This feature was initially released as a series of 8 video podcast episodes (for computer, PSP or I-Pod consumption). Next, the entire work was uploaded to You Tube in the form of a 71 minute ‘Clip’. The creators of Four-Eyed Monsters (Arin Crumley and Susan Buice) position themselves as Independent filmmakers. The feature has also screened at film festivals and some theatres, through self-distribution. It is available for DVD purchase.

Four-Eyed Monsters

For me, the Four-Eyed Monsters experience unfolds on my laptop screen, in a You Tube screen which measures 11cm x 8cm. I don’t make it through the 71 minutes. My fear is that, with the miniaturisation of new screens, we have discarded a century-plus of film culture which has debated the aesthetic impact of film language, scale and aesthetics: mise-en-scène, camera movement, shot size and duration. Can a feature really shift so effortlessly across scenes? Lev Manovich tells us that a key principle of the New Media is that it can exist “in different, potentially infinite versions” (2001: 36). But surely these multiple versions need to address the notion of scale, if they are to be consumed across the contemporary screenscape?

[M]edium

Widescreen TV The DVD of Bubble (2005), from eclectic and prolific filmmaker Steven Soderburgh, carries the tagline: ‘another Steven Soderburgh Experience’. On January 27, 2006 the feature was simultaneously released in movie theatres and satellite/cable TV (HD Net Movies) with a DVD release on January 31st (Wikipedia). Bubble created controversy by mounting a challenge to the traditional ‘release window’ formula. Some theatres chose to boycott the film as a stance against the ‘cannibalisation’ of their product. In Wired , Soderburgh predicts “it will be a while before bigger movies go out in all formats; in five years, everything will.”

Bubble DVD

Bubble DVD

I purchased Bubble from Amazon and watched it on my 40-inch Sony Bravia (HD) LCD television screen. The film was shot with the expensive HD cameras which Lucas used for Revenge of the Sith. For Bubble, Soderburgh opts for a entirely different digital aesthetic than the gaudy VFX of the Star Wars prequels. He speaks about a ‘digital stillness’ in digital cinematography (no film runs through the camera) and opts for static, tableaux shots, wide-angle lenses and significant colour grading (in post). With the HD format (1920×1080 pixels) there is an ‘easy’ equivalence between the camera and the HD widescreen television. But Bubble works against this, by eschewing the 16:9 ratio for a more ‘cinematic’ theatrical ratio. The film looks and sounds great on the Bravia.

For Soderburgh, the cinema remains “the number one destination” (Wired) His ‘design’ for Bubble provides a feature film which will work across screen scale at the Medium/Large end. Soderburgh also provides a refreshing take on the idea of multiple versions of feature films across screen platforms. He advocates a mix/mash-up aesthetic:

“I’d like to do multiple versions of the same film. I often do very radical cuts of my own films just to experiment, shake things up, and see if anything comes of it. I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, “Here’s version 2.0, recut, rescored.” The other version is still out there – people can see either or both. For instance, right now I know I could do two very different versions of The Good German. (Wired)

[L]arge

Theatrical 2D The battle of the screens in the1950s is well documented. A series of widescreen formats, such as Cinerama (2.8:1), were engineered by the studios in a climate of panic. Today, the fear is back. In Australia, Village Cinemas use the catchphrase: ‘See it Bigger, See it Better, See it First: Only at the Movies’. This is a footnote to movie poster advertising for new theatrical releases. It runs on television, newspapers and is planted on buses and billboards around the city.

In order to keep their promise to the theatre chains, Hollywood (arguably ‘Post-Classical’ Hollywood) is also fighting back. Recent Blockbuster cinema reveals an amplification of classical Hollywood narration: in terms of duration (features are getting longer and longer) and in terms of scale. The latest Bond film Casino Royale (2006) provides a good example. An early scene involves a foot chase through a building site in Madagascar. It lasts almost 10 minutes. The scene is a live-action sequence performed by Sébastien Foucan, founder of ‘free-running’. It displays a hyperkinetic aesthetic, marked by rapid cutting and fluid, mobile cinematography. I saw Royale on the cinema screen and (for this part of the film) was convinced by the ‘Bigger…Better’ mantra.

Casino Royale

Mission Impossible III (2006) (the best one by far) also presents an interesting case. Writer/director J.J. Abrams was head-hunted by Tom Cruise after seeing Alias on DVD. With his strong background in television production, Abrams brought a new aesthetic to the Mission franchise. The film starts in Close Up (CU). Abrams cuts between handheld CUs of the protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the villain Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This presents a ‘mutation’ of the television aesthetic on the big screen. It makes for a thrilling start, helped by the riveting performance by Seymour Hoffman.

Ethan Hunt

Ethan Hunt

Owen Davian

Owen Davian

eXtra Large

Theatrical 3D Avatar (2009) is the forthcoming Blockbuster from James Cameron, his first feature since Titanic (1997). The claim is that Avatar “will test new technologies on a scale unseen before in Hollywood”; Cameron describes the project as “a true hybrid – a full live-action shoot, with C.G. characters in C.G. and live environments.”

(See Entourage for a parody of Avatar as ‘Aquaman’: James Cameron plays himself in an amusing cameo).

Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster

Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster

Cameron’s ambition is to create a ‘next-generation’ experience which will stand alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Wars (1977). The cinematic scale of Avatar is reflected by its budget of around $200 million (USD). This makes the studios nervous, who are already hyping the film. Jim Gianopulos (co-chairman of Fox) says:

‘This will launch an entire new way of seeing and exhibiting movies…once again Jim is transforming the medium. Jim’s not just a filmmaker; every one of his films have pushed the envelope, in its aesthetic and in technology…”

Big claims for a big film. But given the shaky history of 3D in the cinema, I would be nervous too.

Coda

The notion of scale in contemporary screen media is significant in a culture of convergence and excess. Heterogeneity of platforms and formats exists: from micro-screens of mobile media to new 3D digital theatrical projection. But beyond the hype, the formal and aesthetic implications of scale should be addressed. This is not to prioritise any historical or conservative notion of scale but rather to promote those creative, messy juxtapositions in screen culture: towards an adaptation, amplification, collision and mutation of screens.

The title to this column was lifted from Rem Koolhaas’ wonderful ‘novel’ on architecture S, M, L, XL.

Works Cited

Jardin, X. (2006) ‘Thinking Outside the Box Office’, Wired , accessed 20 September, 2007

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press

Thompson, A. (2007) ‘Cameron sets live-action, CG epic for 2009’, The Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20 September, 2007

Waxman, S. (2007) ‘‘Titanic’ Director Joins Fox on $200 Million Film’, The New York Times, accessed 20 September, 2007

Image Credits

1. Diagram of Comparative Screen Sizes

2. You Tube

3. Bubble (2005) DVD

4. You Tube

5. Ethan Hunt

6. Owen Davian

7. Avatar ‘Teaser’ Poster from FirstShowing.Net

Please feel free to comment.




Is Internet Politics Better Off Than It Was Four Years Ago?

In several of my previous Flow columns, I have sought to address the role of viral videos in shaping political discourse. I have approached this question with what—I hope—is a degree of cautious optimism, perhaps with a greater emphasis on caution as I seek to resist the dominant narrative identifying the technological innovation of YouTube and other video sharing sites with larger innovations in political campaigns. It is no doubt true that citizen-generated videos have received an unprecedented amount of attention, prompting James Wolcott and others to dub the 2008 presidential race, “The YouTube Election.”

“Vote Different” Viral Video

“Vote Different” Viral Video

And it’s equally clear that a creative video artist can produce a video that will be seen by millions of people. However, at the risk of generalizing considerably, I remain somewhat skeptical about how these videos fit within the larger narratives that have come to frame the 2008 campaign.

I’ve certainly entertained doubts about the role of citizen-generated videos in the past. In my discussion of Phil De Vellis’s masterful “Vote Different” video, I sought to argue that the video succeeded in finding an audience in part because it deftly tied into preexisting narratives that associate Hillary Clinton with Republican talking points identifying her as a kind of Big Brother figure. In fact, “Vote Different” and many other citizen-generated videos, such as the “John Edwards: I Feel Pretty” video, can be seen as participating in what Eric Alterman recently described as “the presidential pageant,” with these videos merely providing fodder for political pundits to reinforce the perception that Edwards isn’t manly enough (“Breck Girl”).

But my more recent reservations grow, in part, out of the recent attacks on MoveOn.org for the “General Betray Us” advertisement they placed in the pages of The New York Times and a recent post on techPresident by Patrick Ruffini, which asks whether campaigns themselves are finding innovative uses of the internet during the 2008 election. The MoveOn controversy illustrates perfectly the degree to which television pundits continue to shape the dominant political narratives, even when well-organized groups such as MoveOn.org attempt to challenge them. Despite the MoveOn advertisement’s trenchant critique of General Petraeus’s testimony, “debate” about the advertisement on cable news shows allowed the group to be painted as part of a political “fringe,” even though the group consists of well over three million members and a majority of Americans believe America should begin pulling out of Iraq. The reframing allowed conservatives to divert attention away from the larger problem of the war and Iraq and depict MoveOn.org as villains for daring to question Petraeus.

Moreover, in his blog post, Ruffini argues that despite the persistent claims that 2008 marks a revolutionary era for politics, it is reasonable to ask whether campaigns have evolved in any significant way. Ruffini argues that many of the most significant changes in web-based politics—the Howard Dean campaign’s use of blogs and Meetup.com as a way of organizing locally—were already established by 2004 and even suggests that many campaigns have failed to recapture the energy associated with Dean’s campaign. And, while I am less interested in “innovation” for its own sake than Ruffini is, I continue to find myself wondering about the degree to which the “living room candidate” has become the “laptop candidate” and to what ends. To be sure, my response to Ruffini’s post is colored by my own nostalgia for the early days of the Dean campaign and the transformative possibilities it represented, but as the 2008 campaign unfolds, I find myself confronted with an increasing skepticism regarding the role of online video and other “Web 2.0” features in the political process.

To some extent, online videos, especially those produced by citizens unaffiliated with specific campaigns, have allowed people to find a wider audience, and they are certainly the most noteworthy new campaign tool in comparison to 2004. And the production of a video is itself a significant form of participation. But as I navigate resources such as YouTube’s You Choose channel, compulsively clicking through video and after video, I find myself wondering if these videos significantly alter early practices or whether they reproduce the same structural relationship between campaign and citizen that existed in the era of the 30-second TV ad, despite promises that the 2008 election will be a “conversation.” At the same time, while the much-discussed YouTube-sponsored Democratic debate gave a number of YouTube users a public platform, the debate itself still conformed to the basic structure of televised debates, with Anderson Cooper and CNN reframing the questions for primetime television. So I continue to find myself asking whether YouTube has, in any significant way, offered a new way of thinking about U.S. politics. Or does it reinforce a focus on just a few centralized voices?

John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama

John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama

Finally, citizen-generated videos, especially those that go viral, have also been characterized in terms of speed, with Wolcott associating the practice of watching viral videos with a “nervous twitch,” while Jeff Jarvis highlights the ways in which YouTube allows any “misstatement gains toxicity and speed,” creating what might be called, after Matt Hills’ concept of just-in-time fandom (2002, 178-179), a kind of just-in-time participation, in which citizens can produce and disseminate videos incredibly rapidly. These viral videos quite often inspire a quick flurry of activity, including blog posts, video responses and knock-offs, and, in some cases, commentary in other media. And while this rapid response may be able to mobilize voters very quickly, I also wonder what gets lost in this form of just-in-time participation, especially as people move on to the latest video after a few days of breathless commentary on the video of the week. To what extent does the rapid proliferation of videos work against meaningful discussion of the presidential candidates or against developing a deeper focus on the many important issues at stake in the 2008 election? What are the implications of replacing the living room candidate with the laptop candidate, and are the laptop candidates truly inspiring greater political participation?

Works Cited
Hills, M. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Images:

1. “Vote Different” Viral Video

2. Edwards, Clinton, Obama

Please feel free to comment.




Overflow:
Musings on HBO’s Tell Me You Love Me

“Tell Me There’s Going to Be a Sex Scene in This.”

In a clip from the first episode of the new HBO drama Tell Me You Love Me, one of the supporting characters observes, “Sex is a great thing to hide behind . . . For a lot of people, it’s easier to fuck than talk.” After watching several clips from the first four episodes of this provocative newcomer—which peers into three couples’ troubled relationships through the lens of their sessions with a therapist—it becomes clear that this statement might equally apply to the program’s creative team. For the writers and some of the actors, they may find it easier to depict a realistic sex scene than one of honest dialogue. As I have yet to view a sex scene from this program—there were none in the sneak-preview clips I was privy to—I worry whether or not all of this talking alone is capable of sustaining sufficient dramatic tension.

As I watched snippets of each pair—an engaged couple in their 20’s dealing with monogamy issues, a married couple in their 30’s struggling with infertility, and a married couple in their 40’s who have not had sex in a year—I became aware of an inverse relationship between my desire to watch each couple interact physically, versus verbally. In short, the more engaging their dialogue, the less I feel the need to see them naked to keep me tuned in.

David and Katie, the older married couple, are riveting: his rant in the therapist’s office and her quietly powerful reaction make visible the slow and steady accumulation of slights and humiliations that have destroyed their marriage. Actors Tim DeKay (familiar to HBO fans from his work on Carnevale) and Ally Walker (in her first reoccuring role since starring in The Profiler in the late 90’s) are beyond capable of knocking their roles out of the park. Perhaps this fictional couple also has an easier time of it because each can play off of their decades of implied marital history. The couple’s problems revolve around the fact that they are no longer intimate; the tension-filled exchanges more than make up for the fact that we will likely not see them generating much heat in bed together.

Palek and Carolyn manage to take the contemporary problem of infertility and add interest through strong performances. In the scene above in the therapist’s office, it is obvious that both partners are lying about their feelings and their sex life, which the following flashback makes even more evident. Carolyn (played by the talented Sonya Walger, also featured as Penny on LOST) gives a quietly strong performance as the professional woman who has likely not failed at anything in her life before this. While it is not unusual for such a couple to view their biological inability to reproduce as a personal failure, Walger manages to breathe new life into her monthly disappointment.

This couple also seems to have a more complicated relationship than the others in terms of gender roles, as evidenced by the above scene in which Carolyn demands sex from Palak. Their interaction brings together questions about the nature of desire, female and male arousal, and what, exactly, is the role of the father in the reproductive process. Their sex, if shown, is likely to be fraught with layers of meaning and tension, and will likely give both performers an opportunity to shine. Interestingly, watching the above sequence, I could not help but share Carolyn’s frustration at Palak for failing to perform as a human stud horse. What do feelings have to do with the desperate attempt to make a baby? I’d be curious to hear how others (particularly males) respond to this exchange.

Hugo and Jamie, on the other hand, are utterly unengaging, which bodes poorly not only for their betrothal, but also the vitality of the show. The only interesting moment between them occurs when Jamie asks Hugo if he isn’t going to remain “monogamous” (chopped off in the clip above): her choice of that word over “faithful” suggests that perhaps more complicated sexual ethics might be at play. Their problem—essentially, both are concerned that the other will be the last person each sleeps with for the rest of their lives—is hardly new or interesting, and is handled here in a rather hackneyed manner.

Actors Michelle Borth (Jamie) and Luke Farrell Kirby (Hugo) seem hardly up to snuff either; in this scene I was more entranced by the Isamu Noguchi coffee table in the therapist’s office than Jamie’s confessions of serial monogamy. Of the show is to redeem itself in this regard, the young couple should spend most of their time naked and incommunicado. That, at least, has the potential to be interesting.

Essentially, Tell Me You Love Me is a show about sex, and its success will likely hinge on whether or not it shows the characters doing as much in a way that is both engaging and intriguing. HBO has a strong track record for taking a frank look at male/female relationships, and this show could easily join the ranks of highly successful series past. It remains to be seen, however, if all of this verbal build-up will lead to sufficient dramatic release.

~~~~~~

by: Bo Baker / FLOW Staff

It was only about a year ago at one of our own conference roundtables that we discussed the “HBO’s Legacy and Future.” For better or worse, it remains difficult for me to consider new HBO programs without recalling their recent predecessors or thinking about the company itself. Flow had the opportunity to preview a handful of brief snips of HBO’s new drama Tell Me You Love Me and, from what I glean, the series offers a new blend of the HBO formula.

It simplest terms, Tell Me… depicts separately three couples at various stages of marriage struggling to maintain their intimacy. What appears to be the only narrative link for the separate couples is that they (and sometimes just one half of a couple) all meet separately with the same therapist.

The youngest couple, Jamie and Hugo (Michelle Borth and Luke Farrell Kirby respectively) are not yet married but heading that direction. Their problem initially hinges on physical monogamy, specifically from Hugo’s perspective of having “one girl; one fuck,” as his friends puts it, for the rest of his life.

Next up, Carolyn and Palek (Sonya Walger and Adam Scott) appear to be happily married professionals but are unable to conceive. The inability to do so consumes Carolyn and threatens Palek.

(See clip above.)

Katie and David (Ally Walker and Tim DeKay) up the ante by not only being married and well-to-do, but also having children. The happiness of family life comes at the expense of their sex life, with David unable to be sexually stimulated by his wife.

Finally, there’s Dr. May Foster (Jane Alexander) and her husband Arthur (David Selby). While I cannot comment on their relationship from the available clips, Foster’s placement as both couples therapist and wife (the eldest wife at that) will no doubt be an interesting texture for the series.

All of this results in a modified HBO narrative spun with a familiar tone. In one sense, Tell Me… demonstrates a change of pace for HBO dramas. Here, there is no exotic locale or time period (Rome, Deadwood) or formal attempt to present a world surrounding a pocket of culture (polygamy in Big Love, real-life mobsters in The Sopranos, life inside the Oz penitentiary). Despite the ensemble cast, there doesn’t appear to be one large narrative arc in which they all participate. Reason being that such a setting or premise would only shift attention away from the show’s goal of realism. Accordingly, it seems the plot has been pared down to scrutinize these relationships. Yet realism has been paramount to HBO’s dramas and the buzz surrounding Tell Me… is less concerned with it being an American drama attempting to capture the authenticity of intimacy than it is with the show’s realistic depiction of sex. Our preview showed no sex, so I cannot comment, but it’s hard for me to believe that any shot of Alexander’s and Selby’s aged bodies engaged in sex or any shot of DeKay masturbating could overshadow the conflicts these couples face.

In regard to both intimacy and sex, the aim of Tell Me… is admirable, but an issue I can’t help but consider is that the show appears to only present white, heterosexual, well-to-do couples. This too marks a departure from other HBO dramas’ representations of coupling and sex. Previous productions have frequently included, in some cases exclusively, representations outside of the monogamous heterosexual marriage: prostitution in Deadwood, multiple wives of Big Love, single women of Sex and the City, and multiple homosexual unions of Oz, Six Feet Under, and more. I have trouble reconciling this aspect of Tell Me… and find myself in a tailspin of questions concerning representation. Does the lack of difference establish a control group of similar characters allowing their deeper nuances peek through their veneers? Is the choice motivated by an attempt to illustrate that even seemingly “perfect” couples, or at least those that outwardly do everything right, have severe issues when it comes to love? These are questions I will keep in the back of my mind throughout this season.

Image Credits:
Preview Picture (on home page)

Please feel free to comment.




YouTube, Dance and Reform: The Body Caught in the Act

If YouTube functions simultaneously as common democratic archive and repertoire, as we have been told vociferously during the 2007 Presidential Debates, is it possible that its mode of production obliterates the “historical record,” at least our memory of it? The large numbers of participants (unevenly distributed among searcher-watchers, stumbler- watchers, subscriber-watchers, maker-watchers, subcriber-watcher- commentators, maker-watcher-commentators) make it possible to reinvent/reinterpret/recycle/retrofit the “past.” YouTube once offered the possibility of just indulgent memory–posting up clips of old movies, late night television, music videos, experimental tinkering with home movies, send-up videos, and mash-ups of favorite music videos–recollections of screenic impulses which flutter across our muscles, marking the way we walk, hold our head, gesture and dance: we are stop action animation of film and video gone by.

Copyright holders, not keen on witnessing their product cycling around without capital returning to them, have used the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act to force providers like YouTube to block the way that we remember ourselves. Currently, with the “broadcast yourself” logo, the advent of the vlog, and subscriptions, YouTube participants traffic in messaging like well-trained PR folks. Amoeba-like, the brisk, compressed video clip extrudes meaning from a simple performative: “someone should see this.” The implications of this operation for our corporeality and its concommitent memorialization of time are vast and unchartered.

I use it all the time in my lectures. How can I not? Really EVERYTHING is on there; at least it used to be before Google bought it out in late 2006. YouTube is the dance scholar’s dream come true. Prior to this ingenious assemblage of Macromedia’s Flash 7 and H.263 codec, dance scholars the world over would fret over format and compatibility of media, and then of platforms and programs once we entered the digital age. With the early 2005 advent of web-based video streaming, dance and dance scholarship are now flourishing, giving us a false sense of fluency in each other’s production.
From moving pieces by national unknowns, to much loved ad campaigns of the past,

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knW1hGwmEXQ[/youtube]

to funny post-it in-camera studies,

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_ZlK9897A0[/youtube]

YouTube brings dance to consumers in a way that broadcast dance competitions cannot. The range in genre and style is vast; the subject matter, unexpected. And as ticket price or time slot is not an issue, each has the potential to be equivalent in value to the next (if we discount the ads generated by the tags and the fact that most internet service providers charge extra for the bandwidth required to upload/watch steaming video) Short, intense, and provocative, dance bits on YouTube have made my life easier, but they occasionally drive me to stunned silence.

It is not just the riveting choreography, or the dorm party captured by a cell phone camera that harnesses my spectator’s eyes; the work that dance accomplishes on YouTube normalizes the aspect ratio of the frame, invisibilizes playing to/with/for the camera for future streaming. With ubiquitous archiving a common practice, are we already moving as if encased in our looming historical futurepast, framed for compression, awaiting, hoping for millions of eyes to examine our moves? Is our movement always already compulsory and commoditized?

Dance practice revolves around inspiration, dedication and regimentation; the latter often verging on psychological and physical terror. Choreography, writing with dance, can involve self-effacement in order for the resultant “document” to be more “legible.” Not all pieces are generated this way, but the large spectator driven works, especially for broadcast television and Broadway-derivative works function in this mode. The move towards legibility versus open-ended meaning necessitates a documentary mode, a method of conveying exactly the same message each time, regardless of venue, time, and even performing bodies. Curiously, this method evolves at two poles–and maybe more–the training of the performing body a.k.a. technique; and the archiving of the performance, or documentation.

Technique reconfigures the body of the performer for better expressivity/malleability but methods can and often involve an intense amount of pain.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHY85o2fxEA[/youtube]

Documentation of dance performances are achieved through either a notational system like Labanotation, or through moving images. Because notational systems require years of study to both learn how to write and read/reconstruct from the “scores,” most choreographers opt for film, video-tape, and now digital formats. Both types of documentation obliterate the performance qua performance, but for numerous reasons ranging from grant-maker’s requirements and the costs of global touring, performers and scholars depend heavily on video versions, often without any attention to representational issues. When posted on YouTube, the violence done to the body of the performer and to memory itself (the first archive of the piece is in the sinews of the performer after all) is quickly hidden by the experience of beauty, of the sublime, of the unexpected, of the reminiscent.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpKg53X_2J8[/youtube]

Oddly, music video and home movie footage are always already dance documentation. When they appear on YouTube, it would be more fruitful to think about them, however, as ephemera, in the anthropological sense. That is, it’s not so much the performance (yes, I am slapping myself) as it is the urge to save the performance, to share a memory without having to resort to words; to cut down the indexical challenge of witnessing. Yet this is not a format free from macro-social control. Self-expression through the selection of video clips is policed by the site provider, Google, as well as an array of record labels, movie producers, television executives, intellectual property lawyers and even among users themselves. Therefore, it is possible to exert ownership over the ways in which users “view” themselves, or construct their corpo-digital, video corporeality. This is memorial repression driven by market needs.

A disturbing example of the historicization of the immediate can be found in Ric Silver’s attempt to sue Google for copyright infringement on his dance, the Electric, using the DMCA.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NZwnm6B90M[/youtube]

Though he was able to secure a 2004 copyright on a Labanotation of a piece of 1976 choreography that dance ethnographers would say is not the Electric Slide as practiced by people today,

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1FIwBcnRQ4[/youtube]

he was countered sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 2007 and lost, but he maintained the ability to say what is the Electric Slide. He now scours YouTube posting comments sending people to read his definition of the Electric Slide on Wikipedia. Through his solipsism and the grey areas of the DMCA, Ric Silver exerts wide-ranging social control over the way in which we celebrate and distribute reproductions of that celebration.

In this nexus, Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines’ performance of Michael Jackson’s standard-setting music video, Thriller, should’ve sent MJ into fits of copyright hysteria. But it did not. Foisted upon the prisoners by “security consultant” Byron Garcia as compulsory exercise, Thriller is arguably the one music video that any avid MTV watcher remembers. It trafficked in genre-crossing production values, illuminating the potential of the music video to stand alone as a work of significance. When the orange-draped bodies of the inmates at Cebu, all 967 of them, began to lurch to that familiar creepy, funky music, globally our jaws dropped.

Cebu Prison

Cebu Prison

Comments on the video ranged from the celebratory, congratulatory and inspired. It is telling, that few questioned the ethics of compulsory dance performance. Maybe because they only “see” the potential for fun from their own subject position. Again, projections of dance events posted on YouTube reveal more about the member than they do YouTube as an organization–though they are infamous for pulling videos when served DMCA-based take-down notices even when the work rides within “fair use” range. Byron Garcia posted several videos to show regimentation and population control that was result-driven to other security professionals. To get to that level of proficiency, he obviously worked them hard, with a reward dangling at the end of his stick.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMnk7lh9M3o[/youtube]

Lost is the immediate concern: that these men and women are participating in a poorly defined area of social control. They are YouTube stars now. Our eyes are burning. It makes it hard to see.

Video and Image Credits

1. “Gap Commercial – Khaki Swing” from YouTube
2. “Awsome Post-It Dancing Guys” from YouTube
3. “Pas de Deux – Cirque – équilibre sur pointes” from YouTube
4. “Thousand-Hand Guanyin” from YouTube
5. “The Electric AKA The ELECTRIC SLIDE” from YouTube
6. “Electric Slide, Anyone?” from YouTube
7. Cebu Prison
8. “Thriller” (original upload) from YouTube

Please feel free to comment.




The Cult of Æon Flux

What happened to the transgressive pleasures of Aeon Flux when it moved from small screen to large?

Æon Flux in “Thanatophobia.”

Æon Flux in “Thanatophobia

“You’re skating the edge,” Trevor Goodchild warns his lover, nemesis, and would-be assassin; “I am the edge” Æon Flux retorts in the cult television classic that bears her name. “What you truly want, only I can give,” he insists. Æon’s caustic reply could just as well apply to the transgressive pleasures of cult fandom itself: “Can’t give it, can’t even buy it, and you just don’t get it.” Cult media texts often defy commodification and offer an allure that mainstream audiences ‘just don’t get.’ Indeed, J.P. Telotte argues that a transgressive, oppositional stance in relation to mainstream culture is central to understanding cult texts and their audiences[1]. What is it, then, that makes Æon Flux so fascinating, and why did her move to the big screen polarise her devotees?

Opening sequence from “Skating the Edge.”

Cult media theorists Sara Gwenllian-Jones and Roberta Pearson refer to cult television as any text “that is considered off-beat or edgy, that draws a niche audience, that has a nostalgic appeal, that is considered emblematic of a particular subculture, or that is considered hip”[2]. Most cult media exhibits several of these characteristics, but Æon Flux, the television series created by animator Peter Chung and later remade as a feature film, incorporates every element. Æon Flux is as definitively edgy as its heroine proclaims. It first aired as animated shorts for Liquid Television in 1991, which developed into a season of half-hour episodes for MTV in 1995. In today’s fast moving mediascape, it is already acquiring ‘nostalgic appeal.’ Through the obvious influence of Asian animation, it also hooks into anime subculture. The show was born from a desire to break the conventions of screen language, and to push creative boundaries with an enigmatic and aggressively anti-narrative style. It seduced its audience, the late night young adult niche market, with an anarchic heroine styled as a leather-clad ‘bitch fatale,’ and it offered viewers more aesthetically and intellectually challenging material than standard MTV fare.

Gaylyn Studlar develops the idea that cult audiences with a taste for excess and perversion express dissatisfaction with the status quo by identifying with transgressive characters who “ritualize perversion into a subcultural icon of rebellion against bourgeoisie norms by celebrating the possibilities of sex as ironic play and playacting”[3]. Studlar argues that the social function of many cult texts is linked to redefining social norms by representing sexual ‘deviance’ and gender performativity[4]. Certainly, Æon captivates her fans with secret messages exchanged via tongues tangled in an illicit kiss, a dominatrix aesthetic, a recurring lesbian subtext, and her role as a Monican spy in a forbidden, passionately adversarial relationship with Trevor, leader of the rival state of Breen. Through identification with Æon, cultists vicariously participate in her transgressions.

Æon Flux clones kiss in “A Last Time for Everything.”

Æon Flux clones kiss in “A Last Time for Everything.”

Because prime time free-to-air television must cater to ‘family viewing,’ texts that challenge taboos frequently acquire cult status[5]. Æon Flux’s incorporation of a sexualised, violent aesthetic mark it out as forbidden fruit, which augments its appeal in a context where network television is subject to conservative constraints on language, sexuality and violence, by contrast with the more liberal parameters of cinema, subscription television or the Internet. When Æon was expanded to fill a half hour slot, the creative team were under instructions from MTV to reduce the violence in order to avoid Federal Communications Commission restrictions and to make the 30 minute episodes appeal to a broader audience, so they sought subtle ways to ‘maintain the edge’ and push the boundaries, including double entendres in the dialogue, a suggestive soundscape, and oblique sexual references in the imagery.

Æon Flux’s current appeal harnesses the purchasing power of the Y-generation and exploits their access to a wide range of screen technologies. The show continues to draw fans to reruns on MTV, Internet downloads and videos on YouTube, and has been distributed in installments on the screens of mobile phones, thereby conflating its exhibition and reception context with the uptake of mobile and digital technology. In these ways Æon Flux garnered enough of a cult fan base to spawn a feature length live action film in 2005 (directed by Karyn Kusama, starring Charlize Theron), which in turn reinvigorated interest in the original series and generated lucrative DVD sales for both the television series and the film.

Æon Flux movie poster.

Æon Flux movie poster.

While delighted that Æon Flux finally received critical and popular acclaim, many fans of the original series resented the mainstreaming of their passion, and the appropriation of Æon’s identity by a blonde actress and a mass audience. Mainstreaming undercuts some of the primary pleasures of cult fandom associated with identity and identification. When the adored text becomes something that is widely appreciated, the true fan’s identity is no longer experienced as elite or discerning and the knowledge community to which they belong is no longer that of a specialised interest group that defines itself as distinct from the cultural mainstream.

The aura of exclusivity surrounding fans’ relationships with cult texts is evident in the kinds of online material they generate, such as ‘The Purity Test’, which one fan website uses to test knowledge of Æon Flux and implicitly determine whether visitors to the site are ‘pure’ fans or casual drop-ins from mainstream culture. In addition, the expansion of the fictional world of Æon Flux beyond what is shown on screen via multi-platforming is evident in a fan produced graphic novel and comic book miniseries, the Monican Spies online community, and the virtual world of the Æon Flux video game.

The adaptation from television to film demonstrates that attempts to expand the market for a text often compromise the very qualities that created its unique appeal. As a whole, the film retains superficial elements of the original series, but offers a simplified narrative which blunts Æon’s edge. The television episode most closely related to the film is “A Last Time for Everything,” in which Trevor copies Æon using a process similar to cloning, and she and her duplicate surreptitiously swap places. The original Æon embarks on an affair with Trevor, while the copy completes her mission. The duplication of identity relates to fears about duplicity since Æon is a double agent, but also reflects the desire for a partner and an ally. In the end of the television episode, despite her feelings for Trevor, Æon remains loyal only to herself and works in partnership with her copy, drawing lethal fire from the border guards to enable the second Æon to return safely to Monica. Death is no stranger to the series: Æon dies with the methodical regularity of Kenny in South Park, meeting her demise in each and every one of the original shorts. The certainty of death meant that she was completely unrestrained.

Æon in action.

Æon in action.

In the television series Æon is an independent agent with her own agenda, exhibiting strong traits of feminism and individualism. These characteristics are taken up in the film in Æon’s defiance of the matriarchal power of the Monican ruler (played in the film by Frances McDormand, although in the television series Monica had no head of state and was therefore ungovernable), and in her quest to derail Trevor’s messiah complex and the patriarchal reproductive fantasies of Bregnan bureaucracy as the regime strives to propagate the human race in the face of infertility. Unlike the television series, however, the film ends by taming Æon, binding her to Trevor in a romantic union that sends them forth into the brave new world beyond the walls of the city, like Adam and Eve in Eden without the original sin. Needless to say, fans of the original series were unimpressed with this ending, which seemed to shackle their deviant, free spirited heroine to the heterosexual, monogamous conventions that she had always usurped. For example, the Æon that fans loved in the original series tartly replied to Trevor’s offer to take care of her in “Chronophasia” with the retort, “Naturally, I’d rather be dead.”

Negative fan responses to cinematic remakes of cult television series are often based on a sense of allegiance and ownership, an investment of fan identity in the original series, or a sense that the remake has not been true to fans’ detailed knowledge of the mythology that surrounds the characters and fictional worlds of cult texts. Indeed, many members of the cult of Æon Flux would far rather see their subversive heroine die than be resurrected in the sugar coated domain of mainstream cinema.

Works Cited
[1] Telotte, J.P. (Ed.) ‘Introduction.’ The Cult Film Experience: Beyond All Reason, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1991.
[2] Gwenllian-Jones, Sara and Roberta E. Pearson. ‘Introduction.’ Cult Television, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2004, p. ix.
[3] Studlar, Gaylyn. ‘Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse.’ The Cult Film Experience, University of Texas Press: Austin, 1991, p. 141.
[4] Studlar, p. 138.
[5] Jancovich, Mark and Nathan Hunt. “The Mainstream, Distinction and Cult TV.” Gwenllian-Jones, Sara and Roberta E. Pearson (Eds.) Cult Television, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2004, p. 35.

Image Credits

1. Frame capture from Æon Flux DVD, episode “Thanatophobia.”

2. Frame capture from Æon Flux DVD, episode “A Last Time for Everything.”

3. Æon Flux movie poster

4. Æon in action

Please Feel Free to Comment.




Getting the Big Picture on Television on the Internet

Each week news stories appear which recount a new shift or maneuver by a telecommunications company, web developer or broadcaster. For example, NBC withdrew its shows from iTunes, Adblock which strips out sponsored advertising is growing in popularity and controversy, and ICANN begins testing the use of non-Roman languages for web addresses. These news items seem important and interrelated to the future of television, but also small, obvious, and disconnected steps by their respective parties. If they are interrelated, then what kinds of frameworks can be used to understand the landscape on a macro-scale?

In his working paper, Making Connections, Kevin Werbach introduces the use of network formation theory, as a tool for describing the forces that propel the evolution of the Internet. He explains how, by design, the Internet is a dynamic system that has forces on the network, which are simultaneously decentralizing and centrifugal. Google’s search successfully acts as a centrifugal force, as it “pulls” together the Internet, by providing an access point to billions of web pages. However, it is able to do this, because of the decentralizing standards including HTTP and HTML which allow Google to find, cache, filter, and link to web pages. While the decentralizing aspects of the Internet are more widely discussed, he notes that the centrifugal forces are equally important. These kinds of models are important because they provide a big-picture perspective in explaining single events.

The striking thing that comes out of Werbach’s analysis is that the decentralizing and centrifugal forces work on all scales. He systematically describes how they occur in all four of the basic conceptual layers of the Internet: physical (e.g. servers, routers and wires,) logical (e.g. addressing “schemes”), application (e.g. browsers), content (e.g. streamed episodes of Heroes).

Fractal Art

Fractal Art

Although Werbach does not explicitly describe it this way, the Internet is fractal. Wolfram MathWorld defines a fractal as “an object or quantity that displays self-similarity, in a somewhat technical sense, on all scales. The object need not exhibit exactly the same structure at all scales, but the same “type” of structures must appear on all scales.” In this regard, the fractal interpretation of the Internet is not solely linked to viewing from Werbach’s lens, but as something inherent to the Internet itself.

Identifying fractal behaviors of the Internet can lead to understanding the overarching principles on the Internet and the media landscape within it evolve, because they provide contextual insight that was mentioned at the beginning of this column. We have levers which can guide this expansion of the Internet, through regulation and other market incentives. Because the effects that Werbach describe operate within and across layers of the Internet, how to best use them is not always clear. However, the actual effects and the intended effects can be easily different. Limited intellect property regulation intended to “free” media on the content layer may have the ripple effect of encouraging the creation of private servers on the physical layer or DRM built into media players on the application layers to lock that content down.

Analyses therefore must also include consideration of the Internet on a more macro level in order to incorporate “crossover” layer effects, especially with the continual vertical integration of the telecommunications and media. When a single company such as AT&T and Time Warner owns pipes, applications and content, they can have incentives to break off from the Internet at large.

Fractal Cow

Fractal Cow

Often, we decry the walled gardens of Internet content as essentially bad, as a thrown back to the early days of the commercial Internet. Werbach cites the classic example when AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy corralled their users into proprietary networks. This expansion and contraction from walled gardens to the more open World Wide Web can also be viewed as a natural process of a dynamic network. That is, the network can be viewed as a complex system, which over time grows together and breaks apart. When NBC withdrew this programming from Apple’s iTunes store, many people compared it to a child taking his ball home, after a dispute on the playground. Home, in the case, is their own new video site, Hulu.com. However, it can also be described as a natural process at work, even if that process leads to a fracture of the network.

Mandated interoperability and sharing is another important lever. The FCC gave preferential treatment of the incumbent network television broadcasters by forcing new cable companies to carry over the air signals on the cable wires. It could likewise, force the various backbones do not separate from each other. This is making the children play together, in the playground analogy. Although to date, they have allowed the backbone owners to make their peering agreement on their own.

As television continues its transfer over to the digital and networked existence, clearly, the Internet will be playing an essential part of that process. However, the end points are still uncertain. Ensuring fair and equitable access will require understanding the nature of the Internet. Werbach introduces an important and new way of looking at it, but others surely exist. Taking into account the fractal aspects of the Internet is important because it will highlight inconsistencies in policy decisions on the various layers of the Internet, rather than dealing with issues on an isolated case by case basis. From these models, regulators can have a more informed approach to the use of the regulatory levers of telecommunication and the media industry.

Image Credits:

1. Fractal Art

2. Fractal Cow

Please feel free to comment.