Convergence as Conflict: the Tasing of Andrew Meyer

By: Ted Gournelos / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Andrew Meyer tased by police at a University of Florida political event

Andrew Meyer tased by police at a University of Florida political even

This summer I experienced an ethical shock of sorts when I arrived to teach a summer course at the University of California, Berkeley. The associations between Berkeley and the free speech movement, as well as the broader campus history of protests against the war in Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East, and the exploitation of graduate students by the University system were foremost in my mind. However, despite my positive experiences with students and faculty at Berkeley, I was haunted by an uneasy feeling that the institution was masking its own policies through a history of conflict.

The appropriation and reframing of past protests was evident in the propaganda of student tours, and the establishment of the Free Speech Café, complete with tables laminated in relevant newspaper clippings. Simultaneously, however, the largely progressive students and faculty recognized that the University of California system was an immense bureaucracy, and many of them felt ignored or abused by it. The under-the-radar handling of the “tree people” protesters against the building of a new sports complex a perfect example of this dissonance in Berkeley’s brand identity. After students, alumni, and area residents took to living in a grove of trees to prevent their clear-cutting, university administrators erected a fence around the trees, denying the protesters access to further supplies. Through this experience, I realized how university spaces have become dangerous places for protest, in which “making a fuss” is neither polite nor tolerated. Protest movements on campus, it seems, have changed, and the tasing of Andrew Meyer at the University of Florida on September 19th provides only the most recent and troubling example.

Protest on the Berkeley campus over a proposed athletic facility

Protest on the Berkeley campus over a proposed athletic facility

In the past week, the United States has witnessed a startling and horrifying example of what Henry Jenkins recently called “convergence culture.” For Jenkins, convergence implies a movement towards media that is networked and user-based, leading to new ways in which communications technologies can be used in what de Certeau hailed in 1984 as the oppositional “practice of everyday life.” The recent media frenzy surrounding the “arrest” of 21 year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer, including his torture with a taser by a police officer while he was on the ground surrounded by several officers, has been watched hundreds of thousands of times on the internet and television. It is important of course to address the event itself, as is currently being done on blogs, newspapers, and other media throughout the world. However, I will not attempt to make much sense of the event here, beyond a few brief comments. I would instead like to understand what happened through a look at the implications of “convergence culture” and the possibility not for the community and consensus implied by Jenkins’ work, but rather a conflict-based approach to media and culture industries.

The Tasing of Meyer

First and foremost, the nature of the crime is horrifying. I do not of course refer to the “crime” of which Meyer was accused, “resisting arrest” and “assaulting an officer,” but rather the torture of an unarmed and relatively subdued young man in a state-run university setting. There are multiple videos of the event online, all of which clearly show Meyer surrounded by police both during his questions and afterwards when he is being led away. The Washington Post blog attempts to frame what we see in the video (“There are some important things worth noting BEFORE you watch the video…”) by telling us that audience members initially applauded his arrest, Meyer was supposedly known for making a similar “fuss” at other events, Kerry’s lecture had lasted a half-hour too long, and Kerry himself tells the crowd in the background that he will answer Meyer’s questions. However, the Post’s framing is unsuccessful.

There are several reasons for this, primarily the nature of the video itself. The unarmed man screams first that he has done nothing and that the police have no right to arrest him; as the incident escalates, he cries out for help, and finally in sheer pain. The inaction of audience members (and the smiles on some of them) during the incident push the horrific scenes further, and some of the videos of the incident finish with some audience members trying to stop the police, who then push them (and their cameras) away. Furthermore, the arguments posed by the Post are tenuous at best. Audience applause is no way to judge a video of police brutality, and despite University systems’ attempts to make us reject students who “make a fuss,” whether that is against a racist mascot (as it was at the University of Illinois) or the exploitation of graduate students (as it was at New York University), images and video of peaceful students being arrested or beaten doesn’t quite work with a progressive brand identity.

Free speech protest at Berkeley in 1964

Free speech protest at Berkeley in 1964

It is here that we should see the third, and perhaps most important, aspect of the Meyer scandal. If we look at the event in terms of classical student protests, we see a simple question/answer session that “got out of hand,” or perhaps an irritating heckler. If we see it in terms of convergence culture, however, the issues become slightly different. Cell phone and hand-held camera videos shot by audience members are more real than reality TV. They are perhaps what Mark Andrejevic suggested is part of a new culture of passive surveillance, but they are also sound and video bites that contain screams, cries for help, and a jaded audience of highly educated students and faculty. More importantly, they are interactive. Ten hours after the event, less than 75,000 people had watched it on YouTube. A day later the number had skyrocketed to over half a million, as it simultaneously appeared throughout the web and on mainstream television. Despite the media attention on the event, however, we must wonder: would Meyer’s arrest have been broadcast were it not for the people with cameras? Would it have been broadcast without YouTube? How would it have been framed and reframed by mainstream media outlets, cut or edited or played without sound? Would the story have become big if mainstream journalists were not terrified of having their stories scooped once again by a voracious crowd of technologically savvy individuals?

Convergence does not hail a new era of consensus, and we should not expect it to do so. In fact, we should be wary of such a thing, as Chantal Mouffe and others have reminded us. Instead, we should see Jenkins’ “convergence” as a new form of conflict, in which emergent media, as Raymond Williams suggested, creates and emphasizes locations and locutions of conflict that force dominant social and media systems to evolve. Compromise and consensus are not the same thing; politics and the political are not the same thing. Community based in conflict, with a devotion to sharing of information and perspectives outside of a political and media system that has increasingly shown itself to be myopic at best and untrustworthy at worst, has the potential to show us a reality beyond the framework of repression envisioned by the Frankfurt school. However, like any protest or activist movement, it is a potential for which we must fight, as students, as scholars, as citizens, and as a community.

Images

1. Andrew Meyer tased by police at a University of Florida political event

2. Protest on the Berkeley campus over a proposed athletic facility

3. Free speech protest at Berkeley in 1964

Please feel free to comment.




Television’s Docile Subservience to the Law

By: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Raines

Raines

On March 15, 2007, NBC unveiled Raines, a mid-season replacement program starring Jeff Goldblum. This quirky television crime drama, which seems a mix of Monk and Medium, is the latest attempt at channeling mainstream audiences’ seemingly endless obsession with law, legal structures, and police procedurals. On the English-speaking networks alone (Univision, Telemundo, and Azteca America do not share this characteristic), crime or law related shows account for between one-fourth and one-third of programming. For years now, television seems to be dominated by genre shows dedicated to the law. As far as I can tell, this following season will include around 20 hours of crime and law related shows out of the 70 possible hours of weekday prime time by the five English-speaking networks: CBS, NBC, ABC, the CW, and Fox, whose primetime programming also includes an hour of evening news. Considering the importance of the networks in terms of disseminating the narratives that seem to matter most, and at normalizing the mental frameworks to interpret reality, the striking abundance of legal and law enforcement programming begs some exploration.

There are probably many answers to this issue of our seeming obsession with crime shows, legal dramas, and transnational law enforcement (e.g. JAG or 24) TV programs, including narrative traditions that go back to the nineteenth century, when crime and detective genres in literature became popular in western societies (Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so on). More recently, the success of some key police-procedural and legal dramas (from Dragnet to CSI:) has no doubt produced the expectation that other, similar shows would succeed. Because these shows have allowed us to explore our relationship between legal frameworks and authority, many have been trailblazers on social issues, including Cagney and Lacey (which queried the link between authority and gender) and I Spy (which in a transnational legal setting explored the location of blacks in our national institutions).

Dragnet

Dragnet

Today’s legal shows vary considerably in their approaches to law. Boston Legal is a mostly-satirical view of courtroom procedurals and legal work culture. The CSI: franchises, in contrast, are technophilic takes on crime investigation that fetishize technology and imagine it capable of shedding light into the social, and not the other way around. Finally, the just-introduced (and quickly cancelled) Black Donnellys was a character-driven drama where biography was anchored on the principle of law interrupted. In each of these TV shows, though, law is a central element around which narratives develop. Law is a problem to be solved, and the solution is to query it (Boston Legal), to follow it (CSI:), or to avoid it (The Black Donnellys).

CSI

CSI

With its many approaches to the legal field, television shapes the way we think about law, law abiding, law breakers, and ourselves. Although most of us do not regularly have run-ins with the police, lawyers, FBI or CIA agents, or forensic scientists, we have all been educated on the workings of the law. We all learn the way we are going to be treated by these institutions. We learn about the Miranda law, the right to a public defendant, that we should not be tortured by police (but we might be), that everything can be evidence but no evidence can be trusted, and so on. We learn that law abiding is boring, but perhaps the only recourse to people not wanting to deal with the bad cop, the inept public defendant, the racist jury, and so on. We learn that law breakers will be punished. Or, through shows like The Sopranos, the forth-coming Cane, The Black Donnellys, and Weeds, we learn that living outside the law is possible in small, tight communities of similar people, namely the Italians, the Latinos, the Irish, and the Suburbanites. This obsession with the law, for so long, definitely shapes who we are and forms a type of legal subjectivity.

The Sopranos

The Sopranos

We are indeed shaped by racial, sexual, national, gender, and class subjectivities, but organizing all of these is our legal subjectivity, a sort of meta-ethics that constitutes our social, political, and personal expectations. My concern is that our legal subjectivities are not produced equally, simply because law–the actual legal and political systems–and legal narratives–structured through the racial patriarchy of our media industries–are not produced by everybody. Latinas/os account for 7.2% of personnel in local television, yet account for only 5.5% of the House of Representatives (24 out of 435), and 0% of the Senate. Blacks are 10.9% of workers in local television, yet amount to only 9.6% of the House and 2% of the Senate[1]. Women account for 23% of membership in the Writers Guild of America, yet account for only 15.6% of the House and 15% of all Senators[2].

In the legal profession, the numbers are worse. According to the American Bar Association, Latinas/os account for 3.7% of lawyers and judges, Blacks for 4.2%. Nor surprisingly, our health, educational, criminal, and media legal frameworks famously reproduce difference between citizens. In our material life we are differently subjected by law. In our mental life, law subjects us through television and reconstitutes difference. This is par for the course, as Marx and Engels reminded us long ago: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”

Defining ourselves through law is perhaps normal, perhaps part of being in a modern society and a nation-state. But I suggest that the way legal frameworks are mediated through television signals a broader problem. On the one hand, it is evidence of a type of docility toward law, an accepting of the fact that every little thing in our lives is framed within the legal system. On the other hand, although narratives of law in media often highlight structural inequalities, they also have normalized them. I suggest then that our fascination with legal dramas and police procedurals binds us to legal frameworks in highly conservative and docile ways. Law does not produce a landscape of equality: instead, it reproduces stratification. Thus, docility to the systems of law also means docility to injustice.

Works Cited
[1] Brooks, 2003, p. 156.
[2] Hunt, 2007, p. 13.

Image Credits

1. Raines

2. Dragnet

3. CSI:

4. The Sopranos

Please Feel Free to Comment.




Smart Living in the Wired Home

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

The Wired Home

The Wired Home

The housing bubble may be bursting, but you wouldn’t know it from the Wired Home. In case you weren’t glued to your browser watching its installation last week, the Wired Home is a residential tear-down in the Crestwood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, conceived as “a showcase of the best in sustainability, technology, and design.”[i] A project of the LivingHomes company, the house features pre-fab construction techniques, the greenest of green building features, and sleek, modernist design from Ray Kappe, a big-name architect and the founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. LivingHome’s partner is Wired Magazine, responsible for outfitting the home with a comprehensive, integrated, and enviable technological infrastructure, and, of course, lending the cachet and awareness that the Wired brand confers. Although its emphasis on high-profile design and technology has all the hallmarks of “the home of the future,” the partners insist that their project, which will be sold for four million dollars after a season of public tours, is a showcase of the best practices commercially available today. This innovative project provides insight into the spatial dynamics of media convergence, the ability of corporate and entrepreneurial branding to create a market niche, and tensions in what it means to think progressively about the built environment.

The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

If this house were to be described in a single word, a good candidate would be convergence. Popular talk of media convergence tends to focus on the multifaceted capabilities of individual devices, but that perspective generally fails to account for the integration of such technologies with their environments. Although there are a few stand-alone technological flourishes in the Wired Home, like a biometric iris reader governing entry to the front door, the emphasis is on getting diverse technologies to work together. Present in nearly every room is a series of screens and interfaces. At the heart of the system is a Moxi multi-room Digital Media Recorder, a TiVo competitor capable of delivering photos, video, audio, games, and data to rooms throughout the house. But this media center is merely a component of a larger home automation system, which will connect the entertainment services, several touch-screen computers, temperature control, the lighting system, and home security, all controllable through hand-held touch screen remotes. Like the customized systems used in the much lauded and critiqued Gates home, off-the-shelf commercial solutions are brought together seamlessly in the Wired Home to make it a paragon of the convergent residence.[ii] Millions of home theater owners, home network builders, and early adopting technology users already have elements of these systems in their homes, but rarely do they have everything working in harmony.

As media and home automation technologies converge and extend across the space of the home, it is clear that convergence is simply another word for control, bringing with it all of the promise and peril that goes along with living a networked life. While television scholars have long appreciated the relationship between television sets, residential architecture and design, and daily patterns of domestic circulation, this understanding needs to be updated to consider the multiple networks in which contemporary screens are situated and the way corresponding spatial arrangements affect the uses and practices of domestic technologies. The media spaces created by the integration of entertainment media technologies with home automation systems and multiple external communications networks are multi-layered, unevenly distributed within homes and across neighborhoods, and determined by an array of forces, including municipal arrangements, corporate options, geographic limitations, cultural preferences, individual finances, and technological affinities.

Gold LEED certification

Gold LEED certification

While the integration of media and home automation technologies makes the Wired Home an interesting technological case study, it is also part of a conspicuous effort to link Wired’s traditional emphasis on technology with more contemporary markers of “smart living.” The ideological banner waved most enthusiastically by the project’s creators is that of sustainability — the previous house was deconstructed (rather than demolished) and 75% of that material is to be reused, the home is designed to earn a Gold LEED certification, efficient lighting, plumbing, and services will be used throughout, and funds raised through special events and tours will be donated to green organizations. While these are all positive and overdue steps for the housing construction industry, the no-stone unturned quality of their incorporation in LivingHomes’ projects seems designed not only to promote green living as an ethic but also to create green living as a lifestyle category; green is not simply something you do, but someone you are. But smart living doesn’t stop there. As constructed by the Wired Home, smart living means marrying green living with the ability to appreciate the refined simplicity of modern architecture, the benefits of automated technology, and the value of design. To make sure that the target market understands the parameters of smart living, the Wired Home has partnered with a range of signifying sponsors, featuring the latest no-emission vehicles from BMW, computers from HP, and even design elements for a kid’s room from Cookie, the magazine for children of distinction. Just as Wired and LivingHomes would have it, this is emphatically not the home everyone will be living in ten years from now, but rather the home that a certain demographic, a niche that is being targeted even as it is being constructed, aspires to live in right now. Although the elements of the house can be appreciated individually and as a whole, a primary function of the Wired House is clearly to commodify sustainability, technology, and design, and to create a profitable market niche out of those select individuals who can appreciate this mode of smart living.

Control4 Automation Tools

Control4 Automation Tools

Ultimately, this project is fraught with paradoxes. It is a showcase home, but its technologies and design are out of reach for the vast majority of homeowners. It will be one of the greenest homes ever built, but its construction involved tearing down an existing structure rather than adapting it. The suite of entertainment and information technologies in the home will offer its occupants unprecedented control over their environment, yet in the process will subject them to regimes of surveillance. The project’s governing principles of sustainability and prefabrication represent a progressive approach to the built environment, but its commitment to technology and architecturally-significant design — not to mention its 4,000 square foot layout and $4 million price tag — belie broader progressive goals of providing quality affordable housing to a broader public. This particular tension, between principles of progressive design and progressive urban planning, is perhaps the most troubling and familiar. Radical ideas in residential construction, from new urbanist regional plans to stylish pre-fab construction to green features, tend to exist as either renderings or high-end homes, as the capital necessary for their construction prefers the profit margins offered in upscale markets to those offered in affordable housing. While the Wired Home can be praised for emphasizing innovative design and sustainable building, it must also be recognized that the Wired Home is an exclusive demonstration of principles that will at best trickle down into high-end home building. There should be little doubt that this showcase will offer a wealth of lessons regarding the integration of sustainable building and home technologies, but we might ask whether this will simply serve as data for high-end home marketers or whether it might provide extensible insights that might address broader housing problems.

Notes
[i] The official press release for the project can be downloaded at http://www.epicurious.com/cs/wiredhome_text_release
A floorplan can be found at
http://www.wired.com/promo/wiredlivinghome/pdf/wh07_floorplan.pdf

[ii] Lynn Spigel provides a critique of the Gates House, and future homes in general, in the essay “Yesterday’s Future, Tomorrow’s Home” in her book Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs; Fiona Allon builds on Spigel’s critique in her essay “An Ontology of Everyday Control” in the volume MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age.

Image Credits

1. The Wired Home

2. The Control4 Wall Mount Touch Screen

3. Gold LEED certification

4. Control4 Automation Tools

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Poll #5:
New Prime Time Shows

As always, feel free to leave your comments below.




Welcome to the new and improved FlowTV

Dear FlowTV Community:

It’s been my pleasure to have supervised the conversion of the old site to what you see before you. This complex transformation could not have happened without the generous support of our faculty sponsor, Michael Kackman, and our senior editors Marnie Binfield, Jean Lauer, and Alexis Carreiro. Also, many, many thanks to our tireless columnists and our selfless grad editors.

Regards,
Matt




Durham County: “HBO can eat its heart out”

by: Michele Byers / Saint Mary’s University

Durham County

Durham County

Durham County (DC) is a new offering from the Canadian specialty cable channels Movie Central and The Movie Network.[1] It’s a six-episode series about a cop and a serial killer in the suburbs of Montreal. The series is brought to the screen by the dynamic team of Janice Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell (Talk 16, Talk 19, Straight Up!, Drop the Beat, Bliss), and Laurie Finstad Karzhnik (Cold Squad, Bliss).

DC is a hybrid creature, evidencing what Serra Tinic suggests is an increasing imperative of countries like Canada to create exportable drama (of interest especially to US audiences but stripped of all national and cultural markers)[2] and at the same time exhibiting the Canadian obsession with “Weird Sex and Snowshoes,” “resist[ing] closure, revel[ing] in ambiguity and tend[ing] to defy every rule in the genre handbook.”[3] Shows like DC are meant to compete with shows coming out of the US specialty cable market—The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood—grabbing both audience approval and critical acclaim, as evidenced by the quote I used as the title of this essay.[4] Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan note that many people have seen CanCon laws— which prohibit the licensing of US stations for Canadian broadcast—as protecting the industry from “television viewers [who] would leap at the opportunity to subscribe,”[5] leaving no space for the production of “uniquely” Canadian texts like DC.

DC is an exciting prospect for Canadian television; it employs many of the devices that mark other (US) series as both “quality” and “cult” TV[6]: the “quality” series’ links to “pedigree,” struggle, ensemble, memory, generic hybridity, writely-ness, self-consciousness, controversy, and realism,[7] and the “cult” series’ ability to “support an inexhaustible range of narrative possibilities, inviting, supporting, and rewarding close textual analysis, interpretation, and inventive reformulation.”[8] Despite the mere six hours that make up DC, this text is so rich it’s hard to know how to begin, so I’ll limit myself to a discussion of opening sequences and general structures. By way of comparison, I’ll look at how DC compares to another popular serial killer series: Showtime’s Dexter (Dex, 2006).

Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

DC is about a police officer (Mike Sweeney) who relocates to the Montreal suburbs of his adolescence after the death of his partner and his wife’s remission from cancer. In the ‘burbs he finds himself on the trail of a serial killer (or two), who he believes to be his childhood nemesis and new next door neighbor, Ray Prager. At the same time, Sweeney, it is suggested, is not the good guy he seems to be. This is both like and unlike what we see on Dex. From the very first moments of Dex, Dexter himself tells us about his lack of affect, different-ness, murderous urges. And yet, Dexter Morgan is a moral character who only kills “bad” people as he works to find his place in the world and to make that world “better.” Under his sociopathic exterior is someone with deep feelings, repressed by trauma. On DC we have no real moral guideposts for the characters; it is hard to get into their heads. Ray Prager is a killer, maybe… but maybe Sweeney’s a killer… maybe they both are; their careful surfaces under which violence boils are much less convincingly constructed than that of Dexter Morgan.

The way the two series open tells us a lot about their construction more generally. DC opens with a series of shots which can be read as tableaux. Filmed in black and white with red accents, they say little about the characters or the story about to unfold:

1. Tree branches
2. Manga mask
3. Smoke; a distant city
4. Bald head
5. Wicker basket leaking blood
6. Bald head again
7. Blond curl being nailed to a tree
8. Man in police interrogation room
9. Maquette of a crime scene
10. Aerial view of a suburb with electrical towers
11. Roses floating in water
12. Man dancing with a corpse
13. Man running blind in the dark towards light/camera
14. Man sitting upright in bed
15. Man walking by electrical towers, in sharp cut aways, towards the camera

These images offer a static series of tableaux that may or may not be the story of DC; in fact, they replicate the ambiguity and lack of closure found in the text.

Durham County Poster

Durham County Poster(see note[9])

The opening sequence on Dex is about movement, and has a dance-like quality:

1. Mosquito on male arm
2. Thumb on neck
3. Thumb on razor shaving the neck
4. Drops of blood in sink
5. Tissue soaking up blood
6. Piece of ham being cut
7. Ham thrown into hot pan
8. Ham being eaten
9. Egg cracked into pan
10. Egg eaten with hot sauce
11. Coffee beans in grinder
12. Plunger into Bodum coffee press
13. Serrated knife cutting blood orange
14. Orange in handpress
15. White string around fingers
16. Teeth being flossed
17. Cords around hands
18. Shoes being tied
19. Face through white scrim
20. T-shirt pulled over a head
21. Key in door

These are ironic images, each one a double-entendre of banal morning ablutions and murder. They are a key to the series and its central character in a much more specific way than what we see in the opening sequence of DC. The DC tableaux seem to ask us to piece together a story that is never fully forthcoming even after we have seen all 6 episodes. The Dex intro, by contrast, makes a great deal of sense once we have watched just the start of one episode.

In fact, in the first episode of Dex this sequence doesn’t appear at all. At the opening of the first episode, we hear Dexter in voice-over telling us about himself in an ironic way–his killings beside, for example, his love of Cuban food–as he moves through the city of Miami. We see flashbacks to his childhood and adopted father. We see Dexter find his first “victim”—a child murderer—and kill him. Throughout, Dexter provides exposition wherein his moral position is established. We then see him on his boat, on his way to dump garbage bags full of body parts; as he smiles and talks about how good he is at faking human emotion, his “goodness” is already sutured to the viewers.

The Cast of Dexter

The Cast of Dexter

DC starts with the tableaux described above. The scenes that follow show us, through trees, a man picnicking with two young women in schoolgirl uniforms. It isn’t clear if they are schoolgirls or prostitutes, but the man’s sexual intentions are clear enough. We see an eye, watching, through the trees. We turn back to the people at the picnic, who are shot just as torsos. Then back to the eye. We then cut away to a family in a car, driving out of a city. Then we cut back to the woods. The women are bound and dead or dying, one mouths “help me” to the eye in the woods. The killer is shirtless and it is his body rather than those of the clothed girls that is eroticized for the viewer and the eye in the woods. We cut back to the family, fields of electrical towers and then, in juxtaposition, the big houses of a suburban enclave. In these scenes, the morality of the characters and their position within the world remain deeply ambiguous.

In fact, good and evil are not terms that easily apply to anything on DC. This sense of ambiguity travels into the sexual realm too, with DC seemingly willing to go into particularly “ugly” territory—although it, like most serial killer narratives, is fascinated with the murder of women—leaving open questions of the homoerotic, necrophiliac, and so on. On Dex, by contrast, these routes are closed down through tropes of fraternity and the desire for heterosexual monogamy. Further, where the shocking aspects of violence and blood (or lack of it) are crucial to the visual display of Dex they play only a small role in DC. While Dex is concerned with goodness in the heart of multicultural urban spaces—which are so often presented as dangerous—DC presents us with the dangers at the heart of unerringly white suburbia. The visual quality of the series tells us something too: Miami is filmed in sun, bright colors and loud noises. The suburbs are quiet, muted (filmed through a grey lens), and framed by the ominous, ubiquitous presence of those rows and rows of electrical towers. The city seems to have been produced through history, whereas the suburb is shown to be entirely artificial and unrooted from both history and landscape. Neither are particularly original narrative tropes, but suggest a line of inquiry into the texts and the spaces of their production.

DC may be a hard text to love for many viewers. It offers a constant confounding of visual, textual, and moral expectations. Dex seems to have found itself a well-deserved following of viewers (me included), will the same be true of DC? I can only hope so.

Notes:
[1] [Source for title quote:] “Hugh Dillon Hopes for A Hit with Durham County.” Chart Attack. May 7, 2007. www.chartattack.com
[2] Tinic, Serra. On Location: Canada’s Television Industry in a Global Market. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.
[3] Monk, Katherine. Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film Phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2001: 5.
[4] Also see Kelly, Brendan. “Canada turns to Cable for Original TV.” Variety. August 17, 2007. www.variety.com
[5] Beaty, Bart and Rebecca Sullivan. Canadian Television Today. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006: 45.
[6] See for example, Jancovich, Mark and David Lyons, eds. Quality Popular Television. London: Bfi Publications, 2003; Gwellian-Jones, Gwen and Roberta Pearson, eds. Cult Television. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
[7] Wilcox, Rhonda and David Lavery. “Introduction.” In Fighting the Forces, edited by R. Wilcox and D. Lavery. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002: xxi–xxiv.
[8] Gwellian-Jones and Pearson. “Introduction,” xii.
[9] The centrality of the woman’s body on this poster and the text, “When Rivalry Turns To Murder,” which appears directly below, function to replicate a textual language that viewers will recognize as crime TV. This, however, misrepresents the show as I read it.

Images:

1. Durham County

2. Ray Prager and Mike Sweeney

3. Durham County Poster

4. Cast of Dexter

Please feel free to comment.




The Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Television

by: Alan McKee / Queensland University of Technology

I run the Bachelor of Creative Industries (Television) at Queensland University of Technology. Our students want to work in the industry, and we give them a class called (with due deference to the decades of R and D conducted by the public intellectuals working in the self-help movement, who discovered the importance both of ‘steps’ and of the number seven) ‘The Seven Steps to Getting a Job in Television’. They are as follows.

1. Make sure you want a job in television.

1. Make sure that you want a job in Television

What does that mean, exactly? Tell me – from start to finish – what a typical day ‘working in television’ involves? When are you going to get up? What are you going to do when you get in to work? Who are you going to be working with, and what kind of interaction will you be having with them? And the next day? And the next day?

Every year, dozens of students arrive in our degree, convinced they want to work in television. And yet their behaviour as they study makes me suspicious about what they think that actually means. They don’t like being bored – they won’t come to lectures if they are boring. They don’t like doing menial work. They don’t like taking responsibility for things, or having to work things out for themselves. Which makes me wonder – what exactly do they think that jobs in television involve? If you love television, then making a television program is a wonderful, exciting, rewarding, challenging thing to do. But that doesn’t change the fact that much of the time, most jobs in television are just that – jobs. Like any other jobs, they involve long periods of doing dull, repetitive or menial work. The vast majority of the people in the production office are doing precisely the kind of work that student usually hate. Cataloguing tapes. Printing out contracts. Filing paperwork. Doing research. Paying invoices. Updating databases. There’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing. There’s a lot of answering phones, or chasing people for their ABN numbers. Working out petty cash. Making tea and coffee. Phoning bookshops to find copies of out of print books, or haberdashery stores to find stocks of discontinued material. Typing names and contact numbers for a hundred people.

So – bearing that in mind – do you think that you want to work in television? Can you do these jobs? Can you do them with commitment, knowing that it’s part of creating a TV program? Can you do them with passion, knowing that you’re learning about the nitty gritty of how to run a production? Can you do them for many years?

2. Accept that, however you get into TV, you will start in an entry level position.

2. Accept that, however you get into TV, you will start in an entry level position.

Our Television degree is doing well. The first group of students graduated in February this year, and already several have jobs in television. These are entry level jobs – as production assistants, researchers, runners and tape loggers. This is how things work.

One of the problems with traditional Film and Television degrees is that they train students to want to be directors. That’s a fine ambition. But two points. Firstly, you will not, and should not, emerge from Film School straight into directing. No matter how good your degree, there’s still a lot of learning about the industry to be done – particularly if you want to make something more than just an art film. There’s no way that you’ve run anything to the scale and scope of a mainstream television or film production. And secondly, an industry can’t survive only on directors. You need hundreds of other people doing other jobs, just as important, just as creative in a variety of ways. You need production assistants and runners and line producers and executive producers and editors and key grips and camerapeople and lighting assistants …

This doesn’t mean that a university degree is useless. Our students graduate with a series of vocational skills – a solid understanding of how the industry works, technical skills, research and writing skills, communication skills, knowledge of the laws that impact on television production, the history of successful TV programs … All of these are useful. They will serve them in good stead as they progress in the industry. But they still have to start at the bottom and work their way up. And it is quite right and proper that they do so. The skills and knowledge we give them will help them to work their way up, and may even let them do it a bit more quickly. Accepting this fact is vital if you want to get into the industry. And it will help you with the next step.

3. Lose the attitude.

3. Lose the attitude.

Producers have told me that they hate people who come into the industry telling everybody who’ll listen ‘I really want to be a director’, and give the impression that doing the everyday work of running a production – answering phones, keeping databases updated, filing invoices, making coffee, doing the lunch run – are beneath them. If that’s your attitude, you’re not going to get anywhere. Doing such work is a vital part of learning – the everyday logistics that hold a project together. And more than that, it’s a vital part of getting yourself into the industry. Television projects are massive logistical exercises, which bring together huge numbers of people in complex, almost military-style organisations. For each new program, and each new season, new crews are put together. They are highly structured, but also flexible organisations. And when they’re putting their crews together, people tend to choose crew that they know, or who are recommended to them by people that they know – people that they trust, and know will do the job well. That is something that you have to earn for yourself in the industry. Again, a University degree can be useful here. This is particularly the case if your teachers have earned the trust of people in the industry. I am commonly asked for recommendations of students to take up television positions. Whenever this happens, without exception, I always recommend the students who have worked hard, been enthusiastic and friendly, who work well in a team, and who have a good attitude.

4. Meet People.

4. Meet People.

So you know you want a job in television, and you’ve got the attitude that you’re going to have to start at the bottom. How do you get in there?

The most important thing is to meet people. This will already be obvious from the previous point. It’s all about networks. You need the people who are looking for crew to know that you exist. How are you going to meet them? Again, a relevant degree can be useful – if it’s the right degree, and you are being taught by, introduced to, and generally meeting, people in the industry. And if your lecturers know people in the industry. Secondly, don’t underestimate the importance of your fellow students in this process – the first one who gets a foot in the door then knows about you if the company has to take on an extra receptionist. Thirdly, find ways to make contact with and get involved with industry bodies – in Australia, think about SPAA Fringe (Screen Producers Association of Australia). Fourthly, get involved with Community television – it’s a separate sector, but as well as gaining experience and skills, there is some crossover (in Australia, see Blokesworld, Rove).

And more than this – you also need to meet people in the creative industries outside of the television industry – because television is a voracious consumer of content, and it’s always bringing in new creatives. Musicians, animators, fashion designers, graphic artists, performers – the more people that you know, the more chance that somebody you know at some point is going to get asked to do something on a television program. Go out every night and do something. And be nice to everybody you meet and smile and chat. Don’t be fake, obviously. Just enjoy people’s company. Look for what’s interesting about them and ask them about it. Find the local networks for creative people – email lists, organisations local venues, festivals, events – and get involved.

You will also quickly learn to spot people who actually have talent and get things done on the one hand; and losers who just complain about how nobody recognises how great they are on the other hand. Focus your time and energy on the former; but don’t alienate the latter. Sometimes talentless people will get into the TV industry, and it doesn’t do any harm to keep them onside.

5. Get your own projects running.

5. Get your own projects running.

Don’t wait until somebody employs you. Right now you should have creative projects running. You probably can’t make your own TV programs – that takes a lot of money and people. But get involved in creative projects. Ideally, not just doing things by yourself – making short experimental videos, drawing pictures or writing poetry are fine, but they don’t help build your networks or project management skills. Much better are projects which involve other people, and which have public outcomes. Again, community TV is good. So are film festivals, and comedy galas, and fashion events, and dance parties. Organise an art show, or a performance event. Shoot a music video for a local band or put together a music festival. Something that’s creative, and involves people, and allows you to build your own networks, and show your initiative and leadership skills and ability to work as part of a team, and inspire people and organise things, and actually make things happen. Plus, harking back to the previous points, it lets you meet lots of new people, who may at some point get work in the industry, and remember how great you were.

6. Show, don’t tell.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Which brings me to a more general rule. Once you are in the industry, in an entry-level position – show, don’t tell. Don’t go around telling everybody you meet how talented you are, and how you’re going to be a great director, and the industry is fucked, and you’re going to fix it, and you’re only doing this Production Assistant job until you get your big break. It may be true – but telling everybody about it isn’t going to do any good. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, Alan just told me he’s a great director. I had no idea– we should let him direct the shoot next week’. Rather, what you need to do is show people how good you are. Do this by excelling at everything you’re asked to do – and by sometimes going a little bit further. Initiative is a hard one. Because television is a massively complex machine, with hundreds of people all interacting, there’s a necessary and rigid hierarchy of decision-making. For each decision in the process of making a television process, from the biggest – who to cast in the lead role – through hundreds of intermediate decisions – what colour of paper to use for which draft of the scripts – to the most minor – what to have for lunch – it’s somebody’s job to make that decision. So you can’t really just decide things for yourself and go off and do them. But sometimes you will see ways to show initiative – do more than is asked of you, produce the outcome you were asked to do but more quickly and cheaper than was expected, offer an idea to a discussion. People will notice that. And if you have previous work to show – you’ve produced a comedy gala, you’ve organised a series of dance parties – not only will you have the skills and networks from that, but you have those successes to show. Remember – there’s nothing less interesting or impressive than somebody with lists of great plans of things they’re ‘going to do’, when they’ve never actually done any of it.

7. Grasp every opportunity.

7. Grasp every opportunity.

The capstone, the key, the one thing you mustn’t forget. It follows on logically from all of the points above, but it still surprises me that some students don’t follow it. Whenever you get any opportunity to do anything in television or related to television, do it. Whatever it is. Even if isn’t paid.. Even if you have to do night shifts. Even if you have to drive for two hours every day each way, or sleep on a friend’s floor. Even if you have to teach yourself to drive. If you want to work in television, this is what you will do. Whatever the opportunity – take it, energetically, and with a smile. Because this is how you will meet people, and that is how everything happens. And do it all with a great attitude.

There you go, simple really. Follow the seven steps, take it seriously, live, work and breathe television for years and years of your life, and go for it.

Good luck.

Image Credits:

1. Intern with coffee.

2. Man Climbing Ladder

3. Arrogance.

4. Shaking Hands

5. Stack of tapes.

6. Man with megaphone.

7. Intern grasping every opportunity

Please feel free to comment.




Punk-Rock Presidency: The State of Presidential Satire on Television

by: Jeffrey P. Jones / Old Dominion University

Lil’ Bush

Lil’ Bush

After Stephen Colbert’s mouth-dropping performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006—which neither President Bush nor the press corps found very amusing—the organizers of this year’s event took the safest (read: most conservative) route they could find in hiring the featured speaker by selecting presidential impersonator Rich Little. Nothing like hearing those Reagan and Nixon voices one more time for a good ol’ belly laugh! But in reviving the career of the former late-night talk show staple, the press reminded us of just how far television has come in its caricatures of presidents. For also appearing that same week on Comedy Central was the animated series, Lil’ Bush, a portrayal of George W. Bush as a dim-witted and dangerous fifth-grader running amok in the White House and wreaking havoc across the world with his diabolical pals Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’ Rummy. Whether the portrayal is fair or unfair, funny or not, the acceptable norms of television’s treatment of a sitting president have certainly changed.

Colbert and Bush

Colbert and Bush

A brief survey of comedic political caricatures on television over the last four decades suggests three primary forms. Perhaps earliest and surely the most politically impotent, if not out-right flattering, are impersonators such as Rich Little and Vaughn Meader (The First Family). Typically appearing on late-night talk shows such as The Tonight Show or on any number of variety programs, the gist of the political performance is impersonation—to look or sound as much like the president as possible. It is a mimetic performance, and ultimately the interest for audiences resides less in any latent form of political critique, but more in the simple pleasure of resemblance.

Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

In American television history, Saturday Night Live has perhaps had the biggest impact in shaping the second form, the sketch comedy approach to presidential caricature. With comedians such as the moppy-haired Chevy Chase portraying Gerald Ford or the tall and lanky Will Ferrell pretending to be George W. Bush, the comedian isn’t attempting to look or necessarily sound like the president. Rather, the comedian creates humorous situations that we, the audience, then read onto the president. Like an editorial cartoon, certain features are exaggerated for comedic effect. Hence, Chase makes Ford into a clumsy and bumbling figure. Dan Aykroyd focuses on Nixon’s paranoia or Jimmy Carter’s sincere Sunday School teacher demeanor.

(a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b) Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

(a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b) Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

Phil Hartman plays-up Clinton as a voracious consumer (of women and French fries). And Will Farrell captures Bush’s problems with the English language (“strategery”). Although some SNL comedians did shoot for physical and phonetic resemblance (Dana Carvey as George H. W. Bush and Darryl Hammond as Al Gore), the comedic pleasure is typically more diegetic—envisioning the president articulate these comedic narratives. Therefore, we see Jimmy Carter using his intelligence to talk a caller down from a bad acid trip; a robotic and patronizing Al Gore referring to “lock box” like a stuck phonograph; a intellectually challenged yet arrogant George W. Bush making it all up as he goes along.

Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

More recently, a third form of presidential caricature on television has appeared in the form of the situation comedy genre. In 2001, Comedy Central took the bold move (and the first of its kind) to devote an entire series to making fun of a sitting president. From South Park writers and producers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the series, That’s My Bush!, was a satirical take on the First Family. The primary intent of the show, Parker and Stone repeatedly argued in the press, was less to satirize Bush or the presidency and more to parody the obnoxiousness of the sitcom itself. And indeed, the show did skewer the inane suburban home and office situation comedies, including a cast that featured the wise-mouthed maid, the next door neighbor who is always dropping by and making himself at home, and the sexy but dumb secretary who is accompanied by laugh track hoots and whistles when she enters the room (a la Married…With Children).

Cast of That’s My Bush!

Cast of That’s My Bush!

Nonetheless, the portrayal of Bush as an affable, yet nonetheless moronic and somewhat lazy president doesn’t allow for Parker and Stone’s defense that their show wasn’t political. For instance, the president’s right-hand man is none other than “Karl Rove.” In one episode, the president personally executes a death row inmate by pouring drain cleaner down his throat, only after reading him his last rights: “You have the right to die like a little bitch, have your soul sent to hell” (even though Bush thinks he is faking an execution to impress his old frat brothers). In another episode, Bush outlaws guns after being told by a psychic that someone has it in for him. But the episode that perhaps signals just how far television has come in its satirical treatment of a sitting president and his family is one in which Laura Bush tries to figure out why George no longer seems interested in performing oral sex on her. The communication problems ensue when she thinks that the “old and smelly” cat that George is referring to isn’t the 24-year old family pet, but her own feminine hygiene problems. That’s my bush, indeed!

Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

When the program appeared on Comedy Central, television critics were less enamored of it than audiences (the program actually brought in fairly strong ratings for the network, but was cancelled after eight episodes because it was the most expensive program the network produced). But one critic from the Buffalo News expressed his shock and dismay at the cultural zeitgeist when he wrote, “No president—not even George W. Bush—deserves the putrid adolescent japery of what I’ve seen on ‘That’s My Bush!’….If this isn’t truly disgusting and reprehensible television, I don’t know what is.”[1] Little did this writer know, things were about to get even worse a few years down the line.

In 2007, Comedy Central again returned to the Bush presidency, this time airing the animated situation comedy Lil’ Bush. George W. Bush is portrayed as a stupid and hubristic First Child (because Daddy Bush is still in the White House) running around with his pals Lil’ Cheney, Lil’ Condi, and Lil’Rummy, engaging with various enemies such as Lil’ Kim Jong Il and Lil’ Al Gore.

The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

The show’s creator, Donick Cary (a former Letterman and Simpsons writer) described the show as “The Little Rascals with nuclear weapons.” The portrayal of Bush and his diabolical pals (Lil’ Cheney is seen biting the heads off chickens) isn’t just critical—it’s downright brutal. Bush administration policies are always front and center. In one episode, Lil’ George is slated to make a class presentation on how a light bulb works. George says, “Sorry, Teachy, need more time. The science on this complicated issue is still out. But don’t worry. I’m forming a panel that will deliver a report on this issue in the next five years.” In another episode, Bush’s summer camp gang takes on Camp Al-Qaeda, and near the end, the gang must perform a song at a talent show. Lil’ Condi is frustrated, and announces, “I’m worried about the show tonight. We spent so much time pranking those hairy terrorists that we don’t have a song for the talent show.” Bush replies, “You’re right, Con. There’s only one thing left to do.” Lil’ Condi naively asks, “Spend the next few hours writing a really great song?,” to which Lil’ George replies, “No, no. Design such an awesome stage show that no one will notice how bad our song is. It’s a policy I call ‘Rock and Awe.’” After the band performs dressed as Kiss, the episode ends with words flashed on the screen, “Lil’ George never stopped rockin’…until 1986, when, for political reasons, he was born again. His prank war against the terrorists continues to this day.”

Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Cary defends the critique by arguing that it is an honest one. And sometimes that portrayal isn’t too far from the truth. In the episode “Nuked,” Lil’ George complains, “I hate doing what I’m told. I want to be a decider!,” whereas real-life President Bush recently proclaimed, “My job is to make decisions. I’m a decision—if the job description were, what do you do, it’s Decision Maker. And I make a lot of big ones and I make a lot of little ones.”[3] Each episode also features the Lil’ Bush Band performing as a punk-rock group and singing tunes that illustrate the episode (with lyrics written by Cary). In “Nuked,” for instance, the song “Decider” accompanies images of Bush launching nuclear strikes on Kim Jong Il, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi, gay couples, anti-war activists, and blue states. The song’s lyrics include “I’m the Decider making up my mind, blowin’ up things, I’m feeling fine. Decide, decide, listen to my gut, going nu-cle-ar, I’m going all nuts….Bringing death from above with no remorse, if you complain, I’ll just stay the course” with the refrain, “De-cid-er-er, De-cid-er-er.” The connection to punk rock, Cary notes in an interview, is an intentional commentary on the Bush administration’s style of conduct: “Dive in headfirst. Break stuff up. Don’t care what people think. It’s VERY punk-rock.”[4] And indeed, punk rocker Iggy Pop does the voice of Lil’ Rummy just to keep it honest!

The reaction to the show in the press was even more aggressive and negative than the reviews which accompanied That’s My Bush!’s debut. Most complained that the show was not funny and that the critique was not timely (appearing after the 2006 electoral setbacks for the Republican Party).[5] Others complained that nothing in the episodes amounted to real satire or contributed significant insights.[6] But such commentary is missing the (punk-rock) point. Punk has never tried to provide cutting edge musical innovations or offer cerebral insights on the need for social and political change. Punk is reductive and simplistic. It is aggressive and loud. It takes no prisoners and ultimately doesn’t give a fuck if you like it or not. The punk point of Lil’Bush is not to mimic the conventions of television humor (that is, the expectation to be funny or satirically insightful). Instead it is to mimic and mock the style, attitude, and conventions of the president and his administration itself, yet warped just enough to get your attention and perhaps offend in the process.

That’s My Bush! and Lil’ Bush bookend the Bush presidency. The caricature moves from Bush as father to Bush as small child. His stupidity is no longer harmless, but instead quite dangerous. He is no longer affable and loveable, but rather, mean-spirited and evil. Bush’s consorts are part of the picture as well—from neighborly and sexy to vicious and wicked (in one episode, Lil’ Rummy draws a picture of a bunny rabbit with a knife in his belly and says, “That will teach you to hop in the woods without body armor”). Certainly featuring a president with abysmal approval ratings “allows” for such brutal critiques. But these bookend series also suggest that the president, his family, and his advisors are fair game for almost any portrayal (at least on cable television!). And although programs like Saturday Night Live will most certainly continue to offer mainstream versions of political caricature, Comedy Central has forever altered the landscape of acceptability in television’s satirical critiques of sitting presidents. Turning back the clock, as the writer for the Buffalo News seemingly desired, simply isn’t possible at this juncture. Punk rock is here to stay!

Notes:
[1]“Trashy ‘That’s My Bush’ Cheapens Real Political Satire,” Buffalo News (New York), 10 June, 2001. Retrieved from Lexisnexis.com, August 6, 2007.

[2] Moore, Frazier. “Heckuva Job: Comedy Central’s New Satire, ‘Lil’ Bush, Takes a Cartoon Look at the President,” Associated Press, 11 June 2007. Retrieved from Lexisnexis.com, July 15, 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]
Mike Hale, “The President and His Friends, Younger and More Animated,” New York Times, 13 June 2007: E10.

[6]
For instance, Newsday critic Diane Werts, who argues that the show is “mostly just outrageous, designed to offend as much as to make any salient point….Yet little of it adds up to much of anything but foul-mouthed mischief.” “Not Bush League, But It’s a ‘Lil’ Close,” Newsday (New York), 13 June 2007, B21.

Image Credits:

1. Lil’ Bush

2. Colbert and Bush

3. Rich Little as Pres. Reagan

4. (a)Chevy Chase as Pres. Ford (b)Dan Aykroyd as Pres. Carter

5. Will Ferrell as Pres. Bush

6. Cast of That’s My Bush!

7. Laura and George in That’s My Bush!

8. The animated cast of Lil’ Bush

9. Lil’ Bush band rocks out

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Poll #4: Emmy Nominations — Part II

(Make sure to scroll all the way down. There are four polls.)










Pixarvolt – Animation and Revolt

by: Judith Halberstam / University of Southern California

Over the Hedge

Over the Hedge

In contemporary animated feature films for kids, a genre I call “pixarvolt” — meaning animated movies depending upon pixar technologies of animation rather than standard linear animation and foregrounding the themes of revolution and transformation — certain topics which would never ever appear in adult films are central to the success and emotional impact of the narrative. The Pixarvolt films proceed by way of fairly conventional narratives about individual struggle, but they use the individual character only as a gateway to intricate stories of collective action, anti-capitalist critique, group bonding and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment and responsibility.

In the one recent film, Over The Hedge by Dreamworks, just for example, the film stages a dramatic stand off between some woodland creatures and their new junk food consuming, pollution spewing, SUV driving, trash producing, water wasting, anti-environmentalist human neighbors. As the creatures awake from their winter hibernation, they discover that while they were sleeping, a soulless suburban development stole their woodland space and the humans have erected a huge partition or hedge to fence them out. The creatures, raccoons and squirrels, porcupines and skunks, turtles and bears, band together in a cross-species alliance to destroy the colonizers, tear down the partition and to upend the suburbanites depiction of them as “vermin.” We only see the humans through the eyes of the woodland creatures and, as in countless other animated features, the humans look empty, lifeless and inert – in fact, unanimated. Over The Hedge (OTH) like other films in the Pixarvolt genre makes animation itself into a feature of kinetic political action rather than just an elaborate form of puppetry. The human and non-human then are featured as animated and unanimated rather than real and constructed or subjects and objects. The band of creatures in OTH make up a complex compendium of the non-human and they even feature a Hegelian possum who plays dead when in danger and explains to his daughter wisely: “Playing possum is what we do. We die so we may live!” Ultimately, this children’s feature offers more in the way of a vision of collective action than most independent films and critical theory put together and the film’s conclusion points to queer alliance, queer space and queer temporalities as the answers to the grim inevitability of reproductive futurity and suburban domesticity.

A short list of films that I would feature in my pixavolt genre would include: Finding Nemo, Shrek 1 and 2, Chicken Run, Babe, Wallace and Gromit, Spongebob Squarepants, Monsters Inc. and Over the Hedge. It would not include The Incredibles, Toy Story, Madagascar or Chicken Little. In the Pixavolt flicks, animated animals or odd animated human-like subjects, like Spongebob, or animated animals like Gromit who live with animated humans like Wallace, all transform our understanding of relationality, morality and social change by inhabiting worlds where common sense leads not to home-owning, or family values, or individualistic aspiration but rather the Pixavolt world is comprised of a strangely radical combination of socialist and anarchist notions mixed with odd translations of ‘animal values.’ The chickens in Chicken Run, a matriarchal group for the most part, recognize that they are not only the labor on the Tweedy farm but soon to be the product; the fish in Finding Nemo understand that the dangers of the deep are less the sharks than the fishermen; Spongebob and his buddy Patrick take on the greedy entrepreneur on the ocean’s bed; the monstrous and pathetic rejected fairytale characters in Shrek form a refugee camp outside Shrek’s swamp and so on.

Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo

Not all animated features fit the Pixarvolt bill. And so a film like The Incredibles builds its story around the supposedly heroic pathos of male mid-life crisis and invests in an Ayn Randian or scientologist notion of the special people who must not suppress their difference in order to fit in with the drab masses; the very recently released Happy Feet, similarly casts its lot in with individualism and makes a heroic figure out of the dancing penguin who cannot fit in with his sick-making, sentimentalist, heart song singing community…at first. Eventually, of course, the community expands to incorporate him but they, sadly, learn valuable lessons along the way about the importance of every single one of the rather uniform penguins learning to “be themselves.” Of course, if the penguins really were being “themselves,” that is penguins, they would not be singing Earth Wind and Fire songs in blackface as they do in the movie, and searching for soul mates, they would be making odd squawking noises and settling down for one year with one mate and then moving on!

Spongebob & Patrick

Spongebob & Patrick

In Over The Hedge, and other Pixavolts, desire for difference is not connected to a neo-liberal “be yourself” mentality or to special individualism for “incredible” people, rather, the Pixarvolt films connect individualism to selfishness, to untrammeled consumption and they oppose it with a collective mentality. Two thematics can transform a potential Pixarvolt film into a tame and conventional cartoon: family and romance. The Pixavolt films, unlike their un-revolting conventional animation counterparts, seem to know that their main audience is children and they seem to also know that children do not invest in the same things that adults invest in: children are not coupled, they are not romantic, they do not have a religious morality, they are not afraid of death, they are collective creatures, they are in a constant state of rebellion against their parents and they are not the masters of their domain. Children stumble, bumble, fail, fall, hurt; they are mired in difference, not in control of their bodies, not in charge of their lives and they live according to schedules not of their own making. The Pixavolt films offer the child an animated world of triumph for the little guys, a revolution against the business world of the father and the domestic sphere of the mother – in fact, very often, the mother is simply dead and the father is enfeebled (as in Robots, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Over The Hedge). Gender in these films is shifty and ambiguous (transsexual fish in Finding Nemo, other-species-identified pig in Babe); sexualities are amorphous and polymorphous (the homoerotics of Spongebob and Patrick’s relationship and of Wallace and Gromit’s domesticity); class is clearly marked in terms of labor and species diversity and bodily ability is quite often at issue (Nemo’s small fin, Shrek’s giganticism). While recent animations tend to be all too unrevolting (see aforementioned Happy Feet but also Flushed Away), the genre itself seems to have made a commitment to the quirky, the rebellious and the queer and while Happy Feet danced the new penguin chic all the way to the bank, perhaps there’s another grim and less cheery animation in the making, one where dancing penguins give way to more of the unsettling and perverse animal narratives that we have come to love and trust.

Images

1. Over the Hedge

2. Finding Nemo

3. Spongebob & Patrick

Please feel free to comment.




Talent: No Alarms and No Surprises, Please.

by: Gareth Palmer / University of Salford

At the precise moment democritizing media (such as blogs, YouTube, and cyberliving) are on the rise both, television and music industries are making dramatic investments in “the people” in the form of the talent show. On the surface this looks like the most old-fashioned and wholesome of gestures, rather as if these industries were rediscovering their raison d’etre in serving the public with something “pure” – the people themselves. But beneath this benevolent sheen is a concentrated effort to showcase what big business does best – dazzle – as well as extracting the maximum profit from audiences while they still have a tangible hold on them. Significantly they define talent for our age.

In the notoriously unpredictable world of show-business the televised talent show makes economic sense. Over 10 weeks or so the talent (defined at first as low-cost units who don’t need to be paid) gets a full airing before being dismissed by the viewers. Hours of television are produced at minimal expense by recording and transmitting not just the auditions but also the humble dwellings of the hopeful. This also looks democratic because it illustrates how the multiplication of channels seems to increase opportunities to see (and be seen by) all. By the time of the series finale, a great deal has been invested in the talent who have been transformed from person to commodity by the joint operations of a watching (and paying) public and the wary guard of the industry itself. People such as music mogul Simon Cowell have a direct involvement in several talent shows because they are a sure-fire means for him to become rich. His demeaning remarks win a sneaking regard because he is after all, from the industry. While loud and aggressive complaint with the judges is part of the fun, all agree that the market is king. In UK versions of talent shows the market and the people have become synonymous. Indeed, the market is invoked with the due solemnity of a Calvinist referencing God. Any manner of brutality can be excused in the name of the market/the people. The supreme talent then is one sanctioned by the market.

Simon Cowell showing disapproval

Simon Cowell showing disapproval

Programmes like X-Factor and America’s Got Talent turn us into consumer-viewers now more than ever before. We sustain such television not merely by being delivered to advertisers through ratings, but also by the phone or text vote (10.4 million people called in the UK X-Factor in December 2006) The democritisation of media – “You Decide” – has made it our fault if they fall from grace (or the top of the charts). After all we’re not being manipulated if we chose to put them there in the first place are we? Talent is now a perfect response to a market-driven democracy.

The place of talent shows in the television schedule helps to position the product for the wider market. This helps creates a shape or loose system for those manning the celebrity scaffold – from junior stylists to showbiz editors. Talent is brought into the entertainment machine by these programmes with such regularity that it’s a bit like wearing a sell-by sticker. More than ever this is a business with a product and those involved need to decide whether to make a strategic investment in this bright flickering talent before moving onto the next perm, plug, or podcast. This question of infrastructure should not be overlooked. More than ever we have a roughly synchronous system working to maximise profit from talent however small and puny it might be. The market is now flooded with publications, websites and mini-programmes helping us to discover the foibles of the stars and wannabees of the talent show. When wrinkles can be captured by a lens hundreds of meters away then its important to have your people looking after you. It is this infrastructure that can maintain a career. Thus it follows that talent can also be defined as sustainability in the marketplace.

Judges for America’s Got Talent

Judges for America’s Got Talent

But one factor that seems to make this recent incarnation of the talent show significantly different is that it seems shrouded in fear and hysteria. No where is this fear of change more apparent than in those who sing. The objective behind every choice of song is to select something that will demonstrate the singer’s range but, more importantly, connect with the public/the market. Needless to say this is also a reinvestment in the past, a nostalgic refusal to let go the classics (also owned by the record companies). In this way talent is defined as conformity, supplication, an emptying out of the self to please the public. Those pursuing this career path are not seen as artists but as shrewd players maximising their talent. The warming contours of an old song already half escaping the sighs of an audience is a surer root to profit than the potentially troubling new. The manic reception afforded old songs suggests that we do not want to be reminded of the present. We want nostalgia now. In a risk-laden society we need comfort – no alarms and no surprises. What the song becomes now is something the audience remembers and the singer re-interprets. In this moment the memory of one is treasured and re-projected by the other as valuable, worthy indeed of the golden hour that was Saturday Night when the ideal family grouped around the television. Advertising helped shape this slot which soon became the most important in the schedule. But as the schedule disappears, homes use multiple sets and the nuclear family crumbles the ideological mechanism of Saturday night is lost. In its place are hysterical relatives screaming and waving banners and shouting themselves hoarse for their own families. The triumph of such television is to defuse the threat of talent and make it fit utterly commercial choices which we in turn, are proud of our role in. What’s left to be special is “dazzle” and our “new and improved” role in it.

So what is talent now? A starry rope-ladder to the celebrity scaffold? Or a gift?

You decide..

Image credits:

1. VillageVoice.com

2. TVmedia.com

Please feel free to comment.





Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens)–Part 2

by: Joan Hawkins/Indiana University, Bloomington

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

When Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 opened on June 25, 2004, I was in Hettinger, North Dakota, visiting my mother. I had to drive to Bison, South Dakota (approximately 42 miles away) to pack up her old apartment, and thought I would take a long detour, go to Rapid City and see the film—maybe hit Starbucks on the way back. According to The Rapid City Journal, however, there were no screenings of Moore’s movie planned for Rapid City. The Carmike Theater had refused to book Fahrenheit 911, and neither of the other two theaters had picked it up. “Is it in Bismarck?” my husband asked. Not in Bismarck either. It turned out that for people living in the Dakotas or Wyoming, there was only one place to see Fahrenheit 911 the week it opened—Fargo, North Dakota.[1]

So, on June 27, 2004, Skip and I took a break from mom-care, drove 361 miles to Fargo, and joined movie goers from three states to watch what had become for us a truly renegade film. The audience was appreciative and politely clapped as the movie concluded. “Did you know all that?” I heard a woman ask her companion, as we left the theater. “No, I did not,” he said softly. “Guess we’ll have to bite the bullet and get a dish.”

Dish Penetration Figures

According to a GAO Report, dated April 2005, Direct Broadcast Satellite penetration rates were “higher in rural areas than in suburban and urban areas throughout the 2001-2005 period. In 2001, penetration rates were highest in rural areas at 25.6 percent, followed by 13.9 percent in suburban areas and 8.6 percent in urban areas. As of January 2004, DBS penetration remained the highest in rural areas, growing to about 29 percent, while it grew to 18 percent of suburban households and 13 percent of urban households.”[2] By 2006 Direct Broadcast Satellite had become “the dominant provider of video services in rural America,” outpacing cable.[3]

In the specific region I came to know so well, the penetration ratio is slightly lower: 21.16% in North Dakota and 20.86% in South Dakota. This is largely due to the depressed economy. Only 47.25% of North Dakota households has cable. This is a shockingly small percentage given how difficult it is to get TV reception without it (see Dish Towns Part One).

But this is also an area of the country where people—even people with “good” positions—typically work two or three jobs. At the Hillcrest Care Center where my mother lived, most of the staff had supplemental employment elsewhere. One aide assisted at the neighboring hospital and waitressed at Peppy’s, when she wasn’t helping the infirm at Hillcrest. My mother’s favorite caretaker worked at Hillcrest only on weekends, because she taught at the local high school and coached women’s athletics for pay during the week. The Social Worker in Charge of Resident Services at Hillcrest moonlighted as a bartender at the Pastime Steakhouse; the lady in charge of billing also made me margaritas at the Pastime. And virtually everyone I met in the West River area tried to “pick up a little extra” during the Harley-Davidson bike rally held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota. The Upper Plains States are, as President Bush remarks in Moore’s most recent film Sicko (2007), “uniquely American.” People work long hard hours in multiple jobs to make ends meet, and they frequently have little money left over for the kinds of services that many of us consider essential—services like communication.

Hettinger, North Dakota

Hettinger, North Dakota

Dish Towns

Given the depressed economy of the region, 21% DBS penetration is remarkable. And, as I argued in Dish Towns Part One, it is necessary if residents are to maintain some kind of link with the dominant culture. This is an area of the country where cable is expensive and where residents typically pay more for fewer channels than they do elsewhere. Radio reception is poor, and access to in-depth national and international news coverage is extremely limited. In the areas where people have computer access, the web is available. But even residents who have good internet service need to know what to search for online, in order to get any real information. In large areas of the country cell phone use is impossible and web access is inadequate. And as I argued in Part One of this series, it isn’t only special interest indie films which have restricted release in this country. In rural areas where saturation booking is a common practice, and where towns typically have a single one-screen movie theater, many contemporary mainstream films can be seen only online, at home, or by special arrangement.

As stated in Part One, I have called the sparsely-populated enclaves of farmhouses and small town dwellings that pepper the Upper Plains States “dish towns” specifically in order to link them to the immigrant Dish Cities, described by Hamid Naficy and others. In some ways, of course, this is a hyperbolic comparison. White rural populations who live in the Upper Plains have not left home under dire circumstances and traveled to a strange country, where they are cut off from family, friends, and their own history. They are not “deterritorialized” in the way, Naficy argues, exiles are.[4]

But rural populations do occupy the status of “Other” in this country and, like the Iranian exiles whom Naficy interviews, their assimilation into the “host” culture is “neither total or irreversible” (p. 86). This is most tangibly signaled through the commodity-rationing to which they are subjected, particularly in the realms of technology and media. It is also signaled, however, in the content of the media they receive—content which always seems to speak to rural residents in a different voice about things that are often of no immediate concern to them.

In 2002, shortly after my mother moved back to Bison, South Dakota, I sat on the floor of her tiny apartment watching the breaking news on the Michael Skakel murder trial. Skakel had murdered Martha Moxley in 1975, when they were both 15 years old. He was Robert Kennedy’s nephew (by marriage) and the trial had garnered a great deal of news coverage as a result. It also fascinated because of the difficulty in sentencing an adult man for a crime committed when he was a juvenile offender. Would he receive the lighter juvenile sentence or would he be sentenced as an adult?

As Mom and I sat on the floor together, drinking coffee and watching Good Morning, America, I happened to glance up through the dormer windows of her apartment. Outside on an unpaved road, two trucks had pulled up beside each other. The drivers were talking about the falling price of corn, disastrous in a community where corn is a staple crop and where a terrible drought had already hit the farmers hard. And for the first time in my life, I realized that nothing I habitually saw on television reflected the reality I had been observing for two weeks in that community. By the same token, until I drove across the country and saw the land, I had very little real idea about how the populations of several states actually live.

In that sense, it seems to me that Dish Towns U.S.A are located in the kind of continuously “liminal” space that Naficy theorizes for immigrant cultures. They are located in a kind of “slipzone” where a “home” grass-roots culture and a host national culture “overlap and slide over and under and past each other” (p.86). The fact that this “host” national culture belongs to the country in which rural citizens were born,and that they need a satellite dish to even access it, is something we media scholars must consider when we speak of audience.
__________________________________

Special Thanks to Chris Anderson, David Coon, and Skip Hawkins.
Dish Towns Parts One and Two are dedicated to my mother, Theresa Berning–a hard-working woman if ever there was one—in memoriam.

Notes:
[1] For more on this, see William Rivers Pitt, “Thank You, Michael Moore”
http://www.truthout.org/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi/4/4987

[2] Government Accountability Office Report to the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate. “Telecommunications: Direct Broadcast Subscribership Has Grown Rapidly, but Varies Across Different Types of Markets.” GAO-050257 (April 2005) www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-257. pg 7

[3] Linda Moss, “DBS Rules Rural America.” Multichannel News, NO, Volume 00, Issue 00 (Jan 30, 2006) http://bert.lib.indiana.edu:2064/ha/default.aspx Factiva database.

[4] See Hamid Naficy, “Exile Discourse and Televisual Fetishization.” Otherness and the Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged Otherness and the. Ed Hamid Naficy and Teshome H. Gabriel. USA, Switzerland et al: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. pp. 85-116. Subsequent citations given in the text.

Image Credits:

1. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

2. Hettinger, North Dakota-Image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.