Getting to know you: reasons why when Kevin Martin speaks, people should listen

by: Raymond Cha / Independent Scholar

Last July, the Federal Communications Commission and the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction made front-page news, in the New York Times. Typically, stories covering telecommunications’ complex economic and regulatory issues are fifth-page Business or Technology section news items, if they get mentioned at all. In the current starlet rehab news culture, telecommunication spectrum policy gets little notice. However, when Google weighs in on an issue, the news media perks up, in full out EF Hutton style. In this case, the King of the Frenemy Hill announced their willingness to pay as much as US$4.6 billion on the band of spectrum that will be freed when television station stop broadcasting analog television signals, and go solely digital. Google released four requirements for openness to the eventual winners of the auction. With that, the media attention turned to Kevin Martin, the current Chairperson of the FCC.

Kevin Martin, FCC Chairperson

Kevin Martin, FCC Chairperson

As compared to the heads of the Cabinet offices or independent federal bodies, such as the Department of Defense and the Federal Reserve System, Martin exists in moderate obscurity despite the vital role telecommunication plays in our society. (How could either the government or the banking system do their jobs without a functioning telecommunication system?) Dubbed “Harry Potter” by telecom insiders for his glasses and youthful appearance, Martin receives the media spotlight semi-frequently. Usually, the coverage involves indecency, which with be explained further shortly in this column. In the end, in response to Google’s requests, the FCC agreed on two of their four points for the upcoming auction, which mandated the interoperability and openness of applications and devices, but not for services and networks.

Building up to his current position, Martin studied law at Harvard and public policy at Duke. Upon graduating from law school, he went to work for the FCC. It is certainly worth noting, that he served as Deputy General Counsel to the Bush/Cheney campaign in the infamous 2000 election. After being selected as one of five FCC Commissioners in 2001, Martin was confirmed as Chairperson in 2005 to replace Michael Powell.

Where as his predecessor aggressively pushed a libertarian, free market, anti-regulation agenda, Martin does not have as a single-minded philosophical approach to telecom. During his tenure as Commissioner and now Chairperson, he has notably has taken stances on state rights and indecency. In 2003, as Commissioner, he voted against Powell to allow state regulators to continue to have more control of over their regional telecommunication rates and services. On the other hand, he is not afraid of allowing big telecom mergers to take place, as seen in his approval of the merging of AT&T and SBC as well as Verizon and MCI, under his watch.

Martin is also far more concerned with what is broadcast and more specifically indecency, than his predecessor. As Commissioner, he proposed over US$4 million in fines to broadcasters with charges of indecency, more then the combined total of the four other commisioners. He also dissented against the decision to allow the network broadcast of Saving Private Ryan without editing.

Today, he is not alone in the FCC in the quest to “clean up” television. Last June, media insider Shelly Palmer heard FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate speak. He relays that Tate cited the biggest issue she is dealing with is “sex and violence” on television. When put into context of all the pressing of telecommunication policy issues the FCC considers, her statement that her focus is on monitoring content is striking.

The landscape of increased scrutiny leaves television broadcasters in a challenging position. On Friday, August 31st, the Washington Post reports that PBS will distribute two version of Ken Burn’s latest 14-hour documentary “The War” due to concerns of fines by the FCC for the use of four words spoken by soldiers.

Further, the time and resources spend on policing content results in the lack of attention that is paid to other concerns. The previously mentioned spectrum auction exists because the FCC forced television to begin broadcasting digital television, which made the analog portion of the spectrum (that is, the 700MHz band) free to be resold. On February 18, 2009, television broadcasters will terminate their analog signal, and analog televisions will go dark. These viewers will have to switch to new digital signal enabled sets. However a survey this year by the Assn. of Public Television Stations shows that 61% of those surveyed did not know about the upcoming switch to digital or what it meant.

FCC Logo

FCC Logo

While most people in the US, watch television via cable, satellite and now over the Internet, 20% of viewers still rely on an over-the-air signal to receive their television programming. Move over, the people most at risk of being caught unaware are the poor, the elderly, and non-English speakers. In response to the outcry of several Senators, Martin requested an additional $1.5 million from the US Congress to communicate the upcoming changes to those who will be effected, and a coupon program run by the Commerce Department to upgrade sets.

How Martin spends the remaining of his tenure as Chairperson will affect his legacy at the FCC. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is in need of an overhaul by Congress. This historic piece of legislation laid down the groundwork for allowing the local Baby Bells and long distance carriers like AT&T to enter into each other’s traditional markets. Its focus was clearly on telephony and does not account for the dramatic changes in the last decade with the rise of the Internet. New legislation is required to reflect telecommunications for the 21st century, where Verizon and Time Warner are competing for broadband users at the same time as Sprint and AT&T sell mobile video services. Martin has an opportunity to shepherd Congress through this new terrain that will redefine both the telecommunication regulation as well as the FCC, yet he has not yet taken a public role in this endeavor.

Kevin Martin and the FCC oversee telecommunications from end to end, from towers and wires to screens. The regulation of this industry has direct impact on our daily lives. As communication services and technology being engrained more deeply in our personal and work interactions, we are behooved to keep careful watch on their goings-on.

Image Credit:

1. Kevin Martin, FCC Chairperson

2. FCC Logo

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Poll #3: Emmy Nominations — Part I

(Make sure to scroll all the way down)








Why Political Journalists Should Get Into Top Gear

by: Stephen Harrington / Queensland University of Technology

Top Gear

Top Gear

For as long as I can remember, I have been crazy about cars. Researching into all of the obscure details and performance figures of the latest four-wheeled offerings from Europe’s top marques has long been an intense interest of mine. Unfortunately, like most deep fascinations, one of the defining features of being a car-nut is the feeling of isolation. Finding someone who has both the patience and knowledge to hold an extended conversation with me about cars almost always seemed like the social equivalent of striking gold in my own backyard. That sense of solitude, however, is starting to fade very rapidly – and for that I owe much gratitude to the BBC program Top Gear.

Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond

Top Gear hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, allow me a moment to explain. Top Gear has been around for many years as both a TV show (produced in the UK) and affiliated magazine. Over the past five years it has managed to develop what is a unique and highly successful formula by effectively re-casting itself as an entertainment show centred around car culture, rather than holding onto what was a niche appeal for outright enthusiasts like myself. The show (which is currently hosted by the somewhat self-righteous and highly-opinionated Jeremy Clarkson, James May and the recently recovered Richard Hammond) is still dedicated to cars – each program features a new car test of some sort, a celebrity interview, and several other one-off features – but it has managed to find something ‘new’ in a fairly tired formula.

Although Australia (where I live) can lay claim to a fairly robust car culture, car television in this country has almost chronically failed as a genre – if in fact it is a ‘genre’ – for reasons that are seemingly too numerous to get into here. Top Gear, however, is the first television show in many years to screen in prime-time, and seems to have genuinely sparked an interest in an otherwise car-weary Australian public. The reasons for this success, I enthusiastically argue, are that the show presents its rather specialized subject matter in a way that a much wider section of the general public can understand and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy. It is a generally unconventional approach to cars and therefore manages to appeal to a much more diverse audience than what it once did.

So, rather than explain how fast and nimble the Lotus Exige is, Clarkson showed how fast it can go by trying to evade missile-lock from an Apache helicopter flying overhead. Rather than discussing a Range Rover (a fairly sedate vehicle at the best of times) in terms of its technical ability to find traction on uneven surfaces, Clarkson simply had to try and hide from an army tank over a hill-strewn training ground. Instead of talking endlessly about the new Toyota Aygo’s maneuverability, the Top Gear crew instead decided to host a football (soccer) match using the cars – most of which were driven by stunt drivers in two teams – to punt a giant inflatable football around a bitumen pitch. Replete with collisions, spins, fouls, amazing driving skills and a last-gasp winning goal, I really cannot imagine a more engaging, exciting and fun way of reviewing a cheap, mass-produced (that is, ordinarily deathly-dull) city runabout.

Toyota Aygo Football Match

Toyota Aygo Football Match

Equally important to mention here too is the fact that Top Gear rarely assumes a high level of audience knowledge; the hosts seem acutely aware that they have a responsibility not only to audience knowledge, but also to audience interest. So if, for example, Richard Hammond mentions a horsepower figure, he usually makes some attempt to put that figure into perspective. Rather than talking about a car’s low level of torsional rigidity, Jeremy will instead explain how ‘floppy’ it feels, or at least offer some sort of easily-digestible analogy to explain why that trait is a problem in a sports car. On one occasion, rather than lecturing their audience about being cautious at level crossings, the Top Gear team instead decided to just go ahead and demonstrate their potential dangers by crashing a speeding train into a second-hand Renault Espace.[1] Sure, the stunt may have been executed primarily because it makes for spectacular viewing rather than for some genuine public safety purpose, but the idea that something can’t be both exciting and informative at the same time is surely one that has outlived its brief period of relevance.

The dangers of level-crossings

The dangers of level-crossings

Of course, one could argue that Top Gear represents nothing more than a diluted, lowest-common-denominator treatment of motoring – and, in many ways that claim has some purchase, although I would dare not argue that it should or could appeal to all tastes – but I genuinely think we should look past that to see that it is doing something very interesting. It is, perhaps for the first time, bringing cars to the people rather than trying desperately to do things the opposite way around. All together, this means that a fanatic such as myself can find this show very fascinating, but so too would someone who knows very little about cars and the car industry. As I noted earlier in this article, finding someone with whom I can have an extended conversation about, for instance, my ‘dream garage’ – that is, what cars you would go out and buy with $1 million – was always next to impossible, but I now find myself having these kinds of conversation at the most unlikely times with the most unlikely of people. It really is amazing to think that a large number of people (certainly many more than I can remember) now understand why a Mercedes CLS55 is far more exciting than an Audi S6, realise what the ‘power’ button in a BMW M5 does to its engine, or know how many cylinders and turbochargers a Bugatti Veyron is endowed with (16 and four respectively, if you’re asking). Similar to what MythBusters has done for scientific inquiry, Top Gear proves that dreary subjects can actually resonate far better with the viewing public when they are approached in unconventional ways.

As a media researcher and someone who has seen first-hand the effect Top Gear has had on my fellow Australians, all of this makes me question weather this show’s ethos could translate into other domains. I wonder: would it be possible to apply the Top Gear ‘attitude’ to the world of Politics? Could the legions of TV journalists who deal in a subject that so many people find sleep-inducing learn a few lessons from this program? Of course, even as I write this I am all too conscious of just how crazy a concept that would seem, but I don’t think that it is entirely out of the realms of possibility. Sure, it may be hard to compare politicians themselves to the ‘sex-appeal’ of a Ferrari F430 going flat-out on a race circuit, but I am fairly sure there were people who once said that TV shows about cars could never appeal to ‘the masses’ either.

Could Politics ever look this good?

Could Politics ever look this good?

Perhaps Michael Moore[2] was thinking along similar lines when he offered the following anecdote in his much-derided and much-lauded book, Stupid White Men:

“I once heard the linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky say that if you want proof that the American people aren’t stupid, just turn on any sports talk radio show and listen to the incredible retention of facts. It is amazing – and it’s proof that the American mind is alive and well. It just isn’t challenged with anything interesting or exciting. Our challenge, Chomsky said, was to find a way to make politics as gripping and engaging as sports. When we do that, watch how Americans will do nothing but talk about who did what to whom at the WTO.”[3]

Of course, I am not sure what a political TV show inspired by Top Gear would do or look like exactly, but this really is not the central concern of my argument here – the more fundamental question is over who exactly might watch such a show. Because I am just as much of a political junkie as a car-nut, I am sure that I would be among the first to tune in, but so too, I suspect, would a whole bunch of people who currently care as much for political television as they once did for shows about cars.

Notes:
[1] This show has recently developed a fascination for doing strange things to used cars. This may have reached its zenith recently when a Reliant Robin was attached to a giant (amateur-built) rocket in an attempt to mimic the Space Shuttle.
[2] Michael Moore himself has already treated politics in new and interesting ways (in, for example, his TV show The Awful Truth, or his film Fahrenheit 9/11), though I wonder if his polarising nature may be equally problematic – that he may be ‘preaching to the converted’, as it were. Perhaps the readers of Flow might like to offer their own opinions on this matter.
[3] Moore, Michael (2001) Stupid White Men. London: Penguin, p. 86.

Image Credits:

1. Top Gear, series 1, episode 7

2. The Daily Mail

3. Top Gear, series 6, episode 1

4. Top Gear, series 9, episode 5

5. Top Gear, series 6, episide 8

Please feel free to comment.




Notes from Economy Class

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

Virgin Atlantic’s V:Port remote and interface

Virgin Atlantic’s V:Port remote and interface

On a recent flight to London, rather than sleeping, I spent most of the trip watching television, my eyes fixed to the back of the seat in front of me. This was my first excursion on Virgin Atlantic and my introduction to V:Port, one of three different types of inflight entertainment systems found across their fleet. The V:Port system is featured on the airline’s 747-400s and A340-600s and offers video on demand; much like an at-home on demand system, passengers can watch or listen to what they want, from a selection of films, television shows, games, audio programs and interactive elements (most notably IMap, an application that allows passengers to track their flight and explore different destinations and points of interest around the world) stored on the system server, and can start, pause or rewind their selected downloads. The onboard systems host 300 hours of on demand content, accessed through a searchable database that also allows users to bookmark their favorite programs, in effect creating a multimedia play list.

An Aeromarine inflight screening of “Howdy Chicago!”

An Aeromarine inflight screening of “Howdy Chicago!”

As a digital system, V:Port provides a notably different experience than traditional single-channel systems that subject every passenger to the same content on the same schedule; older analog delivery systems are also prone to a host of mechanical issues. V:Port is only one evolutionary touchstone in the history of inflight entertainment. The World Airline Entertainment Association lists 1921 as the year of the first inflight movie when Aeromarine Airways screened Howdy Chicago!, a tourism film, to its passengers during the city’s “Pageant of Progress”. A screen was hung in the front cabin of the 11-passenger hydroplane and a suitcase projector was secured to a table in the aisle. As sightseers flew above the city, highlights of the area appeared on screen. In 1961, David Flexer formed Inflight Motion Pictures and engineered an aircraft projection system that adapted the Kodak projection mechanism to fit into a shallow ceiling area of an aircraft interior; TWA is often touted as the first real exhibitor of inflight movies, deploying Flexer’s system. Competing airlines Pan Am and American opted to pursue video systems, and installed black and white TV monitors on their airplanes; passengers viewed movies on these closed circuit systems, which consisted of approximately twenty cabin monitors. In the early seventies, Trans Com developed an 8mm film cassette system; whereas airline mechanics were employed to operate earlier inflight entertainment systems, the compact cassette interface allowed flight attendants to change movies in flight and add short subject programming. By the end of the same decade, video projection systems were developed by several competing companies, including Avicom (which emerged from Bell & Howell in Chicago) and Matsushita. Video revolutionized the inflight entertaiment industry, boosting the number of operable systems across the airline industry fleet and diversifying content to include a broader range of information and entertainment programming.

But the point in this chronology that is most relevant to this essay is the introduction of the in-seat video system in 1988; Airvision produced the system, which used 2.7 inch LCD displays, and Northwest began trials on its B747 aircraft. These systems are now an industry standard, though cabin mounted monitors are still common on older aircraft. As a cost saving measure, most airlines upgrade their seats once every five to ten years, and many planes have not yet been retrofitted with small screen seat technology. Two basic small screen systems exist—the distributed system that uses personal screens and a tuning mechanism that allows passengers to choose from scheduled programming broadcast from a central playback system, and the on demand system that features a personal playback unit that permits passengers to cue up programming at their discretion.

Phil Lewis, the managing director of seat manufacturer Contour suggests that few airline seats offer an improvement to mid-century standards: “The fundamentals are the fundamentals. You go back to a seat we produced for BOAC in 1948 called the Slumberette. Okay, it had the space, it had the bed, the only thing it didn’t have was the complex electronics.” [1] Yet seat design is an ideologically inflected enterprise, a project tackled by design subcontractors. Virgin Airlines partnered with London-based design firm PearsonLloyd in 2003 to revamp its economy and premium economy seating line, spending over $25 million on a project that began by reexamining the historical constraints on airplane seating, a collaborative endeavor that not only yielded new manufacturing strategies (while holding onto traditional concerns for overall equipment weight and safety), but also considered more ephemeral notions of personal space. Describing its economy seat, put into service in 2006, the firm’s on-line catalogue details, “Alongside significant improvements in both comfort and space, the major innovation is the introduction of a back pack on the back of each seat, which draws together all the functional elements used by the aft passenger and gives them ownership of this part of the seat.” [2] When the head rest moves up, the back pack stays put; this strategy, the designers suggest, creates an illusion of more personal space, visually dividing the back of the seat ahead from its front.

Founded in 1979, the World Airline Entertainment Association represents airlines, airline suppliers and related companies committed to the development of inflight entertainment (IFE) and communications. Affirming the importance of IFE, the WAEA points to passenger satisfaction and branding, suggesting that IFE is a means to differentiate one airline’s service from another’s and goes on to relate, “To some extent, IFE is an effective way for an airline to express its own national or regional character.” [3] IFE is also big business in the technology sector, with a number of distinct patents on file for aircraft seat assemblies that include integrated electronic systems for signal decoding, signal routing, data management, and power conversion (systems that commonly include a video display unit, an audio system, and/or a telephone).

PearsonLloyd’s economy class seat design

PearsonLloyd’s economy class seat design

The airline seat is an often-overlooked signpost of convergence—a site of convergent media, convergent functionalities, convergent spaces, and convergent subjects. The seat is designed with the needs of two passengers in mind (the one seated and the one looking, an interlocking arrangement permutated throughout the cabin) and zoned accordingly; if designed correctly, neither party should be aware of the other’s presence, the two dependent on the same object yet engaged in a certain studied indifference effectuated by technologies that promise to envelop the senses as well as by the seat’s very architecture. A piece of furniture with state of the art technology, the airline seat accommodates sleeping, working, eating, and leisure (though some of these functions are more easily managed than others), and more significantly condenses these otherwise separately spatialized spheres of activity—it collapses what are commonly distinct zones of engagement on land, where they are subject to more willful (yet escapable) moments of condensation. Perhaps what I am detailing warrants a return to Guy Debord’s consideration of what he termed “psychogeography”, of the impact of the geographical environment on individual behavior. Engaged with the study of commodity fetishism, extending the work of Karl Marx and George Lukacs, Debord suggested that alienation was not just an emotive state, but a consequence of mercantile forms of social organization, with capitalism as a zenith. But my interest at the moment is not in the invasive or seductive potential of the spectacle—the degree to which an embedded screen technology lulled me to sleep. Rather, my focus is on the translation of an eight or so hour flight into a decided number of television episodes, feature films, and soundtracks—a very deliberate numerical equation, with time, geographic displacement and pleasure quantified as an objectified form of discourse, translated into a certain number of visual and aural signifiers.

Among the educational sessions of the WAEA 26th Annual Conference (held in 2005 in Hamburg, Germany) were panels on the “Specifications for Digital Content Management”, “The Impact of ‘Anywhere’ Entertainment”, and “The New Seat/IFE Architecture”. As the catalogue descriptions suggest, these sessions confirm that digital media is the future of IFE, and to this end they scrutinize both marketplace (examining synergies across markets) and audience (analyzing potential generational shifts in the airline passenger profile, and the consequent shift in content, interface, and infrastructure demand).

V:Port en route to London

V:Port en route to London

As a media scholar attentive to television and its industries, I am now presented with a series of other industries with which I need to engage. What started as a simple perceptual exercise, examining a content stream (consuming both film and television, watching Hot Fuzz, Notes on a Scandal, Extras, and Doctor Who, and immediately noting I was drawn to all things British on my flight to London—perhaps engaging with objects I had wanted to consume, but simply not had the opportunity) and considering my spectatorial engagement in the public space of an airline cabin (subjected to other people’s choices—overhead cabin lights on or off, window shades up or down) while screening work on another passenger’s back (seat back up or reclined), became a study of my fascination with Virgin Atlantic, clearly the result of their engagement with video on demand. This is not a promotional piece for the airline, but a reflection on the value of a particular investiture. The airline’s engagement with new technology was what satisfied me, and outweighed any other index of their customer service. It seems the airline seat, as the armature of IFE, is the ideal commodity fetish; it envelops the body, is designed for comfort, and at the same time, it yields a set of spectacular images. Its value is two-fold—holding up a series of signs, and yet a sign itself; a sign of a certain labor power, of both an industry engaged with an apparatus and of passengers who have enough capital to reap the rewards of this engagement, one that extends the all-too-familiar embrace of the screen.

Notes:
[1] Richard Quest and Shantelle Stein, “Airlines go flat out for comfort,” CNN.com, December 30, 2005 (http://www.cnn.com/2005/TRAVEL/12/13/airline.chair/index.html)
[2]http://www.pearsonlloyd.co.uk/upload/html/econ_01.html
[3]http://www.waea.org/faq.htm#8

Image Credits:

1. V:Port Interface

2. Aeromarine inflight screening

3. PearsonLloyd Seat Design

4. V:Port Cabin: courtesy of the author

Please feel free to comment.




Inland Empire: The Cinema in Trouble?

by: Alex Munt / Macquarie University

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You can break through to something else, but if you’re not up for destroying you can’t get there. (Lynch in Figgis 2007: 19)

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Inland Empire(2006)

Inland Empire(2006)

David Lynch has gone digital. His new feature film Inland Empire (2006) is 179 minutes long, filmed without a script; shot with a prosumer DV camera and self-distributed by Lynch (in the US). Inland Empire is currently doing film festivals across Australia. I saw it at the 2007 Sydney International Film Festival, in a sold-out session.

Lynch is consistently: surreal, indulgent, bold, exhilarating and entertaining. Inland Empire is no exception. Also, the film represents a digital ‘catharsis’ for the auteur:

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Film is beautiful, but having had this experience I would die if I had to go that slow ever again. It’s not slow in a good way. It’s death, death, death. I can hardly stand thinking about it (Figgis 2007: 19).

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What is the impact of ‘the digital’ here? Is Inland Empire a departure from the Lynch oeuvre? Death and the Digital are never far apart: death of a form? (the feature); death of a medium? (celluloid) or death of an activity? (cinema-going). These are common questions today. (For some good answers – see Wheeler Winston Dixon’s excellent Twenty-Five Reasons Why It’s All Over). What I want to say here, is that all this (anticipated) death and destruction can be a good thing. And Inland Empire reveals why.

01 Narrative

Laura Dern

Laura Dern

Irony is at play in the simplicity of the tagline for Inland Empire : ‘A Woman in Trouble’. Laura Dern (Nikki Grace) is actually multiple alter –egos. Here, Lynch returns to his favourite theme of (fractured) identity. There are 7 narrative worlds (Clarke 2007):

1. LA actor Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is married to Piotrek Król (Peter J. Lucas). She is paid an impromptu visit by a (very odd) neighbour (Grace Zabriskie)
2. Nikki wins the role of ‘Susan Blue’ in a film production On High in Blue Tomorrows – a romantic historical melodrama. The Director of the film is Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). The question of romance with her co-star Devon Burk (Justin Theroux) develops
3. On High in Blue Tomorrows is based on an unfinished ‘cursed’ production 4/7
4. Both productions are adaptations of an old Polish folk story
5. A stranger called ‘Smithy’ visits the set of On High in Blue Tomorrows. His house doubles as a set-piece for the film
6. A gang of (all singing and dancing) Polish prostitutes in Lodz
7. A 1950s sitcom-style family of (giant, vertical) Rabbit: ‘Mum’ is voiced by Naomi Watts

Inland Empire flirts with, but defies, contemporary narrative modes. On the surface it mirrors the complexity of the ‘multi-thread’ (TV) or ‘multi-strand’ (film) model. Steven Johnson, in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You has drawn lots of narrative ‘maps’ and ‘networks’ to represent the complexity of ‘multithreaded’ TV structure (including 24 and The Sopranos) (Johnson 2005). I love these narrative diagrams – and have drawn some Cinematic Diagrams for films. But what about a diagram for Inland Empire ? Forget it. It’s a futile exercise – since Lynch destroys narrative models and expectations with abstraction. (Note: No studio, no script and a prosumer DV camera are a world away from the script architecture of network television).

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A great poet might articulate abstractions with words but cinema does it with pictures flowing together in sequences. It’s magical, it goes into the abstract. (Figgis 2007: 18)

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Wormhole

Wormhole

02 Form

In lieu of any workable narrative diagrams for Inland Empire – one key image I sugggest is that of the Wormhole. In Manohla Dargis’ review of Inland Empire (NY Times) she proposes that the best way to penetrate the film is spatially. I think she is exactly right:

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The spaces in “Inland Empire” function as way stations, holding pens, states of minds (Nikki’s, Susan’s, Mr. Lynch’s), site of revelation and negotiation, of violence and intimacy. They are cinematic spaces in which images flower and fester, and stories are born.(Dargis 2006)

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Inland Empire functions less as a network of narratives – and more as a network of spaces (connected by those wormholes). In this sense, the film can framed as a revival of spatial montage – that ‘suppressed’ mode of cinema from the early 20th century film avant-garde (Manovich 2001). A clue to this is given, right at the beginning of the film, when two Polish prostitutes (in Lodz?) watch The Rabbits flicker away on their TV screen. No explanation unites these spaces and their precise geography is unclear. (Lynch built the Rabbit set in his backyard with a DV camera rig – and yes there were complaints from the neighbours). The best we can do is by the synopsis for the Rabbits at DavidLynch.com:

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In a nameless city, deluged by a continuous rain, three rabbits live with a fearful mystery (DavidLynch.com)

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Inland Empire is tableaux in form – revealing Lynch at his most episodic. The Rabbits are just one of multiple tableaux ‘inserted’ into the feature form. This approach to form/structure reworks the MTV style of the 1990s. Specifically, his Rabbits recall the stylised-sitcom of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). In this light, the form of Inland Empire is an assemblage of ‘clips’. Two of the most memorable are: 1) a gang of Polish prostitutes who dance and lip-synch The Loco-Motion and 2) an LA street scene set to Beck’s Black Tambourine.

Inland Empire as a feature form is stretched (or deformed) to 179 minutes. Here, the feature is exploited as a vessel for various past/present Lynchian worlds absorbed from television, the web and fine art: Twin Peaks; Mulholland Drive; Rabbits; Dumbland and Axxon N. (which exist is various stages of (in)complettion).

03 Aesthetics

On an aesthetic level – should we mourn the loss of the rich cinematography which had Lynch perfected by Mulholland Drive? Perhaps. Partly. But as Lynch says: one needs to be ‘up for destroying’. In Inland Empire we get distorted character portraits (with a cheap fish-eye DV lens); blown-out (overexposed) images and spaces ‘painted’ in high contrast colour and shadow.

David Lynch started as a painter and it is no surprise that his new digital aesthetic (of the moving image) overlaps with his recent experiments in the visual arts. Foundation Cartier hosted a recent exhibition of his eclectic work The Air on Fire. This included a set of digitally (Photoshop) manipulated Victorian erotic photos titled Distorted Nudes. The destruction and (re)assemblage of (body) parts in the nudes bear some proximity to the distorted digital cinematography of Inland Empire. Holly Willis says that “the most compelling DV feature-film experiments work…using DV to push against the confines of an entrenched realism” – and Lynch is definitely at home here (Willis 2005: 22).

Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Coda

Inland Empire represents a (productive) destruction of the feature film: on narrative, form and aesthetics. As the ‘digital insurgency’ grows stronger in the cinema (as more visionaries ‘go digital’ such as Figgis, Kiarostami, Von Trier and now Lynch) – it seems that the cinema is, indeed, in Trouble. The death of celluloid is close. But the death of the cinema? No way. Digital cinema is proving a catalyst for the re(evaluation) of our one hundred-plus years history of the projected moving image. Inland Empire is a film (aesthetically, if not politically) which recalls another time of ‘trouble’ in the cinema. That of the French New Wave. In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard described Week End as “a film adrift in the cosmos” and “a film found on a scrap heap”. Some forty years later this provides apt description for the weird and wonderful Inland Empire .

Works Cited:
Clarke, R. (2007) ‘Daydream Believer’ in Sight & Sound, vol. 17 issue 3, pp 16-20
Dargis, M. (2006) ‘The Trippy Dream Factory of David Lynch’, The New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/2006/12/06/movies/06empi.html, accessed 1 August 2007
Dixon, W. W. (2001) ‘Twenty-five Reasons Why It’s All Over’. in Lewis, J. (Ed.) The End of Cinema As We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York: New York University Press
Figgis, M. (2007) ‘Into the Abstract’ in Sight & Sound, vol. 17 issue 3, pp 18-19
Johnson, S. (2005) Everything Bad is Good for You, London: Penguin.
Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Willis, H. (2005) New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, London: Wallflower Press.

Image Credits:

1. Film Poster from Inland Empire

2. Still from NY Times

3. Wormhole visualisation from Wikipedia

4. Distorted Nude from Culture Vulture

Please feel free to comment.




No Regrets

by: Tim Gibson / George Mason University

It has been four years since the Dixie Chicks were unceremoniously bounced from country radio and vilified for speaking aloud their opposition to the Iraq War. (Actually, lead singer Natalie Maines merely said she was ashamed that President Bush was a fellow Texan—a sentiment no doubt widely shared these days in the Lone Star State).

Dixie Chicks on Target

Dixie Chicks on Target

But we’ve moved way past those bad old days, right? You know, the “you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” days—the days when country DJs drove steamrollers over Dixie Chick disks and when, in a Primetime interview, Diane Sawyer repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, badgered Maines to recant her criticism of His Majesty King George. (“But ashamed, Natalie?” chided Sawyer with her usual mock outrage. “Ashamed?”)[1]

After all, things have changed. Bush’s approval ratings are now in historic, Nixon-during-Watergate territory, and fully two-thirds of Americans want to bring the war to a swift and sudden end.[2] You’d think there’d be space on television for a little, well, public dissent.

Not so fast. It appears that the boundaries of the permissible on network television have not expanded to match the public’s ill-mood about the war. And the latest proof of this comes in the most unexpected place of all—So You Think You Can Dance [SYTYCD], Fox-TV’s copycat dance competition show.

So You Think You Can Dance?

So You Think You Can Dance?

The show itself is standard issue reality TV. Each year, hundreds of dancers audition for the show. The selected few then compete against each other two nights a week. On Wednesdays, they dance in solos and pairs, and on Thursdays the weak are eliminated by a panel of judges (including the show’s executive producer and obligatory Brit, Nigel Lythgoe) and the votes of viewers at home.

So there I was watching a recent Thursday night results show (July 27th) when all at once I was hit with that most distressing of media spectacles—the tail-between-the-legs, PR-inspired public apology.

It turned out that the previous night’s show had transgressed not due to a wardrobe malfunction of some kind (as one might expect in a dance show), but rather by stretching its toes ever-so-gently into the debate over the Iraq War.

What I learned was that, on the previous night, each of the ten remaining dancers had performed the same routine, choreographed by Wade Robson. Speaking to the assembled dancers in a pre-taped clip, Robson described the routine’s message. “It’s about peace,” he said. “It’s about the war—anti-war.”[3]

To this end, Robson dressed each contestant in white, painted a black peace sign across their fronts, and stenciled various peace-related words on their backs (such as love, humility, communication, and so on). Then, during the live portion of the show, each dancer performed the routine, set predictably to John Mayer’s gentle antiwar anthem, “Waiting for the World to Change.”

Wade Robson

Wade Robson

Let it be said that, as far as political statements go, Robson’s was as mild as it gets. By way of contrast, imagine for the moment a more aggressive message. Instead of Mayer’s passive “Waiting,” Edwin Starr’s soul classic “War (What is it Good For?)” throbs on the sound system. Dancers move across the stage, with “bring them home” stenciled on their shirts. And, finally, the coup de grâce: a scrolling background of iconic images from the war—everything from Abu Ghraib to flag-draped coffins to innocent civilian casualties. Now that would be a statement.

Alas, even Robson’s saccharine tribute to peace proved too confrontational for primetime.

As the complaints piled up on the show’s message boards Wednesday night (though a quick scan of the board revealed as many defenders as critics), at least one conservative blogger picked up the thread and posted a critical review of Robson’s routine.[4] By the next day, US magazine posted a short write-up of the conservative blowback on its website, including at the end a statement from one of the judges that the “controversy”—now only hours old—would be addressed on that night’s results show.[5]

And so, right off the top, viewers on Thursday were treated to the following exchange:

Cat Deeley[host]: …and Nigel, you had some complaints about Wade’s routine, too, right?

Nigel Lythgoe: Yes. Wade did an anti-war routine. And I certainly don’t want to fuel the flames, or get myself into trouble regarding this at a time that is difficult with both our countries. You know, we’re still at war. But it’s important that I don’t know—even though it may be argued that some wars are necessary—I don’t know anybody who’s pro-war. Who wants a war? So to say you’re anti-war doesn’t necessarily mean to say that you are not patriotic and that you are not supporting the troops in difficult situations [applause]. It’s really important to separate the two things. And who would’ve dreamt, in truth, who would have dreamt—the dancers were using words like humility, love, passion—that I would be defending a television show at this time that uses words like that. And it upsets me a little bit to think that–art should be allowed to make statements. And until we find a way of living with people we disagree with wholeheartedly, and even their way of life, we’re never going to find a peace [applause]. So, we’ve got to work at this. And I know Wade didn’t mean to upset anybody. He had no intention of upsetting anybody. So our apologies, and Wade’s apologies, for anybody who was upset by that routine. To be frank, I was bored by it the fifth time I saw it! [Cat Deeley: We saw it ten times!]. We saw it ten times! But we truly are sorry. There was no intention of that, and, and, we’re wholly supportive of what’s going on.

Cat Deeley: And we send all our best wishes to the troops. [Nigel Lythgoe: Indeed, indeed]. Very much so.[6]

Nigel Lythgoe

Nigel Lythgoe

I was immediately rankled by this apology. Of course, I knew I should have expected nothing less. Two decades ago, Todd Gitlin pointed out that network programmers have a built-in bias for LOP—least offensive programming.[7]

The economic logic of LOP is straightforward. Why give viewers a reason not to tune in? Why get advertisers jumpy with rumors of angry audience boycotts? Instead, stay away from controversial matters that sub-divide your audience into smaller ideological clusters. And, for goodness sake, when one of your shows steps in it, go into crisis PR mode: issue the (faux) heartfelt apology and get on with the selling of eyeballs to advertisers.

In this way, the economic logic of ad-supported television exerts pressure against the expression of dissenting views. Indeed, the fact that Lythgoe himself is the executive producer of the show (and wishes, no doubt, for it to remain a darling of advertisers) surely played a big role in his shameful kowtow. Ultimately, it seems clear that substantially widening the boundaries of the permissible on American television will require us to wrestle control of the medium from Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

Yet, however helpful an alternative institutional structure might be, public dissent also requires personal courage. And this was precisely what was lacking that night on the SYTYCD stage.

To be fair, Lythgoe’s apology raised important points about artistic expression, and he’s right that we should separate support for the war from support for American soldiers. This said, what was most remarkable about Lythgoe’s apology was how completely it undermined even the tepid political statement of the previous night’s show.

In short, if Robson’s routine had any bite at all, it was because its target was transparently the Iraq War—not, as Lythgoe would have it, war in general. The conservative bloggers were right on the money in this regard: an antiwar statement produced at the exact moment your nation is at war is not merely “antiwar” but anti-that war.

Thus by framing the routine as nothing more than a tribute to peace and harmony—much like a second-grade pageant on Martin Luther King Day—Lythgoe deftly cut the heart right out of Robson’s message, which perhaps explains why the young choreographer was MIA during the results show.

(At this point it was only fitting that Lythgoe end his comments by pandering to the show’s critics: “and, and, we’re wholly supportive of what’s going on.” The irony is that this last statement puts Lythgoe on the wrong side of a 65/35 public opinion divide. Given these numbers, it’s not even clear if, today, an antiwar statement should even qualify as “dissent”).

Lythgoe should take a lesson from the Dixie Chicks. In the midst of a massive comeback after the release of their unrepentant single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” the Chicks have a new Grammy under their belt and legions of new fans.[8] In fact, in a recent interview, Natalie Maines said her only regret about her off-the-cuff remarks was that, in the frightening early days, she offered a public apology—not for her distaste for Bush but rather for “disrespecting” the Office of the President. “I don’t feel that way anymore,” she told Time magazine. “I don’t feel he is owed any respect whatsoever.”[9]

In the end, building a vital public sphere requires that we speak our minds and our values, without excuses or apologies—and the experience of the Chicks suggests that there is a wide constituency for artists who speak truth to power.

What’s distressing is that contributing (however mildly) to such a vital public debate is an opportunity that doesn’t come every day to televised dance competitions. I was sorry to see SYTYCD squander this opportunity by apologizing all over it.

Image Credits:

1. Dixie Chicks on Target

2. So You Think You Can Dance

3. Wade Robson

4. Nigel Lythgoe Exclaiming

5. Robson’s Introduction and Antiwar Routine and Robson’s Introduction

6. Video of Apology

Endnotes
[1]Charles Tayor, “Chicks Against the Machine,” Salon.com, April 28, 2003, http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/music/feature/2003/04/28/chicks_sawyer/index.html?pn=1

[2]For the latest poll numbers on the war, see http://www.pollingreport.com/iraq.htm

[3]To view Robson’s introduction and the routine itself, see http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1126127263/bclid1125971968/bctid1125843722

[4]Terry Trippany, The Webloggin [blog], July 26, 2007. Accessed at: http://www.webloggin.com/who-the-hell-is-pro-war/

[5]“Dance’s Antiwar Routine Sparks Controversy,” US Magazine.Com, http://www.usmagazine.com/so_you_think_dance_controversy_july_25

[6]To view Lythgoe’s apology, see http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1126070677/bclid1126051225/bctid1125909450

[7]Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

[8]Jeff Leeds, “Grammy Sweep by Dixie Chicks Seen as a Vindication” New York Times, February 13, 2007, E1.

[9]Josh Tyrangiel, “Chicks in the Line of Fire,” Time.com [website], May 21, 2006.

Please feel free to comment.




Watch Now: Netflix, Streaming Movies and Networked Film Publics

by: Chuck Tryon / Fayettesville State University

In this article, I am interested in thinking about some of the ways in which the computer appears to be supplanting both the movie screen and the television set as the crucial site for encountering and consuming Hollywood films, while also acknowledging the role of place in shaping media access, not only in terms of the kinds of texts but also in consumption practices. While scholars such as Barbara Klinger and Anne Friedberg have increasingly focused on the home as a site for watching movies, I have begun thinking about the computer in terms of the formation of networked film publics, with film audiences increasingly organizing and finding each other on the web. In this context, I will be looking at the new Netflix “Watch Now” player, which allows viewers to watch high-quality streams of selected Netflix movie and television content.

Netflix

Netflix

In her June 29, 2007, Flow column, “Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens) Part One,” Joan Hawkins describes the ways in which media access is often limited in certain sections of rural America. Building on Gregory Waller’s observation that most histories of movie spectatorship describe urban experiences, Hawkins convincingly argues for a need to look at what she calls “Dish Towns,” the rural communities, often spread out over dozens of miles, marked by hundreds of satellite dishes. She goes on to describe the poor quality of cable television and the lack of choice at nearby movie theaters, but for my purposes, Hawkins’ observations point to need to think about the role of geography in shaping access to certain media texts.

Hawkins’ comments about these Dish Towns reminded me of my own experiences with media and place. In the fall of 2006, I moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, a medium-sized military city best known for its connection to Fort Bragg. When I first moved to Fayetteville, after several years of living in either Washington D.C. or Atlanta, one of my first major questions was whether or not there was an art house theater. Fortunately, Fayetteville has the Cameo Art House Theatre, a locally-owned theater in the city’s slowly recovering downtown neighborhood. The theater’s two screens offer more than enough to satisfy my art house movie needs, and the local ownership is responsive to community interests and tastes.

Finding a good video store, however, turned out to be more difficult. Like many smaller cities, the only stand-alone video stores are the major chains, Blockbuster and Hollywood. Access to art house and independent movies on DVD requires a Netflix membership, and so despite my preference for skimming the shelves of local video stores for a forgotten classic or a new discovery, I have reluctantly joined the Netflix generation. While Netflix offers a selection that exceed most video stores, in the first year or so that I had a Netflix membership, I found that I watch fewer movies and that I have even felt “obligated” to watch a DVD that has been sitting next to my TV for several weeks, its bright red envelope collecting dust. I mention these details in part because I believe they illustrate the ways in which place can shape one’s experience of film culture, but also because these viewing practices may soon change as digital distribution of movies increasingly appears to be a feasible alternative or supplement to theatrical distribution. While it is something of a cliché to describe movie watching practices as being in a state of perpetual transition, the various forms of digital distribution raise important questions about the relationship between movie watching and configurations of public and private space.

It is within this context that I have begun experimenting with Netflix’s “Watch Now” player, which offers customers at a certain membership level the option to watch some of its movie and television content online. While much of the conversation about digital distribution has focused on independent filmmakers, such as the maker of Four Eyed Monsters, who have distributed their movies via YouTube, I am much more interested in thinking about the of online distribution of Hollywood films. While watching the movie online may not substitute for seeing a movie projected on a big screen with a large audience, the high quality streams are adequate, producing a fairly impressive level of detail. And the rudimentary player offered some of the basic time-shifting controls of pausing, rewinding and once the film is fully loaded, skimming ahead. That being said, the “Watch Now” player currently works only in Internet Explorer, which can be annoying for those of us who use Firefox or other web browsers. And the streams appear to lack the “extras” that I have normally come to associate with home viewing on my DVD payer—the director’s commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and other information that I have come to regard as a significant part of my domestic film experience. That being said, it’s easy to imagine a near future in which some or all of these DVD extras could be streamed as well.

Four Eyed Monsters

Four Eyed Monsters

In a sense, the Netflix Watch Now option parallels the already existing practice of making episodes of certain TV series available online; however, the focus of Netflix on movie rentals seems to represent an important shift in how we access movies and our relationship to wider public film cultures. The Watch Now option feeds the desire for immediacy or spontaneity associated with trips to the video store. Audiences are not forced to wait the 2-3 days for that little red envelope to show up in the mail. While using the Watch Now player, I’m more likely to browse the available films by genre or groupings—in my case independent films and documentaries—to find DVDs that conform to my current mood or immediate needs, something I’m finding more difficult to juggle with my often stagnant queue. Instead, as I’ve watched online, I’ve found myself watching movies more frequently than at any time in the recent past, while being more willing to take chances on certain movies, based in part on the perception that I’m making a relatively spontaneous decision, one that won’t result in a movie sitting on my shelf for several weeks at a time.

My Watch Now choices are somewhat informed by the networked film publics structured around the film blogging communities and film-oriented social networking sites in which I participate. Thus far, I’ve been able to watch three films on the Netflix player, including The Candidate, which I watched because of a friend’s enthusiastic blog entry, and Loud QUIET Loud, a documentary about the Pixies, which I watched simply because I like the Pixies and never got a chance to see the film in theaters. I also watched Darfur Diaries, a short documentary about the crisis in Darfur that I was considering for my fall course on “Documenting Injustice.” In all three cases, the decision to watch felt relatively spontaneous, as I skimmed the selections looking for a movie to “rent,” but the choices were also structured by the films available through the streaming service and by the Netflix algorithm for identifying films that would conform to my tastes based on my ratings of films and on the ratings of others who have similar tastes (an algorithm that is surprisingly accurate).

And yet I find myself facing some reservations about the ways in which this “Watch Now” option structures how I watch movies at home. The streaming option currently feels like a highly individualized viewing experience targeted for individual consumption. Netflix is rumored to be working on a set-top player that would allow consumers to transfer movies from their computer to their TV screen, but arranging for more than couple of people to gather around a laptop screen to watch a movie might prove difficult. And the service, like Netflix in general, is framed around a model of consumer choice that needs to be interrogated. In addition to the movies I mentioned, I also watched a preview episode of the new Showtime series, Californication, featuring former X-Files star, David Duchovny as a New York novelist finding himself navigating what he takes to be the shallow Hollywood film industry, while also managing to seduce virtually every young woman who crosses his path, prompting jokes that the series should be called “The Sex Files.” While the episode was mildly entertaining—I probably won’t continue watching—I found myself increasingly aware of the ways in which Netflix was shaping my available viewing options by promoting the preview episode of a new TV series, in the hope of generating buzz for the show and new subscribers for Showtime, suggesting the ways in which media convergence, to use Henry Jenkins’ phrase, opens up new possibilities for selling media content. In conclusion, the Watch Now player introduces some important questions about how digital distribution will reshape film and television reception, as well as to what extent the Netflix model anticipates or shapes a networked film public.

David Duchovny

David Duchovny

Sources consulted:
Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006.

Hawkins, Joan. “Dish Towns USA (or Rural Screens) Part One.” Flow 6.3 (June 2007).

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Image Credits:

1. Computer Shopper

2. Four Eyed Monsters

3.Showtime Official Site

Please feel free to comment.




Flow Poll #2: Should I Stay or Should I Go?






Not Yo’ Momma’s Cyborg: Transformers Meet More Than Your Eye

By Anna Beatrice Scott / University of California, Riverside

Production still from enewsi.com

Production still from enewsi.com

Gesticulations

Marketing campaigns, meant to enmesh our lives in cycles of desire and incompleteness are compelling experiential screenic devices/entities. They invite tactility through displays of a representation (often) of another corpo-imaginaria consuming a product or using a device in such a way as to trigger our automated response to facial gesture and locomotion styles. The advertisement references the kinesiosphere in order to situate itself as part of our everyday. Though we like to think that we have become immune to these 30 second stories, in fact, they are woven into our movement vocabulary, and often add new gestures to the palettes, sets, and drop down windows.

When the campaign evolves into hundreds of sequential 30 second spots strung together with CGI animation, tweening the breaks in choreography less a fissure erupt through the sutures, our body awareness, i.e. our corpo-reality necessarily materializes as character in the story. We become cybernectic through the manipulation of our gestures; they play back in front of us on the screen, made all the more sensorial by special effects displacing, replacing, and enticing an environment of interaction.

Considering the environment of interaction as a type of social sphere, even when projected or pixelated, gestures emerge as vital components of pre-conceptualized socialization; one driven by a physiological imperative to mobilize the human systems in space and across space, against gravity, but not much else. Our systemic misunderstandings of tone, inflection and bodily movement create the need for story, yet the foot treads marked by habitual action embed stories in the series of interlocking gestures themselves. The kinesiosphere is a way to think about the myriad subtle exchanges we have with other bodies of the external sort. Obviously we share air and water systems, but we share systems of kinemes that are organized into discreet sets across cultures and change as the body itself ages; and now, across mechanics, objects and species.

Trans-Iterations

To talk of CGI animation is in many ways to speak of ILM, Industrial Light and Magic. The developer of most of the code used to digitally enhance action sequences, matte transitions, conduct/create digital animation, ILM has developed a fleet of well-trained and highly skilled animation supervisors responsible for shifting our sense of the possible. In this article, I want to explore not ILM, but the translation/transmorgificaiton of gender and race as dis-created and re-imagined through the Animation Supervisor and the gestures which he chooses to deploy and animate.

The first thing he would tell us, is that much of it is not his choice.

Working in tight formation with an army of production assistants and marketing assistants, master minds like Scott Benza (Star Wars Episode III, Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Transformers), have to create a knowable unknown universe exciting enough to sell the product, and surprising enough to leverage as a brand vehicle. Perhaps this article is secretly about branding: gesture, race & gender.

Transformers (2007) is a rip roaring good time. I was struck by how little I groaned, or anyone else in the audience for that matter, at the blatant product placement, and the omnipresence of the Army and DOD. I actually enjoyed the awkward love interest, the greasy chic dream getting a little time, lubricated by the bond of a guy and his ride. Then I realized, duh, this is not odd: it is not that we have become immune to branding, or that we are too wrapped up in a “good story” to notice all the GM vehicles and Pepsico Products, branding has achieved its first sought after goal. We are coursing through an experiential market place like fish in water. The brand is our home. It is our mirror. It is our choreographer. The brand is the story. Without the brand, there is just simulation.

Branding has become our method of ordering, of differentiation of self from group, groups from other groups, us from them, you from me in a way that does not feel so alienating or repulsive. Dancing with the brand, living its dream, provides for cross-species interaction, not to mention death-defying females, wussy boys getting the girl and black men surviving through to the end credits. In Transformers, the brand is absolutely the story. The kinesiosphere of the cyborg as arrived, thanks to decades of Hasbro magic.

Transformers G1® Frame shot from answers.com

Transformers G1® Frame shot from answers.com

Toying with the Kinemes

Hasbro has been around in our homes it seems like forever if you were born after 1952 when their smash hit, Mr. Potato Head®, first hit the shelves. I personally can sing the Transformers© cartoon theme song, which made me treasure every word of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” when I finally grew up and went to grad school. TRANSFORMERS! ROBOTS IN DISGUISE. TRANSFORMERS! MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE! Lego® on steroids, or a redux of Hasbro’s (in)famous GI Joe® action figure, the Transformer® toy was awesome and battle ready and totally for boys. Totally for pre-soldiers. I always hated the Easy Bake oven. Why couldn’t it transform. BAKING OVEN! ROBOT IN DISGUISE! BAKING OVEN! PIE GETS IN YOUR EYES! But I digress, or head towards the point.

Hasbro, or the Hassenfeld Brothers have been branding playtime for a long time, conquering comic books and Saturday mornings alike in extremely gendered specific ways. That they have leveraged this brand with General Motors and the US Army, into a CGI-driven action film should come as no surprise. Those of us called Gen X-ers when we came out of college into coffee shops and slackerdom (which includes fan boy Scott Benza), are more succintly described as “The Hasbro Nation.” Jammed into predetermined slots of gender reality, our gestures emmanate as much from our diurnal investigations of the humans in our household as they do the animated characters on our screens. And yes, we are also the Atari Nation.

Wait! We are the Tie-In Nation! Yeah, that feels about right.

But branding did not get it right until the 21st century. Now there are parents who don’t remember not being branded.

Big Boy Toys

Bumble Bee® larger than life from blogspot.com

Bumble Bee® larger than life from blogspot.com

The use of larger-than life models and CGI animation in the film brings together the childhood fantasy of having the toys actually talk and do their thing for you, without you “animating” them. However, since they are brought to life, they must move in ways that we can recognize as humanoid, less they be too strange to enjoy/emulate. The gestures employed by the robots, we are told through the narration, were culled from the World Wide Web, so in effect, they are mirroring “us,” aping us, for more “effective” communication.

And yet, they are just stereotypes.

Would an alien super culture select that about us? Rhetorical, but as a vehicle for a major toy company, car company, and military regime, this film must trade in base-line gestural patterns in order to maximize audience size and leverage all of the product tie-ins. Gestural sets in this film are very subtle since the animated objects are humanoid/android. We do not have to wonder too much at the distraction of a dancing fairy tale character or cooking rat. Coupled with the color and make of the cars, the viewer is given all of the clues that they need to “race” a robot.

Each robot, like their human counterparts, has an idiosyncratic way of moving through its body to communicate its desire, emotion, and station in the universe. The two most obvious were the yellow Camaro® cum Bumble Bee’s® “talk” through the radio using classic 70s easy rock and Star Trek quotes and Jazz’s® break dancing through any scene. Jazz®, break dance, Pontiac®, get it?

Specs for the Jazz® action figure from blogspot.com

Specs for the Jazz® action figure from blogspot.com

“Jazz”® as Pontiac Solstice® from blogspot.com

“Jazz”® as Pontiac Solstice® from blogspot.com

No hoopty, Jazz® is a modified Pontiac Solstice®, but he’s still a “real niggah” as evidenced by his seemingly uncontrollable urge to dance in the face of danger and “break verbs” in a way that reveals his complete inability to properly use Ebonics. The truly mechanized gesture, one that is itself a character in the film, is the transformation from vehicle to upright robot. What type of drop down screening happens in that transition? Does the direction in which the robot flips in order to become bipedal indicate whether it will be friendly or fire? Geek that I am, I have to imagine that the John Frazier and the guys who devoted themselves to building the physical robot for Bumble Bee® thought about these things as they conversed with the animator, Jeff Man about how to tween the rotations and foley in the clicks and whirs of gears shifting into organ-like stasis.

Both characters are voiced as male, as are all the robots. The female is located in the generator/interpretator, immobile, potent, creatrix and destroyer. Ah, and silent. What then, is the difference between the cyborg and the robot? Where is the cyborg on screen? Honestly, the soldiers, the hormonally challenged boy, the car-thieving girl, the code-breaking hot blonde and her fat funky guru are the cyborgs. Even more so, every audience member who’s ever sang that theme song in their pajamas bear the brand of the cybernetic.

Image Credits:

1. Production still from enewsi.com

2. Transformers G1® Frame shot from answers.com

3. Bumble Bee® larger than life from blogspot.com

4. Specs for the Jazz® action figure from blogspot.com

5. “Jazz”® as Pontiac Solstice® from blogspot.com

Please feel free to comment.




“I was marrying sisters … that was my choice:” Big Love, Post-Feminist Choice, Scripted Lives and Judging Women

by: Kim Akass and Janet McCabe / Manchester Metropolitan University

Big Love

Big Love

Are the Henrickson sister-wives – Barb, Nicki and Margene – from HBO’s original drama Big Love truly breaking new representational ground, contributing to a vibrant conversation on the state of contemporary feminism, or merely recycling old stereotypes under new guises? Wife number one Barb was born into a traditional Mormon family marrying Bill Henrickson straight after university and bearing him three children. After being diagnosed with cancer followed by a radical hysterectomy, she chose, along with her husband, to invite Nicki to be his second wife. (A decision placing considerable strain on relations with her mother and sister, both active in the Mormon Church.) Wife number two may judge harshly the valueless secular world she lives in, but nonetheless incurs huge credit card debt filling a void in her life that faith cannot address. And wife number three may find comfort in a sense of family absent in her childhood, but somehow thought she was only marrying Bill. Overcome at daughter Teenie’s baptism (the youngest child of Bill and Barb) Margene jumps in the pool pledging herself to the family: “I was marrying sisters, my sisters, that was my choice, and I’d make that choice all over again” (‘The Baptism’, 1: 10).

Mixed feelings, complicated sleeping rosters, the deception of respectable society in order to keep up appearances; and the choices and actions of the sister-wives, seemingly at odds with feminism, baffling to most, push us into new directions in the post-feminist age.

The Sister-Wives of Big Love

The Sister-Wives of Big Love

The Henrickson sister-wives probably feel they have no need of feminism. Does not, in fact, being content to stay at home raising children, in the service of God and their husband, give representation to the ideal of American womanhood that the media works so hard to promote (Faludi, 1992)? Given that America has recently been in the throes of a seismic political and religious shift to the right, shaped by the rise to prominence of the fundamental Christian Right with its pro-life, pro-family, anti-gay agenda, Barb and Nicki at least are well rehearsed in its rhetoric. At the moment of baptism when Margene pledges herself to her sister-wives, insisting that it is her choice, and co-opting a liberal feminist rhetoric to do so, she finally accepts what being a sister-wife really means. In many ways Margene finds feminine salvation through religious fundamentalism and polygamy. Personal redemption wrapped up in religious rhetoric. But in an HBO twist she doesn’t pledge herself to the patriarch but to her sisters to help her find the way.

To their suburban community the Henrickson women appear unremarkable. Barb is married to Bill, and both Nicki and Margene are single parents who just happen to live next door. But behind the respectable veneer of three adjacent homes is a common backyard through which Bill can move unobserved between the three women’s beds.

Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake contest that “living up to images of success requires keeping secrets” (2003: 41). Who but the Henrickson sister-wives know more about keeping up appearances, bearing the heavy burden of family secrets? (Well, maybe Carmela Soprano.) Heavily invested in living the ideal as respectable citizens and mothers requires them to deny what such an image is built on – bigamy and the shifting sands of moral relativism. But given that this is television and that the longer serial narrative arc, to quote Michel Foucault, “imposes meticulous rules of self-examination” (1998: 19) disclosure is inevitable. Operating within a longer television serial form, subject to its particular narrative mechanisms, it is hard to keep secrets.

Considering Barb has long been “invested in the work of keeping silent, shoring up images and narratives that [she thinks] help [her] survive” (Heywood and Drake 2003: 41) it is not too surprising that her head gets turned by the Mother of the Year award. Surviving cancer, working as a substitute teacher, doing good works in the community and for her church, and bringing up children are enough to get her nominated by Teenie. And, after all, hasn’t she sacrificed enough for her family – her womb, her marital bed, her place on the roster when another wife is fertile, her affair with Bill. At first she accepts Nicki’s reasoning that she cannot possibly accept the nomination because, as her sister-wife points out: they all bring up the children and Barb’s re-entry into the work force would have been impossible without the others keeping the home fires burning. But when a photographer from the local paper arrives to take a family portrait, she does nothing to send him away (‘Where There’s A Will’, 1: 11). At first she pretends to have forgotten about the appointment, but then assembles her three children in the dining room, closing off the kitchen so no one can see behind the façade. Nicki and her children gatecrash nonetheless and Barb introduces her as a neighbour. One of Nicki’s sons asks if they are all going to be in the picture but the photographer tells him that this is just for family. Barb says nothing. She does not want to pull out. As she later confesses to Nicki she realises that it is important for her to be publicly recognised as a good mother.

“The Ceremony”

“The Ceremony”

Barb makes it to the final (‘The Ceremony’, 1: 12), but is disqualified when confronted with her polygamy. Fighting back tears, she confesses. Forced to walk from the competition, in front of the entire community, is a truly excruciating moment. But the aching disappointment, the pain of her dilemma, goes to the very heart of living the approved script. Believing that she might, could even, get away with the deception reveals the messiness involved in keeping the boundaries that hold her sense of self in place; to inhabit the image of feminine perfection means silence must shroud anything that falls outside this privileged representation. And here lies the rub. Barb is committed to working with contradiction and inconsistency in order to ‘collude with the approved script’ (ibid) from which she gains most pleasure. But it is a calculated risk. “I got what I deserved”, admits a crestfallen Barb. Her sister-wives have no consoling words, only silent tears.

But judging and being judged goes to the very heart of the feminine politics of Big Love.

On the surface it may seem that what is at stake in Big Love are male property rights, to women and everything else. But, as the conflicts deepen and the plot thickens, the contradictions and paradoxes of the women’s lives are made visible less through their relationships with men than in and through their relationships with each other and other women. For example, it is Wendy, Bill’s employee, who exposes Barb, disgusted by the practise of polygamy and its degradation of women; it is the First Lady, the governor’s wife, who shakes her head at Barb in disbelief, uttering, “Good Heavens,” on hearing the news of Barb’s polygamist lifestyle; and it is Nicki, the one who frets most about the family’s moral course, who judges Barb most harshly for vanity and risking exposure while at the same time sharing and knowing only too well her desire for recognition as a good mother and virtuous wife. Indeed the poignancy of Nicki’s words, “Barb, what have you done,” judging her, policing her, while sharing tears, supporting her, loving her too much. And it is, for us, this kind of complex feminine censure that makes Big Love so compelling.

Astrid Henry in her 2004 study of third wave feminism Not My Mother’s Sister identifies how generational conflict, the battle-lines drawn between mother and daughter, shapes feminist thinking and pushes forward the discourse. She persuasively argues that each new generation advances its own radicalism, and advocates its own unique position by denouncing others. Second-wave feminists vilify their fifties housewife mothers, postfeminists reject the radicalism of the second-wave; then along come the third wavers, raised on the promise of feminist equality.

At the heart of this discord, for Henry at least, is what she terms, “dis-identification,” an identification against something. Based on the work of Diana Fuss, and building on the theories of Judith Butler, this idea of refused identification, she argues, means that it is only by refusing to identify with earlier feminisms that the latest wave can create one of their own. It seems to us that rooted in any feminine discourse, feminist or otherwise, is regulation, a policing of women’s theoretical endeavours, of their behaviours, their sexual pleasures and their lifestyle choices. And it is this regulation through dis-identification that makes visible the nuanced, often poignant, dilemmas of these very modern women living in a quiet suburb of Salt Lake City as they set about policing themselves and each other.

Power relations are indeed complex. In the patriarchal world par excellence of a fundamentalist church where women are unlikely to have much say, or even be considered important enough to matter beyond providing domestic support, the sister-wives have long understood the formidable power embedded in roles to which no one pays much attention. They take great pains to be seen playing by the rules, operating inside meticulous codes – of marriage to powerful patriarchs, of motherhood extolled by media rhetoric, of family valorised and sanctified by religion. It is a lesson in unseen power whereby the wife and mother quite literally lay down the law; she is privileged, she is privilege. No wonder the policing process is so complex as the sister-wives jostle for power and influence. It pitches younger women against older women, mothers against daughters, new wives against first wives and one set of family values against another.

Contradiction is inherent in the uneasy choices that these women must make in order to live the life they choose; it is in their perplexing decision-making, in their complicated morality, in their competing desires, in their holding fast to scripted fantasies of heterosexual romance that feminism warns us about, in their being aroused by politically incorrect erotic pleasures, in their reproducing sexism and sexist stereotypes, sometimes even in their collusion with those who oppress other women – and in our complex emotional investment in them. In this sense, Big Love gives representation to our complex age of troubled emancipation. Steering clear of feminist agendas, but valuing individuality, these women have much to tell us about the contradictions we live with.

Citations:

Faludi, Susan. 1992. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. London: Vintage.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. The Will to Knowledge. The History of Sexuality. 1. trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Henry, Astrid. 2004. Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Heywood, Leslie and Drake, Jennifer. 2003. “We Learn America like a Script: Activism in the Third Wave; or, Enough Phantoms of Nothing.” Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Eds. Heywood and Drake. University of Minnesota Press. 40-54.

Images:

1. Big Love

2. The Sister-Wives of Big Love

3. “The Ceremony”

Feel free to comment.




Watching Time on Television

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

Apple iPhone

Apple iPhone

It has become nearly axiomatic that emergent media technologies are dramatically impacting the fundamental temporalities of television. Often cloaked in the hype-friendly language of the gadget industries — time shifting, webisodes, place shifting, mobisodes — the general tendency of such pronouncements is to emphasize the control viewers gain over when and where programming (and if and how sponsorship) is consumed. The public face of this transformation is embodied by high-profile companies like TiVo, which emphasize viewers’ ability to record, pause, or skip television programming, and YouTube, which promises viewers the chance to avoid television altogether, but these are merely the best known among a host of technologies and services that challenge the decades-old practice of watching television programming in broadcaster-scheduled half-hour and hour-long blocks of time. While the ability to watch an hour of prime time television in forty-two minutes, at four in the morning, in a plane, on a mobile phone, is certainly a break from an earlier era of television, celebrations of temporal mutability have overshadowed the importance of a related phenomenon, temporal conspicuity.

Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

Watching time is now part of watching television. Once a structuring element in the presentation of television, time is now directly made part of the image through the media interfaces that govern access to content. This phenomenon is probably most familiar to TiVo owners, who conjure an informative and affirming time bar each time they pause or fast-forward through programming. This simple graphic concisely indicates the length of a recorded program, the portion of a program already captured, the current progress through a program, and the speed at which the video is being played back. YouTube, the standard bearer for web video (including many captured television clips), constantly displays a video toolbar, including a progress bar and current/total time display, as well as interactive controls for manipulating video, audio, and display preferences. Perhaps more importantly, YouTube also prominently foregrounds the total length of each clip in many of its video listing guides.

Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

In an attempt to keep up with the changing technological environment, the major broadcast networks all stream selected series and episodes on their websites using a variety of video players that similarly display time and related information. CBS’s Innertube uses Real Player to serve video, providing information similar to that offered by YouTube. NBC, using a Flash player, provides a different set of time-related information. An area below the video player indicates the segments (often mapping to act breaks) available, and a time indicator in the video control bar counts the currently playing segment down to zero; unlike CBS, total program length is not provided. ABC’s customized video player streams Flash video and provides a segmented time bar as well as total running time. In the network cases, of course, the programming is not simply broken down into clips for ease of access, but because the privilege of viewing each segment is earned by first watching a commercial. The ABC player even gives a thirty second countdown as the commercial plays, making the time of advertising as apparent as the time of programming.

ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the pilot episode of Daybreak

ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the
pilot episode of Daybreak

Regardless of the display technology, software platform, or content delivered, the prominence of temporal metadata associated with watching video in these emergent contexts alters one’s relationship to the video itself. When watching television in this manner the obvious temporal cues make it difficult to get lost in the story. I constantly catch myself glancing at the displays, hyper-aware of the narrative trajectory because I know exactly how much time is left. My pleasure in watching a dramatic scene is tempered when I know that there are precisely thirteen seconds left, and my uncertainty regarding an episode’s likely narrative closure is altered by my knowledge of its temporal progress. Occasionally, I even get caught up wondering why one segment of Lost on the ABC site is fifteen minutes long while the next is just three or four. To be sure, US television has long signaled the constraints and peculiarities of its temporality through its rigorous adherence to hourly and semi-hourly program starts, its regularized act and commercial breaks, and a varied assortment of strategies to maintain interest across the programmed flow. Yet none of these techniques is so bold or affecting as to actually foreground time as a visual element.

“Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

“Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

On the few occasions where temporal representation has been directly integrated into programming, such as with the “real-time” clock on Fox’s 24 or the “22:00”-minute countdown clock in the first few episodes of NBC’s 2002 series Watching Ellie, the technique was so striking as to dominate initial critical and popular discussion of the programs. In the half-decade since these experiments debuted, time displays have not caught on as a widespread trend for scripted programming, but have instead become integral features of the media interfaces that overlay television. 24‘s pre- and post-commercial ticking clocks are analogous to the TiVo time bar often summoned at commercial breaks, and Watching Ellie’s countdown clock functions similarly to the timers on YouTube and the broadcast network sites. Yet even as the temporal cues provided by media interfaces perform a similar function, their incorporation into such interfaces has freed them from the critical scrutiny which attended their presence in programming.

Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

As television becomes a multi-platform viewing experience, time bars and elapsed-time displays serve both functional and aesthetic purposes. In the case of Current TV’s dual-platform approach, time indicators on the website, like at YouTube or most any online video site, provide information that eases interactive engagement with clips. Similar time bars on Current’s television broadcasts are primarily aesthetic flourishes indicating that the network’s pod-based programming model is rooted in a new media environment, but also serve the function of providing temporal cues to viewers unfamiliar with variable-length programming. The result is a striking departure from the standard television viewing experience, as the progress bar both informs and distracts from the content it describes.

Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

The conspicuous presentation of temporal information works beyond just providing a constant reminder of how a program’s narrative is working against time constraints. Fundamentally, the ubiquitous display of time is a reminder and invitation to viewers that they have the ability to manipulate their television controls. Regular engagement with temporal metadata even changes related viewing practices, leading viewers to call up metadata screens when watching films on DVD or growing antsy in situations where temporal cues are not as directly available (such as watching a film in theatres or watching live television without an interface).

In online contexts — visiting the YouTube site, for example — clip length is a crucial piece of metadata, along with title, rating, number of views, and submitter, that allow one to decide which clips to play. A ten minute clip might seem like a waste of time, whereas a fifty second clip or two might appeal as a pleasant distraction. Or consider how this dynamic works for Current TV. What effect does clip length have on how viewer created content is evaluated? Might a five minute pod receive a “greenlight” rating while a longer or shorter piece gets rejected out of hand? Is it that some types of content have natural lengths that make them more attractive, or that the length itself is both a prominently displayed aspect of the program and de facto criteria for evaluation, even before a clip is viewed?

Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network, featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network,
featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

What remains to be seen is if and how temporal conspicuity will work into the array of factors putting pressure on standard program lengths. Already we see HBO giving limited flexibility in running length to most of its marquee programs, stunting with non-standard lengths of NBC programs like The Office, extended versions of certain shows on DVD, shrunken versions of kitchy classics, and block programming with multiple consecutive hours of shows like 24. As these and other programs are increasingly viewed in contexts that foreground their temporal parameters, and as more programming, like the WB YouTube NBC defunct(?) show Nobody’s Watching, is produced for non- or peri-broadcast environments, time indicators and descriptors will increasingly become more powerful elements of the viewing experience.

Image Credits:

1. Apple iPhone

2. Widescreen TiVo HD Progress Bar

3. Time Magazine Person of the Year, based on YouTube Video Toolbar

4. ABC Full Episode Player, showing temporal details of the pilot episode of Daybreak

5. “Real-time” clock from Fox’s 24

6. Competing timers — Watching Ellie on YouTube

7. Current TV’s SuperNews, featuring televised progress bar

8. Different Strokes on MySpace’s Minisode Network, featuring five-minute long edited episodes of kitchy programs

Please feel free to comment.




Neoliberal Parenting and Television

By: Hector Amaya / Southwestern University

Last night I saw something strange on television. On the CBS show The New Adventures of Old Christine, I saw a father turn down a birthday card from his young son, who cannot be much older than nine. The show, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Christine, is a sitcom that centers around Christine’s tribulations after her divorce from Richard (Clark Gregg). Together they have a kid, Ritchie (Trevor Gagnon), and much of the show’s humor is based on parenting issues. In the episode “Endless Shrimp, Endless Night,” Richard turns forty-one and makes a big deal of the day, requesting that Ritchie, his kid, give him a “real” gift, not a hand-made birthday card. Ritchie does not quite know what his father means, but the show is partly about him learning this important lesson: if you haven’t spent money on it, it is not a gift. Although Richard’s position on gifting is the butt of jokes during the next half-hour, Richard must come across honest and his ideas believable for them to be funny. He is not crazy, but an exaggerated version of current cultural trends that dictate that the role of parenting should be to train kids to be good consumers.

The New Adventures of Old Christine

The New Adventures of Old Christine

During the last couple of decades, television has been working hard at changing the rules of parenting and has been part and parcel of a transformation of the relationship between parents and children. In the past, the economic challenges of parenting were — at worst — managing a child’s desire to have something. For instance, the first episode of Leave it to Beaver deals with Beaver’s hope that he can collect one thousand milk-caps for a contest and exchange them for a bike. Unfortunately, the contest is fake. What would be amazing to today’s viewer, however, is that no one in the episode suggests that Beaver should have access to money. Move forward half a century and we have Richard, who seems to expect that his son Ritchie will have money (without working) and will know that a “real” gift is not one made by oneself but something made by others, one which requires a monetary transaction. So, I ask, how is it that we can now assume that our children have consuming power?

Leave it to Beaver

Leave it to Beaver

For a while now, advertisers have banked on the idea that children are prime for consumption. Advertisers spend fifteen billion dollars yearly on ads targeting kids under twelve. Advertisers also believe that children influence purchases worth in the range of 500 billion dollars yearly.[1] That is half–a-trillion dollars!! If you are reading this and you are a parent, you know that the advertisers are right. Because of this purchasing power, and because of their ability to influence purchases, children have become a prime target audience for television ads.

Their purchasing power, however, is not constructed through traditional ideas of liberal self-reliance and citizenship. The children can buy not because they work and are industrious, but rather because they can pressure their parent(s) to hand them money. Recent examples of this have occured in wireless phone commercials. In one ad for Verizon (playfully labeled Verizon Taco Commercial), a father walks through the door of a suburbia household and gives his two teenage kids, who lazily lay on couches, the great news that they now can text endlessly.

The youngest one, a boy roughly the age of the fictional Ritchie, retorts that they are already doing it. The father cheerily responds back: “I know, but now we can afford for mom to quit her second job.” Out she comes, wearing a taco costume. Ads like Verizon’s are incredible in that they attempt to discipline the parents into becoming better consumers but take for granted the children’s right to have a cell and endlessly text or talk to their friends. It is as if the children’s right to consume and get wealth without work is imminent. Meanwhile, the children are depicted merely laying around, like useless and abusive aristocrats.

Contemporary children are clearly not aristocrats nor their parents plebeians; however, it is worth considering the way in which issues of governance have been transforming conventions of citizenship. In critical legal theory and critical media scholarship, the problem with today’s ideas of citizenship is that they are imbricated with ideas of consumerism. As Thomas Streeter and Arlene Davila, among others, have argued, consumer rights have come to stand in place of other citizen rights.[2] This, of course, is a problem for democracy, which, we are told, requires for its better functioning a citizenry capable and willing to engage the political world and make political decisions. Instead, we have a citizenry more concerned with rebates than with justice.

In a sense, criticisms like Streeter’s and Davila’s are a bit disingenuous if we consider that American definitions of citizenship were always related to the individual’s relationship to capitalism. At the birth of the nation, wealth (and sex and race) helped define the citizen through the ability of some males to own land or pay voting taxes. Throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, wealth continued defining the citizen and was central in the way resources were stratified thereafter. The citizen could own property; the slave and the wife could not. The citizen could vote; most American residents could not. The full franchise of citizenship has been restricted to most throughout the first two centuries of our union. Today, the role of wealth is most evident in our system of politics that consistently gives political and legal power to money. From this perspective on history, the step from wealth to consumption seems much smaller. Today’s citizen of corporate liberalism needs to show compliance with basic rules of capitalism, just like citizens in 1776 did. Capitalism, however, has changed some and has made wealth more readily accessible to more people. Perhaps consumption here represents the democratization of wealth.

Where do children fit in this scenario? Or, stated in a different way, are children citizens? Well, if they were born in a US territory, or if they were born to American parents, or if they are minors whose parents have been naturalized American, the answer is, technically, yes. However, if you define citizenship as the legal status to participate in politics (vote, be elected), enter into contracts, have the rights of movement, and congregate, the answer is no. Children cannot vote or be elected; cannot enter into contracts; do not have the right of movement (they literally cannot drive, buy themselves a plane ticket, or live on their own) and do not have the right to congregate (as many city curfews and ordinances proves). Children are under the care of the state, and not even parents can harm children in unlawful ways. Typically, the relationship of children to the economic system is also mediated by the state, which sets rules of employment, requires parental consent, and defines what type of work could be exploitative (although at times I have a hard time understanding the difference between a thirteen year old working the frying machine at McDonald’s and child labor). The state sets these atypical rules of citizenship for children and is responsible for brokering a child’s relationship to the world.

In this lies the problem. The advertising and media industries know something about the state that most of us do not wish to know, which is that the state is willing to derelict its duties toward children if the payoff is good. In this, as in many other things, we live in Reagan’s world, a neoliberal nation where many of the duties of the state have been taken over by corporations, including the mediation of the relationship between children and the economic system. While at this time the state has not fully consented to child labor, it has agreed that corporations ought to be able to advertise to children and target them for consumption at an early age. Ritchie should have money; teens should be able to text endlessly. And, most importantly, parents should pay for it. Because, at the end of the day, it is not Ritchie who pays, but Christine; it is not the annoying teens who pay for cell service, but the mother who must work a second job in a Mexican restaurant. And it is not consumption that is the biggest problem, but the expectation that we, adults, parents, must work longer hours just be able to keep up with the bills, many of which are fattened by children’s consumption. How is it that citizens of the wealthiest nation in the world are willing to give up the forty-hour week (which was emblematic of labor struggle and success), go without vacations, and have the thinnest portfolio of work benefits in the industrialized world? Simply, we are a neoliberal generation. The media has succeeded at channeling advertisers’ messages and at creating a world where labor is decentered, consumption is centered, and good parenting is done with a credit card.

Citations:
[1] The Future of Children’s Media: Advertising (Warning: PDF file)
[2] Streeter, Thomas. 1996. Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago; Davila, Arlene. 2002. Latinos Inc.: the marketing and making of a people. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Images:

1. The New Adventures of Old Christine

2. Leave it to Beaver