Joker, Caligari, Prophecy

It’s funny with movies that we often come back for more of the same, whether it be a genre, a director, actors, a franchise, or whatever combination fits our mood and the current availability of product. But there is another side to it: the weird thing is movies come back to us too, seeking us out but in a quite different way from the obvious marketing, rebooting, rehashing modes that are so familiar aspects of their enticement industry. I am referring to the uncanny way in which movies (and television) must in some way connect to our contemporary world and the cultural imagination that underpins it; the way they must offer something like the feeling, in the best of them, that what we are watching exists on the crest of the emergence of a reality that is both founded on ours and one that expresses a future that is plausibly evolved from it. Which is to say they are, more often than we might suppose, aspirationally prophetic. And that leads us to the most famous work of film theory on the subject, Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of The German Film (1947).

A crude statement of its thesis is that one can see, in the German cinema of the 1920s, portents of Nazi totalitarianism of the 1930s; these portents are expressed in such things as character, plot, settings, styles and so on. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Weine, 1920) is the exemplar, because its central character Caligari – a showman who seeks permission to present his somnambulist exhibit, Cesare, at a local fair – is treated rudely by the town bureaucracy and the slight comes to stand for all that is broken with society. Caligari unleashes Cesare on the town who murders and kidnaps in an odd kind of revenge; all this within a bizarre framing narrative (about which there is much dispute and discussion). But the main point is that the film points to a kind of rage baked into the world that finds expression in civil terror, murder, disruption. Anton Kaes’s brilliant study, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Persistence of War (2009) further thickens the theory, reminding its readers of the real presence of traumatized war veterans on the streets of Germany during the 1920s, where ‘somnambulist’ movements and gestures were plausibly symptoms of shell shock and other forms of war trauma. Cesare would be a recognizable figure, however fantastically German Expressionist style encased him.

Joker is similarly prophetic although I should emphasize that it is not a prophecy about the coming of totalitarianism in the USA (in this matter I agree with the Marxist writer, theorist and activist C.L.R. James in this great book American Civilization (1950): ‘…the force which will be needed to impose a totalitarian state regime upon the American people does not exist and cannot be constructed.’; but also his statement that, ‘every fundamental aspect of the totalitarian state is an adaptation by tyranny to the deepest social needs of the modern age, to needs which can be clearly discerned in the democratic countries and nowhere more than in the United States.’) But before we can say why it is prophetic some clearing out of the obvious needs to be said.

Most obviously is its debt to two of Martin Scorsese’s movies, Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983), one that is made as clear as waving a signpost above one’s head on a crowded city street by the casting of Robert De Niro as cheesy talk show host Murray Franklin. It is the former that is most present in the sensibility and tropes of Joker. Scorsese’s film combines two kinds of plot, the ‘worm-turns-revenge-of-the-weak’ kind, and the de-dramatized, slowed kind most obviously taken from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). [Film researcher, programmer and filmmaker Peter Thomas has written a brilliant thesis on this.] Travis Bickle keeps a journal, narrates parts of the film, woos a woman clearly with no clue about his pathology, and works as a taxi driver among men who also have no idea of the catastrophic alienation he is experiencing. Similarly, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), keeps a journal, woos (at least we think he does) a woman way beyond his station, and works with others who have no idea how dangerous he is becoming. But there are important differences. Scorsese’s films are works of art although they are not works of genius: it seems that after The King of Comedy the director floundered with an overwrought and overthought sensibility, only recovering flashes of talent largely supported by the twin pillars of fine acting and strong genre (say, in GoodfellasCasinoCape FearThe Departed). Taxi Driver in particular is saturated with the literary and cinephiliac sensibility of its screenwriter Paul Schrader and is keyed to expressing a severely isolated urban experience where violent rage is the necessary ‘decisive moment’ where redemption may lie (and in this sense it absorbs some of the writing of Franz Fanon).

Joker plays it differently. Whereas a plausible originating trauma for Travis’s pathology lies in his experiences in Vietnam (as with Frank Booth in Blue Velvet), Arthur’s lies in what is now the hegemonic motivating experience of most fiction: childhood abuse. The trauma that the narrative he believed and remembered was a fiction in itself (bad enough that it was) and is in fact a cover for something even worse is the plot pivot around which the film begins to show us this character’s reinvention of himself. As with Bickle’s murder of a bodega robber early in Taxi Driver, Arthur’s first brush with violence is not in itself sufficient to propel him into the dark heroism that completes his journey. For that to happen he needs the rest of the world to come to the party. That this can only happen through television is because the film is clearly set in 1981 (the fact that Arthur can smoke inside any building is an early indicator of this) a point underlined by a shot of a cinema which is showing Blow Out and Zorro: The Gay Blade both released in July of that year. So even though this is before the internet and its sub-cultural warfare (so eloquently analyzed by Angela Nagle in her book Kill All Normies (2017)), Arthur’s effect on the populace of Gotham expresses the sensibility of that war today, its infiltration of our cultural imagination. More than that, the elegant representation of inner via the outer is gracefully presented not exclusively in moments of facial intensity or dialogue, but through sheer performance. The pulling up of lips to confect a smile (a direct reference to another tale of child abuse, D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish’s Lucy pushing up her lips with fingers to please her monstrous father), and the motioning of the body in dance-like, angled and swooping gestures.

What, then, is Joker’s prophesy? Given the radical inflation of the definition of what counts as mental illness it is plausible that many of us will sympathize with Arthur’s pain, his isolation, his fantasies of community, friendship, love and his utter implacable hatred for the slights that the rich elite inflict unthinkingly upon us like kicking garbage out of their way on the street (should they ever have the misfortune to find themselves there unprotected). The elite watch Chaplin’s Modern Times in tuxedos and gowns chuckling along. I’ve never found Chaplin funny preferring Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel, Hardy. Arthur seems to like him, for a while. And the only funny part of the movie is the ending, a standard chase gag at distance. We should cling, one would hope, to his fantasy of a normal life, of solidarity with friends, family and community. But when we’re denied that don’t be surprised when what happens next, happens.

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Aidan Gillen

Two days ago for the first time after years of not seeing it, I watched The Wire again. I was on a short domestic flight and a couple of episodes from the fourth season, which I had not seen, seemed just the ticket. This is the season that hones in on the school system and the election of the city’s mayor and like those before it, it criss-crosses between clusters of characters and interlaces storylines in order to deliver on its realist ambitions to capture a powerful sense of America’s decline from the ground up.

Some deep dense chip of resentment, wounding, humiliation is there in many of the characters Gillen plays. Each in some way seems to know that he possesses an unbidden yet driving piece of the self which is ever-present and shadows all perception. Equally, most of these characters could care less why it is there since it is the plentiful force behind their ambition and appetite for power. Who cares whereby or how-so one was provided with this gift or curse? It propels me, gives direction against authority and confinement, makes compromise and transitory humiliation tolerable. In this sequence we see how Gillen as Baltimore City Councilman Tommy Carcetti pushes back against the necessary donkey work involved in running for mayoral office. It begins with a ferocious, nihilistic denunciation of the entire process after he waltzes in late. Gillen builds up the temperature of his outburst by doing some fine business with the nut jar, plucking one from the tub and flipping it into the air to drop into his mouth with the cocky insouciance of a teen who thinks all this politics shit is boring: he wants play, wants the opportunity to use muscles of improvisation, charm and spontaneity, not the hard graft of glad-handing, worthy meetings with worthy causes, endless insipid dinners with the pre-advantaged elites.  He transforms the nut from prop to punctuation as he spits part of one, or its shell, out to signal contempt for his colleague’s point: “Agnew?”. Then, on realising he’s returned to the office for a sentence in a room calling for campaign funding, he explodes with petulant whining, “Aw fuuuck! I can’t do it anymore. I hate it. I hate it more than anything!” Even his improvised reversal of familiar profanities (“Mothersucking cockfuckers!”) as he is pushed into the office has the comic and sad flair of the adolescent juggling his junk in public.

But Carcetti is no political ingenue or teen fizzed with impatient need to slate immediate desires: he knows what he has to do, as Gillen shows us in a tour de force performance where Carcetti effectively lays bare the real structure of the genre of these campaign calls by pretending to do one. There is a lot to dislike about Carcetti but one of the several reasons he and Gillen are so compelling for me (apart from the fact we are the same age) is that his procrastination is driven by the fact he already knows what he wants, what he can do: that knowledge, that picture of the future, is exciting. He also knows what it will take to get there and that is not at all exciting. Procrastination is an symptom for those of us who get to the end too quickly: we can’t wait to be there, since we have no doubts about what there is (whether a conclusion, power, a partner, a job) –  but having to go through the tedium of getting there is a fucking grind. Yes, eventually we have to do that work but there must be faster, smarter ways to do it. Luck? Fortune? The Wire’s fourth season has it all.

Even when shouting Gillen’s voice has the lining of a whisper. It comes from somewhere deep back and scratches the world around it like the edge of broken flint across the wrist. This is evident not only in his most visible role as Lord Baelish in Game of Thrones but smaller ones such as Doctor Harte (he doesn’t have one) in the film Calvary (2014); in this extract, we hear it contrasted to the sonorous musicality of the voice from the jukebox:

Little wonder that his current partner, the dark, wild, Dietrich-like chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan admits she is “more drawn to the dark side”: like the singers she admires (Cave, Bowie, Waits, Brel) Gillen’s shyness is part of his skill at playing someone who knows how dangerous he is and tries, just a bit, to hide it.

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What True Detective Means


[The following consists of little more than a first stab, derived from notes & jots & conversations, at approaching, the show. For more insightful commentary, I recommend some of the recent critical responses it has generated online and in the press.]


Sometimes artists discover in the materials that they are generating the possibility that they have happened upon something truly great, something that speaks to the world, and its future, in a new and compelling articulation. True Detective, whose first season has not even completed its serpentine unfolding on HBO yet, has been rightly recognized as something special and it may well involve this species of discovery.

It tells the story of two cops, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), assigned to investigate the homicide of a young prostitute Dora Lange, whose body is discovered way out in the Louisiana countryside posed in a position of prayer and adorned with a decorated crown of antlers in what viewers and police alike immediately recognize as the strange performance art of a serial killer. This story is set in 1995  (on the cusp of the widespread take up of the internet) but it is framed by the same cops being interviewed in 2012 by two other cops, Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and  Thomas Papania(Tory Kittles), who believe Hart and Cohle’s earlier investigation is either flawed or was somehow a process of concealment itself.  The back and forth between the two time frames opens up a realm of reflection and commentary on the nature of, and motivation behind, a kind of knowledge-hunting where the stakes seem to speak to the participants in both ultimate and obscure ways.

There are a number of somewhat obvious matters that commentators have remarked on that it is useful to tick off in order to approach the show’s core.   The first is that its duration and production  signals a certain concentration of abilities: the creator Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist and former academic who hails from Louisiana, wrote all of the episodes himself; there are only eight episodes in total (less than Luck for example which comes in at nine) and all of them are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, previously best known for his fine 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. This apparent unity of writer and directorial vision has been contrasted to the usual practice in contemporary serial drama of spreading episodes across a team of writers and directors under the creative authority of one or more show runners. However, the collaborative nature of television authorship, however one adds up the constellation of the participants, does not negate any more than it guarantees artistic achievement. Equally, gesturing to some of its striking narrative and formal arrangements, such as the foregrounding of unreliable narration or, in one instance, an extended tracking shot, merely begs the question of why it is the way it is.  Nonetheless, it is clear the creators have chosen to stage their story within a popular genre in order to set up camp in an recognizable environment they go on to colour in strange and troubling ways.

The procedural nature of the show is therefore initially legible: much of the screen time is spent in a various interrogation rooms containing human beings asking questions and telling stories. Its thematic and narrative textures are freighted with popular, literary and philosophical references: Nietzsche gets a good outing throughout, and the settings and subject matter strongly evoke elements of the Southern Gothic tradition; one can also hear Lovecraft and some nastier aspects of more contemporary horror writers such as Thomas Ligotti at play.  Visually, the imbrication of the bleak, dank landscapes of the Louisiana outlands with the smoke-chugging structures of industrial refineries that inhabit them is rendered in 35mm with a discretion that accrues additional impact by placing human beings in expressive relation to them. Which is to say the poisonous outpourings of both Nature and industry provide a further reflection of the interior tonality of the human figures we see crawling across it (and there are a number of helicopter long shots that emphasize the ‘between heaven and earth’ sense of the diminished seemingly futile efforts of mankind).

At the heart of the show are a number of mysteries that continually foreground two central issues familiar in us in a number of recent US quality dramas: the problem (or puzzle) of other minds, and the nature of time especially its handling of past, present and future (perhaps we can call it the problem of history in fictional worlds). Both seem to me connected to, in ways that remain unclear, to some standing questions of modernism and modernity, not least the problem of whether it is possible to articulate the nature of meaning within the limits or range of a particular medium.  The matter of other minds concerns (to put it crudely) the question of how we take human subjectivity to mean, for example, how we can reliably know others and, therefore, ourselves, when the standard shared understandings of the world are under accelerated erasure.  In a lot of television fiction which unfolds over time we are confronted with characters who are often, within the patterning of plot,  struggling with this problem, both with themselves and with one another.  This is further complicated by the matter of time, specifically the ways we are shown such – often painful –  efforts to understand self and other as part of an unfolding series of episodes, self-contained packages of drama which nonetheless articulate with a wider whole, or plan which in turn trades on the sedimented history it depicted and the possibilities of future episodes. This is more than a matter of duration and repetition (although the long form drama can handle such things with delicacy and skill): it allows us to witness and absorb the creation of the history of such efforts and the subsequent impact, if there is any, of the character’s own acknowledgement, denial or mistaken apprehension of that history.


As I noted above, True Detective foregrounds this facility by recruiting some fairly standard aspects of the police procedural – the police interview that seeks to elicit information about past events – but then doubling the epistemological complexity by having cops interview other cops, about those events which in themselves also were primarily concerned with uncovering the nature and reasons behind an enigmatic case.  Because these interviews take place under the shadow of some considerable doubt – they are only happening at all because there is a question about the reliability of the solution to the original case – we are, like the investigators, alert to the question of the reliability of what we see and hear. This is further complicated by the tendency of both Cohle and Hart to veer off in their retelling of the case history to discourse on matters of philosophy, reflections on their lives and so on.

In terms of time, this framework allows the drama to drill into the heart of what knowledge and meaning can be if not historical, say if we cannot pass it on, or are unwilling (or unable) to value what the past might be able to tell us. If meaning has to be historical – that is say, if we (and our interlocutors) can only understand what we did and why we did something retrospectively – Hart and (with particular emphasis) then Cohle’s recounting in tone, timbre and address throws the value of such transmission, and hence meaning, into question.  The matter of time and history (which riddles the dialogue and visuals in many ways) and other minds is repeatedly foregrounded by his 2012 interviews, where he seems to insist on a (Nietzschean? Or internet-derived?) view of time as a flat circle.  ‘Why do I live in history? ‘, he says at one point: ‘I don’t want to know anything.’  Which is to say history is a condition of knowledge.

History and time interact with the other prominent theme, the matter of knowing ourselves and others. It is a central generic issue in the police procedural since finding out how and why criminal behavior takes place – the fictional staging of issues pertinent to the understanding and realization of justice is one of the primary ways the patterning of the cop genre encourages audience proximity.  In True Detective however, what seems to be at stake is the matter of agency versus determinism, whether we can decide to act in ways that are just, or evil, or whether we are hostage to forces beyond our control and perhaps even our apprehension.  A further blocking mechanism involves the performance, costume and casting. Neither Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey in their past or present selves quite seem to ‘fit’ to what might be called our present-tense sense of their  appearance – this is more than a case of simply adopting the look of a character. For example, Harrelson appears to be wearing some kind of hairpiece in the 1995 scenes, whereas he is balding and the hint of a speech impediment is accented in his 2012 moments; McConaughey’s 2012 Cohle is radically different, outwardly a prematurely aging alcoholic in contrast to his lean warrior torso depicted in the previous decade. (And is it the case that ‘Marty’ and ‘Rust’ are precisely the kind of rugged names children might think of in their acting out Cops n’ Robbers?)As we come to discover, and later witness, Cohle has had extensive experience as an undercover cop, deep in the field of narcotics (which have left their own determining traces in the visual hallucinations see him experience). The notion of ‘undercover’ begins to creep way beyond generic expectations as we struggle to understand the show. In real life one would imagine the practice of maintaining an undercover identity requires a strict internal understanding of the boundaries between one’s loyalty and commitment to the job, and the pretense of the adopted persona needed to effectively infiltrate those groups under scrutiny. Equally, however, we know – or at least may imagine – that the selection of good undercover cops might well depend on both a corporeal and dispositional congruency between that individual and the assumed or real traits of those to be deceived. If that boundary is not stable, or its meaning in question as a condition of modernity anyway, then we might say that we are undercover to ourselves, in a constant process of trying to maintain rational boundaries between our agency and our dispositions or impulses.


Two final thoughts.

What I am insisting on calling the modernist aspects of the show – the foregrounding of medium specificity (time and the scrutiny of subjectivity over time), and its concern with history – has a further inflection. When they are being interviewed in 2012 we are repeatedly reminded Cohle and Hart are being filmed by a compact digital camera. While they do not address the camera as such, they are sat at tables opposite the interrogating cops in a way which makes prominent their  ‘facingness’, so that several times we get the strong sense we are being addressed directly. Perhaps there are some echoes here with Manet’s 1863 painting Luncheon on the Grass (for many a work that heralds the ‘beginning’ of artistic modernism in painting) in the sense derived from Robert Pippin’s argument about it in his recent book After the Beautiful. As Pippin says of the painting’s challenge to the spectator: ‘Normal perceptual apprehension and representational understanding are not so much intensified, as we might expect in a great work of art, as rather in some way interrupted and challenged, for reasons that were clear to almost no-one at the time.’ (There is much more to Pippin’s argument that is pertinent here, but these notes are already at a high pitch of speculation, impressionism and abstraction.) In what we have seen so far, True Detective seems to recruit a similar, challenging, and bold address to the viewer.


Secondly, the show is constantly reminding us of another feature common to discussions about the medium: the nature of attention. In our initial introduction to Cohle we hear that the nickname other cops gave him was ‘The Taxman’ because of the large black ledger he carries around in order to take notes at crime scenes. In 2012 he tells the cops that the accumulation of dense detail in one place allows opens the possibility of discovering the significant thing that will open and solve a case. (Although, Cohle/McConaughey gives that assertion a lining of parody in his delivery.) At home we see him standing in front of a wall with a small mirror cut at eye level which peers into; Hart, in his 2012 sessions admits that his failure in life was ‘inattention’. We are being tutored by the show to consider what that kind of focus might involve, what it would mean to study what we see and hear and at that pitch of attention. Emblematic of this is a very short scene where we witness Cohle on the couch with his girlfriend, his arm around her as she repeatedly clicks through television channels on her remote. He seems suddenly struck by the moment, as if this kind of ordinary casual swapping of attention (in front of, significantly perhaps, a television) communicates a deeper sense of being lost in the world.


But that kind of close attention can be a trap, or a distraction (say in the matching of literary references to moments of dialogue). And extraordinary sensitivity to the world – famously Nietzschean – can paralyze its possessor because there is nothing in the field of ordinary perception that might not count as significant. Faced with such an ability, or curse, one might consider withdrawing to the comfort of a system that explains the world neatly, a world of  flat, repetitious time where are actions are determined, merely the result of inherited dispositions.  However, one thing True Detective must mean is that it is difficult to doubt agentive force and intentional choice as expressed in the skill of its very talented creators.

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Beethoven, Game of Thrones and the Pure Aesthetic Kick

The kind of total or pure aesthetic experience I wish to describe here only happened to me (at this pitch of intensity) once in my life before that I can remember, and I’m not sure that this should be grounds for gratitude that it happened at all or regret it didn’t occur more often. As my title suggests it happened first of all in response to some classical music and my sense of awe is best captured by the opening paragraph of E.T.A Hoffman’s reputation-establishing review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in 1811:

“The reviewer has before him one of the most important works by the master whose pre-eminence as an instrumental composer it is doubtful that anyone would now dispute; he is utterly permeated by the subject of the present review, and may nobody take it amiss if he exceeds the limits of conventional appraisals and strives to put into words all the profound sensations that this composition has given rise to within him.”

Well for this reviewer it was the Third not the Fifth that supplied what Hoffman goes on to describe as overwhelming power of the music that must be ‘surrendered’ to, and it was about twenty years ago when I was sitting in my university office listening for the third or fourth time to its first movement. I must confess that my knowledge of classical music at the time was based on not much more than my father’s decision to play Hooked on Classics in what seemed to be an infinite loop when I was a child and nor, in choosing to bunk off work for twenty minutes with the Eroica, was I brushing up my cultural capital: instead I was curious to hear what Norman Bates was listening to in his bedroom.


But that’s the thing. Quite unexpectedly, unbidden, about a minute before the first movement reaches its glorious climax, I was overcome with – what? – not quite emotion, as in sadness or unalloyed sensual pleasure, but that peculiar and unique aesthetic sense of being overwhelmed, transported in some way, as if carried by a titanic wave or the wind of a bursting supernova, akin to that oceanic sensation William James associated with religious feeling.

Tears without sadness, emotion without feeling, feeling without relief – such a contradictory, paradoxical muddle, and of course one that generations of philosophers and aestheticians from Aristotle to Gadamer to Langer to Ngai have contended with. I hadn’t thought that much more about it since – that is it did not, perhaps surprisingly, prompt a further desire to immerse myself in the vast range of musical achievement, although I read a lot of Charles Rosen afterwards in order to try to make sense of the occasion. And then a few weeks ago the inevitable happened: you wait twenty years for another pure aesthetic kick and three come along all at once.

The first seemingly by chance when I realised I had thirty minutes to kill before a meeting with a university executive and, given the impossibility of completing any other task reasonably in that time, I decided to pop into the University of Queensland Art Museum which our campus locates conveniently on the way to the Dean’s office. I knew that there was a Joseph Marioni exhibition on, and that esteemed art historian and critic Michael Fried would be visiting soon in order to speak about it, so it seemed a good opportunity to brush up on an artist I had never heard of until that morning. Marioni specialises in monochrome paintings that seem to consist of a single vivid colour achieved by the controlled pouring of paint and glazes down the surface of the canvas. As I walked into the gallery area and was confronted by the glorious Green Painting (no. 4, 2013) it happened again, that sudden but familiar sensation of overwhelming transport. As someone used to receiving ambient as well as direct aesthetic pleasure (not quite, that is, the intensity of the pure aesthetic kick) from mass media (especially film and television) this was quite a shock. I cannot reproduce the Marioni here, even as an image, because its power is literally available only in its presence: the layers and lines of paint have the powerful and paradoxical effect of directed intentionality. Fried describes them as ‘paintings in the fullest most exalted sense of the word’ where the ‘highly refined interplay between the physicality of the support and the materiality of the pigment is double: it gives rise to a sense of seamlessness, of aesthetic harmony, that…is almost Eastern in its affective resonance; at the same time, the interplay compels a recognition of the separateness of the elements’. Fried goes on to note that ‘no illustration can begin to capture the absolute specificity, which … means the transfixing intensity’ of the hue, the surface, and the ‘sheer rightness’ of the colour and its suggestion of depth.

Around the same time I saw the Marioni – I can’t recall if before or after – I saw the fourth episode of the third season of Game of Thrones, ‘And Now His Watch Is Ended,’ and it happened again. Having never seen the show before or read the books, I had been bingeing (what a terrible, pejorative word for such a pleasurable absorption of culture!) on the series since the Easter break, watching many episodes back to back, and then as the current (2013) season began to be published, going back again to re-watch the first season whose initial strangeness and sense of a gamble one feels on beginning a show (who are these people? what is their backstory? is it worth my time?) was transformed into intimate familiarity. Hence there was a strong sense in my mind of a continuous fictional world with all of its faces and motions and settings held together in a compelling patterning of dramatic arcs and layers. Nevertheless, mere familiarity and fluency with its narrative events and characters, cannot account for the impact or the purity of the aesthetic kick. As with the first movement of the Eroica symphony I started to feel toward the end of the episode that sense of directed artistry, familiar in its repetition and yet hinting at a new unity. So much in the adaptation of Game of Thrones depends on patience and pacing – the gradual, glacial emergence of magic and emblems of the fantastic; the alternation between the brutal explicitness of its violence, and its conjuring of a hidden, implied substrate of cruelty in tension with the moderate scattering of hints that redemption, kindness and gentleness have their place too amidst its medieval carnage and savagery.

The climax of this episode concerned a sudden reversal of power – a theme which is gestured to in the opening scene (where a victim of abuse, in order to illustrate the virtue of patience, recounts the story of his childhood torture as he un-crates – to our eventual surprise – the roped struggling figure of his former abuser) – and is a register of many of its scenes. In the final sequence, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) ‘the Mother of Dragons’ has been bargaining to exchange one of her three dragons for an invincible robot-like slave army (the ‘Unsullied’) with a repugnant slaver Kraznys (Dan Hildebrand). The latter has been communicating with her through a translator who he believes has been censoring his misogynist contempt. As he is handed the reins of the dragon I realised that the episode was about to cash in its final reversal. It is important to remember that long-form serial drama has a number of resources available to it, not least its ability to accumulate and store the resentful energy and force of characters who have undergone unjust treatment. Daenerys has developed throughout the seasons from a fey, helpless instrument for her brother’s designs on power (he gifted her to a brutal warrior chief in exchange for an army), to someone who has had to use her intelligence and charisma to lead and liberate the enslaved and abused.  At the moment she is given ultimate authority of the Unsullied she turns to Kraznys and reveals that she is fluent in his language (and hence knows about his contempt) and, as he holds onto its chain, that dragons are not slaves. It incinerates him and she commands the Unsullied to exterminate their masters, and to liberate themselves.


This crude account strikes me as inadequate to the feeling it prompted: like Green Painting you need to be right in front of it, but also aware of its underpinnings in the development of the show and the character, so that one experiences the sudden uncoiling of stored power as the product of a deep history as well as an awesome spectacle in the moment. Equally, this moment might be hospitable to a reading that locates the scene in a very contemporary light, so that we can attribute the feeling of empowerment among an audience as not only mirroring that of the character but also connecting with feminism –  a young woman destroys the evil of a patriarchal villain through the purity of her politically right-on heart. Daenerys never situates herself as a victim and she makes sure the people who follow her do so out of choice rather than compulsion. But it is not the political content alone that carries the aesthetic kick, much more, I think, to do with our sense of deep forms of justice made sensual as well as visible. Hoffman’s paean to Romantic art in writing about the Fifth again captures in words something of the fluidity and power of this kind of aesthetic moment:

“Here shining rays of light shoot through the darkness of night, and we become aware        of giant shadows swaying back and forth, moving ever close around us and destroying          within us all feeling but the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation, sinks back and disappears. Only in this pain, in which love, hope, and joy are consumed without being destroyed, which threatens to bust our hearts with a full-chorused cry of all the passions, do we live on as ecstatic visionaries.”

Hoffman’s bombastic prose is trying to grasp that odd doubleness of aesthetic sensation, of the pain of yearning, the alternation between fragmentation and unity which is reminiscent, too, of Fried’s account of the harmony and separateness of Marioni.

My final example, much more recent, is another ending (perhaps endings offer a peculiar aesthetic opportunity because they can choose to offer or refuse unity and closure in the face of what comes before) this time from the extraordinary sixth season of Mad Men. By now I’d had a chance to reflect on my Marioni and Daenerys epiphanies and so was not expecting any further treats, but thanks to the current richness of US television drama I got to have another one. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Pete Campbell, once again shattered by the rest of the world flying beyond his personal and professional grasp – the advertising agency has just been ‘given away’ in a name change resulting from its merger with a rival – walks out of Don Draper’s office (where we have witnessed another moment of minor defeat as he is confronted by Don’s indifference), and walks up to bearded creative Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) who is seated smoking a joint. “What do you think you’re doing?” “Working.” Pete takes the joint, sits down on the burnt orange coloured seat alone, and takes a good long toke, just as the visuals go into slow-motion and an anonymous yellow miniskirted figure walks by, curling his attention as the smoke unwinds from his lips and we cut to a shot of his full self-absorption.


The juxtaposition of motion, music and the ‘sheer rightness’ of colour plays a crucial role in this aesthetic kick, which has all the content of defeat and resignation – as well as contemplation and reflection – rather than empowerment. As the slow motion begins we hear the distorted electric guitar that opens Janis Joplin’s beautifully psychedelic version of ‘Piece of My Heart’; the music eloquently colours a defeated – but now resurgent? –  Pete, the louche unfolding of smoke from his lips, and his transformation from leering surveyor of miniskirted legs to self-absorbed anomic individual in mere seconds.  Is it any coincidence – and what does it mean for our experience of it– that the symphony of shadings and gradations of orange which dominate the shot of Pete smoking (and in a show which treats colour with an expressivity that puts even Sirk to shame), evokes Robert Crumb’s design of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album ‘Cheap Thrills’ from which the song is taken? What can we do with connections and epiphanies such as this, except communicate them?


[First published on CST Online in June 2013]


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Ricky Gervais and Michael Haneke: together at last

Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Derek concluded its first season around the time Michael Haneke’s Amour won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and my viewing of both overlapped in a way that made comparison perhaps a bit more obvious that it otherwise would be. At first glance these two figures could not seem more different: on the one hand Gervais – portly comedy innovator who (along with lanky co-writer Stephen Merchant) devised two of the best television comedies of the 2000s  – is an arrogant evangelical atheist whose massive over-sensitive ego and hysterical giggle saturate his media appearances to the point of grating irritation; on the other Haneke, tall slender auteur, whose icy stare and demeanour echoes the Beckett-like formal austerity we see in the aggressive, pitiless mise-en-scene that his films deploy, as he jams 1970s Screen theory with the generic engines of neo-classical mainstream cinema to produce a critical honeypot of Art-house faire. Gervais the Clown, hungry for applause; Haneke the Artist, steadily creating an oeuvre.


But such contrasts are deceptive and crude. (As an aside I would note that for a while now a trim Gervais has looked every bit the Hollywood player.) While each of them have fashioned personas that serve their creative purposes, albeit in different ways, they both share an impeccable ability in their casting and handling of performers. Amour has Emmanuel Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne and George, the elderly couple struck by the consequences of Anne’s stroke in a film that tracks the ambient cruelty and indignity of gradual decline toward death. The film hardly ever leaves the confines of their (now oppressively) large Paris apartment and this space and its tasteful décor gradually becomes one of the many irrelevancies, and burdens, in which the characters have to live. The power of the film is located primarily in the way these actors unobtrusively carry the weight of the finality that approaches in a way that does not either spectacularise or sentimentalise the daily routine of suffering they depict in their actions. Derek by contrast is a sitcom that features an ensemble cast centred around Gervais’ character Derek, a childlike man of fifty who helps Hannah (Kerry Godliman) run Broad Hill, a residential care home for the elderly; they are assisted by a miserable, yet eloquently mordant caretaker Dougie (superbly played by Karl Pilkington), and Kev (David Earl, drawing on a persona he created for stand-up and his radio show), a lewd and slimy nobody who has attached himself to the group for want of having anything else to do. Gervais’ skill as an artist has always been caught up with his astute recognition that his own appetite and hunger for the camera has to be formally contained for it to work, hence his usage, here and elsewhere, of the mock-documentary format; the figure of Derek doubles this protection by radically de-glamorising (removing Hollywood from) Gervais’s body, while augmenting what has been perceived to be diminished in his persona, the quality of loving sentimentality.


Unlike Amour, Derek’s setting allows us to experience, within a blend of comedy and pathos, a community of care in the face of aged decline. In the context of healthcare and nursing home scandals in the UK – themselves emblems of a sinister creeping ideology that sees old people as euthanasiable burdens – its achingly simple message that ‘kindness’ is the solvent of abusive and humiliating treatment is both timely and apposite. Even Kev, the fly in the ointment whose crudity grates throughout, is treated with extraordinary generosity, not least when his character confesses the depth of his self-awareness as a failure in the final episode (which may be the best scene in the entire series).


Both Amour and Derek are withering in their depiction of those who flinch from the nature of caring for the old and frail. The former shows us the irritable, narcissistic squeamishness of George and Anne’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), the callousness of private nurses, even the unthinking aestheticization of Anne’s condition by a former student. Derek is equally pointed in its depiction of acquisitive, feckless and selfish offspring offloading their putatively diminished parents in the home, and the oppression of the box-ticking municipal audit. What is missed or avoided by such figures is the shared continuity of our lives which old age complicates through its enforced indignities, but nevertheless does not abrogate.


When his neighbour, Mr Méry who helps carry bottled water to the apartment, says he is impressed by George’s ‘handling of the situation’, it reminds us that such admiration is always comfortable to communicate at a distance from the granularity of everyday care for the old and chronically sick. It is a commonplace for politicians and others to offer gestural praise for long-term carers which, while it is obviously deserved, equally offsets the speaker from proximity to the nitty-gritty of the everyday routine of cleaning, feeding, holding, lifting, bathing and the sheer being-there-ness that is required and which is depicted unblinkingly in both Amour and Derek. And yet, this public praise does point to a truth we may hope for, which is the possibility that in the everydayness of such care we might collectively acknowledge courage, even heroism. In Milly Buonanno’s excellent recent book, Italian TV Drama & Beyond: Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea she thinks through the alloyed valency of contemporary heroism in the West, noting that for sociologists like Alvin Gouldner, everyday life offers a kind of ‘counter-concept’ or critique of heroism, dealing as it does with social, loving relationships, in risk-free – if perhaps conformist – regular settings. Reality television and its celebrities offer one potential solution to the fusion of courage, talent and extraordinary achievement with ordinariness. But I think Amour and Derek both refresh the idea that there is a unique strain of dignity, bravery and fortitude at work in those facing death as a routine as common and daily as doing the washing up and making the beds.


Amour offers the most austere vision in this respect, but is a limited one, and all the more devastating for it. Haneke has remarked that his decision to confine the events of the film to one apartment was based on a desire to make it an existential rather than a social drama, so that the question ‘How do I cope with the suffering of a loved one?’ is centralised for the spectator. However, the singular ‘I’ in that question does recruit a particular social and ideological context: for what we see in George and Anne’s final weeks are the latter stages of the bourgeois conception of love and marriage, and it is ultimately isolated and removed from the rest of the world and its connections. By contrast Derek offers a socialised sense of final days: it is (Richard) Hoggartian in its depiction of the rituals of the amateur night, the birthday party and that emblem of working-class pastoral, the seaside day-trip. While Amour has been praised for its humane usage of Haneke’s stylistic (often Bressonian) austerity, Derek was criticised for its overblown sentimentality, most of all the incessant piano music and Coldplay tracks that double-underline its message about the necessity of kindness. I have two responses to this criticism. The first is that Gervais astutely internalises such sentimentality by making Derek himself spectacularly sentimental, not only in his reaction to the death (and there are several) of the old folks he cares for, but also in his enthusiastic reaction to YouTube clips of animals doing silly things. By refusing to medicalise Derek as having a ‘condition’ such moments do not allow us to attribute this to a mental deficiency, and they deliberately complicate our reaction. Secondly, in his book In Defense of Sentimentality philosopher Robert C. Solomon points out that criticisms of sentimentality as false or self-indulgent affect miss the ethical role that the stimulation of tender and compassionate feelings can have. By setting Derek in a world where kindness can be recognised and acknowledged (rather than the private love that is, as in Amour, left to be discovered after the participants have left the stage), Gervais signals the availability of a tender kind of heroism in everyday life, an availability that allows others to learn from and participate in it. Perhaps Amour is a better aesthetic work, but Derek offers more to us as an ethical achievement, and signpost.


[First published on CST Online in March 2013]


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Preacher Man

Walton Goggins.  What a name.  Worthy of Dickens, everything about it just fits when you know his work: the Depression-era mountain-boy Sunday morning re-run buzz of the Christian name and the boggle-eyed hillbilly, gin n’ grog stutter of his family name. If you’ve been to the cinema recently you may well have noticed Goggins’s thousand-mile stare in action as Clay Hawkins in Lincoln and Billy Crash in Django Unchained.  Thankfully there is more of him on television, the medium that really rewards fine acting over time, the only one in fact that allows artists to deepen, sharpen, elaborate (and, let’s not forget, occasionally ruin)the characters they pilot, inhabit and vitalize.

(As an aside, if one accepts this latter assertion as true, do you not agree with me how odd it is that so little has been written in television studies about specific performances, specific actors and their skills? Perhaps I am reading the wrong things, but celebrity studies and accounts of style and narrative seem to somewhat bypass, hurriedly in embarrassment,  what is I think for many of us the primary aesthetic experience of television – fiction and non-fiction – which is the compelling presence of performing human beings in front of us. I wonder why?)

Goggins came to prominence as Shane Vendrell, number two in Vic Mackey’s corrupt Strike Team in The Shield, before guesting in the pilot of modern cowboy drama Justified as Boyd Crowder, a volatile member of a Harlan Country crime family who has a swastika tattooed on his left bicep and a penchant for blowing things up. In Elmore Leonard’s original short story on which the series is based Crowder is shot and killed at the end by the hero, Marshall Raylan Givens, but Goggins brought such a magnificent charismatic force to the role that the series could not have survived without him. In the first season after recovering from his near fatal bullet wound, he finds God, and sets out to thwart his father’s drug empire, recruiting a motley band of disciples to his evangelical flock. This allows the show to regularly place Boyd in situations where his oratorical gifts as a charismatic preacher can be exploited. The gentle resonance of his Southerner’s voice makes his speech compelling while still in the shadow of the creepy. Holding the Holy Book, with his buttoned-up shirt and crown of combed-back hair he strikes a vivid, concentrated figure, like a Roman nail about to be hammered into the cross. As Goggins’s charisma works on us, we see Boyd’s charisma work on his audiences in church and elsewhere: he enjoys the spectacle and seductions of his explosive talk just as much as the real explosions his earlier self detonated. But that does not mean he is hostage to impulse. Good preaching requires the patient, deliberative intelligence able to gauge mood, establish connection, and shape response, building to a climax of communal assent, readying the moment to strike, to detonate Faith’s holy energy.


By the second season Boyd has lost his faith, but not his ability as a speaker. And it is in that season, at least in its earlier episodes where Boyd is briefly doing honest work in the coal mine, when Goggins’s dirt-streaked, Ronsir-wearing performance has most resonance with figures from cinema history, particularly evoking the deliberative, uptight, nous of the working class intellectual criminal – think McQueen’s Doc McCoy from The Getaway, Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea from Five Easy Pieces or a less repulsive version of Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker from Robocop.


Later seasons of Justified will found it hard to beat the staggering performances that the second season offered us (quite apart from the regular cast, Margo Martindale and Jeremy Davies as Mags and Dickie Bennett provided extraordinarily rich contributions), something half-acknowledged perhaps in the casting of Neal McDonough as a hyper-pumped pill-popping Detroit gangster called Quarles who is so overloaded with excessive tics and appetites that his role ultimately becomes incoherent. Nonetheless he provides the provocation for wonderful sit-down with Boyd, now reconstituted as criminal kingpin of Harlan County, where their conversation becomes a chess game that establishes the depth of their criminal acuity by exhibiting mutual knowledge of an obscure literary reference (Boyd quotes from a letter Saul Bellow wrote to Philip Roth in 1984!).

But reading books is one thing, knowing how to read people, and how to make them readable is another. In the most recent season Boyd once again returns to the setting of the church, this time to a brother-sister team of rattler-handling evangelicals converting the low-life of Harlan County to Jesus and away from Boyd’s supply of drugs, drink and prostitution. Goggins is unlike any other actor I know in his ability to alternate between deadly, hypnotic stillness and sudden, galvanizing expression. His words become weapons, tools, instruments with which he stimulates the responses required in the spaces he dominates while speaking.  Boyd’s visit to the evangelicals’ makeshift tent pits his preaching skills against those of the younger charismatic, Billy St. Cyr (Joseph Mazello). Mazello draws on righteous unworldly yaps of wide-eyed faith as a shield against Goggins’s long-barreled drawl and pitchy gaze, but when Boyd challenges him to handle a venomous rattler in front of his flock (he has discovered the sister has been milking the venom out of the ones she gives to her unknowing brother), I realized for the first time what it was about Goggins that is so hypnotic. As Billy holds the sinuous rattler aloft to the congregation, showing them and us the fascinating motion of its smooth coiling and uncoiling as it moves over human flesh, and  then suddenly its deadly jabbing dart as it strikes… what else is Boyd, but the Serpent, silky-tongued, charismatic, so much more interesting than Raylan, our putative hero? Is this similarity something Boyd himself might acknowledge as he watches Billy’s faith destroyed by snakebite, an echo of the way his own father destroyed his faith, his spirit? Milton may have had the idea first but Justified and Walton Goggins have returned us to the compelling, familiar story of eloquent darkness that is, by its own lights, unjustly wronged.


(As a reply to my aside: a good example of fine attention to specific television performance is William Rothman’s wonderful account of this show in his chapter, ‘Justifying Justified’ in Jacobs and Peacock, Television Aesthetics and Style.)

[First published on CST Online in January 2013]

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Selling the medium: a brief history of the BBC’s commercial arm

The recent attention given to the various troubles associated with the Murdoch media empire, not to mention anxieties about the continued expansion of new media giants like Facebook and Google has had the effect, perhaps, of slightly occluding the workings of more traditional state-funded national broadcasters, whose power in part accrues from their proximity (even at the length of a long arm) to the body of the nation state, an entity whose ability to influence dwarfs that of even the most powerful multinational media conglomerate.  The BBC in the UK and the ABC in Australia, both of which are already subject to some form of statutory regulation can only benefit from the augmentation of state regulatory powers that is likely outcome of the various media inquiries under way or recently completed(Levinson in the UK, Finklestein in Australia). But holding on to a valid distinction between public virtue and commercial evil seems neither currently or historically plausible. In this respect I am particularly fascinated in the relationship between politics (or ideology) and aesthetics (or textuality) in media production, especially television, because it illuminates some of the central assumptions about how we consume, experience and value cultural production.

For this reason over the past eight years or so I have been researching the history of the BBC’s commercial activities, work which more recently has been funded by the Australian Research Council under the project title: ‘Worldwide: the history of the commercial arm of the BBC.’ This research aims to excavate a more nuanced sense of the relationship between media production and commerce than the current Manichean figuring of PSB good/commercial bad has tended to allow. In particular I want to see the extent to which the BBC’s attempts over time to sell their product – television shows, radio transcriptions, publications, events, merchandise etc – can tell us about the institutional and political conception of the ‘mediumness’ of the various mediums in which they were engaged.

The BBC of course began as a commercial Company in 1922 until it was granted its current status as a public Corporation in 1927, but it always retained a commercial element somewhere in its corporate metabolism (such as the listings magazine the Radio Times). It also traded on its close relationship with the Foreign Office in order to nurture markets across the Empire both pre- and post-WW2. But it was not until the post-war period that the BBC began to think more seriously about selling its product overseas in the emerging global market. That market was mainly in television, and future DG Hugh Carleton Greene spent a lot of the 1950s trying to devise ways to figure out how to sell BBC television abroad: he was hampered by the creative union restrictions on recording and selling material containing music and/or actors which meant that BBC sales staff were reduced to pitching documentaries about Cornish arts and crafts and episodes of Andy Pandy from their New York offices.  And the institutional complexity not to mention the personal jealousies at the BBC meant that Greene’s work was largely concealed from the Television division. Furthermore the government was reluctant to provide the extra grant-in-aid money needed to promote this initiative since the licence fee income was strictly ring-fenced for the purposes of national production and consumption. That meant the success of overseas sales of BBC product depended on indigenous product having universal appeal.  It was only after the Suez crisis in 1957 that the British government saw the value of financing overseas distribution of BBC material (the ITV companies had, in the view of the BBC already degraded the overseas market for British television product).

The most interesting BBC figure who pushed for an enlargement of commercial activities during this period was Ronald Waldman, Head of Light Entertainment. By the early 1950s Waldman had made two extended visits to US television networks and studios and each time on his return reported on what he judged (to the incredulity of BBC technical and production staff) to be the advanced quality of US production over BBC faire in every genre. For Waldman the reason for this lay in the entrepreneurial spirit that was inspired by intense commercial competition. Long after Greene had moved on to develop aspects of BBC journalism Waldman (along with Gerald Beadle) continued to push for an opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial commercial division that could exploit BBC talent in the international television export market. By the end of the 1950s he had secured a co-production agreement with an American distributor to make a series version of The Third Man, the BBC’s first true commercial television venture made from the ground up (and, bizarrely, a co-production that was literally shot half and half in the US and UK).


By the 1960s the easing of creative union restrictions allowed the BBC to open up a catalogue of programmes for international sale; Television Enterprises was set up in 1960 and run by Waldman; a decade later, after merging with its radio equivalent,  it was selling sixteen thousand items a year. During the 1970s BBC Enterprises was mainly concerned with selling programme packages  (Civilisation, Elizabeth R, Dad’s Army)  abroad under the stewardship of former outside broadcast manager Peter Dimmock, but it also ran outfits such as the Dr Who exhibition at Longleat stately home and the distribution of audio recordings of television shows such as Fawlty Towers. Dimmock saw Enterprises as a supplier of quality product to commercial broadcasting sectors afraid of state regulation or takeover (as in Latin America at that time). At the same time the BBC was in a long term co-production and distribution agreement with Time-Life, who distributed BBC product in the Americas. In 1979 it secured government approval for the establishment of a wholly owned commercial subsidiary, and by the mid-1980s BBC Enterprises was flourishing on the crest of the widespread take-up of home VCRs; it also sold the BBC Micro computer and used its teletext feed to supply business data to stock exchange.  Its rapid growth in the late 1980s and early 90s culminated in the 1994 White Paper ‘The Future of the BBC: Serving the Nation, Competing Worldwide’ that both encouraged the BBC to pursue global expansion through its commercial activities and gave restructured Enterprises the name we know today.

One version of this history might examine the role of BBC Enterprises/Worldwide in the spreading or infection of a corporate commercial culture, encouraged by John Birt and his friends at McKinsey, across all sectors of the corporation. I explore the validity of this idea in a forthcoming paper, ‘From public-private virtue to corporate-cultural amoeba:  Mr Blobby and the rise of BBC Worldwide during the 1990s’ at the Transformations in Broadcasting Conference in Leeds later this year.


What interests me now though is the way that The Third Man exemplified a continuing aspect of BBC commercial operations, bringing together institutional, commercial and aesthetic aspects. For Greene and Waldman the problem in selling British television abroad was always that it was initially designed and funded for national licence fee payers. The trick was to find a way of funding and incorporating product that could credibly be seen as both national and yet had international appeal.  What they did was to internalise their aspirations for the commodity as an aspect of the programme istelf.  The Harry Lime of The Third Man television series, unlike the Orson Welles/Carol Reed version, is an international jet-setting rogue who helps the weak and muddled defeat the mendacious and criminal; as played by British born but mid-Atlantic-accented Michael Rennie, he is a glamorous but somewhat unspectacular figure, his chief qualities being that he is known everywhere, and able to adapt to situations with a cunning fluency.  Sadly the commodity itself did not acquire the same success as the character, but we can see the industrial intentionality at work.

Is this not in some part an aspect in the success of more recent BBC content internationally? Think of the attributes of mobility, adaptability and hospitality to universal take-up exemplified by, say, Dr Who or Teletubbies, or Top Gear. As I argued in my first blog for CST Online, it is clear that the major recent success of the British in the global television market has been through format sales – where the content is precisely opened as a vacancy for local material. That the BBC persisted for so long in its pursuit of international success by trying to conceive of adaptable content may not have been the best long-term commercial strategy. But it has produced an extraordinary set of cultural products which testify to the strange but compelling ways in which aesthetic, narrative and stylistic features interact with political, commercial and institutional imperatives.

[First published on CST Online in 2012]


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Criticism, Submission and Time: Mad Men and The Killing

I remember watching ‘Mystery Men’ the fourth episode of Mad Men’s extraordinary fifth season and being struck by the moment when Joan at the breakfast table, tells her husband Greg, an army surgeon who is voluntarily returning to Vietnam, to leave.  ‘If I walk out that door, that’s it,’ he shouts at her; ‘That’s it,’ she replies, effectively ending their marriage. After he slams the door, her mother (who has been living with her and helping with their baby) comes back into the kitchen holding a coffee pot; ‘It’s over,’ Joan tells her.  The pot is put down:  she discards it in one motion, and sits in silence with her daughter, as if in that instant it becomes a quaint irrelevance, once an emblem of servitude now just a raw, gross object.  That gesture, the holding with two hands – one on the handle the other protected by a cloth under it, taking its weight in two ways before abandoning it, seemed to me – still seems – an incredibly eloquent one. But I am caught by my own failure to translate such eloquence into words, by my inability to become expressive in the face of such expressivity, haunted in fact by the sheer apparent obviousness of what it must be, had I the words to express it. Of course, I want to say, in that gesture in this arrangement of objects there is something to be said about the domestic labour of women in history, as this time, something that demands a feminist response, or some version or variation of that. But by itself discoursing on our recent history, one that seems only an eye-blink from the present, yet sufficiently distant to allow us to be distant too, Mad Men is both a temptation to and a warning against this kind of critical hubris. I doubt that wanting to tie feminist thinking to this moment could sufficiently capture its expressive punctum. Not at least, until there had been the time – for the show and for me – to allow it to settle into the sedimented geology of the cultural imagination.   I find with this and other shows I watch (but do not write about regularly) many moments where I can experience the aesthetic kick of the artefact, but, since it goes on (as television, and these women, must) fail to adequately assemble my thoughts in ways that can do it justice.


Indeed I am constantly in awe of those scholars and critics who write about television with the confidence that suggests they can sift and order its complex movement,  discourses and resonances with apparent ease (no doubt this is false appearance – I’m sure such apparent ease takes a lot of real labour). Equally I’m currently suspicious of (though frequently complicit in) the kind of approach that exhibits critical, intellectual even imaginative superiority over the objects surveyed, tagged and categorised; let’s say, by contrast, these days I more often feel only submission in the face of works that can clearly out-think and out-feel me. One of the worrying things with writing about very recent television is that one is always aware that one’s proximity to the immediacy of its putative aesthetic thrills threatens the reliability of judgement, perhaps because we are forcing the issue before the material has had an opportunity to insinuate its resonances, discourses and achievements into the critical spaces, traditions and debates necessary for it to establish a reliable presence as part of our cultural heritage. Let me risk more with reference to another show which is currently haunting my viewing as well as reminding me of my attenuated critical abilities.

Although the box sets for both series arrived on the same day, as a perverse experiment with the notion of the ‘first encounter’ (drawn from adaptation studies), I deliberately began watching the US  version of Forbrydelson:  The Killing (AMC, 2011- ) first. I have not seen enough of the Danish version to make a competent comparison between the two, but they share a central plot which concerns the police investigation of a murdered girl by a grimly determined female cop and her taller, seemingly less experienced male sidekick.  In the US version the cop is called Sarah Linden and is played by Mereille Enos and the setting is moved from Copenhagen to Seattle. As in the Danish version there is a complex interweaving of procedural, political and domestic intrigue. Watching the first and now the second season, one notices that the plot goes through many adjustments that are patterned, in often lively and novel ways – moments of enigma, revelation, and narratives of grouping, dissolving and regrouping. But what is continuous, accumulating and frankly inexpressible, is its tonal intensity. I don’t have a form of words for the eloquence I apprehend here, and perhaps because of the method of my consumption I am confusing my saturation in it with submission to its artistry. For example, there are repeated, narratively irrelevant, long shots where a floating camera glides across parts of cityscape which seem to emphasize its isolation, as a place caught between ocean, lake and forest; but such shots also seem to insist that mutely dark urban shapes of the skyscrapers constitute a threat within as well as without. What is the threat, the danger?  It seems amorphous and free-floating like the camera, infecting and insinuating the depiction of a damaged and fragmented world, one grasped most fully by Linden herself who like nearly everyone else is the product of a traumatised upbringing.  In the title shot her melancholy face is turned away, in a gesture that, only once we know the series, immediately conjures it for us against the landscape she stares into. She is waiting for something that will emerge over time, thanks to a dogged pursuit of the truth that is mirrored by our watching, and waiting, and hoping to find the words to make what we see clear again.


[First published on CST Online in 2012]

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The Principles of Garden Design

On Tuesday this week I arrived back in Australia, early in the morning, from three weeks conferencing and researching in Europe. I spent the day engaged in the gently restorative process of unpacking, washing, and sorting through the accumulated notes and debris of scholarly behaviour. By twilight I was beginning to feel properly banjaxed and adjourned outside to my garden deck, Ipad in hand, to catch up on emails, steadily replying, deleting and offering assurances that yes I was back, but would return after a couple of days’ leave. While watching the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s excellent catch-up app I noticed our copy of Yates’ Garden Guide on the table. This is the product of a New Zealand gardening company which began publishing the Guide shortly after it was established at the end of the nineteenth century, and is the most popular gardening book in Australia. Not that ours is used much: the garden is a small modest affair, mostly a lawn, a tree and a few potted plants – a backdrop and mingling area for barbecues, drinks and other social and family kinds of entertainment – but the Guide is a useful resource nevertheless and an emblem of suburban horticultural good intentions. I’d never really looked at it before.


Perhaps it was my slightly jetlagged subjectivity, but as I read it my mind went into analogy-mode, playing a game of ‘this is like this is like this’. After the first chapter on the historical and national background to Australian gardens (which I skipped) chapter two, ‘Garden Design’, begins grandly by asserting a declaration of the ‘principles of garden design,’ and I could not help but get it tangled up with my recent conference papers that were concerned with aesthetics and the medium. ‘A good garden is one which offers a multitude of pleasures,’ claims the Guide, ‘a place to relax by yourself or with friends, bounty to cook and eat, or even just a piece of living artistry to contemplate from the couch on a rainy day.’  Like television then, its pleasures are diverse and many; like television a garden can offer utility, aesthetic delight, the sense of nourishment we sometimes get after consuming another crop of our favourite show. There is the homely everydayness of both, available for gaze or glance, the setting before or in which we stage our activities; or the object of them. There are genres of plant and tree life, forms of spatial handling to encourage mood and atmosphere, even – and this is getting really Walden-esque – a kind of ‘news’ in the anchoring of garden and television to calendrical time, its daily immediate shifting as part of a seasonal journey.


Now, I’m fully aware this kind of analogy-mongering can get silly, in the, ‘That’s like Our Lord Jesus’ mode; but consider how suggestive these bullet-point principles of design from the Guide are for our thinking about fine television:

  • Utilising and dealing with space.
  • Creating unity: linking the whole design so there is relationship between elements.
  • Maximising views and vistas.
  • Establishing a foundation for mood and response.

This expansive sense of design allows richness to emerge and evolve rather than settle into systems and stable forms; the restless growth of a garden is planned of course but it is necessarily hostage to organic spontaneity – some welcome, some not.  And the Guide’s principles are appropriately general and abstract in these early pages – first steps before a more schematic, systematised filling out of the practical details. Designing and criticising television may begin from such lofty heights but we also need to get down to the heavy spadework of sorting, assessing and comparing the results of such designs – not everything works, and not everything will be habitable or hospitable in ways that suit our preferences.

The work that has been done on gardening and television, notably by Charlotte Brunsdon and Frances Bonner – two of the most careful, attentive and patient scholars I know, as well as keen gardeners themselves – has tended to engage with those shows, which we would now call lifestyle programming, in terms of their social and cultural resonances and provocations. But I think there is something a bit more abstractly fascinating about the way the two – let’s call them mediums – are growing together.  By this I’m referring to the rise of mobile television watching and home Wi-Fi which allowed me, for example, to watch the ABC live news outside in the garden at my table. And I may have been prompted to the thought that television and gardens belong together during the stopover in Singapore that broke up my twenty hour flight from London to Australia. Upstairs at Changi Airport, for those who crave the open air, as well as the sustenance of drink and smoke, there is the Cactus Garden, a gloriously rich collection of the world’s finest cacti.  As I sat there Monday night, steeling myself for the final leg, I noticed many other travellers who like me, faces lit in the twilight by the glow of their smartphones and tablets were watching and interacting with screens among the beautiful flora of an international garden. Perhaps one day the Guide will incorporate this new behaviour in one of its principles of garden design.


[First published on CST Online in July 2012]

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Sad screens and videots

I first saw Melancholia (von Trier, 2011) on my TV during the day while home alone. A few weeks later I saw it again at the cinema with friends. It’s a film about two sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) a chronic depressive, and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a rich bourgeois housewife, and their experience of the end of the world. The telly is a conventional widescreen and after watching the film on it I wondered if it might be better to see the movie again on the big screen with ‘big’ sound. Even in the domestic setting of my living room the aural impact of the film’s final scenes where a large planet (‘Melancholia’) collides with the earth seemed impressively overwhelming. But on the second viewing – in a good sized cinema during a Film Festival – I was thoroughly underwhelmed. This was puzzling. Like most people I assume that feature films are, generally speaking, best seen on the cinema screen. Melancholia tries hard to show us imagery that is resonant, strange and affecting, so why this was not amplified or felt more deeply second time around? Was it because I was just too familiar with the film and its aesthetic and narrative patterns? Or that the sensual impact of its spectacles, vistas and performances were not decisively changed or enhanced by the fact of a big screen/big sound experience? Perhaps the domestic space in which I first encountered it enhanced the film’s depressive, melancholy moods which were absorbed into the spaces of my home, infiltrating them so that it reached out and lingered long after the final credits. After all, this is a film in which the central character’s craving for self-annihilation and apocalypse to gets projected outwards and infects the cosmos: little wonder it rubs off in the place of home viewing but seemed diluted among the crowded cinema audience.


But these are merely speculative impressions. One thing what the experience brought home to me was how inert and vacant all those old film vs. television distinctions now seem. There are no longer decisive differences between the two to do with quality of the image, or availability of spectacle or visual or aural depth or, given the prominence of large screen broadcast of sport and theatre and music, between live transmission and recorded film. The differences also seem less because they can be contrasted with new forms of media which cultivate out attention in apparently new and distinct ways. Equally, the experience reminded me that I don’t really have a screen preference. Like a lot of middle-aged screen scholars a vast amount of my viewing of movies has taken place on a television screen, not least watching the massive amount of feature films screened on British television during the 1960 onwards, as well as through the consumption of heaps of recorded movies and television on VHS and DVD. More recently I’ve been watching downloaded television and films on laptops and handhelds – episodic television being particularly convenient during the fifty minute train journey I take to work and back every day.

I think I can explain my reaction to the two viewings of Melancholia in a different way. It was less about the technology of consumption than my attitude toward each moment of reception. The first viewing took place during a quiet period at home in the middle of the day, and I was able to bring my full wide-awake concentration and attention to it, in a place and on a TV screen I use frequently for study, compared to a late-in-the-day cinema experience among friends who were new to it and thus differently positioned as spectators. And these days I am used to concentrating hard on the television screen. Sustained concentration, the ability to direct and marshall one’s undistracted attention is a quality that contemporary television seems to reward, in both its fiction and non-fiction programming. This is in contrast to the way television was seen by many in the past, when the smaller size of the television screen was always emblematic of other ranges of inferiority. This did not negate a perception that television was an overwhelmingly powerful corrupting force in the home, corralling and overwhelming the attention of its viewers in pathological and socially toxic ways.

According to Jerzy Kosinski one of the paradoxical ways in which television exerted its grip was as a medium whose overall power transcended particular programmes and moments as well as the distractions of the domestic setting:

While viewing, you can eat, you can recline, you can walk around the set, you can even change channels, but you won’t lose contact with the medium. Unlike theatre or cinema, TV allows, even encourages, all these “human” diversions. TV’s hold on you is so strong, it is not easily threatened or severed by the “other life” you lead. While watching, you are not reminded (as you would be by a theatre audience, for instance) that you are a member of society whose thoughts and reactions may be valuable. You are isolated and given no time to reflect. The images rush on and you cannot stop them or slow them down or turn them back. (‘A Nation of Videots, 337)

A version of Kosinski’s ‘videot’ thesis is elaborated in his novella Being There where the central character Chance (played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 Hal Ashby film) has ‘no meaningful existence outside of what he experiences on television’. Of course, today we do have the means to ‘stop’ or ‘slow’ television, and a lot of the finest work – I’m thinking for example of the dramas I have written about in previous blogs – demand reflection and depend on the acknowledgment of their viewer’s social, moral and ethical thoughts and reactions.

Toward the end of Melancholia, an increasingly panicked Claire opens her laptop and searches the internet for information about whether the planet Melancholia will collide with ours. It is an amazing moment in a film that has hygienically erased all traces of the media from its world (despite the fact that its central character has a career in the advertising industry). Perhaps it reminds the viewer how fully immersed many of us are in the immediacy and self-absorption of the web, particularly its social media. Indeed it seems to me that it is social media that has taken on many of the characteristics that Kosinski attributes to television, particularly the power over our forms of concentration, and its encouragement of diversion. Instead of depicting a medium that cultivates a narcissistic, self-absorbed engagement with the moods and (dis)connectivity of the self, Melancholia offers the character of Justine who embodies these qualities instead.

Television by contrast seems more and more to reward our concentration rather than corrupting it. But one of the problems with viewing it on hybrid devices like laptops, phones and tablets is that their connectedness tends to encourage proximity to the fleeting slices of immediacy that Facebook, Twitter, email etc offer. No doubt it is partially true to some extent that television helped socialise us in the forms of attention that social media now encourages as well. But if what you want to do is appreciate the achievement of the television that you admire, the best way to watch television (especially long form episodic television drama), is continuously – one after the after – and without the distraction and interruption of the new videot media.


David Sohn, ‘David Sohn Interviews Jerzy Kosinski: A Nation of Videots’, in Horace Newcomb (ed.), Television The Critical View, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 334-349.

First published at CST Online.

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