Passion and passion in its profoundest, is not a thing demanding a palatial stage whereon to play its part. Down among the groundlings, among the beggars and rakers of the garbage, profound passion is enacted. And the circumstances that provoke it, however trivial or mean, are no measure of its power.
In 1970 David Sanford Milch submitted two chapters from a novel as part of his MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop (Richard Yates, with whom he was to become close, was one of the examiners). The never-to-be published novel was entitled The Groundlings and I’m sure that title was inspired by this passage from Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; since that time Milch’s writing has consistently engaged with the lives and passions of ‘groundlings’ – those apparently ‘low’, ‘cheap’, and ‘dirty’ creatures who live close to the ground and who we know intimately through works such as NYPD Blue and Deadwood. His new drama, Luck is set at the racetrack and does not buck this trend: its most immediately engaging characters are described in the script as The Degenerates – Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Jerry (Jason Gedrick), Renzo (Richie Coster) and the endlessly concupiscent Lonnie (Ian Hart), who together allow us to participate in their profound highs and lows at the racetrack (and off it), threatening to steal the show altogether from its big star heavy-hitters Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte and Michael Gambon.
The first episode of the show was shown by HBO after the season two finale of Boardwalk Empire last December, and it has received some thoughtful reviews in the UK. Both the Guardian and The Independent noted the way old age was foregrounded through the casting (Hoffman, Nolte, and Gambon are all in the their seventies) as well as the fact the show draws on Milch’s own history as a gambler and racing horse owner (he has won the prestigious Breeders’ Cup twice). That juxtaposition between the slowness, deliberation and fatigue of age with the speed, impulsivity and energy of youth is rendered across various sequences that pitch movement against stillness, and reflection against action. As Hitchcock taught us in Notorious and Marnie, given the right performances the very act of watching horses race can electrify our attention, plausibly allowing eyelines to be directed outwards toward the camera at the action, while we as spectators of spectatorship watch the shifting currents of attention wash over the faces of the characters.
However, this is to state the obvious structural and aesthetic matter that is touted in the foreground. One of the first shots has Hoffman’s character, Ace Bernstein, about to be released from jail looking straight at the camera in close up so we can see the geology of his beautifully lined face, freighted with obscure but determined intention.
The episode concludes with Bernstein and his loyal assistant Gus Demitriou (Dennis Farina) reflecting on the day’s events as he succumbs to early evening tiredness in his hotel room. As he begins dozing Bernstein continues to plot some kind of revenge on the vaguely sketched powers who were responsible for his incarceration. Again, this obvious thing draws us into a deeper place than merely acknowledging that old folks get tired earlier in the day, by asking us to wonder about the nature of time and intention. Is it only the energy supplied by grievance, vengeance and the settling of scores that keeps us sharp in the face of gathering darkness? To draw on a favourite Milch reference from William James, we know Bernstein carries his cards close to his chest, but what he is holding is less important than appreciating the way he plays them. The same is true of the show as a whole: as some reviewers noted it seems to make few concessions to those not well versed in the language and jargon of the racetrack, and shares with Deadwood a certain opacity and complication of language. But we will live into it. Understanding the show is less important than cleaving to its moods and ways of binding as well as repelling us (that is, repelling in order to bind us even tighter to it).
When Bernstein first gets out of prison he asks Demitriou to get him a tape recorder because he doesn’t ‘hold his thoughts as well’. Milch too has his dialogue and discourse taped since he does not write with pen or keyboard but instead speaks the script aloud which is then copied onto a big computer screen in front of him; he then edits and revises as he goes, returning to it for revision and adjustment up until the last moment. Thanks to Milch’s long term production assistant (and also writer of the fifth episode of Luck), Scott Willson, I had the opportunity to briefly witness him writing a later episode, with his friend and legendary champion jockey Julie Krone and her husband, racing columnist Jay Hovdey in the room (as well as Milch’s long term amanuensis, TV writer and urbane LA podcaster Caleb Bacon).
I’ve written elsewhere about the extraordinary production environment he has cultivated which has finally allowed him to develop this work – he has been trying to write a version of Luck since shortly after submitting The Groundlings chapters in the early 1970s. Whatever we want to make of talk about Milch’s ‘genius’, what I saw in his writing room last year was the careful, unhurried pursuit of excellence in every moment, word, gesture and tone. And whatever the reported friction between the two auteurs, Michael Mann’s direction and Milch’s dialogue achieve a satisfying result together. Mann is an aesthetic technician of surface, able to articulate the hectic energy of the track and its spectators, especially in the dynamic, carefully composed racing sequences which convincingly convey a sense of thoroughbreds able to punch holes in the wind. The depiction of their motion is sublime and reminiscent of Milch’s mentor, the poet Robert Penn Warren’s eloquent description in his novel A Place to Come To:
..watching the beauty of timing and fluid force and dreamlike retardation of flight, you felt that, as the last hoof broke contact with earth, both horse and rider had imperially floated into a dimension beyond gravity, time, and contingency.
Milch on the other hand is a master of making us share the experience of the drama gradually and at depth rather than merely cognitively all at once. He is candid about his past drug use as well as his life on at the track from an early age (his father allowed him to gamble there at the age of six); and thanks to Dick Francis and other writers we know that the racetrack can be a venue where horses and jockeys participate in a vast range of exotic pharmacological interventions; tie this to the compulsive nature of gambling, and the dense layers of mendacity and thievery inevitable in such an environment and you have a typically dark Milchean environment. And yet this is leavened by a transcendent dimension. We glimpse it briefly when we see the character played by Nick Nolte, a patient trainer known as the ‘Old Man’, watching his horse running for the first time and realising he has correctly judged its potential as a sublime competitor. Elsewhere in the stands Jerry sees it too, as does – at another part of the track – Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind), a stuttering jockey’s agent. We get a sense, familiar in Milch’s art, of a unity created from disparate, seemingly unrelated parts. Here it is mutual awe in the face of achievement, the simultaneous witnessing of excellence in motion. Luck promises to offer the same to us.
An earlier version of this was published at CST Online.
Steven Peacock’s recent observation that many academic analyses of television too often become ‘systematic, determined to “solve” the text’s engagement with a specific subject’ is a timely reminder that our evaluation of television art would do well to avoid treating it like a puzzle. It is true that a lot of contemporary television fiction is complex but we should not conflate that which is cognitively challenging with aesthetic achievement: and while puzzles do have aesthetic dimensions we generally (with a few exceptions) do not take them to be works of art. Tracking the formal patterning of dense layers of plot, ambiguous character motivation, and generic innovation might sound like the work of evaluation but it doesn’t add up to a hill of beans if the object under scrutiny is little more than pretty Sudoku-TV.
These thoughts found their anchor when I encountered Showtime’s recent political psychodrama Homeland for the first time earlier this week. Its title sequence references the puzzle form by depicting its two central characters, CIA agent Carrie Mathisen (Claire Danes) and US Marine Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) in a maze, and the plot has a prominent central enigma that undergoes a series of clever shadings, reversals and surprises as the narrative develops – the sort of thing we have become accustomed to in quality American dramas of this kind.
Ten years ago in Iraq Carrie was warned that an American POW had been turned by Al-Qaeda; when Brody is rescued by special forces after years of captivity in a terrorist compound, and exploited by the US authorities as a war hero, she instead immediately suspects that he is the ‘turned’ soldier. Predictably she is unable to convince her boss that her suspicions have any grounds, but she places Brody and his family under surveillance. In a further turn we discover that Carrie has been taking anti-psychotic medication for several years thus putting her own suspicions under suspicion.
Homeland’s early episodes alternate between slices of Brody’s difficult adjustment to coming home – facing intense media scrutiny, dealing with his two children, and his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) who has been having an affair with one of his marine comrades – and Carrie’s attempts to build up evidence that would substantiate her conviction that he is a terrorist. A lot of the time this involves us watching her watching Brody and his family at home via the many black and white surveillance cameras hidden there. I was struck by how similar Carrie’s intense scrutiny of Brody’s words, gestures and movements was to my own practice of studying television – sitting up close to a big screen, notebook nearby, pen in hand, rapt, honing in on the slightest details – dare I say clues? – in order to assess a performance.
The most spectacular version of her close reading comes at the end of the first episode when she discovers – by her lights at least – that Brody’s apparent nervous hand movements at his televised homecoming ceremony are instead a means of sending a coded message to his Al-Qaeda comrades in the US.
The moral dimension of Carrie’s scrutiny of the Brodys’ private lives (which she describes at one point to her helper, the aptly named Virgil, as a ‘reality show’) is brought home in a scene which echoes the famous homecoming moment in Peckinpah’s The Getaway, when Brody and Jessica have sex for the first time since his release. According to one of the show’s creators Alex Gansa:
Or as Carrie shouts at Virgil – and us – after he discovers her anti-psychotic medication, ‘What are you saying? That I’m making this shit up? Well, maybe I am – you know maybe it is all in my head but you’re in it now Virgil – up to your fucking neck.’ Danes does an extraordinary job here and elsewhere of depicting an agent driven by her desire ‘not to let it happen again’ which, the show hints is in some way caught up in her pathology that makes us in turn doubt not only the means she uses but her perceptual reliability itself. For she is facing the problem of matching up ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ – that is human subjectivity and its embodied expression – where the stakes of getting it right or wrong are the security of her nation. (Homeland was adapted by Gansa and co-creator Howard Gordon from the hit 2010 Israeli show Hatufim/Prisoners of War.) Hence we might say that one of the fundamental issues of modernist aesthetics – the question of the clarity, reliability and source of meaning is taken up here as specific issue about the gap between inner truth and outer expression. What is the psychological, political and social meaning of a gesture or look or mood or face? This show therefore seems to be thinking about what I take to be a central problem in Western modern life which is the matching up or congruence between the inner and the outer, between internal thoughts, intentions and motivations and their expression or concealment by the face and body.
As with Claire, it is by no means certain that Brody himself knows for sure how to match up his inner and outer. We are repeatedly given privileged insight via flashbacks into his memories of captivity – the torture, his resilience and, in a wonderfully eloquent series of ‘surprise’ reversals, gestures and emblems of care and worship. These are issues that go beyond, it seems to me, the compelling patterns of enigma and revelation this puzzle show offers us. What are those ‘strings and pulleys’ that connect our flesh with our minds and how do we use them to nurture and express or break and destroy the bonds of family and community and nation? What is it that moves us?
What to make of Boardwalk Empire? HBO’s costume drama set in the USA during Prohibition reminds me of one of those fascinating objects that often crop up on Antiques Roadshow. One can admire from afar the detailed textures and evident craft of the thing without having much of a clue as to its function. Everything looks so good – the fabrics, the sculpted light, the big complex stage of the boardwalk itself; Steve Buscemi as the central character, corrupt political boss of Atlantic City, Nucky Thompson, has never looked so compelling. But what is he for?
The puzzle begins at its beginning during the extraordinary title sequence. As aesthetic objects such sequences are interesting because they are designed to be resilient to repeated viewings and to absorb the meanings generated by future episodes. This one shows Buscemi, all dressed up as Nucky walking on the seashore, looking out at the ocean expectantly and watching as a bunch of liquor bottles wash up at his feet. Waves crash. There is a storm. A seagull takes wing. As all of this goes on the main creative credits are posted over the spectacular imagery. Then he walks back toward what we can assume is Atlantic City, as the show’s title lights up the top of the frame.
Why does it show what it does? It must be about more than simply showing in compressed form the narrative content of the series, where this figure controls the arrival of alcohol in his territory. There are many other ways to do this. Why not show boats arriving, people unloading crates, shots of the rest of the city and its characters?
Why does it look the way it does, with its vivid colour and dynamic range, somewhere between a Magritte and HDR landscape photography?
And most puzzling of all why does it sound the way it does, with this bombastic rock music which seems to completely jar against the other period elements?
Well, by doing it this way we get a strong sense of the bottles arriving at the will of a supernaturally powered character. He seems to be a King-like figure surveying an ocean that follows his command, filling itself with bottles without the bother of human transport. It is as if he is not merely a witness to, but the Creator of the forces of nature – like the sea, the wind, the air and the light, the sand and the water. Seeing the flashes of lightning in his eyes suggests it is part of his interiority his mind not a witness to, but a creator of its energy. This is particularly explicit in the moment which seems to animate the camera’s movement around his head – even that motion is swept up by his will. Or is he being swept up by the forces around him, by the camera’s motion?
At the beginning of the sequence he is fragmented by the editing; we get bits – his hands, the flower in his lapel, his watching eyes. By the end he is fully formed but distant from us, seen in long shot, a creature created – but only seen from behind. This sense of the creaturely is further emphasised by the odd, plodding way he walks back from the ocean to the cityscape in the distance, an amphibious freshly evolved thing. And yet he walks toward the built up shapes of modern civilisation not a primordial forest.
In a sequence where time is elastic – moving between slow and normal motion – there is also a tension between the historical and the contemporary. Buscemi is a face I strongly associate with American Independent cinema of the 1990s, a modern figure, yet here photographed in such a close way as to emphasise his age (he is in his early fifties). He seems calm here, yet he is famous for playing characters that are irritably paranoid.
His costume grounds him strongly to the period, but the dynamic music seems in harmony with the elemental movement of the sea, the seagull, the birds, and the lightning storm. It is an instrumental adaptation of a track called ‘Straight Up and Down’ by the American neo-psychedelia band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, released in 1996 on an album that is itself a finely graded homage to British rock music. Why use this modern music made, as one journalist pointed out, with instruments not even invented in the 1920s?
The first episode of the second season replies to these suggestive enigmas by beginning, directly after the titles, with shots of bottles of booze being collected from the beach by bootleggers, juxtaposed with what sounds like period song being played (but – also puzzling? – one that sounds in perfect condition with no dust or scratch sounds, as if from a just minted vinyl). Perhaps this potential for the internalisation of criticism and responsiveness to it is what makes long form television drama the different kind of aesthetic experience it is.
As with the use of the music here, the show as a whole puts in tension an emphasis on the intense display of period textures with the modern kinds of motion, thinking, and subjectivity of its inhabitants. To some extent we feel that this is what the world would be like if contemporary consciousness was projected backwards into a vividly created past. Of course, that is precisely what it is. But I’m not sure. It remains a puzzle. Which I will go back to again and again.
Last year John Caughie published an essay (in Screen vol 51 no 4 [Winter 2010]). Entitled ‘Mourning Television: the other screen’ his article characterised contemporary television in terms of decline, decadence and loss. I have responded to this elsewhere (Screen vol 52 no 4 [Winter 2011]) but here I want to address its key moment of praise for television which comes at the end of the essay and concerns Peter Bowker’s three part war drama, Occupation, shown on BBC television over consecutive nights in June 2009, and which was about the intertwined fate of three British soldiers in Iraq. Caughie describes it in the following terms:
…my initial viewing of it was somewhat distracted, happening to watch the first episode in that characteristic way because it occupied time rather than choosing to watch it by setting time aside…. for most of the final episode I was taken somewhere beyond speech, beyond judgement and, I guess, beyond aesthetics: taken by surprise by television in a way which is quite distinctive, and quite different to the package of the box-set (2010: 420).
Surprise tends to be a quality of the present and Caughie praises the show for its ‘untidiness’, a quality that takes us out of routine systems of affective entanglement and which makes it ‘not at all the same as the well-shaped multistrand narratives or the “puzzle narratives” which have engaged recent film studies, and which actually shut contingency out’ (ibid).
Really? Thanks to the DVD box-set, we can place Occupation under the critical pressure that is not hostage to its time of transmission. The narrative is in fact a very balanced, tidy, and quite traditional alternation between coverage of each of the three leading characters, dwelling on their moments of intersection, then building up individual dramatic sequences with each character before regularly bringing them together again, where their separate changes are played out in a group. Certainly the drama does have some engaging sequences which exemplify what I take to be a typical approach of the best of British television – its anthropological interest in what Stanley Cavell calls ‘the moods of faces and motions and settings’ (2005: (xxiii)). We can see this in an early scene of a homecoming party at one of the soldier’s houses, when the shifting currents of mood, puzzlement, feelings masked or half-transmitted between and within subjects structure the implicit underlying tension of an outwardly happily rowdy social gathering.
Shifting currents of mood
However, this achievement is overshadowed by the drama’s most prominent failure: its figuring of an American marine, a character who has to be the one of the most unpleasant constructions of a national stereotype since the real Sergeant John Sweet played the wide-eyed GI Bob Johnson, gawping in wonder at the rootedness of British tradition in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). This is Erik Lester, a large black US Marine (in fact the only member of the US military given a face) played by British actor Nonso Anozie, who convinces one of the main characters, Danny (Stephen Graham who is Liverpudlian and small in stature) to join with him in setting up a private security service in the ‘post’-war emerging nation. When on leave back in the UK Danny is depicted as suffering chronic anomie; we see him alone in his tiny bedroom, bored, drugged and violent: in Occupation’s terms this entrepreneurial work with Lester gives shape and meaning to this excess of depressive energy. While Danny and the other leading British characters Mike (James Nesbitt) and Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) are drawn with attention to a developing sense of their interiority, Lester figures as an simple emblem of the exploitation of the war for corrupt financial reward. We first see him in the opening moments of episode one during a British raid on a sniper position. In the attack a grenade wounds a young Iraqi girl and Mike, who is an army medic, attends to her; Lester arrives by chance and offers to evacuate the soldiers who have priority over the care of civilians – even injured children. The terms of distinction between the systemic rigidity of the American Marines versus the plucky heroic flexibility of the Brits is clearly established when Mike, in great danger, single-handedly carries the child through enemy fire to a hospital. Later, we see Danny and Lester’s security firm, who are engaged in protecting foreign investors, employ an Iraqi translator, Yunis. He becomes a lively member of the team revealing that he is saving his pay from the lucrative job in order to open a Pizzeria. However, he is assassinated by Iraqi police causing great distress to the rest of the team: at this apex of collective trauma Lester’s response is mechanical and sinister: ‘Expand and diversify. All this that just happened. It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’ This is a particularly childish depiction of an evangelical monstrosity whose pursuit of money offered as an insane Divine Right. Lester: ‘It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’
’In contrast to Danny’s starry-eyed partnership with Lester, the other Brits adopt a narcissistic therapeutic relationship to their experiences. In the final sequence of episode three, during the funeral of Mike’s son, Hibbs offers reading from Gilgamesh: “let your everyday be full of joy, love the child that holds your hand, let your wife delight in your embrace, for these alone are the concerns of humanity”. After the depiction of terrible scenes of bloodshed this reading offers an understandably comforting view that is confined to the homely, the domestic and the particular: a feminised account that is, unfortunately, depicted as a kind of traumatised passivity. Against this Danny, during the culminating argument between the three of them, proclaims a pathetic defence of the pursuit of money because ‘that’s what makes the world go ‘round’. Brutal mercenary acquisitiveness or psychologically wounded withdrawal are the only responses imagined in a West that no longer has the authority to stamp coherent meaning on its actions, and where the warrior ethic has vanished. While this scene is immediately engaging it does not seduce us sufficiently so that we feel our involvement the stakes in play. I take it that it is scenes such as this that involve what Caughie describes as the drama’s unsettling distance that ‘breaks the contract, takes us by surprise and changes the perspective’ (2010: 421). However, the crude opposition of Danny’s barely articulate, half-believed allegiance to the mercantile and mercenary ethic, and Mike’s bewildered outrage (James Nesbitt delivers this with a wonderfully stunned face, gripped by hurt and grief) allows for no entanglement within the action by the viewer because what is at stake is laid out before us, not something we can participate in and discover for ourselves; we are involved merely as spectators who must take what has to be the easy side of empathy with a Mike’s grief-stricken father. Distance and estrangement in the final shot.
Early in the second episode of Occupation Danny grills Mike about his reasons for volunteering for a second tour in Iraq: Mike, who is married, reveals that his had returned in order to locate the Iraqi doctor, Alyia, who he met after rescuing the injured child from the battlefield (the child was flown back to the UK and Mike became a front page tabloid hero). Subsequently, his relationship with Alyia who accompanied him back to the UK develops into mutual love; but she suddenly leaves returning to Iraq without telling Mike where or why she has gone. ‘I just want to know why she went. I can’t get her out of my head.’ Mike tells Danny. For the latter the idea is madness: ‘You seriously think it’s gonna work out? You get measured up for a dish-dash and live happily ever after? No chance: the Jedi’ll cut your bollocks off live on Al Jazeera. Just leave it alone.’ The conversation takes place in a noisy mess hall of a barracks somewhere in Basra; Mike wears British infantry fatigues whereas Danny is wearing black body armour, the anonymous uniform of his and Lester’s private security firm which by this point we know is set up in order to exploit the vast number of dollars poured into devastated nation for “reconstruction”. The next day Danny and Lester meet with Mike in a small office, revealing that they’ve found Alyia: they note that Mike’s celebrity status will help them secure a contract for a hospital building project. In the sequence Mike stands in front of Lester and Danny who are seated at a desk:
Danny: Mike, you rescued Misa [the injured girl]. She was airlifted from that hospital. So surely you must have some leverage with this bunch.
Mike: Leverage? What are you talking about?
Danny: We need you to put a word in for us at the hospital. A recommendation.
Danny knows where Alyia is and will tell Mike as long as he agrees to put a word in for their bid. Mike is incredulous: ‘I thought you told me to leave Alyia alone’:
Danny: That was me talking as a friend this is me talking as a businessman… You need us and we need you. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. I know where she is. And I’ll tell you. If that’s what you want. It is what you want? Innit?
The scene marks a decisive shift in their relationship; a personal confidence as well as a friendship is taken up and exploited; we share some of Mike’s surprise at the way he has become a means, an instrument in the furtherance of a business agenda, a shill. We see his gradual astonished realisation that something that one imagined external to one’s desires and wants becomes necessary for their pursuit. Watching this scene, particularly the way the actors are arranged, I was immediately struck by its similarity to those regular moments in reality television, particularly the competitive genres, where contestants are judged in front of a panel, or compelled to betray one another, or work in ways that offer uneasy tension between personal desire for solidarity with the group and external demands of the show, the nature of which can be unclear and potentially contrary to one’s self interests. Both share the spectacle of the shattering and remaking of interpersonal bonds in instrumental ways.
A moment of judgement and betrayal.
I agree with Caughie, then, that the value of Occupation then is more than a matter of aesthetics, but for me this lies in its resonance with less exalted genres. It reminds us, as Helen Piper has claimed, of the debt reality genres owe to both documentary and fictional forms of television (2004). James English has persuasively argued that what he calls the ‘self-anthropologising tendency of a collapsing Empire’ was the source of much of the energy of British documentary and its manifold insinuation in fictional films and British television (his key example is, unsurprisingly, Ken Loach); the theatricalisation of documentary, call it the showbizzing of the real is one arc of this momentum that, in English’s view leads directly to what are the most dominant global forms of television in the world (2011). In terms of format licensing (…Idol, …Got Talent) the British dominate, he argues, not because they successfully exported an aesthetic or a style but a means of assembly, an architecture that can be filled with whatever local, cultural specificity required to sufficiently indigenise it. (In contrast the introspection of American drama points to English’s characterisation of an earlier stage of national self-anthropology.) What makes them distinct from their drama and documentary antecedents is that they are fundamentally rooted in the real time immediacy of the broadcast schedule; they also, I suspect, have little hope of an afterlife beyond the time of their transmission. This does not make them bad texts or unworthy television: but it does mean they are unlikely to bear the repeated critical attention which produces rich criticism. What they might well produce instead is an extension of the kind of critical commentary exemplified by Helen Piper’s essay ‘Reality TV, Wife Swap and the drama of banality’: which is to say reality television may well continue to be the object where paradigm shifting theoretical work continues to get done. It is ironic that Occupation in its ethically hygienic depiction of the monstrosity of US commercialism subtly reminds us of a televisual mode where the Brits really do dominate the business.
I am writing this at the desk of one of the staff writers for David Milch’s Luck in one of the many offices in the building complex where Milch’s Red Board Productions lives. The office and building is clean and modern with a large carpark, restaurant and in many ways could be anywhere in the world – a university, government building, or business park. The writers discuss character arcs, story design and the usual matters one might expect in any creative work that involves a collective and dispersed effort. What is there to say in 2011 about this process that creates art? There is no formula for it, but there is a kind of recipe. In this case collective work (of course the norm in mass entertainment) enriches rather than diminishes, but still there must be shadings and gradations of control and authority and at the top of the list most often is Milch. I am exploring ways of thinking about this that do not simply assert a reformed auteurism or a confected construction a la “Milch”. Nonetheless these are notes that will not make it into my book but seem to capture an aspect of Milch’s world that may be just as important as the hard yakka of creative labour. Over lunch which Milch’s horse trainer, Julio Canani regales the table with stories of notable events concerning Milch’s horses, as well as the story of his own coming to LA in the 1950s after skipping school to train horses in his native Peru. Ben Milch, a successful artist is also there and reminds me that the waiter, Brian Farrell has posted a stand up routine about serving his father on youtube; Milch himself recounts the story of when his horse Gilded Time damaged its leg and Milch drove a hundred miles back home only to be called by his wife: ‘At what point were you going to take us back as well?’. Or when he took fifteen minutes stuffing wads of five thousand dollar bills into Julio’s French army parka; ‘When a guy like me hears “bet all the money you have”…’
It must be wrong to say that this kind of conviviality is unrelated to the work produced that day, but like the buidling and its rooms it sounds something like pleasant lunch talk one might find around the world. What is different is that the art this work endeavours to produce is trying all the time to interpret human experiences like this, taking these congealed bits of humanness and tracking thoughts and registers of ideas through them. It is trying to grasp the world in all its uncertainty, doubt, doubleness, and in all the ways we cleave to the human figure or character as a medium for giving significance to those experiences; or it otherwise tries to bear the burden of representing, carrying a world or a life.
Two things seemed to be at issue today: one is the plausibility of things – minds, worlds, their sights, sounds, pasts – which all must become airborne in order to sustain themselves and enable their own generativity. This requires the currents and moments of feeling and emotion depicted to point beyond themselves, leading to the second thing. Fiction is fundamentally about mimesis but its accuracy depends to a great extent on the audience’s involvement with the world depicted. Psychological plausibility and complexity is time and again bound in tension with the audience’s sense of being on the inside of something they do not fully understand. Hence, part of our stake in Milchworlds depends on the promise of further discovery and revelation, not necessarily of plot but of character. When shaped we experience this as dramatic art, but in terms of content it resembled the unfolding of narrative upon narrative that characterised our lunchtime.
(March 9 2011)
One of the things the Coen brothers already knew that no doubt attracted them to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was the importance of theoretical physics for 20th and 21st century aesthetics. That the nature of matter involved at the most fundamental levels chance, uncertainty, and vast dense calculations of probability was a gift for an ideologically bankrupt West, flailing around for a resolution in the aesthetic sphere amidst the continual recurrence of the clash between Romanticism and Modernism. From Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment to McCarthy’s coin-tossing hitman Anton Chigurh the resonances of quantum physics have intrigued and dazzled those who see in its surface metaphors and illustrative tropes aesthetic experiential truths. A Serious Man addresses such matters quite directly by having its lead character, Larry Gopnik, a professor of physics tell his failing student that even he doesn’t understand ‘the cat’ (Schrodinger’s), it’s just an illustration. Nonetheless the film is quite brilliant in its evocation of a world that is built up from such cosmic regularities as matter, evolution and the ferocious desire for meaning, for the answer.
The scene where Larry ascends his house to adjust the television aerial ranks for me as one of the great moments where cinema evokes but does not define a cluster of ideas and resonances about such things. Watching from this height Larry notices the world, set here in a budding suburban outpost, where human regularities of habit and play are underlined for us but not bound into a tight meaning that would stifle its evocative power. A car, two bicycles, two humans throw an object to one another and calculate the effect of gravity so that they might calibrate their limbs in order to catch it… It is a Kubrick moment, a 2001 set in a summer’s day in mid 1960s Minnesota and because of its very everydayness ( which is not one haunted as in Lynch or McCarthy by intimations of atavistic disease or apocalyptic violence) rather than spectacular melodrama, it is more difficult, more gloomy even since it promises nothing more than this, without – at least at this moment, although sadly not for the rest of the film – denigrating or belittling the value of the suburban world we see. It is at the end of this sequence where Larry sees his neighbour sunbathing naked and we have a sense of the primal nature of beauty. At the end of the film we get a vivid illustration of what Kant calls the dynamically sublime in nature, a tornado rapidly approaching the schoolyard, and watched by Larry’s son as he listens to music on a transistor radio.
As in the first Modern Warfare game Infinity Ward’s latest FPS delivers a fine range of military aesthetics, the sounds sights and movements of shooting over distances and using the environment as a palette for lethal human interaction. As in all of the Call of Duty games, death is accompanied by a quote or saw or epigram from various historical military, political and cultural leaders. If I remember rightly, the first game offered us Churchill, Patton and Twain; this one has some surprising, and probably ironic, contributions from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as well as Goethe. Completing the game brings the player to a credit sequence which is extraordinary in terms of the claims it seems to be making about how military experience might be historicised. This is in the back of a very ordinary plot that involves a typical betrayal of the US military by its leaders (for at least the past forty years this betrayal by authority has been a narrative motif that marks many narratives – especially games narratives – as if the history of the US in combat can only be told through the idea of deceit), where the key patriarchal figure, a British SAS commander called Captain Price, reminds the player that winners get to write history and in doing so can erase the contributions and sacrifices of all others. So far so typical. But the end credits are staged in a museum where the dioramas and exhibits – human characters and weapons set against painted environments that we have encountered during the game – are not rendered as ontologically or realistically different from the public who wander in front of them. On the one had we see that the idea is that, in winning the game, our history gets to be recorded and exhibited in triumph (although there is friction here between this triumph and the seeming indifference of some of the public who walk past or access the internet nearby). On the other perhaps this is a utopia where the brutal and cruel ways of combat are merely for the delight of the senses, as the gamer, having just finished the game can surely attest to. Far from celebratory this might point to the essential childishness of warfare, as a kind of spectacle that we can now safely exhibit, like the dinosaurs and Neanderthals from the past. But in doing so it raises an issue about the living and the dead, about what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as ‘the extirpation of animism’ caused by the ‘disenchantment of the world’, and here seemingly a confusion – because the game mechanics do not distinguish between a mechanical rendering of the ‘exhibits’ and the real visitors of the museum – between alive and non-alive. That, then, counters the utopian moment: this is a game that reeks of death, one that celebrates, in its visual motifs and stylistic animations, the moments of death, the extinguishing of life, and that is caught between a yearning for history and permanence and a desire for total and complete annihilation.
For the past seven months I’ve been running a reading group on Donald Sassoon’s 2006 book, The Culture of the Europeans, working our way through its 1600+ pages; yesterday Professor Sassoon himself turned up at the University of Queensland to give a masterclass on the book, and what a class it was.
When Sassoon began speaking it was clear that, not only did he have it all in his head, but that he was able to persuasively articulate its central themes and arguments in a time frame very much shorter than it would take to read the book! As one member of the reading group and participant in the masterclass said to me afterwards, it was a “tour de force” and the notes below only provide an impressionistic record of the event. A lot of the content will be very familiar to film and television scholars, but what is novel about Sassoon and his book, is the way he grasps all cultural production (with the exception of the fine arts) as part of a developing global market system across two hundred years. It is the range and reach of that grasp that made this masterclass so compelling. It was divided into two sections, 19th and 20th centuries but my notes roam between them. The session was chaired by Professor David Carter.
The session began with Sassoon introducing us to issues of sound,scale and value: the nature of silence and noise in relation to cultural events, the length of things, the way in which culture is fairly explicit about value (the programme of films at a cinema with ‘A’ and ‘B’ features), and the way in which 3hrs is fairly common as a standard length of menu (everything included) for cultural experiences one goes out to – a cinema programme, an opera, a play. The book is different: there are a variety of lengths of time available in their consumption. This was by way of introducing another central interest: how the cost of a cultural product and the way in which it is sold both affect the content. So the lending library and the video store are identical forms of cultural distribution: they are there for products we wish to consume only once.
Then there is music – there is no way for most people to listen to music, or any musical sound for most of human history. More recently it was possible to hear and sing songs at church. In the 19th century we seen music coming into the home. The hardware is an instrument – often a piano – the software is sheet music. Later this changes with the hardware a gramophone and software vinyl records. The human voice was ideal for that early recording technology, and the aria – originally a form designed to for the least talented performer in order to cover noisy intervals – at approximiately three minutes length was perfect. This 3 minute length has been remarkably stable despite the fact that there are no longer technological reasons for that limit. But recorded music and sound also changes the relationship between the live and the recorded
Since books were very expensive until quite recently lending libraries and the model of distribution and consumption these offer are very important. How can more than one person read the same book simultaneously? By splitting that book into volumes (about three is right on a production/cost model). then there is the series of installments where the narrative has to include an incentive to buy or borrow the next installment: the cliffhanger (Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes is emblematic here as it includes a literal cliff hanging incident. Maybe not the first, but fairly standard in that one installment ends on the cliff hanger, but the next begins with something completely different.) The page turner is a way of incentivising attention.
Translation and Adaptation: the 19th century translators were not faithful to the original – the accurate capturing of voice, tone and style were not important; instead translators would cut stuff that they thought boring, add and change things at will – they were adaptors. (Good example of the ‘Walter Scott novel’ actually written by one of his German translators, translated back into English by de Quincey who radically changed what he thought was a terrible novel: so we have a novel that could not exist without Scott, although he had no part in writing it, and one that is commonly included in the collected works of – de Quincey. Sassoon pointed out that The Culture of the Europeans was itself translated into Estonian in an edition that is 400 pages shorter than the English version – the chapter headings are all the same, but somewhere 400 pages went missing.
The internationalisation of culture led Sassoon to talk of national exports: the 18th century British internationalisation of Shakespeare as the main British cutlural export, the export of French drama the primary product being a generic object “the French farce”. The central ‘trick of the [cultural] trade’ the thing that makes culture advance is really very simple: a continuous testing of the market, with inevitable massive failure rates, where successes are repeated but, since cultural products are unusual in so far as uniqueness is a valued quality, a mechanism has to exist where what is repeated – the same experience – is sufficiently different. You may like Tolstoy’sWar and Peace and therefore want something that promises a similar experience, say Peace and War or something framed by the same consciousness (hence authors function like genres). Hence cultural experiences offer the same thing with incremental changes and differences all of which are continuously tested on a massive scale in the cultural marketplace. Culture also allows for the universalising of experience and this can have interesting results. For example, until the second half of the 20th century most Italians did not know how to speak Italian – it was only the arrival of a mass medium, especially television that began the process of the nationalising the Italian language. But the most popular shows on television were not necessarily Italian: were dubbed imports of, say, Perry Mason. (Sassoon tells me the Italians do not like subtitles and everything foreign is dubbed: the voice of Marilyn Monroe is far huskier in the dubbed Italian versions of her work.) There was an Italian defendant who pleaded the “5th amendment” to the puzzlement of the judge, until it was realised that the prisoner’s grasp of his legal situation was entirely informed by the American constitution as it was depicted in the show. So experience is nationalised and internationalised by culture in surprising ways, in ways that help produce local difference.
[The Zanzibar exception: in comparative history there is always one: here it is, Why are there no successful German novels in the 19th century? The conditions are perfect – developed literate cultural marketplace, center of distribution and marketplace in large city (Leipzig), national artistic exemplars (Goethe), generic track record (they innovated the Gothic novel) and yet they cannot export any German literature of note and have no international presence until the end of the century (Fontaine). The German market instead was busy importing British and French prestige novels.]
Success varies in the cultural marketplace: non-fiction success, say in textbook sales, is largely determined by elites – school principles, publishers bribing education ministers or otherwise lobbying the state and lending libraries. The latter function in a similar manner to television networks, distributing material that people want but also stuff that is “good for them”. The central problem being that it is impossible, outside the sanctions and threats of the school environment to compel someone to read something. They need to be given an incentive.
Sassoon noted that the most popular non-fiction books are ‘How To’ format, especially those concerned with cookery and dieting (How to Get Fat and, then, How to Get Thin), as well as biography and autobiography (which read like fiction).
1880-1914: revolution and change. The cinema: no real counterpart in cultural production. As gramophone use is dominated by music, films soon dominated by fiction. (Odd that Edison’s original list of the uses of recorded sound had music last – because of the poor quality – and recorded speech first – baby’s first words/grandpa’s last).
Radio as a new mode of distributing culture. Compare to publishing or newspapers: no state owned examples there. Newspapers sold on their bias. In US they adopted the press model of broadcasting, in Europe the state public lending library model. Here flow is an advantage as the worthy bits can be mixed with entertaining shows: this only works where there are few channels and creates a family and a nation while it exists.
Back to the discovery of cinema: “if you make a film you can skip bits. This is called editing.” The medium becomes modern because it can: introduces key dimension of modernity, speed.
Sassoon also speculated on the possible reasons for American dominance in cinema, beginning in the early 20th century (after say, about 1915): why is American cinema so dominant across the world? why do so many people in the world prefer it? – it cannot simply be market or industrial advantage (which in many places it did not have). Average shot length is about half that in Europe. [? check ref for this] Perhaps simply the fact that the national American audience, structured by waves and layers of immigration, already had a global character. The extraordinary diversity means that products are pitched widely, and you have to be across cultures in order to be truly successful. Then the global market selects that form of cultural production with a universal approach rather than local and national. [JJ: plus US idealist tradition gels with fantasies of achievement exemplified by goal-centered protagonists: the world should be this way (the way I want it to be)] Hence the national product had to appeal to what was in part an already global national audience; once exported this ‘national’ culture is absorbed by other nations, influential in their culture and then re-exported. Sassoon suggested that American dominance in this area may be coming to an end [can anyone there help as to the reasons why?] He also suggested that the reason European cinemas survive so long is WW2, with fascism clearing out local talents (who fled to the US) but those wartime industries in France and Italy taking advantage of the absence of US imports to build up their own. The problem is the post-war backlog of 6 years of American film: try making a European movie in 1946 and 47 and getting anyone to see it. One of the reasons for the extreme contentration on the national everyday in, say, Italian neo-realism.
Mode of payment.
Sassoon says this issue as central to current and future shape of cultural markets. This is a problem especially for screen based material since the moment of payment and the moment of consumption was separated in time. For a long time buying a television set is the major purchasing choice in relation to television consumption; continued subscription allows you access to a range of product, but there is, with a few pay-per-view event exceptions no equivalent of a theater or cinema ticket. Metered downloading and watching films and television through distribution systems such as iTunes may re-introduce to screen consumption an element of this, but Sassoon’s general point seems right. There was some objection that there is a “more direct” relationship between television consumption and paying money (e.g. advertising stimulates spending behaviour) but Sassoon batted this away fairly swiftly by pointing out that, at that level, everyone pays, but always at a different point from that of consumption: paying taxes to the state for public service material or for education (which is not metered: us higher education workers in the room temporarily thrilled to the idea that we might meter our time!); whereas other forms of cultural consumption are also indirect but not state based, such as advertising funded models of television industry. Of course the eventual fragmentation of the national television audience is a concern for national broadcasters and networks, but to some extent this is balanced by the opening up of a global market. If one’s share of the audience drops from 40 to 10 per cent that is an issue, but 10 per cent of a global audience swamps any national losses, which is why the international sale of television and its formats, as well as subtitled or dubbed TV DVD box sets is so significant. So to some extent the nationalising of culture is only of interest from a national industry perspective.
On the other hand exhibitions are different. To some extent they are like opera or theatre – key aspects of them are temporary (‘I saw Olivier as Othello on stage. You may see him playing Othello in a film, but I saw him and you cannot have the cultural experience that I had.’) and this matters – is valuable – in a culture where everything is recorded and retrievable.
For me the least convincing aspect of Sassoon’s history of the cultural markets has always been the sense that the value of culture is pretty much about power relations and status, as well as longivity (I guess similar to Hume’s ‘test of time’). The longevity and productivity of a product as a criterion: more people may read Ken Follett right now, but in the long run more may read Proust.That intellectuals need an excuse to like trash: we both like John Wayne, but I like Wayne for different, more complex reasons than you do… This kind of thing is just not enough to explain variations in the assessment of cultural value.
There was an interesting question about the relevance of museums to the process of universalising culture. S. pointed out that this opening up of elite spaces and objects (buildings, paintings, etc) was part of the democratisation of culture, that followed the pattern he had discussed earlier with opera. To some extent museums follow the ‘public library lending’ model: how to keep attention motivated (so children are encouraged to find instances of dogs in paintings in the Louvre).
Why were Jews so successful in the US film industry? Sassoon invoked an insider-outsider model, arguing that it is sometimes advantageous for a group to be close to dominant culture but not located comfortably in it; near it but just outside, and the resulting friction can be innovative and stimulating to all. He cites British fiction: where would it be without the Irish writers? That is a tolerated group – oppressed but not subject to extermination, not comfortable nor at home with the dominant culture but able to incorporate discrimmination as a kind of incentive. so the German Jews were strong in publishing, distant from traditional Hebrew teaching (compared say, to Eastern Europe: this led to a short riff on the absence of an equivalent to the Pope as interpretative authority permitting diverse interpretive behavior in relation to Torah and Koran) and, since publishing was a new industry, able to innovate and build without challenging long-standing family structures of business and commerce.
This has exhausted my notes: does anyone wish to add anything?
I attended what turned out to be a somewhat bizarre event at my home university yesterday, a symposium on the past, present and future of cultural studies. The speakers were: Graeme Turner, who introduced the book he is writing which is pretty much the title of the symposium; Frances Bonner who gave an eloquent paper on the attachments we form with the material things associated with television shows; Melissa Gregg who was equally eloquent on the devastatingly harsh conditions of labour facing contemporary scholars (especially early career ones); Chris Rojek who offered a history of the Centre for Critical and Contemporary Studies in Birmingham that more or less pointed to its overall lack of coherence (which, in so far as it is true, hardly makes it unique), obsession with state power, and failure to engage with such matters as corporate culture and branding; John Hartley who, in a typically breathless pitch, tried to sell the audience something called cultural science.
I’ll start with Hartley because he is alway interesting, and he offered a point of origin for what is now known as creative industries – this is essentially a way of framing cultural production and consumption more or less along the lines of any other industry. The beginning of the Creative Industries according to Hartley was in UK DCMS minister Chris Smith’s office in 1998 but, while that may well constitute its operational origins,for me, the intellectual experience of creative industries happened way before that. It was at the Fourth International Television Studies Conference in London in July 1991 where I witnesed Stuart Cunningham deliver a paper that was a devastating critique of cultural studies, a giant-killing effort where Stuart asked the brutal empirical question, ‘How does Stuart Hall know what he says?’ (I can’t recall the title of that paper, but I may have a copy of it, since one of the conference organisers donated a bunch of them to me). Ever since then I knew Australian scholarship as a fearsome thing, not to be messed with lightly. Cunningham’s paper, at least as it exists in my memory of its presentation (memorabily Stuart described his position, on a four paper panel of cultural studies research, as “blood sport”) seemed to be saying, Let’s put away the childish things – of revolution through resistance, of anthropological voyeurism at exotic subcultural creatures, and instead develop policy that will acknowledge and stimulate the market basis of cultural production. That’s where I first had an inkling of what was to become the creative industries project.
It was telling, I think, that Rojek’s presentation was, despite the strong quality of its scholarship, lacking in that devastating performative force. The headline was the same – grow up and look properly at the world as it is – but the targets seemed out of focus, and receding. Rojek pointed out that the Birmingham School had neglected to investigate corporate culture and branding, but Richard Branson, for example, pitches his brand at every opportunity. It is surely true that branding is important in our understanding of cultural production and consumption, but we should be careful to see it for what it is, rather than, as some businesses do, a mystical stamp of value. Things need to be made and manufactured, from materials that have to be dug, mined, exploded or otherwise coaxed from the Earth’s crust before they can have a brand attached to them. Taking what businesses say about themselves at face value is as dangerous as fantasising that certain kinds of tattoo offer resistance to dominant cultural structures. Rojek also pointed to the fact that globalisation was off the agenda in Birmingham: but their attention to the relationship between state power and individual agency seems to me to be crucial if we are to understand globalisation. It is the hollowing out of the state, its abdication of responsibility and authority even as it extends its reach (consider the use of private security firms in recent military adventures , or the UK government’s recent disavowal of a role in the release of the Lockerbie bomber) that has allowed the force of globalisation to achieve its prominence. Looking at corporate culture, globalisation and branding will not in itself provide a sufficient explanation of the significance of these changes: the relationship between state and individual, especially where, as today, individuals tend to actively seek state intervention in their lives (say, through health education, parenting classes, the management of emotion etc.) is crucial as well.
Hartley’s pitch was for something he called Cultural Science and, appropriately given the year, evolution was prominent in that discourse. He was careful to point out that work was needed on the predictive potential of the evolutionary economics that underpins this move, since as is fairly obvious, that approach, along with others, utterly failed to predict or remotely anticipate the recent global financial crisis. It was striking that Hartley did not mention more recent evolutionary approaches to cultural production and aesthetics, such as those developed by Franco Moretti and Denis Dutton: instead a framing discourse from beyond the humanities was invoked. I think this move is key since it seeks explanatory force from disciplines and fields that are usually unfamiliar to the audience.
As I mentioned Bonner and Gregg presented work based on experience, that we could recognise. Bonner’s paper in particular was painstaking, but also tentative, speculative and compelling: we could grasp its signficance because it spoke to cultural experiences grounded in material fact. Gregg’s contribution likewise spoke to our knowledge of the working day (not to mention night) of the scholar. Strangely, for all the hankering after “hard science” it was Hartley, and to some extent Rojek, whose presentation seemed remote from lived experience. This was not simply because they rejected textually-based approaches. I suspect that the reason that Hartley invokes science, evolution and economics is the same reason that Cunningham’s paper in the early 1990s had such urgency. They are searching for the authority that will allow them to grasp culture in its totality in a way that the humanities has failed to do. That authority cannot be found in the textual operations, or those of individual subjectivities because the subject as a transformative agency is not credible to them (therefore ‘resistance’ is not credible, or collective agency). At one point in his presentation Hartley mentioned the Santa Fe Institute, a site that develops various inflections of complexity theory; it is also the site where its only resident ‘humanities’ figure, the novelist Cormac McCarthy, was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey: in that interview he claims he enjoys the discussions that take place there about theoretical physics since that area of science is, ultimately, about the basis of the real. There is, I suspect, a difficulty that some have with the very openness of the questions that culture poses to us: that difficulty is its mysteriousness. Science, particularly to those who know only its rhetoric rather than its practice, can appear as a salve. I suspect that it is an intolerable and ugly fact for some that we just don’t understand a great deal about why some cultural production is successful, why some things are art and why human beings respond in the ways that they do to certain expressive materials. Donald Sassoon, who by coincidence is visiting Australia this month, in his enormous history, The Culture of the Europeans From 1800 to the Present, notes at one point in its 1617 pages that ‘the history of culture often proceeds in mysterious ways’ (1084). That is a book that can hardly be accused of ignoring cultural markets or their material and industrial mechanisms. I’m not arguing that we should preserve the mystery at the heart of art just for the sake of it; but, instead, acknowledge that the search for stability, order, and control as well as for the authority to say what culture really is, has the potential to divert us from prominent and experienced aspects of its nature.
One of the many attractions of the You Suck at Photoshop is its visualisation of performance and subjectivity in the form of interaction with software. Juxtaposed with the brilliant vocal performance by Troy Hitch the mouse pointer’s manipulation of Photoshop’s complex devices is a beautiful transformation of flat, 2-D surfaces into a resonant palette of signification. Although the episodes are nominally about instruction – it is addressed to incompetent PS users – this is merely a ruse to draw us into the increasingly desperate world of Donnie Hoyle, whose loneliness and various existential crises seem only to be augmented by the wealth of social networking opportunities his online reputation has brought him. One aspect that the movement and manipulation of the mouse cursor signals is the attention that Donnie is giving to the screen, to what he is doing: it is a visualisation of that attention, and a transformation of it into performance. I’m now searching for academic work in this area since You Suck is certainly not alone as a high quality web serial: refs and advice welcome. And here’s a favourite one: