Cosmic regularity in A Serious Man

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.

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Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and the Utopia of the Museum

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.

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Donald Sassoon’s The Culture of the Europeans

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.

Donald Sassoon and Jason Jacobs holding The Culture of the EuropeansThe MasterclassProfessor Sassoon and Professor David Carter

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?

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The future of cultural studies

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.

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You Suck at Photoshop and the aesthetics of attention

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:

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Five reasons why Boston Legal is quite probably the best programme on TV

Copyright:  Stephen Crofts


First of all, there’s so much in it.  Take the TV hour (probably 42 minutes) of last night’s episode (Channel 7, 8 September 2008).  In terms of intellectual substance, it includes legal and ethical debate, plus political analysis, about euthanasia; and political debate about nuclear deterrence.  There is also discussion of human and ethical issues around Alzheimer’s.  In terms of character relationships:  Shirley, the legal firm’s principal, having won the legal right to euthanasia, watches her father’s death; she and a senior partner, Carl, may rekindle their romantic relationship; and Jerry, an acutely nervous and diffident lawyer, having spoken honestly at arbitration of his desire to impress his new girlfriend by spraying her, not with a date-rape drug, but with his own confidence-boosting pheromone concoction, effects a restoration of their tentative relationship; and two other lawyers, the central characters of Alan and Denny, confirm a deep friendship – they call it “love”, though it’s homo-social, not gay – in the face of the latter’s onset of Alzheimer’s.  In terms of cases, one (proposing a nuclear deterrent for Nantucket) is lost, though it was never imagined it could succeed, one (the father’s right to die in dignity) is won, and the arbitration is successfully resolved.


Secondly, it’s such fun – and often laugh-out–loud witty and hilarious.  Consider the delightfully absurd improbabilities of a legal firm, even in Boston, which takes on cases like the Nantucket nuclear deterrent; which is genially collegial, has hardly any backstabbing, supports a fair number of intra-mural affairs, and is concerned with left liberal human values; and which employs chronically nervous Jerry, and another lawyer, Clarence, who moonlights as a drag artist, as well as Denny Crane, the imperturbably egoistic seventy-something character, who most weeks can be relied upon to shoot at somebody, or try to race someone off, or both.  And judges presiding over the cases include one improbably young attractive blonde women and one pedantically eccentric wacko.  The music contributes greatly to the sense of fun.  The signature tune is so joyously discordant it makes me laugh out loud.  And Danny Lux’s raids on the great American songbook play old songs and tunes hilariously just off-centre to the dramatic moment.  Witness the playing of The Last Post in the 25 August episode immediately after Denny and Alan, having bizarrely decided to join the Coastguards, spectacularly fail to gain acceptance because Alan cannot swim, and both almost drown! 

Thirdly, Boston Legal can be touching, indeed moving, in its pathos, and can modulate delicately between the registers of comedy and pathos.  Last night’s episode had a higher quotient of pathos (father’s death, onset of Alzheimer’s) than usual.  And it had a truly daring transition from joy and renewal to death:  cutting direct from Jerry kissing with his newly reconciled girlfriend in a bar, to the morphine drip which will shortly euthanase Shirley’s father.  Until I see it again I can’t analyse fully how and why it works, beyond noting the slow pace of the camera tilt down the drip.  The pathos is character-based, and thus draws on the rich incremental characterisation typical of serial drama, as well as on the seriously experienced actors in the three major roles:  Candice Bergen as Shirley, James Spader as Alan and William Shatner (yes, he of  Star Trek!) as Denny.  It’s largely the pathos of Denny’s ageing and incipient Alzheimer’s that saves his sexist, big-noting, gun-toting, Republican-voting character from being repugnant. 

Fourthly, the programme is so aesthetically rich.  It reminds you that television can be a visual and a musical, as well as a verbal, medium.  Not that I’d ever downplay its writing:  the scripts of David E Kelley and Lawrence Broch – plus three script editors – are masterpieces of wit and conciseness.  Consider this exchange from two weeks ago.  Carl is telling Shirley that their romantic relationship is not the best either of them could have.  “Do I make sense?” he asks.  “A little too much”, she ruefully replies.  Eight words speak volumes about needs and idealism in relationships, and about her feelings.  Some aspects of Danny Lux’s music have been mentioned already – though not that of cueing audience responses, which it does crucially and very economically.  On top of lapidary scripts and invigorating music, however, Boston Legal serves notice that television can have visual style which enhances the drama rather than distracting from it in the manner of recent fads for glossy, chi-chi interiors, wobbly hand-held cameras, and saturated colour.  Last night’s episode offers two examples of very telling camera movement and shot selection which heighten the impact of the script.  Both concern Denny’s Alzheimer’s.  During his passionately argued closing representing Shirley on euthanasia for her father, Alan almost breaks down as he introduces the topic of a close friend with early Alzheimer’s, for whom one day he will have to be the one who advises on when it is time to die.  Alan’s closing segues back to Shirley’s father.  At its end the camera pans devastatingly to the back of the courtroom, revealing Denny, who was never expected to be there.  A cut would have broken the spatial continuity, and visually diffused the shock of the revelation; the pan stresses the human continuity between the two men.  Later, on the office terrace, they discuss what Denny heard in court.  Their terrace discussions which conclude each episode refreshingly vary the dreary televisual norm of shot/reverse-shot, but this time there is a shot which is initially impossible to place in the scene’s visual field.  It is a close-up angled to isolate a hand reaching out, such that the moving gesture – a hand of friendship – is given primacy before the agent or the recipient is identified.  A moment later, a reframe identifies it as Denny’s hand thanking Alan.        


Fifthly, on a political note, Boston Legal continues the tradition of Law and Order in that both are left liberal and interested in intellectual issues.  But this comedic version of the left liberal law show demonstrates how liberating it can be to dispense with police procedural plots, legal argumentation, and the need to concede, as Assistant DA Jack McCoy often does, that the law must be upheld even where it fails to do justice in individual cases.  For in Boston Legal, juries and judges are frequently persuaded by brilliant closing arguments from Alan and Shirley in support of wronged victims, and against corporate greed and governmental collusion in it:  victories which allow viewers to believe that justice can be effected in courts of law.  The programme taps into that utopian strain of comedy that Richard Dyer once praised as a joyous affirmation of life and hope, however utopian that may be.  If comedy is the salve of grim political times – and Boston Legal often takes a stand against what the Bush administration has done to the USA – then this comedic law show may be just what we need!

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What is the ‘everyday’ of everyday television?

I was reading Patrice Petro’s Aftershocks of the New (2002) this morning since I’m working on a paper about distraction and boredom and I came across this:

…this collection hopes to contribute to the larger task of restoring richness, complexity and vitality to our understanding of feminism and film history in the recent past as well as today. And it does so precisely by being attentive to the aftershocks of our own modernity, and to the ways in which they continue to reverberate in our culture, our writing, and our everyday lives. (12)

And then the camel’s back broke. What is the distinction being made in this and countless other examples in film/tv/cultural studies between our lives and our ‘everyday’ ones? I detect that it might be different – or is it? – from an understanding of  ‘everyday’ that, say, Zavattini had.

‘Television’ and ‘everyday’ are also frequently seen together and while I can grasp that television might be something one consumes on a daily basis (like our daily bread or the daily newspaper), what I want to isolate is the precise force of adding ‘everyday’ to it. I assume this is about more than distinguishing regular kinds of television from event television. And while many shows establish regular patterns in content, few that I remember seemed to cultivate a sense of the everyday – most TV shows I watch seek the distinction of standing out, and attempt to recruit attention precisely by being interesting, not ordinary or everyday. 

 I suspect there are nuances to the usage of ‘everyday’ (or even ‘the everyday’- whatever that is) that I’m missing.  Readers are invited to help me out in no more than a paragraph.

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