The Secret Protest Screening ethnographic project – part 1

September 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve spent a good portion of the summer being frustrated by the folks at Secret Cinema (London)–for reasons best left unsaid.

But then last night I get this:

For reasons of professional interest (the expansion of cinema, fictional presences in everyday life, etc.), I’ve been on Secret Cinema’s mailing list ever since we moved to London. I’ve never been to any of their events — but, surely, this has got to be the one.

And so starts the ethnographic project.

Query: why would people choose to express a protest by going to a movie? a movie they don’t know anything about? in a location they don’t know anything about? How does any of this make any sense, in the face of the plight of the 20 million or so refugees worldwide–or the plight of the more recent ones Europe has been struggling to welcome?

Method: audience ethnographic project. I will embed (with my 15-year old son!) within Secret Cinema’s audience for the evening, and conduct a field investigation. The trick, as usual with ethnography (at least since Malinowski!), is that this will perforce be participant observation

And so the ethnographic project really starts with a research diary: what is my trajectory from non-audience to audience and back? What discourses are framing my attendance? What expectations do I bring? What representations are shaping what I think I will see? How do I construct what hypotheses? And what am I to make of the show?

This is what this diary, over the next 5 days, will trace: my trajectory to the film (or is it a show?), during the performance, and after it.


Monday 7 Sept. 18:21 — reception of Secret Cinema’s commercial email.
My itinerary, my transformation from individual to audience member, to vibrating aesthetic subject (or to commercial subject blindly manipulated, as you wish) really starts as I receive Secret Cinema’s email. (Well it really started earlier, a long, long time ago in fact, but 1) there is literally no end to that regressus ad infinitum and 2) the notes below will indeed elucidate some of what has been building in my trajectory before that commercial sollicitation)

I am sitting at my computer, it is evening, I’ve worked all day at the computer but I should be doing more–I’ve been frustrated over the past couple of hours that I haven’t been able to work as I had planned. There’s an article that needs revising, the deadline is in 3 days. But I’ve had to deal with minor domestic crises (no ink in the printer! No phone service!)–and so I’ve ended up nervously checking The Guardian‘s website for the 1000th time today (like everyday). In terms of me being turned into an audience for entertainment, I should note that this message also comes at a point where we’ve talked, as a family, about our frustration of not doing enough shows, museum visits, films, etc., in London. We want to “make more” of the city. We want, in other words, to become cultural consumers.

I think frustration is a keyword here.

This email attracts my attention for several reasons:

1) I’ve been trying to get more involved to help refugees over the past week — I’ve been trying to get more involved with border issues for months now, in fact I’ve pretty much decided that understanding open borders is what I will be doing in terms of publishing in the next 2 or 3 years. I have several book projects on the topic of borders already in my mind. But getting to do something concrete, useful, apart from sending money…it’s been difficult. At bottom I think I am afraid of contact–in the sense that I overanalyse contact with refugees as being contact with the great unknown, and I am a control-freak. It’s stupid and I hate it, but the reality is this: i haven’t been to Calais, to the Jungle, though I’ve read and crossed it several times (even saw police chasing the people there one night waiting for the Eurostar). I have signed up to help refugees in the UK, though I don’t have a spare-room. I have signed petitions, sent tweets, liked FB pages…but nothing approaching contact.

2) I am disgusted that the UK is not opening its borders to more refugees. If Germany can take the equivalent of 1% of its population (800,000 over one year), so could the UK (this would be 650,000….not the miserable 20,000 over 5 years that the Conservatives have promised today…better than nothing, sure, but paltry). And so the urgency of expressing outrage publicly, as inefficient and self-centred as it may very well be, has been building. I want to put public pressure on governments to do more. “Standing-by” is not an option. But see 1)…. Still, this promises to be a public event.

3) I am indeed intrigued by the concept of a “Protest Screening”. When was the last time attending a movie was a civic gesture? I can count on one hand the films I have seen out of civic duty: Lanzman’s Shoah in a Paris theater, or that documentary about Yitzhak Rabin that I saw in a small downtown Los Angeles theater (was it this film?). These are films I felt I had to make a public point to see–a duty to watch. But here I don’t even know what film they’re going to show us!

So the best I can understand my motivation is,

1) that I feel I have a duty to signal my participation publicly–and indeed, as soon as I buy the tickets, I invite a few London friends via FB to do the same–although there is an added sense of potential danger as I don’t know whether the film will please, shock, move, or disgust me. So, metaphorically speaking, I am willing to be potentially emotionally tossed around (yes, this is a boat metaphor, and I am aware of the creepy link with refugees, but at this point, I wouln’t put it past Secret Cinema to have worked out that metaphor themselves, see the poster for the event). And

“Aren’t you a little short of storm troopers?” asks a pesky FB user

2) that this is the closest I will ever be to doing something together with refugees: I am particularly attracted by the promise that the film will also be shown, at the same time, to the migrants stuck in the Jungle camp in Calais. Yes, this will merely be a virtual connection (in 3 hours there is no time even for Secret Cinema to transport us to Calais and back…), but we will share, and share emotions which is what humans can do. And, to be honest, this doesn’t happen every day at the movies nowadays: audiences, the general claim goes, are fragmented (by age group, sociology, ratings, etc.), and the days of the “evening’s entertainment”, with everything for everyone in the family, are long gone. This promises to create an audience more diverse than we’ve become accustomed to, and isn’t that what cinema is supposed to do best, help us connect, the Esperanto of film, film language as universal language, and so on? Secret Cinema, bringing you face-to-face with fiction..

The nagging suspicion I have, so far, is that of course this is all commercial ploy. Secret Cinema has been trying to position itself as the rediscovery of the joy of cinema — a new Hollywood, as their cover photo of Aug. 21 intimates — and this re-creation of a common civic audience beyond differences (them and us, this side and that side of the border, poor and rich, etc.) smacks of a similar commercial positioning. Also I am not entirely at ease with a for-profi, commercial private company doing politics. The event Facebook page has been posting pro-refugee messages and promoting a very clear, astonishingly (for a private company) aggressive activist stance on the issue–but only since Sept. 2, the day news outlets published the picture of Aylan’s body on the beach: how long has Secret Cinema been supporting the Refugee Council? I can’t say. Are they seeking to exploit this tragedy? I can’t say. And I can’t say either how different this social media build-up is any different from their standard operating procedure and the FB build-up to their summer Star Wars show, for instance. Are they just trying to “put me in the mood”? Am I even supposed to enjoy myself at this show?

At the same time, for any company to take a political stance is gutsy–and sure enough, Secret Cinema is getting negative comments from FB users (“stick to what you know”)–Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 10.32.20but is this also staged? Is it just a ploy to allow them to answer “this is what we know”, so me, reading this exchange, will feel understood in my sympathy for refugees, immersed in a well-meaning and shared space of love and understanding for refugees, a space where I can abandon myself to emotions of pity, gratitude, etc., without a hint of critical disturbance, without, for instance, the dissonance created by this FB user’s ironical question “It will be interesting to see if this tempts any of the people in Calais to hang around there for the rest of the week so they can see the film, or will they try to illegally jump on the back of a lorry in the hope of being in London in time for the UK screening” ?

And so I end up signing up for a host of reasons, but one of which harks back to the best Barnum every did: is it truth, or fiction? Reality, or a hoax? And, honestly, I can’t decide.

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“Barbaric, primitive man” — white man condescending, the 2015 model

September 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

I had not heard such stories in a long time, and I did not even think they would be possible. But Ballyhoo’s on the rise again, and there’s no headline big enough. Still, I was surprised to stumble upon this story this morning, regarding the soon-to-be-released cannibal horror flick by Eli Roth, The Green Inferno. Roth is here talking about the production in Peru:

“So when we shot it, I wanted to film somewhere that was really, really, really in the Amazon. Really, authentically off the grid. We scouted in the summer-time and went up the river for hours and hours and found this village where there was no electricity, no running water, grass huts. Ten people in a shack. And it looked incredible; it looked like a village from another time, so we asked if we could film there. But I was told that we have to tell them what a movie is because they have no idea. They’ve never seen one. They’ve never even seen a television. So they went back with a television and a generator and showed the village Cannibal Holocaust, which I couldn’t believe. And the villagers – thank god – thought it was a comedy. The funniest thing that they’d ever seen. And they wanted to play cannibals in the movie. So we had the entire village acting in the film. And they speak Quechua – which is like another language from another time.” (from a 2013 interview with Roth)

I have right now no way of knowing where Roth actually filmed (though his admission that “they call the river Aguirre because the last film to  shoot there was Aguirre The Wrath God” would indicate that he was in the Ucayali region), or indeed whether the story is true or spurious. As usual, with Ballyhoo, it is probably both. And Roth’s own words in his tale are small comfort for anyone trying to take him seriously: either the shoot is genuinely dangerous (“we could have died any number of times — there were floods, and there were rock-slides, there were tarantulas, snakes, animals walking through shots. It was crazy…it was brutal”) or it is really a merry “jungle adventure — we had cameras and everyone was just so up for it”. Either the village has not made contact and the tribe lives in complete isolation (“no electricity, no running water, grass huts”), or there is enough electricity to play with iPads (“you became friends with all the kids and all the old people. And then by the end they were all playing with iPhones and iPads. We’ve completely polluted the social system and f*cked them up”). Ballyhoo, of course, can have it both ways.

But what attracted me to this story is that I had read it before–in fact, I had read it all (including the bit where villagers are shown a movie “for the first time”, and were then induced to act out as cannibals in a movie) in an account of Edward Salisbury’s expedition to shoot a “documentary” entitled Black Shadows (1922) in the Solomon islands. The excerpt is from “Eighteen Months on the Trail of Cannibals”, ostensibly written by Edward Salisbury himself, published in The Atlanta Constitution, 5 nov. 1922, pg. F9 [which is available, I believe, through Proquest]:

“In the meantime I had to teach the natives, like children, that they were in a play when going through their usual avocations and amusements before the motion picture camera, for I wanted to make pictures of all their life and pursuits as well as of their warlike proclivities.
It proved impossible for the islanders to understand what the small box which stood on three legs had to do with recording their history, so I decided upon taking the risk of showing them a motion picture of themselves by way of convincing them.
Swarthy forms filled the Wisdom’s deck before a curtain strung across it on the night when Vella Lavella saw its first motion picture. The shock of its appearance was greeted with a yell of terror. Up sprang the warriors in a confusion of struggling limbs. Those nearest the rail jumped overboard and swam ashore. Others pressed behind, remembered their record for bravery, hesitated and stood their ground.
“Oh, oh!” howled Buli. “Devil-devil!”
“See!” I shouted, clapping my friend Buli on the shoulder, “he is alive. He is not hurt!” I made them feel each other to prove that no one was dead or injured.
Meantime this new devil-devil, whose spirit was in the beam of light which shone upon the curtain, awakened all manner of fears in their startled minds. They found their voices. A panic of cries and pointing fingers broke loose. Here and there Berche-la-mer asserted itself.
“Oh, him no b’long here! Him no b’long here.”
How could Buli be sitting among them the while his spirit danced upon the curtain?
Although still badly frightened, a number of them were induced to touch the sheet and convince themselves that the devil-devil was novel [?], making pictures of their acts while they, themselves, were unharmed.
The savages examined first one side of the screen, then the other. How was it possible for a man suddenly to become so thin! The projection machine stopped. The figures on the sheet disappeared. I had to quell another panic. “Where had the warriors gone?”
Through Buli I explained that in my box was a magic eye which saw everything they did and several days afterwards this eye would tell on a sheet what it had seen them do. I told them that when I returned to my own island the magic eye would tell my people what a brave nation of warriors they were, and how they lived and danced and fought.
“Great medicine!” they responded, and told one another that this box of the magic eye was white man’s big medicine, which could drive the ills out of a sick body and do many wonderful things.”

I’m just putting this out-there, but there would be other stories from the colonial past that would be similar. In fact, there’s another example available on Picturegoing, and Tom Gunning wrote an entire article about this figure of the “(in)credulous spectator”, ranging from the myth of the “first” audience running away from the Lumière film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, to

“the state usually attributed to savages in their primal encounter with the advanced technology of Western colonialists, howling and feeling in impotent terror before the power of the machine”. (Gunning Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-45.)

I think the onus is on Roth to explain how he squares the contradictions, also obvious in the 1922 text, between the pretense of “discovery” of an uncontacted tribe — the pretense, to be more precise, that this status as “uncontacted” truly matters — and the “corruption” that he makes light of (or, in Salibury’s text, the pretense that the film is a “documentary”, and the grooming of villagers as actors via film).  At least in Roth’s story the tribe is so media-savvy that they immediately recognise that the cannibal horror film is a joke–and so we are led to think that the on-film portrayal of the tribe as “barbaric, primitive” (Roth’s words!!) is also just a joke.

I have my doubts as to whether Roth’s film itself will endanger uncontacted tribes, as AmazonWatch, for instance, and other such NGOs that do tremendous work protecting these tribes, have argued. And I certainly don’t think censoring the film is a solution. But what is for me very clear is that the whole trope of the “primitive” tribe being “cannibal” and learning about “modern” civilisation through watching movies but remaining somewhat “primitive” has a long and disgusting history. Maybe, as Roth argues, it’s all a joke–but it’s a sad, tired joke, and surely we can do better.

Or, in an even more disquieting way, does it speak about some sort of on-going Western panic attack about all these Others knocking on our rich world’s doors, in a way that No Escape, apparently, also does?

The Football World Cup for Smart People 6 – The round-up

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Media Res has a special round-up week (starting today!) on the Football World Cup. Short incisive insights to be expected, starting with Thomas Corrigan’s thinly veiled hopes that media broadcasters would have learnt their Napster lesson and would, this time around, go for a more inclusive approach to illegal streaming of football matches. Fat chance!

More to come this week.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 5 – BFI, 1975

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Football on Television, London: BFI Television Monograph, 1975: a small collection of essays attempting to decode British TV coverage of the 1974 World Cup.

putting to use early findings of semiotics and the importance of codes (visual, cultural, poetic codes) in reading images (even, or especially, images that pretend to ‘realism’), these essays break down British TV coverage in terms of its constituent components: shots, shot-length, shot types, color, music, commentary, credit sequences, and so on. The point is to denaturalise the understanding of TV coverage, especially as it relates to sports.

 

“this monograph challenges the accuracy of the popular position (that TV offers factual reproduction). It casts doubt on the centrality of the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘actuality’ in the mass media; it argues that ‘real’ events are–when perceived via the media–as structured as fictional programmes” (8)

 

There would be an interesting update to be done on the 2014 World Cup coverage, based on similar premisses: comparing shot lengths game to game, analysing the frequency (or lack of!) of replays (are there fewer replays in fast-moving games or in slow-moving games?), the use of “secondary images” (coaches, players on the bench, faces in the crowd)

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 4 – Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 1978

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a more scholarly addition to the debate than Eco’s essay, and is to be found in Screen 19.4, Winter 1978 (45-60).

If you’re ever in a fix and need a source for the oft-quoted pronouncement that “football is about winning”, this is the place to go. Just add (56) right after that quote, and you’re the toast of the party.

The real question of the article, though not fully explored, is whether “Argentina” did indeed win the 1978 World Cup, and which “Argentina”. It’s not fully explored because the article folds all issues back to whether the military junta in power won or not, which is a much more narrow focus than the general cultural implications of which “Argentina” won. The conclusion, that the political regime came out all right, mainly through the fact that TV coverage of the World Cup was normal (read: similar to previous World Cups) and therefore non-political, is in line with frequent criticisms of televised sport (again, see Eco: all circuses, little panem).

It’s a disappointing conclusion as the article also sets up “football” as more than a game and as a culture, or rather a cultural field, through which lots of social, cultural, emotional attachments and histories are negotiated. It makes the great point that the Saturday football match is merely one stop in the cultural flow of football (the friends one talks to, the football related news and rumours one reads, etc.), that football is as much about the match as it is about “recall”.

Once it gets to Argentina, however, it forgets this intense plurality of meanings and this temporal flow of football cultures to focus on the “blue” of Argentina, concluding that the “Argentinian nationhood [became] axed around football (…)  from which any other Argentina (…) was for the time being evacuated.” (58) Apart from the analyst’s intuition that this was the case (based, no doubt, on the desire for football at the 1978 World Cup to have done more to fight the political battle), what is this based on?

The World Cup, through TV, is here seen as articulating several overlapping sets of oppositions, Nordic vs. Latin (for European countries), Portuguese-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking (for South American nations), North vs. South (rather than East vs. West, with both USSR and USA absent from the competition) — a set of oppositions that could still be argued to inflect much analysis and football coverage today.

But does TV coverage really erase football partisanship? Is football really just about partisanship? Because TVs (on long shots) are positioned at the half-way line, is that a sign of TV attempting impartiality, trying to make us forget that is is merely a representation, not a reproduction of the event? Yes the annoying shots of people in the crowd help us being “present” in the event — but is that enough to put us, politically, to sleep?

It is a bit surprising that, for an article that looks at the game of football, it does not look at the gaming dimension of football TV reception — or how audiences may have fun with TV coverage. The main problem, of course, is that, as was then the case in film studies, spectatorship is essentialized: it is derived from an analysis of content — although, at the same time, there is insistence on the fact that TV audiences cannot be viewed as homogeneous ! It’s TV spectatorship in limbo, waiting for the David Morleys of this world to extend our understanding of what it is that audiences do with TV.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 3 – Bernard-Henry Lévy, 2006

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Bernard Henry-Lévy, “Zidane”Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2006

really shouldn’t be in here: this is a straight red card for grandiose use of metaphors and for name-dropping (Abbé Pierre!  Mother Theresa! Mandela! Machiavelli! Dostoyevsky!) over the 2006 World Cup Final and Zidane’s head-butt. But Zidane as Achilles, Domenech as Agamemnon, Makelele as a Myrmidon — this is irresistible. Also, as a reading of the football hero as convoking narrative tropes of the mythical figure of the Homeric Hero (is Zidane Achilles or Ulysses now?). Mostly, though, this piece deserves to be on our list for proposing to read Zidane as the media icon that rebels against mediatisation (“I am not this idiotic, empty hologram”) — maybe a uniquely French perspective on global media (resist!)?

On the take that the headbutt is in anyway good as it shows resistance to the powers of marketing (end of the post), hmm, excuse-me? However symbolic you want it to be, a head-butt is a head-butt. Even a semiotically-charged head-butt has got to hurt…

On our list, then, with BHL at his usual best with good dribbling skills, excellent vision of the game, and some good on-goal opportunities —  but a red card in the end.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 2 – Umberto Eco, 1978

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Umberto Eco, “The World Cup and Its Pomps”, an essay written in 1978 but most easily available in the collection Faith in Fakes: travels in Hyperreality, Vintage, 1995.

a variation on the “panem et circenses” tradition, football as offering easy mediated reconciliation for traumatised nations (written at the time of the Red Brigades in Italy and dictatorship in Argentina, hosts of the 1978 World Cup), and revolving around the intriguing question : “is revolution possible on a football sunday?”

A good question, to which common intellectual sense would have us answer a resounding NO, but it turns out that in West Africa, at least, football sunday made the revolution possible

— with a whiff of Swiftian irony in the celebration of the deaths and injuries football may inflict on fans and players alike (“I consider the passion for football providential…”).

Football as “everyday unreality… the absence of purpose…the vanity of all things” — it doesn’t get more Virilio-Baudrillard post-modern than this.

Also, if you are looking for the source of the comparison between football fans and “sex maniacs regularly going to see couples making love”, look no further.

On Eco’s essay, there is by the way a nice collection of visual essays by artists from Liverpool who think, with Eco, that “soccer has never loved me” (come play with us on Sundays, there is no love lost there !)

 

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