One of the things that has occupied my thinking recently, is the idea of how enclosed narrative has become by the rigid cliches and structural limits of corporate produced film & TV. One can feel the desire to break away from this in the expanded narrative form of certain otherwise kitsch shows such as The Sopranos or Homeland, The Killing, or Breaking Bad. The network formula of the one hour form that stands alone as a narrative with a beginning and end was being challenged to some degree by simply allowing each one hour installment to be part of a season long narrative. The experience felt much more liberating than it actually was, of course.
This inevitably leads to thoughts about photography and serial photographic essays. Blake Stimson wrote that film (in comparison to a composition of still photographs) is, because of its eighteen or twenty four frames a second (and how digital affects this is a whole other question) is inescapably beholden to a rigid expository structure. One image after another after another after another. It systematizes and structures ‘life itself in all its multiplicity, diversity, and contingency’ (Mary Anne Doane), and in so doing is creating an ideological role representing an outside, and a relation to time itself that serves a perception of social stability. And unity.
In corporate film (and perhaps in all film) the audience is presented with a pre-fabricated index of experience, and taught how to perceive time. As Adorno said (and Stimson quotes him in this):
“The less dense reproduction of reality in naturalistic literature left room for intentions: in the unbroken duplication achieved by the technical apparatus of film every intention, even that of truth, becomes lie.”
This is a complicated topic, and I wanted to only touch on one element of it. The mystery of the photograph is changed in film into another sort of mystery, but not without first removing that first register of mystery altogether. The technical is foregrounded in film in a way quite separate and different than the photograph (or painting). The missing element in this discussion is theatre (as it often seems to be, for some reason). In any event, the preponderance of film and TV product has now so entrenched certain relationships of time and space, and of social conventions, that the viewer can comfortably anticipate events, and even the camera angles that will be used.
The sense of the expository in film is a topic that has elicited a good deal of analysis, and I’m not at all sure of the final reasons for it, but it’s hard not to feel the truth of this postulate. The sense in which film follows on from the 19th century novel has led to the formation of the ‘cinematic real’. How extensive is the reach of this construction, psychically, is hard to say, but I do think the sheer volume of product now, the 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, constant of screened narrative has somehow intruded and deeply effected the mental make-up of most people in the West (and maybe, really, in the world). However, the untruth of corporate marketing as it exists in almost all studio and network film and TV, is really what I wanted to look at — especially in relationship to theatre. The problem for theatre, today, is that almost everything being done in theatre (in the United States anyway) is simply movie reality transferred to the stage. But not the movie reality of a Sirk or Nick Ray, or Fassbinder or Pasolini or Rivette or Godard or Antonioni — or dozens of others — but the pure marketed kitsch of studio product over the last twenty five years, say. Or perhaps even more insidiously, the TV hour drama. Network television is so encrusted with a sense of its own history (as history per se) and with formulas, that the rhythms and sense of space has narrowed drastically, and the conceptual … ideas of ‘fact’ and ‘reality’ are condensed into very simple sub-sets of these few well honed narratives. Of course the police procedural now is so well established, so absorbed into daily discourse, that people’s sense of life is stultified and reduced and what is anticipated at any moment during the day. For a large number of people, and maybe everyone to a degree, there is the same anticipation one experiences in knowing the next camera angle and edit.
I suspect all of us are affected. Some more, some less. But our very language is debased by this endless screening, this constant background noise, both visual and aural. Deleuze has written about a shift in cinema, from ‘movement image’ to ‘time image’. Without getting into that, the relevant aspect of this relates to floating away from linkage between images, to an experience more connected to the cut or edit itself. For the purpose of this discussion, that shift is partly the result, I suspect, of studio and network narratives recycling their own histories. The same story told with new cosmetics, new decor. The sameness is partly what is being anticipated, as a category. It is the same linkage and it is the same non-linkage. The story is given, already known, already seen, and it’s only the actors and set that change, and then only slightly. Gradually, the formula is made subsidiary to the interruptions — and it is within the interruption that resides, I think, a sense of what was once offstage.
The sense of living on a set, in a 3 camera world view, intersects with the various unconsciously digested spaces of the permanent workplace set, friends as recurring characters, and the world at large, consequently, a far off 60 Minutes Special Report. These are crude models for what is, actually, an infinitely complex set of associations and processing of cues. A banal example of a part of this is how we look at a clock and relate the “time” as something structured in our lived experience. In fact, one of the things theatre does, almost without author or director trying, is de-stabilize exactly this sort of curious trivilization of subjective duration. The police and military as institutional truths are prominent today to a degree that defies a real grasp conceptually, it is just too monumental. The sense of ‘authenticity’ is now so mired in reality show codes that clearly actual soldiers and cops are acting learned roles modeled on their favorite police procedural or on Army Wives or the like.
The fact that studio film and network TV define history as the history of their own medium, the viewer accommodates his or her own sense of history to these same abbreviated set of motivations and explanations. For in kitsch TV or film, everything is explanation. But it is more than this, of course, it is universalizing an idea about ‘fact’, and really, universalizing the factual as authority — science is built into the very apparatus that puts these narratives on the screen. And those narratives, those images, are very standardized. The explanations are so reductive as to be almost delusional. An entire world view based on a supreme rationality, a militarized sense of authority that is reinforced constantly as of the highest moral value, is linked directly to this manufactured sense of time and space as seen on TV. We anticipate as we enter our own homes, and we probably edit in our heads how to shoot our walk to the kitchen, etc. How does this familiarity with the medium affect the sense of moral choice, moral decisions? The sense in which an audience has come to view their own lives as a TV drama or reality show (much the same thing today) is an audience for whom autonomous choice has to be seen as unconventional story development. One of the things in play with the rise of expanded narrative, even if kitsch, is that the temporal horizon has widened as well. Repetition at least has slowed down. Still, the sense of stillness in pre-digital photography, and in theatre, has become more scarce for people, I think. The sense of exposition in film and TV has also helped limit this stillness. The sense of an idea being of more value than individual profit is somehow linked in my brain to a lost stillness. It is not just the ideological content of grossly racist and misogynistic product, it is not just the pro-militarism and revisionist thumbnails of history, it is a sense of being unable to do without explanation — and all explanation *must add up*. Whenever I hear someone say of a film or play, “I’ve no idea what it was about”, I wonder who said it had to, or that is was necessary or desirable. It is also a reminder that vulgar aesthetic education has insisted that “what it’s about” was somehow knowable. That you could pin down to any degree, scientifically, what a narrative means.
The ‘idea’ of justice or equality, the ‘idea’ of a commitment to helping others, this has slowly over decades been worn away, until all that is left is a sort of reified ersatz altruism. Someone asked me the other day, how much money would I have to have to start giving it to projects like food banks, or community gardens, or libraries, or art education, etc. I said I didn’t know. I wanted to not worry about shelter, to live someplace secure, to eat, to probably have a decent car to get around. I might even want a Rolex for all I know. But there is something in this very question that creates an untruth. And that is that I cannot ever be secure. And if I made a million and gave two thirds to projects for social betterment, to further a socialist ideal of some sort, I cannot really do that because money doesn’t work that way and doesn’t fall from outer space. I would have had to make that money and to make it would mean, likely, to contradict the ‘idea’ of those projects somehow. Last posting the discussion of Rachel Maddows income came up. (12 million)- and people don’t want to discuss it, really. Well, sure, one needs to avoid kitsch bios of “famous” people, politicians or artists. I understand the need for that, because one counter current in that is the tearing down (via kitsch bio) of *great men*. Oh, so and so once stole the neighbors bicycle, or so and so was picked up getting a blow job, or so and so used to do business with gangsters (ok, wait….make that so and so used to do business with arms dealers). Having said all that, I know that I feel distrustful of the rich. I distrust their distance from daily stress. I distrust their never having had to beg for a loan. I distrust that they never had endure the humiliation of minimum wage work.
So, the kistch formula and the “idea” of the moral. The commodity society or hyper branding is a network of arterial signs and codes, and one can shop for them, but that IS what is being purchased, a status, an image, a *lifestyle*. The consumer is tied to these inter-relationships with things, or signifiers, not with people. And increasingly that purchased is part of a pre-fabricated narrative. The author is anonymous, a corporation. Public services, or projects are marginalized, invisible even, trumped by the created desire to *own* a subjectivity. This is the world of expository kitsch TV and film. The silence of genuine grief or tragedy, as well as that of genuine desire, is mediated —and the mediation is the mass entertainments of film and TV. And within those narrative products can be seen these varied forces
“There is no question for the consumer, for the modern citizen, of evading this enforced happiness and enjoyment, which is the equivalent in the new ethics of the traditional imperative to labour and produce. Modern man spends less and less of his life in production within work and more and more of it in the production and continual innovation of his own needs and well-being. He must constantly see to it that all his potentialities, all his consumer capacities are mobilized. If he forgets to do so, he will be gently and insistently reminded that he has no right not to be happy. It is not, then, true that he is passive. He is engaged in — has to engage in — continual activity. If not, he would run the risk of being content with what he has and becoming asocial.”
That was written (the Baudrillard) over thirty years ago. A good deal has changed, but the principles mostly remain the same. The marketing that sells “individuality”; this is the core of the narrative. Personalize it. Everything must have my name or my brand, or both.
The fixed clear scientifically defined “self”. That is the ultimate illusion from which all others flow.
During the week in which it is revealed (though hardly a surprise) that the N.S.A. logs every phone call and email every US citizen makes, as Israeli aggression against Syria foments war, and the Imperial President appoints billionaire Penny Pritzker as Sec. of Commerce, it is useful, probably, to consider the extent to which not just the U.S. public, but even those running it, exist in this loop of amnesiac-non history, positivist banalities, and abridged narrative that delivers this “self” as purchasing engine — and as a backdrop to a new episode of “Revenge”, or wait, Pritzker is nominated, or wait, what exactly is IN the Bush library?
The consumer subject is marketed as heroic (if male), they know the world is “tough”, so is shopping, or rather, so is knowing WHO YOU ARE. You are the man who wears Brut, you are the man who drives a Chevy Truck, you are the sort of man who can make those tough choices on the contruction site and then go have a beer with your hearty sweaty but noble fellow workers. The consumer subject (female) is one who knows she is worth expensive items pampering to self. She is the type of woman who knows which kind of man is dumb as he tries to pick her up (pretty funny, huh? hahhahaha)….and the kind of woman who knows what it takes to be the lux model sex object for discriminating rich white men. You get the idea. None of this, absolutely NONE of this corresponds in any way to reality. What it DOES correspond to are movies and TV shows.
The images of real life are shuttered away on News Magazines (sic) or Special Reports. Nightline, 60 Minutes, Panorama, etc. And real life must be contained by those with perfect vowels (if the U.K.) or at least a resonant mid atlantic, or avuncular southern (if Natchez, not Mobile or Birmingham or Biloxi. In fact, I’m not sure the high ticket southern accent of Kentucky horse breeders or Peanut plantation owners ever existed per se until Gone With The Wind. But I digress…
The enclosure of dissent is now the by product of the culture industry. There is an increasing inability to imagine global problems. Sure, there are many people who do, but all of us suffer to some degree from the narrative abridgments that comes with the loss of time to reflect, the colonizing of reflection, or day dreaming, of idleness.
The mystery of a single photograph, or the elliptical narrative of serialized photography, has been subsumed by film. And film is always expressive of its industrial production. Film (until now, and perhaps this is changing, somewhat) required managerial acumen. But the proliferation of image, of that almost constant image, undifferentiated, that has no boundary, and exists as de-fault backdrop to news, serves the increasing difficulty in grasping a global image, or just the ‘idea’ of the global. Drone strikes in Yemen conjure up what sort of image?
I continue to hear people use the word “disappointment’ when referring to Obama. Would one use that word speaking of either Clinton? I don’t think so. This is a side bar effect of the racism that is so constitutive of the American psyche. The white male hierarchical world view no longer can hold up beneath the weight of its contradictions. These are the final death spasms of white privilege, of liberal paternalism, and all that is left is to dispense disappointment. For YOU did not give me what I have come to expect. Couple this to the crisis of image — and the still photograph now reads as “memory”. And by extension as “history”. Freeze a frame, and leave it as an ersatz still photo, and the effect is to create a mimetic reading that starts with “memory”. The idea of memory. For real memory is harder and harder to access for all of us, I think. The delirium of Sirk’s pastels, the sense of libidinal repression created uninterrupted anxiety, and anxiety without anticipation. The use of melodrama as an X-ray of bourgeois frustration was the sort of filmic work that once destabilized rather than reinforced the master narrative. The pulp narratives of noir, the work of mostly German Jewish emigre directors was a counter narrative that connected, even if as a dream, with the pain and anger of the working class. Today, none of that (almost) comes out of Hollywood.
The invention of memory. This created artifact of advanced capital is a place holder where the idea of the moral once was. Moral autonomy recedes further and further into the distance, further out of reach, and kitsch storytelling is the constant, the corollary to the perma-image that is the backdrop to a life trapped on the sound stage.