Above: David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates how TV works.
The above clip from David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates the functioning of a television set and why it is so effective. We can consciously (or cynically) disavow what we see, float in and out of attentiveness, or change the channel – but as in the above clip, the raw effect of television is to impress thousands of carefully curated images upon the brain. By showing television in its reduced form, this clip demonstrates the futility of conscious engagement with the medium.
Beyond offering this insight into television, David Holzman’s Diary is a classic of media criticism. It marks the inauguration of the mock-documentary genre, appearing as a novelty in1967. The film draws into question the assumption of objectivity that accompanied the cinema verité documentary movement. It concerns a New York filmmaker who, ironically sensing a disconnection from reality, decides to film everything in his life. As such, the film consists of diary passages in which David Holzman opens up to his camera, or alternatively ventures out into the public sphere. It mixes staged narrative passages with pure observational cinema, in the spirit of New York street photography.
The above sketch from television’s Mr. Show allows us to see how advertising works in today’s late capitalist society. This is important because, in doing so, it shows us how the culture industry (of which advertising is a principal representative) and the traditional capitalist corporation are somewhat at odds with one another. Though this is not to say that, like in the sketch, they can’t get together at the end of the day so as to divvy up the profits from a so-called “good job”.
I will offer an interpretation of this sketch through the following headings: a) Mr. GloboChem; b) Pit-pat vs. Ding-Dong; and c) Grandma Betsy’s transcendent biscuits. These titles are intended to point to what has been placed in the background, so to speak, of each of these highly amusing bits: a) the capitalist corporation’s violent origins; b) the mechanisms of psychological manipulation in modern advertising; and c) the synthesis of all culture under the science of demographics. If these descriptions seem daunting, I assure you that their meanings will become more intelligible as the article goes on.
Above: An iconic scene from John Carpenter’s They Live – starting at 1:30.
This clip from John Carpenter’s film They Live can teach us a great deal about the way that ideology works today.
What we should immediately notice is how there are two levels of messaging at play: the explicit ‘normal’ world and the implicit ‘hidden’ world, which is only exposed when the actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper puts on the sunglasses. This is what allows him to see the world underneath: all visual media content (billboards, magazines, television, etc.) are reduced to propagandas like “OBEY,” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “CONSUME,” and so on. Along with this, certain people are revealed to be weird aliens while satellite dishes broadcast strange signals from the top of every set of streetlights. Through this “beautifully naïve mise-en-scene,” as Slavoj Zizek describes it, “we learn to see dictatorship IN democracy.”
Above: This political debate will entertain you beyond what is reasonable.
In what John Stewart aptly labeled an “Amerigasm,” the first-ever Tea Party Republican Presidential Debate has refined the science of TV democracy. CNN, on Tea Party Express buck, has done away with standard TV debate form. Incorporating elements of reality TV, particularly in its many introduction sequences, the debate swaps political discourse for high-octane entertainment.
Packed into this TV extravaganza was an extended performance of the star-spangled banner, a red-white-and-blue, star-covered arena of democracy (assembled for the occasion), a radically conservative crowd, and eight All-American potential presidents. Only the word “politics” displayed meaninglessly behind the candidates, or the occasional interjection from Ron Paul, remind us that this game show is somehow more important than all others.
Above: Napoleon Bonaparte and George Washington square off in battle.
According to Spike TV’s hit show The Deadliest Warrior, George Washington was great because he was great at killing people.
Answering questions that nobody asked by Michael Toledano
A viking versus a samurai, a pirate versus a knight, the IRA versus the Taliban, Nazi Waffen-SS versus Viet Cong, Saddam Hussein versus Pol Pot, Teddy Roosevelt versus Lawrence of Arabia, George Washington versus Napoleon Bonaparte: Who is deadliest?
This is the question which Spike TV’s runaway hit series, The Deadliest Warrior, seeks to answer.
Thomas Pynchon wrote, in Gravity’s Rainbow, that “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” Needless to say, the culture industry has us asking the wrong questions. Once and for all, centuries of apparent speculation will be laid to rest as arbitrary decisions are made about ahistoric battles between implausible combatants—for example, George Washington and Napoleon.
Above: This clip featuring columnist and broadcaster Darcus Howe has been going viral over the past week.
When you first viewed this clip, you may, like me, have said something akin to “Speak, brother.” You may also have felt ideology becoming palpable before your eyes—this is a verbal battle between incompatible realities. Darcus Howe and the BBC newsreader, Fiona Armstrong, become not people, but caricatures of the ideologies they represent. Armstrong, a white woman, sits in the chaste BBC studio in front of a greenscreen, untouchable by the chaos of the street or the violence of the rioters. Howe, a black man, stands in front of a burning building as firefighters behind him try to put out the blaze.
In this confrontation, Armstong becomes the mouthpiece of the dominant ideology. She reads lines off of a teleprompter and when she looks away she forgets Howe’s name, calling him Marcus Dowe. The worldview she presents is simple: if Howe was not “shocked” by the riots, he condones them. When he refuses to cooperate, she tries to reduce him to the role of “rioter.” At every step, she tries to disarm the reality Howe is thrusting before her by slotting it into the BBC’s predetermined story. Unfortunately for her, all these tactics and more won’t work, because Darcus Howe didn’t get the memo.
In 1956, having observed television’s initial popularity explosion, Gunther Anders wrote about the massive social and perceptual transformation wrought by this new form of mass media in an essay with the most ridiculous title imaginable.
THE WORLD AS PHANTOM AND AS MATRIX by Gunther Anders
Modern mass consumption is a sum of solo performances; each consumer, an unpaid homeworker employed in the production of the mass man.
In the days before the cultural faucets of radio and television had become standard equipment in each home, the Smiths and Millers used to throng the motion picture theaters where they collectively consumed the stereotyped mass products manufactured for them. One might be tempted to regard it as peculiarly appropriate that the mass product should be thus consumed by a compact mass. Such a view, however, would be mistaken. Nothing contradicts the essential purpose of mass production more completely than a situation in which a single specimen of a commodity is simultaneously enjoyed by several, let alone by numerous, consumers. Whether this consumption is a “genuine communal experience or merely the sum of many individual experiences, is a matter of indifference to the mass producer. What he needs is not the compact mass as such, but a mass broken up or atomized into the largest possible number of customers; he does not want all of his customers to consume one and the same product, he wants all of his customers to buy identical products on the basis of an identical demand which has also to be produced.
Even the most cynical among us can find something enviable about Bruno Mars, be it his precision-crafted pompadour, his truckloads of money, or his apparent invulnerability in the face of American class-1 drug laws. He is Elektra records’s golden boy, transformed by the brute force of finance capital into a new king of pop. We find him forced upon us from the top-tier of the musical mass media: international radio stations (like Virgin) and music-oriented television stations (MuchMusic, MTV, etc) have taken Bruno Mars and multiplied him to infinity.
Two days ago we went to the MMVAs with signs (for the uninitiated, this is the brainwashing super-spectacle of the Much Music Video Awards). We were not there to protest but to hack reality, taking the ideology of the event more literally than it takes itself. We spoke as overzealous TV fans, praising television for its corporate superstructure and its role in stupefying our society.
Above: Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman’s Television Delivers People (1973)
With brevity and humour, Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman explain how your television set functions and why it should be turned off most of the time. 38 years after its initial release, Television Delivers People remains a potent reminder of why everything on television is suspect, and why CNN should never be taken seriously.
Internalizing the lessons of the structural film movement, Television Delivers People takes the structure of television as its central subject. It reduces the medium to its most basic elements: Colour, text and sound. The film’s scrolling essay, a condemnation of television with (now) familiar arguments, is placed over a soothing blue hue and matched with the canned pleasantry of elevator music. The film retains television’s unique capacity for entertainment while condemning its commercial superstructure; as it argues that we take pleasure in our cognitive enslavement, it rejects boredom by adopting the music of mindless entertainment.