Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

It's January 1951 and Alistair Cooke muses on the burgeoning American TV industry.

Broadcast on: BBC Radio 7, 1:45pm, Tuesday, 18th November 2008

Duration: 15 minutes

NB: I made this transcription whilst listening to the programme on BBC iPlayer

Letter from America, January 1951

“Well the winter is really on us and the life of anyone living in the North Eastern States is settling down to a routine very, very different from the life of last summer and autumn. I mean the cyclical life, not just because they’re air raid shelters going up and signs all over town. The Department of Sanitation in New York, for instance, once again has its night staff on call in case of a blizzard. It has, as usual, a whole new set of gadgets, some new style snow ploughs with electronic buzzers out front that thrash through snow drifts and pile everything in neat rows on the side along the gutter. The newspapers are running their perpetual winter series on the common cold, which, for all the wonderful advances in bacteriology of the past thirty years, defies any form of treatment but hacking, and snuffling, and watching and waiting.

"For the third year in succession, New York is full again of sun-tanned young beauties from the West Coast. Girls who have given up struggling up the Hollywood ladder and have come to New York – or have come back to New York – where there are jobs galore for them in television. For the first winter in history, the papers print a daily half-page, in fine print, of television programmes; just as long as the radio list. It used to be a little corner in a single column, with the stations opening for business around five in the afternoon and going off at ten. Now, they start at nine in the morning with a programme called Morning Chapel, and the news, and then end at midnight with the news.

"These new habits sneak up on you so slyly and quickly that it’s rather hard to realise what morons we were a couple of years ago. In those primitive days, a housewife had to make her own mind up after breakfast where to shop and what to buy. But now, after Morning Chapel comes: The Television Shopper. There was a time too when housewives, busy sweeping, and washing dishes, and vacuuming, used to have to amuse the baby on the side. But – presto! – 10:00 a.m. – The Babysitter Show, meant to rivet the baby’s wayward attention while Mother gets on with the chores.

"The conscientious housewife, once she’s through the daily dusting and cleaning, used to look over a couple of mixing bowls, an egg beater, and whatever meat was in the ice box, and think about the old man’s supper. Now, between eleven and noon, she has a choice of advice – new wrinkles [sic?], new recipes, all being demonstrated, mixed and cooked – usually looks like lava – on two programmes: Kitchen Fare, and Kitchen Capers.

"If she should begin to feel lonely any time before lunch, there’s no excuse anymore for calling on Mrs Brown next door. Mrs Brown has come to the television screen; and with other unemployed matrons, can be seen prattling over this and that on a programme called The Coffee Club. From noon on, if the housewife isn’t through her work, she ought to be. The networks give themselves over unashamedly to amusement: The Cathy Norris Show; The Joe Franklin Show; The Johnny Olsen Show; and then a few more half hours of intensive cooking lessons and demonstrations and the news is beginning to rear its ugly head.

"Then music, and comedy shows and music and Homemakers’ Guide and interviews with celebrities and models and dress shows and advice to parents. Evening is coming on, naturally. And then, as the twilight falls, a barrage of news programmes. And then, Hopalong Cassidy, and puppet shows and cowboy films and the Weather Man from Chicago. And a quarter hour at the zoo. At this point, by which time, Mother has either turned the darned thing off and gone back to life, or gone into arthritis and lost her wandering baby through the bedroom window.

"At this point I ought to say that one of the discoveries of American television has been an assortment of odd, anonymous characters, usually middle aged and Middle Western, with a genius for rambling on in a fascinating way about some scientific specialty. There is a man out in Chicago who loves animals like nobody since Noah and comes up with little shows about ___ (?) and pandas and racoons and snakes, with all the easy wonder and the proud knowledge of a father of quadruplets.

"The Weather Man is another who comes over one network every night – he’s also from Chicago. He turns to a great empty map of America, empty that is except for the mountain ranges lightly sketched in. He talks about the weather the way some people talk about football and others about murder trials. Of course, he has a continent to play with. And for anybody interested in weather, America is a rich playground. Cattle may be going down for the third time in oceans of snow in Montana, while blondes are frisking in the warm green waters of Florida.

"The Weather Man always licks his lips and cocks his eyebrows, not in an annoying, actorish way, but because he has a genuine relish for the surprises he has in store. “Well,” he says, and he takes a menacing brush – I mean a paint brush, about five inches wide, in his hand: “Well”, he says, “there’s trouble ahead for you people who live in the, uh, North West there, and, uh, up all the way along the Mid-West to the Great Lakes. A full sized blizzard came roaring in from the Pacific last night.” He takes his brush and he paints, in I’m told red paint, a stream of roaring blizzard across the Pacific Northwest and across the Cascades and the bitter routes [?].

"He says, “It’s across the Great Plains today, and it’ll be here in Iowa, and Illinois and Wisconsin tomorrow. But here’s good news for you people on the Lake Shore,” he sweeps his brush right across the western half of the nation and lets it stop short of Lake Michigan. “Seems,” he says with a foxy smile, “there’s a high pressure belt, just an itsy bitsy high pressure belt stuck somewhere north of Milwaukee down through Indiana; it’s gonna hold off that blizzard, it may even divert it north, but for a day or two. So you folks here in town or up in Wisconsin, you don’t have to worry about a thing till I see you again. You oughta be right snug inside that high pressure belt.”

"Isotherms and equinoxes are just a couple of baby bears to this man. And I swear that he teaches more people – adults as well as children – more about how weather is made than all the text books they never looked at. He saves the mean punch-line. Jus before he goes off he remembers something, “Oh, yes,” he says, “the temperatures. Well, let’s see now, through the Midwest it’ll be around twenty degrees tonight, that’s twelve degrees with frost,” a form of expression never used, by the way, in the United States. A number means above zero, thus thirty or twelve; ten below means below zero. Then he rattles off a few significant figures: “Chicago, twelve tonight, up around thirty in the day tomorrow; little higher away across New England. In the Northern Great Plains, it’ll be between twenty and twenty-five below zero. Great Falls, Montana, somewhere down around forty-five below. Miami,” he says, “eighty-five by day, around seventy at night. Goodnight.”

"Television, as you may have noticed, is a great thing to kick around and have fun with. But I think I’d better tell you that, although for hours, it is possible to drown in mediocrity. There are by now quite a lot of first rate programmes, not so much plays and ballets, which are obvious stuff, but nonetheless fascinating, if done thoroughly with lots of rehearsal, something that American television doesn’t go in for so far. The really outstanding things in American television are group discussions of all sorts, big and small; news programmes; and comedy shows. The best comedy shows are not necessarily the ones done by comedians who were famous in radio, or on the stage, though two or three of those big evening shows are incomparable.

"For another animal the television has thrown up is the young man, usually in his early thirties, who is glib, inconsequential in a Groucho Marx sort of way, and very much at home with a microphone wandering around a big studio audience, interviewing people and sometimes the crew, the television crew, talking back at them, insulting them. Now, there’s no point in my mentioning any names, because they would mean nothing to you; they meant nothing to us six months ago. There are about a half dozen of them: spry, easy going, irreverent, who just have a natural sense of irony and rely on it to fill a nightly hour or half hour with a studio audience. Nightly.

"One of them the other night had no set routine, couldn’t think what to do with his audience and just ordered his dinner up. It came in with real, non-actor, waiters and he sat and ate it for half an hour and thought aloud and kidded the waiters in one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

"Now, it’s obvious by this time that television is murder on anybody who must rely on a writer, on a script. And just as the talking picture doomed to sudden death the beautiful profiles with rasping voices, so television has already registered a high mortality among actors and actresses and comedians who must learn lines; the race is to the quick witted, and there’s already a fine crop of such.

"The news programmes, I think, are just about the best achievement of television so far. The news commentators are beginning to throw away their news tape and talking about the news, some of them, swiftly, easily, and accurately without script. In fifteen minutes, one network opens with its news announcer, he gives you the main headlines, then they switch to Washington for a movie of Congress that morning, and then to a studio in Washington for a couple of minutes with a couple of Senators thrashing over the topic of the day. Then back to New York for spoken news, read against still pictures, maps and diagrams of Korea. Then a three minute shot of Korean news reels flown in that day. And then out to Chicago for movies taken last night of a blizzard, a mine disaster, the British Ambassador making a speech, or whatever. And then back to New York for the late flashes, and so an end.

"There has been quite a bit of comment here in the last week or two on Mr T. S. Eliot’s comment that Britain should beware of television as a grave threat to – these were not his words, but I think his sense – as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence, and culture in general. The great question: “What will it do to our children?” rocked around the nation last year. A lot of us sympathise with Mr Eliot, but honestly see the facts going against us. For instance, mediocrity practically doesn’t exist to a child. Mediocrity is in the eye and the judgement of the beholder, and I would hesitate to say what is good or bad for a ten year old. I know what’s educational, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing as what is good or bad.

"However, to the dismay of us conscientious, culture-conscious, and perhaps slightly hypochondriacal parents, Northwestern University has just published the results of its survey on what television does to the child. And its answer is: nothing. Nothing that hadn’t already been there or been done before. Television it seems is a reflector of what’s in the child, not a poisonous snake infecting him from outside. They found for instance that the amount of time spent on television by anyone or any hundred of children has no sort of correlation with their marks in school. Perhaps it does, after all, go in through one eye and out through the other, causing no pain, and, I must confess, a lot of pleasure.

"The rising generation then is going to the dogs just as fast, or as slow, as you and I did, remember? It’s a hard world for us moralists, isn’t it?”


NB: It seems that the zoo show was called Zoo Parade with a Mr Perkins who was director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the programme aired on NBC. Additionally, I would like to note that it would be interesting to compare these statements on television to those aired by Edward R. Murrow (as dramatised in the film Goodnight, and Good Luck), those written by Raymond Williams in 1974 in his book Television and by Pierre Bourdieu on French television and transcribed in his book On Television.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Obey Hope

Let me begin by saying that I am elated that Barack Obama is our new President (well, currently, President Elect). Let me also state emphatically: the man is neither the Second Coming NOR the Anti-Christ. Should it not be obvious, I'm originally from Texas - I suspect a fair few there harbour secret fear that our 44th President is in fact the harbinger of end times (and in such a scenario, does this cast Oprah as the whore of Babylon?). As I said on Wednesday to John, 'Ah, look, Texas didn't go for Obama.' John's reply: 'August, if Texas had gone for Obama, that would have been the headline.'

And he's right - Texas remains one of the most conservative states in the Union. There are many people in that state of many affliations and attitudes and I am not tarring 22 million people with the same brush. But even all the cool folk of Austin can't outweigh the predominance of Bible bashers (I should know - some of my nearest and dearest are; even if, as my friend Marc assures me, they are of the 'liberal' end of Evangelicals. And I suppose, as with my mother, it is rare to find Dorothy Parker fans who also believe in the literalism of the good book...).

So to the emotional histrionics: the Obama victory was so desired by so many of us. People who wanted to expunge the eight years under George Walker Bush. People who wished the illegal war in Iraq had not been waged as we had demonstrated in our millions on 15 February 2003. People who, post-9/11, had wanted justice not vengance. We see in Obama the potential for a President who has lived outside of the USA and grew up out of the contiguous 48 states (it was as if McCain felt - okay the PUMAs want a woman at all costs, hmmmm, and Obama grew up in Hawaii - aha! Palin - female and Alaska - that'll do!). Someone whose life experiences have shown him more than the internal myth-making machines any American child grows up shaped by: someone who sees America in relation to the rest of the world - not someone who sees America as the world.

We see in Obama, the potential for an intelligent, diplomatic engager who voted against attacking Iraq. We understand that he was running to be leader of a still highly conservative country and that concessionary postures would be forthcoming once the nomination was secured. But even for someone looking for a real Left to revitalise in the US, Obama promised a chance for a radical departure from the fascistic policies we'd faced under Bush (even if some of this radicalism was restricted to the level of identity politics; nonetheless, the thought that, after the poaching of the 2000 election by the Bush family, a non-dynastic mixed race new politician with roots as a lawyer who opted to work as a community organiser in the city of (the now late) Studs Terkel could be the head of our state was thrilling).

And yet. The hysterical response to Obama's victory has smacked of the verso to the Death of Diana as experienced in the UK. Or a positive verso to the recto of the witch-hunting over BBC presenters Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and their upset to Andrew Sachs (who, as John said, is not a 'national treasure' as some have said, but an actor reknowed for playing a racist stereotype on 13 episodes of a 1970s sitcom!) over his 'Satanic slut' granddaughter. It's band-wagon emotionalism. Can't there be jubulation, relief, pleasure and rational thought all at once? Can't we be a nation that eschews the hooting and shouting of the football field or wrestling match when in the arena of politics?

I know emotions are manipulated and pursued throughout campaigns and have been for dozens of decades. But shouldn't we want to rise above the level of infantile attachments and remain at the level of considered thought? Must everything remain childish like never ending high school pep rallies? Does everyone want the tyranny of the Ballmer world of 'developers, developers, developers'? Where everyone's a cheerleader or vocally opposed to the baddies of the piece, as if the real world were one real pantomime? Why must everything become a performance? A comedy in which we are all the live studio audience?

Why must melodrama be our bathetic genre of choice when the going gets tough? Why do we need to amuse ourselves to death and reduce real issues to punchlines? Why must we engage with a politician's views - whether we identify with them or find them abhorrent - on the level of sexist or racist abuse couched as jokes and jibes and love nothing more than someone who can laugh at themselves? Why are we thrilled when politicians take a night off the stump and engage in a formal white tie and tails event where they mock themselves and each other? Is light relief that important? Must we tamp down our terror in the face of wars and economic collapse and global instability through limp satire and raucous laughter as we push further and further towards trivialising the world's most pressing concerns into a daily show of idiocracy?

Why do we find inspiration in Fairey's Hope Obama and Progress Obama posters? These are developed out of his Obey Giant programme. One developed from a 'They Live' John Carpenter film inspiration about manipulation and selling - combined with a wrestler's visage of Big Brother styled staring eyes - to create a purposefully enigmatic and compelling image. It is a provocation - and yet the Obama work is meant to be straight-forward, uncomplicated advocacy? How does that work within visual communication / cultural terms? Does no one find this troubling or worth discussion?

Obama's campaign made an emotionally manipulative / affecting music video which is on YouTube. It is called signs of hope and change. It is a montage of 'ordinary Americans' holding - a la Bob Dylan or Gillian Wearing - signs which simply say either Hope or Change. And it is set to a loop of the rousing instrumental opening to the song 'Fake Empire' by the band The National. Even the names of the band and the song seem pointed; yet not too didactic or polemical. It's a frustrating video because it sucker punches you on the level of the emotions.

After eight years of intensified imperialistic militarism and rampaging global greed for resources and power - Americans were desparate for precisely such signs of change and hope. Yet it feels so vapid - Change; Hope; Progress. Change we need. Yes we can. Can what? What change? Are we talking about African Americans finally reaching beyond the years of segregation and racist denial of their right to exist freely in their own country?

Are we talking about change from the fascism of surveillance and dirty wars and torture and extraordinary rendition and blacksites and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Kissinger leading the inquiry into 9-11 and Colin Powell (rewarded for helping to initially keep quiet My Lai by Nixon appointing him to a White House role and thereby launching his career via this nasty backhander) with his slideshow to the UN to push for the invasion and occupation of Iraq? Change what - hope for what - progress from what and towards what?

And then one day it struck me. I was reminded of a piece Fred Orton wrote on Jasper Johns (sic: actually, it seems it was Jonathan Katz on Johns and Rauschenberg; he's written several pieces on this). He said that Johns had to develop a kind of visual code within his work of the 1950s - that it was an encryption of real intentions and real meanings, tied up with his situation as a gay man in a world where such identities had to stay on the level of the hidden and merely hinted at; where overt expressions were physically and legally dangerous. And this is when all the euphemistic discourse came into focus.

It was not the vacuous talk of ad-speak - where new and exciting and improved are bandied about without concrete specifications so that we are bedazzled into opting for unnecessary purchases. It was the password at the door - it was the underground railroad in the world where Big Brother is watching and listening and the Patriots Act as though they'll round you up at any minute. Where everyone is insecure about what they can and can't say or do. Where overt expressions feel physically and legally dangerous. Where short story writers get detained at airports and Cat Stevens packed back onto a plane and disallowed entry to talk to Dolly Parton. Where people are deported and disappeared and no one talks about it: they just carry on shopping.

That's when I understood the need for signs of hope and change. Let's just hope that the change we need is what he delivers.


PS - this is quite funny: Palin & Bush