Sunday, February 22, 2009

_Wall-E's_ Debt to D.W. Griffith

To describe the gentle movements of Wall-E’s eponymous, robot hero, critics have regularly invoked the poetic physicality of Charlie Chaplin and, occasionally, Buster Keaton. This seems particularly apt in the film’s opening thirty minutes, when the robot’s trash compacting movements around a desolate Earth is synchronized with music and proves expressive to the point that dialogue is unnecessary. The parallel continues to be relevant as Wall-E leaves Earth in romantic pursuit of Eve, a vegetation-seeking robot, calling to mind Chaplin’s City Lights, in which the Little Tramp falls for a blind matchgirl. That masterwork, despite appearing in 1931 after the movie sound era begin, was a silent production dependent on character’s visual expression of emotion.

If the comparisons to silent film virtuosi resonate in celebrating the gestural subtleties of Pixar’s animation, they lack historical depth. No critics I have read have pursued the parallels they draw with Chaplin or Keaton in contemporary reviews. To a certain degree, that’s fine: the point of mentioning these past giants is to celebrate a technological updating of the timeless capacity of cinema to convey characters’ feeling and emotion through their visual movement alone.

History is important to Wall-E, though. This is true not only when considering the film’s comments, offered from seven hundred years in the future, about our present destruction of the environment. The past also operates more complexly in the ways the film itself tells its story. But neither Chaplin nor Keaton is the key to understanding this history. The key figure here is David Wark Griffith.

D.W. Griffith is best known for having directed The Birth of a Nation, the seminal 1915 film that was at once a momentous step forward for narrative filmmaking and a vile racist account of the Civil War and Reconstruction whose heroes were the Ku Klux Klan. Yet despite this unpardonable offense in visualizing invidious racial politics, Griffith was also a father, indeed a founder, of narrative filmmaking as we have inherited it. A master at consolidating the advances wrought by others and creating his own innovations in visualizing more an more complex stories on screen. The use of parallel editing to build suspense while simultaneously tracking separate dramatic developments and the visual development of complex psychological characters are but two of the legacies of the hundreds of films, mostly shorts, made by Griffith.

While shaping film narrative in the early, formative years of the twentieth century, Griffith was nevertheless an unalterably nineteenth-century man. He had been born in Kentucky in 1875, the son of a former Confederate army officer who had been a hero in the Civil War. Another way to conceive of this connection is to recall that fewer years separated the appearance of The Birth of a Nation and the events it recounted than we in 2009 are separated from the end of World War II. While much else has changed in renderings of the past and shaping of collective memory, of course, the point is that such a defining event still held great sway in the popular imagination. Perhaps more generally important was the sentimental cast on which he relied for constructing coherent stories about the world and especially the historical past.

Returning to Wall-E, the film appears to contain a direct if fleeting nod to Griffith. Midway through, after discovering soil left by our intrepid robotic hero on the Axiom spaceship, the previously inactive human captain requests a computer lecture about the soil and planting. Various images flash before his eyes, and ours, but the very first is recognizable from its place in film history. It shows a single man, bag slung over one shoulder, walking slowly and spreading seeds through a field. The image is drawn from A Corner in Wheat, a 1909 short film made by Griffith.

The short was adapted from Frank Norris’s 1902 novel, The Pit. The titular “corner” is the control that one mogul seeks over the world’s wheat market and the film dwells on the contrast, developed through skillful editing, between the profligate lives of financial speculators and the sufferings of the poor who cannot afford bread when wheat prices are artificially increased. A cautionary tale for the turn-of-the-century progressive era, modern urban excess is critiqued in favor of a more equitable agrarian past. Pictorially, the closing pastoral image of the film that appears in Wall-E is itself a reproduction of Millet’s 1850 painting, The Sower, which idealized a peasant farmer.

Griffith was nostalgic here in the truest sense of that word: he yearned for an imagined past, particularly a past home, that never was. Nostalgia is a timeless impulse, of course, and it is fair to observe that stories tinged with nostalgia are, if not universal, largely unbound by historical era or place. Cinema has always been about nostalgia – some film philosophers claim that the medium’s defining condition is the celebration of the continuity of the world through viewing actors and experiences captured on celluloid (or, now, disk) that we know existed in the past. As a late nineteenth and early twentieth-century invention, however, cinema has most consistently trafficked in nostalgia for a pre-modern, pre-urban, pre-mechanical past that can be juxtaposed with the viewer’s present.

Besides the happy ending to Wall-E and Eve’s romance, the story in the Pixar production concludes with the hopeful return to Earth – to “home,” as the captain repeatedly says – of the previously inactive human occupants of the Axiom. The planet has become habitable again, they believe, based on the successful growth of a single green plant. They excitedly elect to pursue their future by returning hopefully to their past, seeking to re-create home in a world that they can now only imagine, or have imaged for them by technology.

If Wall-E is primarily a sentimental romance in the tradition of City Lights, its background story of societal change extends the tradition of A Corner in Wheat to address the collective need of humans to get back in touch – here, literally – with the physicality of their surroundings, notably the Earth itself. That latter story, also told a century ago by Griffith, remains a quintessentially modern one: our ongoing quest for newer and better technologies must be balanced by an uncertain fascination with the consequences of their use that drives us to embrace the imagined visions and values of the past. With its combination of breathtaking animation and adroit storytelling, Pixar offers, to many, the best of a new generation of technological filmmaking. Yet even as the medium continues to evolve into the twentieth-first century, and even to tell stories about the twenty-eighth, their latest production suggests that cinema remains squarely rooted in its own imagined past of nostalgic returns and hopeful new beginnings.

Friday, February 13, 2009

_What Would Google Do?_ PowerPoint

I heard Jeff Jarvis give a brief talk last night about What Would Google Do? The book deserves full reading and consideration -- there's much in it both to admire and critique -- but here's a provocative if skeletal summary presentation of some its ideas.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Noble Terrorist?: Thoughts inspired by _Seven Days to Noon_

If Alfred Hitchcock had made The Naked City in London, and substituted Cold War atomic politics for domestic criminality, the film would have been something like this....

Directed in Britain in 1950 by John and Roy Boulting, Seven Days to Noon tells the story of the pursuit of a scientist who has threatened to explode an atomic bomb unless his government agrees to renounce atomic weaponry. Led by a Superintendent Folland of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, the investigation follows the scientist, Professor Willingdon, from his rural research center to London. Over the seven days stipulated by Willingdon in his ultimatum letter, the film traverses London as his pursuers slowly track him down. The city, eventually evacuated as a precaution, ends up appearing surreally empty. On the seventh day, the police find the scientist, kill him in a moment of confusion, and disarm the bomb.

Like many thrillers, the narrative both follows the Scotland Yard investigation of the plot and functions as an investigation itself. Of what? Visually, of postwar London. Shot on location, at times in overtly documentary style, and occasionally incorporating stock footage of city life and police activity, the film dwells on the diversity of the city’s places and inhabitants. This is conspicuously highlighted in the unorthodox opening credits, the words of which move swiftly across the screen from right to left over a virtual travelogue of the city. If the film’s first third is taken up with the presentation of plot and the initiation of the police investigator’s search for the would-be bomber, the second third is given over to the city as a lead character – both the space controlled by the police who search it thoroughly and an unending array of places in which the would-be bomber can hide. We consequently see hotels, barbershops, bars, gambling halls, and rooming houses; that is, the heart of the people’s city.

In a way, this evokes a grand tradition of using the film camera to penetrate and illuminate the ordinarily unseen, marginal spaces of the modern city. Think of German films of the Weimar period, as Tom Gunning has noted so incisively in writing about Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler, in which the contest between good and evil, or at least official order and criminality, is fought in part over the control of vision of the urban world. Which parts of the city are illuminated and made visible and which are left in darkness and invisible to official eyes and the film camera? To be sure, Seven Days to Noon is not a film on par with Dr. Mabuse. Yet part of what’s fascinating in the Boultings’ production is how exactly it reorients some of the central ideas represented so profoundly by Lang and others in the long cinematic tradition of representing the modern city.

Instead of critiquing the often arbitrary distinction between official and under-worlds by showing their similar motivations and values, Seven Days to Noon dwells on the urban spaces of ordinary people, including, yes, less flattering sites like dance halls and bars. That these spaces enjoy a pride of place and warrant neither parallel nor justification with the physical monuments of official London suggest that what is ultimately at stake in the atomic age is not states or government buildings so much as people and everyday spaces and lives. While hardly audacious, such humanism is refreshing for a genre, the thriller, more often characterized by superficial action, tinny political motivations or fashionable pessimism.

The final third of the film dramatizes the evacuation of the city ordered by the Prime Minister. It is here that the film’s historical moment of production warrants comment. Made in 1950, Seven Days to Noon seeks to evoke the spirit of solidarity and grand purpose of the recent wartime past as still relevant to the new threats of the atomic age. This is most clearly evinced in the willing transport of the citizenry out of town, which almost surely would have appeared as a reassuring reminder to Londoners that they remained capable of responding successfully to the new atomic threat just as they had the earlier one of Nazi attacks. The more visible outcome in the film is a stunningly empty city (imagine a precursor, made a half-century earlier, to the arresting opening visuals of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).

Again mindful of how the city had so recently been a battleground, the images of uninhabited but mostly rebuilt and intact buildings also serve as a kind of postwar tribute to the resolute British spirit. Ultimately, though, the resulting vision of empty streets suggests a kind of stand-off in the struggle for visual control of the city between the police and the bomb-wielding professor: while the emptiness literally results from a state-administered evacuation, the necessity for that action has been driven by Willingdon. Even more, the scenes are strangely haunting in their suggestion of the potential consequences of the scientist’s threat fulfilled.

It is here that we come to the question of terrorism. In the era of mass media, terrorism can be understood as an attempt, for political ends, to control information, narratives, images, knowledge and feeling through the intimidation and fear of individuals remote from the physical acts being threatened. As I’ve argued elsewhere, such a formulation recognizes the importance and complicated operation of media for communicating distant experience. More interestingly, this model suggests that, if judged by the same standards, mainstream media makers might fall into the same category of provocateurs and intimidators. Consider Hitchcock bringing a ticking bomb onto a loaded city bus: the act drives the narrative of a film about the evil done by those disrupting public order on-screen (the film is Sabotage, from 1936) in order to manipulate the emotions of audience members safely on the other side of that screen but whose viewing of the commercial film tends to set them in a particular political position. So is Hitchcock a terrorist? Or is the Eastern European villain, Verloc (played by Oscar Homolka)?

One answer is, of course not: neither threatens real people with actual violence. Yet recalling the importance to our conception of terrorism of the intimidation of people at a distance from the threat of violence depicted through media, the answer grows murkier. To label an individual a terrorist, or an act terrorism, indeed requires acknowledgment of the role and reach of media. It also demands a sensitivity to the political character of words and behaviors. We tend not to think of mainstream films or other commercial media as political in the same way as the overt propaganda of some zealots or groups. For some, though, commercializing or commodifying media and entertainment is entirely political – socializing and pacifying viewers, feeding the maw of consumers, serving as an opiate for the masses.

Where this potentially leads is to a questioning of one’s perspective and, especially, the consistent privileging of some perspectives over others. How do we approach commercial films, for instance, or even news? As somehow politically neutral or as manifestations of a specific political and economic structure? As means, moreover, for a particular shaping and packaging of information and emphasis on some images and narratives over others? These questions should not be understood as leading to the conclusion that all perspectives are somehow equivalent, morally or otherwise. We need to be able differentiate perspectives and politics and the media practices communicating them without that kind of reductionism.

The same logic of privileging, of making visible versus keeping invisible, pervades individual narratives and the actions and motivations of individuals occupying them. How do we compare the actions of Superintendent Folland and Professor Willingdon? More fundamentally, how do make sense of the contrasting assumptions about atomic weapons held by the British government in Seven Days to Noon (in the characters of Folland and especially the fictional Prime Minister) and by scientist? That the film doesn’t delve into these different understandings and motivations is partly a function of it being a thriller more interested in the chase itself than the background rationale. Yet the very absence of sustained elaboration of the reasons for Willingdon’s actions, of his presumably humanist convictions and beliefs, is illustrative of how media communications rely on partial or fragmentary or even negligible accounts of why individuals behave politically in the way they do.

A frequent critique of commercial media treatments of so-called terrorism is that the details of the perpetrator’s motivations or politics are left undeveloped or written off in broad strokes as irrational, villainous, savage, or simply evil. That approach may heighten dramatic conflict, especially if the conflict is cast as good versus evil, but it ignores the reality that even perpetrators of ghastly violence are people with pasts and thoughts and feelings that presumably have contributed to their complex decision to take extreme actions. Sadly, the neglect of this sociological and psychological complexity is often colored by racism or xenophobia or other biases based in cultural difference.

In the Boulting brothers’ film, Professor Willingdon is a fascinating test case because he embodies the very values that the state itself seems also most to represent or care to defend: he is a loving father and husband, a devoted civil servant, a well-educated producer of knowledge for the greater good. If he is a genius, he’s hardly an evil one. In fact, his motivation in issuing his ultimatum might appear as an expression of the most basic of liberal humanist values, the preservation of self and society. Though he finally comes off as absent-minded and, as a research scientist, na├»ve about the geopolitical realities of the world, his might be seen as a virtuous, even noble reaction to an increasingly uncertain world.

To speak in such terms of Willingdon’s nobility requires a certain perspective on individual virtue, political action and humanist values. One might imagine, for example, a more militant position in which the professor’s thinking fails utterly to account for the Cold War threats to the survival of Britain and its inhabitants. The humanist values he seems to promote are secondary, even inconsequential, if the society does not adopt a policy of realpolitik and arm itself to counter the enemy’s atomic build-up. Naivete trumps nobility in that view.

The larger point is that characterizing intentions as noble, virtuous, or otherwise marked by good principles is largely left to the eye of the beholder. Like the idea of terrorism itself, which has been elastically deployed by many governments over more than two centuries to describe all manner of enemies and villains (recall how Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was once on the U.S. terrorist list), nobility means different things from different perspectives. At least most, if not all individuals labeled by others as terrorists themselves have motivations that they consider good or noble. They want to remake society according to their own vision, do god’s work as they see it, destroy the world in order to save it. From outside that perspective, such intentions may seem irrational or non-sensical but internally they cohere and accord meaning to destructive behavior.

Again, this is not to defend violent action or justify any random vision for employing violence or its threat to change the world. Bloodshed needs to be condemned roundly. However, as the issues surrounding Professor Willingdon’s ultimatum make plain, dismissive labeling of destructive behavior or its threat as simplistically irrational or hateful or evil is neither accurate nor useful. More helpful is a cultivated sensitivity to the complexity of motivations driving these actions and the play of perspectives shaping mediated communications about them. While not a great film, Seven Days to Noon presses us to acknowledge that multiple perspectives in media productions necessarily shape the way we approach both good or noble intentions and the political use or threatened use of violence. Oftentimes, as the film demonstrates in its memorable depictions of postwar London, those perspectives turn on which spaces or persons or experiences are made visible and which are kept invisible -- that is, how some perspectives are privileged over and at the expense of others.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Remaking the FCC?

The current economic crisis has driven ongoing comparisons between the present day and the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. Besides Lincoln, FDR has been the leader most often cited as a possible model for President Obama as he faces today''s many economic and domestic challenges. Roosevelt’s first hundred days, the fifteen major pieces of legislation he signed during them, and the effective creation of the modern U.S. government as we have come to know it make such parallels instructive if also cautionary tales for our time.

Amidst all the commentary and critique, and in an era of globalizing media and technology, it’s perhaps telling that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not been included in most debates about the legacy of that earlier era. To be sure, the FCC was not part of the institutional broadside launched by Roosevelt against the economic collapse. The commission was established by the Communications Act of 1934, which built, in turn, on many of the provisions of the Radio Act of 1927. Then, like now, radio and communications media more generally are not readily conceived to fall within the government’s purview for supporting social and economic well-being. Media in America have tended, instead, to be understood a realm of free speech outside of government control.

In practice, that has meant media are left less to the people and more to corporations. As media historian Robert McChesney has persuasively argued, government regulation of radio emerged at a time of public fascination with the medium and foreclosed an immense range of public and political uses of the new technology in favor of consolidated corporate interests. In the process, the early Congress effectively gave over the “public airwaves” to commercial broadcasters like General Electric with the FCC providing oversight. (McChesney’s Telecommunications, Mass Media, and the Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 is an exceptionally well-researched and revealing account.) It was a defining moment for the convergence of free speech and free markets.

Like many of his other appointees, Julius Genachowski, Obama’s choice to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has drawn praise. A former Harvard Law classmate of the President’s, Genachowski served as a legal adviser to the FCC in the 1990s before working for various dot-com’s (like and and serving as a board member to major media companies (including General Electric and USA Networks). He later counseled Obama during his campaign on media and communications issues. Expectations are that Genachowski will shift the FCC’s priority away from telecommunications providers and toward some combination of enabling technology innovation and supporting increased media user access and possibly rights. One possibility, as The Economist and others have reported, is the creation of subsidies for the promotion of high-speed broadband, particularly wireless broadband.

That’s encouraging news after eight years of FCC myopia focusing on loosening cross-media ownership restrictions and moral micro-oversight of broadcasting. Unlike the former chairman, Kevin Martin, who was a lobbyist and eager at every turn to enable industries to expand freely, Genachowski will likely push back against the media consolidation enabled by its Bush-era predecessors and encourage diversity in media ownership. The effects should both be in the public interest and ultimately valuable to the marketplace.

Yet one wonders what more might be possible were Genachowski, with Obama’s and Congress’s support, to re-conceive of the FCC as the lead agency in a coordinated effort to upgrade our media and communications landscape. If, as the President has rightly said, our transportation infrastructure needs serious improvement and renewal, what about our digital infrastructure? Again, both regulatory precedent and the public value of unrestricted free speech make such wider-ranging reform unlikely. Even more compelling is the fear of free marketers that their opportunity will be usurped by an expanded government role. These are undoubtedly important concerns. But it is also necessary to remember that the digital revolution through which we’re living will have historical consequences even greater than the economic downturn we’re currently suffering. What might be worth considering in response is a fuller partnership between government and industry that would coordinate media and technological development in more efficient and concerted ways. Especially considering its history at the nexus of government, commercial and citizen concerns over the most appropriate operation of communications in American society, the FCC would be a very good place for that conversation to start.