Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Celebrity, Television, Civility

Film producer and publisher Gérard Lebovici (who does not have an IMDB entry) was murdered on March 5, 1984. He was a friend of Guy Debord's, who wrote a slim book, Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici (finally published in English in 2001) attacking the media's treatment of Lebovici and himself and their friendship in light of the assassination (which is still unsolved). At a certain point there is a very telling paragraph that I will quote at length:

"This press campaign had barely been set in motion before numerous journalists attempted to get an interview with me, ringing at my door or even telephoning me directly, despite the fact that my telephone numbers are always unlisted. They were all turned away by my friends. Dozens of photographers, in groups or individuals, and even some cameramen, stationed themselves in front of my windows for several weeks, waiting to get a picture of me on the sly. It is comforting to note that all the time spent by these incompetents came to nothing, with only one exception--after months of trying, someone managed to get a blurry, and not very interesting silhouette taken through a telephoto lens by inflitrating the house next door. The photograph, coupled with some hateful commentary, was then published by Paris-Match. The journalists of today are so accustomed to the public's submission--even their complete delight--when faced with the press' voracious need for information (of which journalists are apparently the great priests, but in fact the hired help) that I truly believe that much of the press deems guilty the person who would claim to not have to explain himself before their authority. But for me, I have always found it a crime to speak with journalists or to appear on television, in other words, to collaborate in the slightest way with the great enterprise of the falsification of reality that is lead by the mass media. It is quite normal for me to think so, and consquently to act this way, since I published the theory on this a long time ago. The press believes that all those who have access to this sort of the celebrity of the moment want it, and indeed want it as often as possible. But I have nothing to sell. Discretion is not viewed well in these times. An article in the March 23 Le Nouvel Observateur provides a revealing demonstration of this: " 'In my long career, I have never seen as strange and mysterious an affair as this one,' said an important police commander.... And he concluded, in a pensive tone: 'What do you expect--by living in secrecy, one dies in darkness.' " In this statement emerges a new sociological law which actually makes one pensive. This "important police commander" has just supplied a brilliant contribution to the theory of the spectacle. He introduces the definition of a new criminal offense. He who does not, of his own free will, make himself as visible as possible in the spectacle, lives in fact in secrecy, since all current communication in society passes through this mediation. He who lives in secrecy is a clandestine person. A clandestine person will be more and more likely to be considered a terrorist. In any case, a clandestine person is not able to frequent honorable people; and one would not therefore be terribly astonished if such person met a violent and mysterious death."

To what extent does one participate in all the Big Media of the day? More and more I feel the urge to turn and 'say no' to as much of it as possible ... but is this just tantamount to a head-in-the-sand approach? Maybe piracy is an answer. I don't know. I broke down and ordered cable in June so that I could watch World Cup games. My girlfriend and I have kept cable, even though I personally only watch it for the occasional soccer match, Food Network program, or--my guilty/unguilty pleasure--Project Runway. I could try to satisfy myself with this: "Oh, I only watch a few shows..." Because really no matter what I think I mean is that I'm still saying, "I pay x amount of dollars each month to have this cabled into my apartment, use it sparingly and so am doubtless paying too much by any standard, but justify my occasional tuning-in as an obedient set of advertisement-bombarded eyes through this very extravagance of barely using something I still pay x amount for." All I'm getting from television is entertainment, and I can get that any number of places, without purchasing the rights to see it month-to-month, and without selling myself as a statistical blip for ratings & advertisers.

One of my favorite blogs is Le Colonel Chabert. Back when le Colonel was known as Alphonse van Worden, she wrote on the work of Patrick O'Brian (of Master and Commander fame):

"The great poet of civility of the 20th century, Patrick O'Brian, proposed a code of civility whose central posture is not a soft voice, peaceable 'diplomatic' manner, or feigned flexibility of opinion, but discretion. The civil being controls his curiosity, permits the other his privacy and anonymity. Asking questions, interrogation, is in the novels of O'Brian a more serious transgression against civility than flinging an unblunted insult or even dealing a physical blow. The forced (or betrayed) confidence is the most heinous violation. 'Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation,' declares the wandering Catalan-Irish-Catholic (crypto-Jew) Dr. Stephen Maturin, United Irishman, physician, natural scientist, and British intelligence agent."


"Amazon knows me better than I quite like. 'Alphonse, this is what we recommend.' Amazingly intuitive usually. I'll take it, and that, and that too. Once in a while something repellant comes up for my consideration, and I can't help but feel Amazon means to insult me. They immediately sense my discomfort. Indeed they read my mind, offering the question, minus two words, that has just entered my head: 'why was I recommended this?' Yes why? And the response sounds irksomely reasonable - because you bought this, that, and that...well so I did. Perhaps they have a point."

"It is impossible to protect one's anonymity with Amazon. Futilely protest your individuality, quirkiness, irreducibility to type."

"Perfect Intimacy: the relationship of the advertiser to the consumer. Seduction and control of which Cholderos de Laclos could not have dreamt, the permanent expulsion of eros from human experience. The ideal romance for capitalism: What Women Want, a film by Mel Gibson, a market researcher's fantasy of free infallible data collection - he hears women's thoughts - a film constructed around a long Nike advertisement which takes the place in the narrative usually reserved for the love scene or ecstasy of shared peril."


The battle against 'bad culture' isn't a matter of high and low (well, maybe for some people it still seems to be) ... it's rather a question of protecting our humanity, our privacy, our civility. If the world changes too drastically, if certain things we hold dear are to be swept aside as happens through history's course, then I would at least want to bend some of these inevitable changes (if inevitable they be) to my own terms, at my own pace. But Guy Debord did this, and is always mentioned with knowing smirks for it. Attacks on Debord tend to be groundless, toothless insults and simplifications. I am not saying Debord is beyond reproach--I am saying that his reproaches against him have often been beyond defense or reason. For several years, as an undergraduate, I just assumed that Debord was influential but irrevocably passé, and far too crusty to be taken too seriously. This was simply the sum result of my having read his name mentioned, usually in passing, enough times, to form this non-opinion almost by osmosis. Why? Because he recognized what culture was doing, he could point a finger at it, name it, accuse it, and to a certain extent reject it. Maybe his way is not my way, but he's one of the ones who provides an example.

This is one of my more disjointed and diaristic blog entries, long too, and with substantial quotes from better writer-thinkers than myself, and therefore not some of my better communication or conceptualization. But does anyone reading this feel they get what I'm trying to describe? An almost helpless feeling, but not totally so, unable to confidently choose a plan of action in dealing with a media-world which simultaneously provides me with purpose (for what do I want to do with myself if not look at images, information, communications, and say something about them?) and which traps me in a giant scheme to make profits (from us, from our "free time") and to try to indoctrinate us ...

(In other words, I want agency, dammit, and don't know how to get it, or feel it, or know I have it.)


Matthew said...

Your last paragraph and parenthesis was all that was needed, Zach, though I appreciate everything else as well.

I'm very tired at the moment, but I'll either comment, post or e-mail you in the next couple of days with some thoughts, hopefully in the wake of having read that Beller articles as well...

Keith Uhlich said...

I get it completely, Zach. Case in point: A few days ago I published a snarky swipe against Ben Affleck winning Best Actor at Venice over on the Reverse Shot blog. It inspired a mini-bitchslap back from several bloggers and made me, yet again, question why I exposed myself so openly on the Internet (unlike print, we can't really bury what we write on here, and so I think we need to be selective and cautious, though - as much as we can - not overly paranoid).

I wonder though, to what extent was my insult an example of my own "paparazzi/invasion of privacy" mentality? I'm not immune to being the hunter as much as the hunted. That's probably a necessary step towards enlightenment on the issue - acknowledge your humanity in all its complexity, then use the resultant free will (which I think effectively negates a lot of society's so-called "arguments") to make the moral choice (in the Eric Rohmer sense) that's right for you.

Nobody ever said it'd be easy. I think of Denzel Washington in Demme's Manchurian Candidate. His journey in that movie is through a maelstrom of media stimuli to a point of righteous bloodletting, after which he can finally proclaim his own identity - the beast that shouts 'I' at the heart of the world.

That's how I see it anyway... at this point. Happy to be sharing your company on the Slant De Palma feature. Hope you'll post your thoughts on Black Dahlia after you see it. I think a good deal of that movie can be related to and discussed in light of what you've written here.

Anonymous said...

Mass electronic media is a fascism -- it represents an ideology driven by a mass and popular insanity that needs to "see" everything -- that cannot "imagine" anything -- and needs to process experience as entertainment. Ultimately, you don't need swastikas or fuhrers for fascism, because electronic media gives you the dictatorship of the viewer unmediated by such pesky fallible human things as leaders or parties. It is perfect fascism.

Only when the camera is aimed at you do you begin to realize that you're staring down the barrel of a gun wielded and brought to life by your neighbors murderous "curiosity".

girish said...

I'm wondering if one thing that can provide that agency is the act of criticism (in this case, televisual criticism).

Which has me wondering: Serge Daney excepted, I wonder why there are so few examples of film critics who also practice TV criticism...

Keith Uhlich said...

Speaking from my own interactions Girish, a good number of the establishment critics I know right now grew up with 60s McLuhan (TV as Global Village) before being influenced by Jerry Mander's excellent 70s riposte (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television) and it seems they stayed stunted at that level. TV as mesmerizing (and destructive) cathode-shooting tubes, a point of view that needs to be reworked and rethought.

Then there are other, older critics who probably saw television as cinema's competitor and have just held onto that, trying to maintain the tenuous divide. But we can't ignore the overlap anymore - the two mediums are now, I think, pretty inextricably intertwined.

Andy Rector said...

As you know Zach I share your search for a way to deal with and fight the capitalist spectacle. I had your post on my mind when I wrote (at Kino Slang) about the Straub's way of dealing with festivals and producers, their (sole?) contact with the culture industry. They don't own a tv, cd player, computer...is this extreme? Sometimes you have to say "hell no!"
The Debord fragment is enough to get me looking for this book. One doesn't need to go to amazon, there are other places to go (addall.com)...

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone. Matt, I look forward to your further thoughts.

On the question of criticism, or any kind of media attention ... to some extent, I think that the role of journalism (both 'serious' or gossipy/ironic), criticism, reviewing--'commentary'--often serves a cultural function of trying to get our eyes & minds off of real issues. Reviewers debate the merits of a commercial release but its role as a cog in the culture industry (for lack of a better phrase) gets overlooked completely. This is somewhat why I tried to turn my back on at least part of this system, seeing very few commercial releases, trying to not give my money to big film industries. (Though I've been slowly dipping my toes in that water again.) It's more than a little futile, of course, but it helps me. It gives me a shred of the feeling of agency, which may or may not end up helping me actually do anything worthwhile.

The problem is that when I suggest that television or the commercial cinema are bad, it's not a question of their content or their quality--it's a question of their social function. And a lot of people don't even want to bother with this inconvenient question of politics, and I'm so wrapped up trying to work things out for myself that I don't know how to reach the unconverted.

Andy--as you say, sometimes "extreme" answers are necessary when it's time to blaze a new trail.

(And Keith, I plan on seeing The Black Dahlia tomorrow and will probably post at least a little something on it.)

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