12 December 2014

Television, Culture and Consumerism

Television encourages viewers to consume images that most people would otherwise not have access to in the course of a typical life. While this might sound like a benefit, television is not simply about seeing new and different things. It is also about selling. Television programming evolved hand-in-hand with consumerism, at first in its birthplace in America during the mid-20th century, but increasingly everywhere else in the world as well. In a way, television has spread the ethos of consumerism around the globe. It has also spread voyeurism, a more insidious form of consumerism, in the way it reveals what used to be private aspects of human life to public view. Television has normalized consumerism and voyeurism, and in turn these cultural preferences, encouraged by television, exert an influence over the medium, so that there is a reciprocity between television and society. The TV industries monitor the flow of this give-and-take relationship by sophisticated marketing surveys to tailor programs to what they perceive as the interests of their consumer-viewers. Many viewers are unaware that their habits are carefully monitored and that the television industries have created various market segments, or what they call "audiences," to buy and sell in the global marketplace, just like any other commodity. Although viewers think that they are sitting at home watching the tube, the tube is also watching them, and their viewing habits are traded in a marketplace that is still primarily driven by advertising.

24 August 2014

Cinema and Representation in China

The distance between Hong Kong and China can perhaps be measured by what is considered representable in each culture. Hong Kong is permeated by advertising, like a Western city. It is dominated by writing: signs of all descriptions festoon city buildings and stretch across the street. The Chinese cities we visited in 1981 (including 'sophisticated' Shanghai) treated sign writing functionally, to indicate a locale or slogan that needed indicating; advertising had begun to appear, but tentatively. In cinema, too, the same contrast appears. Hong Kong cinema has developed a strong tradition of depictions of violence, involving its own system of performances and special effects, its own codes and conventions. The Chinese film-makers we met in Shanghai were assessing their first foray into the explicit depiction of familial violence: a scene in Family Festivities (1980) in which a husband slaps his wife who has been intriguing to break up the extended family group into a series of independent nuclear households. Such a level of aggression is new in Chinese cinema, and the scene was shot so as not to emphasise the physicality of the moment of husband striking wife. However, it is dangerous to treat such comparisons as emblematic of general features of a society. All that we can do is to record certain impressions.

09 August 2014

Social Amnesia and the American Culture of Carnage

On 20 April 1999, armed to the teeth with bombs and automatic weapons, two teenaged students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed into their suburban high school in Littleton, Colorado, and carried out a horrific display of murder and mayhem before committing suicide. When the smoke cleared, 12 students and 1 teacher lay dead, with many more wounded, and Americans were left to sort out another seemingly senseless act of what has come to be called 'teen violence.' Law enforcement and the media soon swarmed the site as investigators looked for clues and reporters sought answers. National news outlets entirely pre-empted normal programming for several hours afterwards, in a bizarre spectacle of suffering, anguish, and confusion. Over the next few days, as the events in Littleton had receded somewhat into the usual corporate media stew of consumerism and the latest war, speculation about the incident ran rampant.

27 July 2014

Redefining Black Independent Cinema

In August 1984, the Los Angeles Times first-string film critic, Charles Champlin, devoted his column to the subject 'A Black Film Bonanza Hollywood Ignored.' He--and the Los Angeles filmgoing audience--were discovering for the first time the wealth of Black cinema that had been produced in recent years. Beneath the facade of Hollywood'd glitter and Southern California's 'me' culture, Los Angeles is becoming a city of color. The largest ethnic group in its public schools is Latino, and it has one of the largest Asian populations in the US. It is a city with a long history of organizing for affirmative action in the workplace and schools. Los Angeles has been the source of some of the most pioneering and important independent works in recent years, much of which has been produced in these Third World communities.

09 July 2014

Microbroadcasting vs. the Media Monopoly

People around the world are becoming disgusted with the state of the airwaves. Despite threats of fines and violence, pirate radio activists are turning out and turning on their own stations in defiance of government broadcast regulators. Thousands of Taiwanese police blitzed 14 unauthorized radio outlets, many of which returned to the air following the raid. Twelve people were killed in a raid on a pro-democratic pirate station in Haiti, but the soldiers failed to seize the transmitter. A pirate station broadcasting from a traffic island in Mexico City was also shut down by a phalanx of police. Microbroadcasters in Canada and the U.S. haven't yet been subject to such brutality, but the battle to exercise their claimed right to the public airwaves is no less fierce. The movement's North American epicenter is the San Francisco Bay area where unlicensed FM stations offer a non-commercial alternative. It is also home to the movement's unofficial spokesperson, Stephen Dunifer.

25 June 2014

Politics and Femininity in 'The Chess Players'

Like most great Indian myth-makers of the last two hundred years, Satyajit Ray is at his most creative when dealing with problems of women and femininity. There can be no better way of acknowledging his 'presence' in the contemporary Indian consciousness than by recognising the social criticisms his construction of womanhood offers. I shall try to give some flavour of this presence by partly re-reviewing a film of his which is apparently concerned only with men and with a 'manly' pursuit, politics. This film, 'Shatranj Ke Khilari' ('The Chess Players'), is based on a famous short story by Munshi Premchand and is Ray's only full-length Hindi film, directed at what may be called a pan-Indian audience. That it failed to reach its intended audience is of course well known. We do no know how far the failure was due to the film itself and how far to the structure of the Indian film industry, but that is not a specially relevant question in this context. For my concern in this re-review is to show that there is not only a politics of statecraft but also a politics of culture, and that all great artists have to deal with the second kind of politics, even when overtly refusing to challenge its basic axioms.

09 June 2014

A Celebratory Event in Muslim Culture

The mawlid is a celebratory event and genre to be found in Muslim lands from the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Indonesia and the southern islands of the Philippines. Many spellings and pronunciations have been given to the title of this religious literary form and its various embellishments--mevlit, mevlut, maulud, malid, milad, molid, mulid and moulid being but a partial listing. These terms and the varying phenomena to which they are applied have been utilized in non-Arabic-speaking as well as Arabic-speaking regions of the Muslim world. All variants are colloquializations of the Arabic word, mawlid, which for purposes of consistency will be used throughout this article. The term mawlid has carried many different meanings. Derived from the Arabic root verb wulida ('to be born'), mawlid means 'the event of birth' or 'the place of birth.' In these literal senses, it applies to any birth. More specifically, however, it has denoted the birth, the birthday or the birthplace of Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, and with this meaning it is also rendered as mawlid al-nabi, i.e., 'Birthday of the Prophet.'

26 May 2014

Traditional Music of Southern Laos

Between the time when French musicologist Jacques Brunet recorded the music of Southern Laos in the early 1970s and the re-issue of these recordings on CD in 1992, Laos (by that time having become the People's Democratic Republic of Laos) had experienced war trauma, the flight of great numbers of people, isolation, and the beginning of healing. During the Vietnam war the United States dropped unimaginable quantities of bombs throughout the south (along the so-called 'Ho Chi Minh Trail') and in much of the northeast. In some provinces, virtually every town and sizable village were destroyed. Economic and social development were also stopped or rolled back. Provinces which once had running water and electricity, at least in the main town, ceased to have either. Where tourists formerly visited (e.g., Vat Phu near Champassak), there were only abandoned restaurants and a little-used hotel. In 1991 modern tourist hotels remained under construction just as they had been when workers walked off the job in 1975. Travel within Laos by both Lao and non-Lao was strictly regulated by the government; consequently, few were able to visit formerly familiar sites such as Luang Phabang, Vat Phu, or the Bolovens Plateau. Therefore, this set of recordings has a strange air of nostalgia, especially since it had been re-issued with the same notes used in the original Phillips recording of 1973.

12 May 2014

Mass Media and the Emergence of Salsa

The music which came to be called salsa developed out of Cuban dance genres--especially the son, 'guaracha' and 'rumba'--which had evolved into a cohesive set of commercial popular styles by the 1920s. By the 1940ss, these genres, as promoted by RCA Victor (which monopolized the record industry in Cuba) enjoyed considerable international appeal, and Latino communities in New York had come to play an important role in the evolution of Cuban music. Puerto Ricans had so eagerly adopted Cuban music for decades (especially since the introduction of radio in 1922) that they had come to regard such genres as the 'son' and 'guaracha' more or less as their own (generally at the expense of indigenous genres like 'plena' and 'bomba'). Meanwhile, since the 1920s, New York City had become the scene of a lively dialectic blending and competition of diverse grassroots Latin American musics and commercialized version thereof. Many Cuban musicians had come to base themselves in New York City, where, together with Puerto Rican bandleaders like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez, they established New York as a center for the music that would eventually come to be labelled 'salsa' by the record industry.

21 April 2014

The New Time Religion of Advertising

One of North America's foremost media theorists, Sut Jhally is professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and founder and director of the Media Education Foundation. He has written numerous books and articles on advertising, social communications and cultural politics. In the following interview with Kalle Lasn and Nicholas Racz, conducted in the Vancouver offices of 'Adbusters' magazine in 1993, professor Jhally suggests that modern advertising has become a cultural force resembling a religion. He implicates this 'new time religion' in the culture of consumerism threatening to bring about environmental collapse on a planetary scale. The way out of this mess, he suggests, is to mount a 'reformation' in attitudes toward ourselves.

08 April 2014

The Linguistic Mediation of Film Subtitles

The challenge of film translation took on special complexity with the advent of sound. Major film industries experimented with diverse approaches; initially, dubbing, subtitles and native language translators were tried. In 1929, MGM embarked on an expensive programme to replicate all its feature films in three different linguistic versions and in 1930, Paramount established a studio near Paris to create foreign films in five languages. The British, French, and German industries, meanwhile, followed Hollywood's lead in multiple versions, albeit on a smaller scale, as noted by Douglas Gomery ('Economic Struggle and Hollywood Imperialism; Europe Converts to Sound,' Yale French Studies, Cinema/Sound, no. 60, 1980). In Czechoslovakia, Josef Slechta invented a 'sound camera' which sharply reduced dependence on German and American sound equipment. Eastern European audiences flocked to the movie theatres to hear local stars speak and sing in their native language. In Latin America, similarly, local industries were encouraged by the arrival of sound.

20 March 2014

Under the Skin of the City

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's 'Under the Skin of the City' animates an essential question of political filmmaking: how to balance fidelity to social reality with the often more compelling and convincing dictates of dramatic fiction. In the opening scene of the film Tuba, a late-middle-aged woman, stares with bewilderment into the lens of a documentary crew's camera and is unable to answer their questions about an upcoming election. She and her fellow gray-haired, shawl-covered factory workers are too involved in the problems of their everyday lives to be concerned. She says that she hopes the politicians will address these issues. Her coworkers' voices join hers, creating a cacophony that seems to chase the image away as the screen fades to black. We continue to hear their voices while the opening titles roll. When the image returns, it is in the midst of a fictional world, or at least a world where the camera does not acknowledge its own presence.

06 March 2014

Black African Cinema and the Legacy Colonialism

The failure to build a black African film industry during the 1970s and into the 1980s--despite the valiant efforts of individual film-makers and a number of governments--is hardly surprising in view of the fact that modern industry of any kind in Africa dates only from World War II when, as John Iliffe points out in 'The Emergence of African Capitalism' (London, Macmillan, 1983, pp. 64-65), 'several circumstances came together to change the old pattern of exported raw materials and imported manufactures': colonial governments seeking to diversify their economies, local European settlers aiming for greater autonomy and foreign firms seeking commercial advantages. As late as 1950 in Nigeria, which was later to become something of an economic giant in black African terms, Iliffe notes (p. 65) that the manufacturing sectors still provided 'only 0.45 per cent of GNP, (the smallest proportion of any country producing statistics).' To the problem of late capitalism was added that of foreigner control: since the initial industrialisation occurred under colonial rule, early industrial enterprises tended to be owned by foreign capital. All Third World film industries have been created by indigenous capital attracted by the profits to be derived from catering to the entertainment needs of the new audience composed of those drawn into the cash economy by urban industrialisation and the rural exodus.

19 February 2014

Two Ethnographic Films on Muslim Music

Ethnomusicologist John Baily researched, directed and edited two films during a two-year Leverhulme Film Training Fellowship at The National Film and Television School (NFTS) in the United Kingdom. 'Amir: An Afghan Refugee Musician's Life in Peshwar, Pakistan' was made in 1985 (with photography by Wayne Derrick), and 'Lessons from Gulam: Asian Music in Bradford' in 1986 (with photography by Andy Jillings). In each film Baily worked with a student cameraman who was in his last year of studies. The films are very much in the documentary style of the NFTS, forged by its director, Colin Young. The film making process is acknowledged in the films rather than hidden, and the (short) commentaries are spoken by the film maker in the first person. While editing the films, Baily was able to benefit from feedback by other film makers at the NFTS during regular weekly screening of the work in progress.

02 February 2014

C. K. Raju interviewed by Claude Alvares

TV Multiversity is proud to present a five part series featuring Professor C. K. Raju interviewed by Claude Alvares. Professor Raju brings to bear his immense knowledge of mathematics, history, and philosophy in providing a systematic deconstruction of the Eurocentrism of mathematics as currently conceived and taught. Beginning with a discussion of why mathematics has become so difficult to learn, the interviews proceed through the myths surrounding the 'heroes' of Western science, from Euclid to Einstein. They also cover the transmission of mathematical knowledge from India through the Islamic world into Europe, where it was initially misunderstood but then coopted and corrupted by the Holy Roman Empire. One of his most startling conclusions is that mathematics is essentially religious or spiritual in nature, but he offers a way to think about and practice mathematics shorn of its theological assumptions and Eurocentric historical accretions. Professor Raju has developed this material over a series of books, ranging from 'Time: A Consistent Theory' (1994) to his latest work, 'Euclid and Jesus' (2012). Conducted in Penang, Malaysia, during June 2013 and totalling over nine hours of material, these exclusive new interviews were produced and distributed on behalf of the Multiversity Project for the Multiworld Network and are presented here for the first time.

22 January 2014

Images of Native Americans in US Cinema

The handling of American Indians and American Indian subject matter within the context of commercial U.S. cinema is objectively racist at all levels, an observation which extends to television as well as film. In this vein it is linked closely to literature, both fictional and non-fictional, upon which may if not most movie scripts are at least loosely based. In a very real sense, it is fair to observe that all modes of projecting concepts and images of the Indian before the contemporary American public fit the same mold, and do so for the same fundamental 'real world' reasons. This essay will attempt to come to grips with both the method and the motivation for this, albeit within a given medium and examining a somewhat restricted range of the tactics employed. The medium selected for this purpose is commercial cinema, the technique examined that of stereotypic projection. The matter divides itself somewhat automatically into three major categories of emphasis. These may be elucidated as follows.