How has the Batman film franchise been sustained and developed?

Abstract

This study set out to discover what aspects of the production, circulation and consumption of the Batman films have been responsible for the sustained development of the Batman film franchise over time. Using a combination of theories from various scholars that look at the franchise business development; the brand’s textuality; the films’ marketing campaigns; past and contemporary media theory and marketing strategy, this essay has concluded that equal responsibility between all three parties has allowed Batman’s success. It determines that with a foundation of High Concept ‘blockbuster’ strategy established with the early films, the industry’s harnessing of consumer control and interactivity in the current new media trend has facilitated a reciprocal relationship between producers, promoters and fans that allows a flow of information, feeding into one another and ensuring the continued proliferation of the brand. Seemingly, this flow in centred by a strong core brand, anchored by the adaptable mythology and iconography, that unifies this artistically fragmented franchise and ultimately creates a trust-worthy brand that conducts a timeless and boundless fan following.

 

Scholars have studied film texts, fan activity, and the film industry to explore the relationships between films and fans (Jenkins, 1992, 2006), films and industry (Owczarski, 2008; Scivally, 2011), and industry and fans (Meehan, 2000; Gray, 2010). Largely overlooked, however, is the attempt to articulate the complex, dynamic relationship between all three. Will Brooker appears unique in his investigation of the Christopher Nolan Batman films and their relationship to both audiences and producers, and yet his study focuses on the textual implications created by marketing campaigns and parallel narratives produced since these recent films. However, the articulation of this relationship more broadly is also particularly important in understanding the success of the Batman franchise, as it is the information flows between the film, the fan and the industry that allows longevity. Therefore, attention must be paid not simply to how audiences read the text, but why they continue to engage with the franchise as loyal fans. Indeed, technological advancements have developed not only the way films are produced and promoted, but also how fans interact with the franchise. This, in turn, means that fan interaction feeds into film production, and fan agency feeds into the direction of the industry, and the business development of the franchise through explicit consumer demand and participation. In his study of paratexts Jonathan Gray speaks of how paratexts ‘lay down deeper roots and both encourage and allow a substantially larger time investment from audiences’ (Gray: 176). Certainly, the burgeoning of new media has allowed both studio and audience-produced ancillary elements of franchises to proliferate globally and build brand loyalty. As Kimberly Ann Owczarski notes: ‘a franchise film is not so much about consumers’ relationship to the film text itself, but the film’s interaction with other media products that promote it as part of a brand’ (Owczarski: 25). Therefore, although most academics focus on business development and profitability of film brands (including Owczarski), this essay will focus on marketing and fan complicity in order to argue that the dynamics of the three-way reciprocal relationship allows efficacious informational flows between the consumer, the producer and the business executive.

Time Warner’s power as a major conglomerate has enabled it to be at the forefront of new medias and technologies, specifically in terms of its marketing and promotions, making the longstanding Batman franchise perfect for analysing marketing strategies and consumer behaviour in reaction to new media developments. With reference to evidence from the Batman franchise marketing campaigns, fan activity and audience engagement from 1989 to present, this paper will investigate apparent trends that marketers have harnessed to promote the franchise and ensure its longevity. The study will begin from Time Warner’s acquisition of the Batman franchise, as it is at this point that global promotion went into hyper-drive and began its mainstream success, and will follow an exploration of the business structure of Timer Warner; Batman’s pre-sold success; branding and advertising; technological advancements; fan agency and complicity; and contemporary marketing strategy.

Key scholars in this area are Kimberly Ann Owczarski, Bruce Scivally, Will Brooker and Jonathan Gray. Owczarski has written on the subject of Batman in the conglomerate era, focussing on the business structure and development of the Time Warner media conglomerate in the investigation of the profitability of the Batman franchise. Bruce Scivally’s Billion Dollar Batman documents the production and marketing processes of the franchise, as well as textual analysis and primary source responses that supply valuable insight into audience reaction throughout the Batman timeline. While these scholars analyse the business development and profitability or textual interpretation, this essay will argue that the artistic direction, marketing strategy and audience engagement are all involved in sustaining the franchise. Instead of prioritising just corporate incentive or textual interpretation, this paper will evaluate each element responsible for building the brand and fan base over time. It will also include reference to the newest films and the most cutting-edge forms of marketing to update the analysis of these critics. Through this, and with reference to media scholars’ theories on contemporary media and marketing (Jenkins; Gray; Bedbury; Serazio), this essay will argue that today’s marketers are utilising knowledge of consumer behaviour and exploiting brand textuality in order to develop and sustain film franchise fan communities, and that, therefore, all three corners of the triangular model are responsible for Batman’s success.

 

It is first important to understand the platform upon which film franchises such as Batman have been able to launch and flourish. Since market deregulation in the Reagan Era the power of media conglomeration has allowed ubiquity across a multitude of channels and consequently the facilitation of widespread brand promotion. In his study of Hollywood business practice, Douglas Gomery notes how the end of the twentieth century saw the accumulation of substantial vertical power in the blanket acquisition of cinemas and television networks. He claims that Hollywood’s durable prosperity is dependent on the controlling of these markets (Gomery: 53). Indeed, such overarching power has allowed the monopolies to circulate ubiquitous messaging to audiences at all media touch-points. However, he omits the breadth of the ancillary industries that have been monopolised by the media conglomerates across both vertical and horizontal modes of production and distribution, including merchandising, product tie-ins, theme-park attractions, gaming and so on. While in the early stages this incorporated merchandising and sponsorships, it has gone on to include new media outlets such as home video and the Internet. Indeed, the strategy behind such media mergers was one of establishing synergy, branding, diversification and expansion into new technologies (Owczarski: 24) and transformed the media marketplace into a power that develops alongside technological advancement, the importance of which will be subsequently explored.

Time Warner’s ability to supply its internal markets depicts how conglomeration has consolidated media industries. These methods of synergy and expansion have consequently created an almighty power that has allowed Hollywood to now stand ‘atop the pop culture hierarchy, able with a single film to initiate a true widespread popular-culture phenomenon’ (Gomery: 74). Undoubtedly, Batman is one of the most recognisable pop-culture icons of this age, despite its contradictory revisions and not solely dependent on the film texts themselves. Robert A. Daly, chairman of Warner Bros. Inc. justifies this phenomenon by explaining that Batman is ‘not just a movie, it’s an industry’ (qtd. in Weinraub, 1992). Evidently, the prosperity of the Batman franchise is fundamentally due to the corporate structure that supports it. Yet, this aspect represents just a single corner of the franchise triangle, as without the support of the film texts and audience reception the corporate foundation would remain redundant.

 

Time Warner’s conglomerate power enables the exploitation of many things at their disposal. Warner Bros. Picture Group President, Jeff Robinov, observed that there was immense profit to be made in the production of big-budget blockbusters, and that this would be achievable with the use of properties that already held mass brand recognition; for Time Warner, this meant DC Comics (Barnes, 2010). Such pre-sold success is key to the development of the Batman franchise, and indeed relies on the cultural memory of the audience, the producers’ ability to play on this memory and marketers’ success at targeting audiences with varied impressions of Batman in order to complement rather than distort existing engagement with the franchise. Batman’s profuse multimedia repertoire extends back to 1939 when the character first appeared in DC Comics. Since then, Batman has featured as family-friendly hero in Tim Burton’s films, camp caricature in Joel Schumacher’s versions, and darkly gritty crusader in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, and is thus understood as ‘inherently multiple’ (Brooker: 151). In fact, Batman entered the consciousness of many through Adam West’s cartoonish 1960s TV series, before Time Warner’s film franchise began. In his many forms Batman has become embedded in popular culture as a household name, and has ensured a sustained global presence of the franchise. However, as Pearson and Uricchio warned after the release of Batman (1989), the contradictions between the various Batmen ‘may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans’ lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman’s continued success’ (Urrichio and Pearson: 184). Indeed, the franchise lacks continuity across film, television, comic book, literary and gaming platforms, thus producing a fragmentation that could confuse and dilute fan following. Yet, Batman’s prevailing success in spite of this divergence marks how the franchise has avoided a disjointed narrative of conflicting interpretations because of the fact that each version of Batman has its own homology of artefacts that relate to it- paratexts that build each one into a fully-developed character, as will be later explored.

In fact, far from decentralising, Batman’s ability to appeal to a wide range of markets has proven beneficial to the promotion of the franchise. Scott Bedbury acknowledges the importance of such fragmentation in the expansion of a franchise, using the analogy of ‘spokes on a wheel’ to depict an assortment of ‘niche’ products that derive from a core brand. Such a process of mass customization, says Bedbury, ‘enables large brands to build and retain relationships with smaller subsets of a mass market while growing the entire brand franchise’ (Bedbury: 3). Time Warner have utilized such a system of niche targeting alongside mass saturation in order to sustain cult and individual associations with the franchise, while simultaneously expanding the brand into the mainstream. In this way, Time Warner adhere to Bedbury’s theory that ‘every brand has at its core a substance that gives it strength’ (Bedbury: 28); Batman’s fundamental template and iconography of the entrepreneurial, self-appointed hero with Bat-themed gadgets retains immediate cultural recognition, therefore giving the franchise leverage to produce niche ‘spokes’ while remaining true to the ‘core substance’. Indeed, Batman’s universal appeal is owed to his intrinsic human relatability. Christopher Nolan claims: ‘Batman is appealing because of his human nature. He’s not a guy with super powers, he’s relatable because he has suffered greatly and tried to channel that into something positive’ (qtd. in Fleming, 2008). This fundamental quality that lies at the heart of the character and the franchise is what allows Batman to be so widely and diversely appropriated. Such a system of sub-branding, then, is additionally efficacious for the fan-base, all of whom may indulge in their chosen way with Batman- be it with psychological realism or rubber-nippled suits. Similarly, this gives producers freedom to create new adaptations, depending on social and cultural trends, without necessarily destroying previous incarnations.

However, this latter point is contestable. The intention behind the re-branding of the Batman films has openly been one precisely of destroying previous incarnations. Indeed, the franchise consists of a melange of receptions from a range of varied audiences. To this extent, each reprise exists in a ‘turbulent intertextual wake’ (Gray: 131-2), thus requiring it to answer in some way to its conflicting texts under the same franchise. For instance, Jay Carr of The Boston Globe described Batman Forever (1995) as ‘a marketing strategy, designed to purge the franchise of the darkness and weirdness that made the first two films interesting, and transform it into something more mainstream-friendly’ (Carr: 59)- just as the darkness of Burton’s films sought to ‘purge’ the franchise of the 1960s TV portrayal. Warner Bros. Worldwide Consumer Product President, Dan Romanelli, acknowledged this strategy of the Schumacher film, saying: ‘we knew that people felt the last film was kind of dark. We really turned around the feeling about Batman as a movie franchise’ (qtd. in Busch: 14). The blatant attempt to ‘purge’ past filmic portrayals and to ‘mainstream’ the franchise was to threaten the brand’s longevity with poor reception to the ‘lighter’ Schumacher films, for the very reason of digressing from pre-sold success and loyal fan following in the search for profit.

Ten years later Warner Bros. ‘rebooted’ the franchise with Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), used as a tactic to eradicate the unpopular Schumacher films and essentially re-write Batman into the public imagination and into the mainstream. In his discussion of the franchise’s intertextuality, Jonathan Gray notes how Time Warner and Batman Begins desperately needed to ‘apologize for Batman & Robin and erase any semblance of an intertextual connection’ (Gray: 132). Certainly, the audience and critical reception of the previous film had been so poor as to threaten any future of the franchise. Therefore, this pre-sold intertext was in fact a hindrance to the development of the brand.

Production President, Jeff Robinov and Warner Bros. President, Alan Horne were both concerned with reviving the franchise with Batman Begins, and therefore dramatically opposing Batman & Robin (1997) (Scivally: 328). Consequently they formulated an origin story to build the mythology up from scratch; a re-birth of the character and the franchise. The first section of the film depicts Wayne as the hedonistic playboy that has deviated from his father’s legacy. When he retreats to the mountains to undergo training and conditioning, it seems that this symbolic cleansing of his past sins and initiation into a new, pure life mirrors that of the past life of the Batman franchise outside the diegesis- for Batman and Robin was similarly superficial and materialistic (Brooker). Here is an instance in which audiences had to be won back because of the intertextual memory of the franchise, and in which the studio was required to delineate itself from such intertexts to regain credibility.

Such a strategy worked as prescribed, as James Christopher, reviewer for The Times of London remarks: ‘I honestly thought we’d seen the last of Batman when Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher hammered wooden stakes through the hammy franchise in the 1990s…Batman Begins is a clever surprise’ (Christopher, 2005). This time Warner Bros. were able to draw on pre-sold success of mythology by sticking closely to the DC Comics Batman universe (the gritty urban realism of O’Neil’s 1980s comics), while rejecting the world created by the previous films. Thus, Warner Bros. was able to draw on a specific cultural memory of Batman, overwriting another, in order to regain an original and loyal following. Nevertheless, even though the intention was to expel any association with the previous films, the legacy of the Schumacher films lives on for those who most identify with them. Ultimately, Time Warner got the best of both worlds; instead of destroying the brand, the Schumacher films are able to hold a niche audience, while allowing the proliferation of a new, more widely popular version. Indeed, Bedbury claims that while franchise products will come and go over time the brand remains at the centre, therefore the brand will be defined by the cumulative value of the products and experiences rather than the individual products and services (Bedbury: 16). Evidently, the pre-sold foundations of Batman’s core folklore has such a strength that it may be re-shaped and adapted in a myriad of ways without weakening the franchise.

The Batman mythos is clearly central to the franchise’s longevity. As Brooker remarks, ‘‘myth’ captures…the sense that this Batman belongs to everyone; to the public, to popular memory, to modern folk culture’ (Brooker, 2000: 330-2). Thus, the production of the mythology as well as public consciousness of it means there exists a reciprocal relationship between the fans and the producers, in which they are equally responsible to Batman’s survival. Brooker takes this point further, claiming that Batman, as a ‘cultural virus, a folk icon, a popular fable’, in fact exists independently of its creators and would survive without the continuation of the franchise (Brooker: 218-9). Although the discontinuation of Batman products would cease any brand expansion and lessen the mass impact of the franchise, it is undeniable that the vivid cultural memory of the various Batman incarnations allows fans to create their own Batman from all the pieces of the ‘cultural mosaic’ (Brooker: 219). The significance of fan agency and complicity will be later discussed, yet from the outset the importance of pre-sold success provides the foundation for the development of the Batman franchise, and requires the fan, producers and promoters to form, shape and exploit this cultural memory.

 

The most conspicuous means of brand development is that of branding and advertising, which manifest in distinctive ways with blockbuster franchises. The media landscape during the genesis of the Warner Bros. Batman film franchise in 1989 saw the burgeoning success of High Concept in Hollywood. This tradition helped shape the marketing strategy for the early Batman films, including saturation advertising with a continued high presence throughout print, trailers and television commercials, as well as ‘maintenance’ marketing such as merchandising, music and corporate partnerships. All of this was bound by strong, impressionable images that were transferable across all media. High Concept blockbusters relied on extensive media planning; Douglas Gomery notes that since the Jaws phenomenon Hollywood had been convinced that television should be the foundation of a blockbuster launch (Gomery: 73). Gomery credits studio executive Lew Wasserman with inventing the system that allowed the proliferation of Hollywood blockbusters by coupling mass-saturated advertising on prime-time television with saturation bookings in mall cineplexes (Gomery: 73-4). Expensive television campaigns paved the way for supplementary print, radio and outdoor advertisements, ensuring an optimum number of exposures for the target audience. With this strategy in mind, the $10 million marketing budget for Batman (1989) allowed ubiquitous advertising and denotes the efforts to hype it as a ‘must see’ film (Meehan: 30). Evidently, an understanding of consumer exposure allowed the studios to reach their audience at optimum frequency with powerful, unambiguous messages about the film.

The creatives in this type of advertising were vital to its effectiveness. Since the success of films such as Jaws, the use of strong, reproducible images, saturation campaigns and product tie-ins became common marketing practice (Wyatt: 117). Indeed, the Batman (1989) advertising campaign features the distinctive Batsymbol, making it instantly recognisable across all promotional mediums while simultaneously capturing the fundamental essence of the film as an action hero blockbuster. Producer, Jon Peters, reportedly ordered production designer, Anton Furst, to ‘design a logo that would tie all the merchandising together’ (Scivally: 187). To this extent, they were able to saturate more areas of consumer culture with memorable branding. Furst claimed that the Batsymbol stamp design ‘became a sort of trompe l’oeil, it became ambiguous, so you had to look twice. But it was definitely the Batsymbol, so there was no problem with people identifying it’ (Griffin and Masters: 170). Mass ubiquity of the stamp ensued in the months leading up to the film’s release; producer, Michael Uslan remembers that ‘[it was] like every fifth person either had a Batman hat or tee-shirt on… How many movies are advertised without even putting the name of the movie on the poster? The symbol was so iconic’ (qtd. in Scivally: 189).

Evidently, the Batsymbol became a charged signifier that was ingrained into the mass psyche, allowing viewers to recall various pre-sold elements that enhance their identification with the material: for instance, stars, remakes, sequels and series (Wyatt: 125). Indeed, the branding logo has been central to the unification of the franchise over time, supposedly transcending criticism, bearing Batman’s ‘widest cultural currency…unthreatened either by textual challenges to the Batman’s role…or by the centrifugal forces of commodification’ (Uricchio and Pearson: 211). In this way, the brand is seemingly independent from commodification, instead becoming the intellectual property of the fans. Consequently, it is clear that the fans, in their capacity to recognise the Batsymbol, play a vital role in unifying the brand across the implicit redesigns of the symbol across the various films.

The logo redesigns demonstrate that the Bat-logo has such resonance that it can be divided into sub-categories ‘in a dynamic of similarity and distinction’ (Brooker: 83); that is, of acknowledging that Batman is more an encompassing brand than an individual product, that he retains his core essence despite his multiplicity. Brooker uses the example of the Nolan ‘sub-brand’ that bears the shuriken bat design and distinctive colour scheme across the films’ products. This design differentiates the Nolan films from the previous editions, though even each of these are further divided into the rusty ocre of Batman Begins and the ice blue of The Dark Knight (Brooker: 85). Since the time of Brooker’s evaluation there has also been the grey palette of The Dark Knight Rises. Brooker’s survey results showed that fans were able to distinguish Batman Begins within the Batman matrix as ‘Nolan’s Batman’ (Brooker: 84). His argument here is that even with such diffusion of the Batman brand across its filmic career, it has posed no threat to fan comprehension or commercial achievement. He owes this to ‘the long-established themes of branding and sub-branding within the Batman diegesis’ (Brooker: 85). Indeed, looking at the Batman storyworld, saturated by Bat-products such as the Batmobile and the iconic utility belt, and Wayne Enterprises branding with the distinctive ‘W’ infiltrating the Gotham narrative, it is clear that the Bat-brand is equally perpetuated in the fictional world and is therefore reinforced in the consciousness of the audience.

Audience ability to consume their own Bat-products is almost a gateway into the diegesis, and therefore strengthens fan engagement. Consequently, Warner Bros.’s strategy was to reproduce consistent imagery across all Batman products to create a cumulative impression on the audience. Indeed, the film texts are merely a single component of the multimedia brand products, which, as is so important for franchise film, infiltrate every aspect of consumerized culture. Synergy across these media, merchandise and experiential platforms provides intertextuality that enriches consumer brand experience. Henry Jenkins asserts that marketers seek to mould brand reputations through an on-going process across a range of media touch-points to produce a cumulative impression of the brand, and hope to ‘expand consumers’ emotional, social and intellectual investments, with the goal of shaping consumption patterns’ (Jenkins, 2005: 63). This theory explains the importance of merchandising synergy that essentially acts as advertising across music, toy, gaming, home entertainment and clothing platforms. Meehan goes as far as to claim that corporate imperatives represent the principal criteria in the formation of Batman’s narratives and iconography, and merchandising and licensing intertextual products becomes necessary for a global Batman ‘mania’ (Meehan: 24). Indeed, in their attempt to create a successful brand, Time Warner encompass in their strategy saturation branding and advertising- typical of High Concept cinema- in order to create this commodified ‘mania’. Corporate partners have included high-profile brands such as MacDonald’s, Pepsi, NASCAR, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Dell and many more. This manic branding becomes ‘hype’, which Gray refers to as a public relations strategy that uses synergy across medias (Gray: 4-5). Indeed, hype itself creates meaning and value, with mass ubiquity creating trust and consequently brand loyalty.

However, Gray problematizes this cross-promotional synergy, citing the example of Domino’s ‘Gotham City Pizza’ campaign as an example of fragmentation rather than synthesis. Claiming that the partnership added nothing to The Dark Knight narrative, he found this paratext likely to diminish the text’s opportunity to reach a wider audience by expanding the storyworld (Gray: 210). Yet, while Gray makes note of the textual implications, this brand sponsorship was able to increase branding ubiquity, consequently feeding the franchise’s reputation. From a marketing perspective, any circulation of the brand name and image is likely to increase fan association and word-of-mouth promotion, regardless of textual concern. Ultimately, the durability of the Batman brand is sustained by the designers who create the imagery perpetuated across film texts and ‘Bat-mania’, the advertising executives that saturate mass media and commodity culture with these images, and the audience’s cultural memory and image-brand association.

 

This strategy of branding across all platforms links to Henry Jenkins’s theory of media convergence that has allowed brand circulation across old and new media touch-points that ‘collide’ to create a mass power that involves both the producer and the consumer (Jenkins, 2006: 2). Certainly, Time Warner were early adopters of this trend, using the 2000 AOL Time Warner merger to create the first major coalition of old and new media corporations (Owczarski: 157). Gerald Levin (then CEO) addressed stockholders in the 1999 Annual Report to emphasise that the merger would ‘achieve…what neither company could have achieved on its own: media-savvy, Internet-intelligent, customer-focused company with multiple revenue streams from branded subscriptions, advertising and commerce, and content’ (qtd. in Time Warner: 5). The Nolan rebooting of the franchise saw the business of Internet advertising growing in earnest. In 2004, $86 million was spent on Internet advertising by movie companies, which targeted the coveted 12-to-24-year-old audience (Friedman: A1). Warner Bros. then became the first Hollywood studio to sell and rent films via Facebook- an attempt to offset the diminishing DVD revenue (Fritz, 2011). This diversification into new media technologies and synergy across new branding opportunities is key to Time Warner’s power to so effectively circulate the Batman franchise. Additionally, this ‘Internet-intelligent, customer-focused’ strategy allowed the company to reach and sustain a wider audience with the development of paratexts.

Jonathan Gray evaluates the use of paratexts as intertextual agents that create and develop meaning of the (film) text. Instead of merely looking at the implications of textuality, this essay will explore how this, with the agency it gives the audience in the creation of meaning, increases engagement with the franchise, as well as increasing the significance of new medias and technologies in the proliferation of the brand. Unlike other scholars (Owczarski; Scivally), Gray evaluates synergy in terms of textuality rather than profit, regarding it as something that creates meaning as well as revenue. The observation of both perspectives will illuminate why fans stay loyal while providing means for the brand to expand. Teamed with the meaning derived from the film texts themselves, this will create a full picture of the triangular relationship responsible for Batman’s success.

Paratexts include advertisements, trailers, promotional videos and events, star interviews, merchandise, videogames, spin-offs, tie-ins, partnerships, DVD bonus material and more. It is the paratexts, as elements of marketing strategy, that encourage audiences to view the films and indulge in the franchise, and are therefore essential in the circulation of the brand. Whether they address casual viewers, for whom the paratext may be the only engagement with the franchise, or loyal fans that indulge in every Batman text, paratexts represent an essential part of the interpretive process, and therefore dictate the reputation of the brand. Providing a context within which the viewer interprets the film texts, they allow textual references to enhance association with the various Batmen by further building the storyworld, as well as providing interactivity in the fictional world’s diegetic space. Gray notes the importance of play in a storyworld to ‘gain more ownership of it, to personalize it’ (Gray: 187). Through this, fans are able to connect more with the brand and develop an emotional, unique attachment to the world created, while simultaneously securing a larger time investment. For example, one fan may play the Arkham City video game and read the Arkham Unhinged comic series, which follows a parallel narrative of the Arkham Asylum inmates. Meanwhile another fan may watch the blockbusters and the talk-show circuits that feature the starring actors speaking about their characters and the films. Each fan will have a distinctive engagement that dictates a unique emotional connection. This concept of generating emotional capital will also later be explored with the discussion of experiential marketing as a paratext.

The synergy of paratexts across medias is an example of how convergence culture is producing a ‘complex set of viewing environments and modes of interaction that nurture the cult experience, fan culture and the worship of the text’ (Ndalianis: 185). Undeniably, Batman’s status as a cult object justifies the franchise’s devoted following and continued success, rendering a ‘cult experience’ vital to its survival. Therefore, spin-off Batman merchandise, comic books, celebrity and brand partnerships and videogames such as Arkum series create a kind of 360 degree storytelling environment that fully immerses the audience. Umberto Eco corroborates this point, writing: ‘in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole’ (Eco: 197-8). This highlights Time Warner’s need to facilitate a smooth flow of textuality and meaning between the film text and the paratexts, the effectiveness of which has allowed extended, immersive fan engagement.

P. David Marshall notes how DVD is able to produce this 360 storytelling effect, with its ability to ‘encircle, entice and deepen the significance of the film for the audience’ (Marshall: 69). DVD bonus material can include: trailers, documentaries, interviews, ads for merchandise and videogames etc., thus allowing the viewer to engage with the text in a variety of ways and further building the fictional world along with other paratexts. Indeed, film text interaction is merely one metric of fan engagement with the franchise, and as Charles Acland observes, ‘the influence of individual texts can be truly gauged only via cross-media scrutiny’ (Acland: 65). Certainly, viewers have their own personal experience with the material they are exposed to, which can be made up of any amalgamation of texts and paratexts. Thus individuals will construct their own meaning based on a personal hierarchy of textual proliferations. This links to Roland Barthes’s theory of the death of the author, which claims that only the reader creates meaning (Barthes: 78-9). Although this ostensibly has the potential to fragment this already diverse franchise with varied readings, it seems that the diversity of paratexts and readings is essentially what makes the franchise so adaptable and relatable to such a multifarious audience. Julia Kristeva writes that ‘any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations’ (Kristeva: 66); in this case a composite of various engagements with Batman promotional paratexts, film texts and fan activity produces long-term, personalised compound relationships between fans and the franchise.

While other scholars focus on the profitability of promotion (Owczarski; Scivally), this section has found that promotional paratexts denote not only the commercial promotion of the core film texts, but also the enhancing of their textuality. Therefore, paratexts play a fundamental role in both the monetary value and the popularity of the film texts, a balance that grants the franchise extended success. Evidently this success depends on the quality of the film texts, the promoters that design the paratexts, and the fans who piece together their own Batman ‘mosaic’ from the assortment of branded texts.

 

Fans clearly represent one of the vital components that keep the film franchise alive and thriving. Jenkins highlights this joint relationship, stating that ‘far from marginal, fans are the central players in a courtship dance between consumers and marketers’ (Jenkins, 2006: 73). However, he excludes the importance of the textual producers in this courtship. This section will draw on elements of Jenkins’s theories to argue that the role of the fan is essential to both the marketing and production of the film texts, which create a recipe for such a successful, long-standing franchise.

In the advent of new media, the Internet has become a platform for consumer participation. Jenkins observes how this ‘participatory culture’ has existed below the radar, yet ‘the Web has pushed that hidden layer of cultural activity into the foreground, forcing the media industries to confront its implications for their commercial interests’ (Jenkins, 2006: 137). Ultimately, this fan agency and interactivity with the media industry has affected the textual production and consequently allowed prolonged brand loyalty by satisfying consumer needs.

Batman fans’ use of the Internet began in earnest in 1995 when Time Warner launched the first website for a single film alongside Batman Forever. It became a site for fans to voice their thoughts and concerns, which undoubtedly affected the way the films were marketed. Thus the power of the consumer began to grow, providing them with a more direct relationship to the producers and ultimately more responsibility in the development of the brand. The most vocal criticism was certainly that of the Schumacher films, which spawned the ‘Anti-Schumacher Site’, the ‘Anti-Schumacher Society’ and ‘Bring Me the Head of Joel Schumacher’. With the burgeoning of the Internet in the late 1990s, such discontent was universally visible and therefore inescapable; thus determines the hiring of Christopher Nolan to transform this sentiment towards the franchise. Independent filmmaker Kevin Smith remarks: ‘the online audience is…actively fucking involved in the Batman movie Chris Nolan is making. That’s their movie, man…Whether it’s because they’ve read a lot of press that says these people can sway an opening, or whether by writing something in cyberspace, they have a sense of authorship’ (qtd. in Hayes and Bing: 354-355). In this sense, participatory culture provides fan agency. As new media therefore provides a site for ‘consumer activism’ (Jenkins, 2006: 278), fans become complicit in the construction of the franchise with their voiced opinions on the direction of the Batman films. Owczarski states how ‘focus groups, fan conventions and online sites like Ain’t it Cool News have an impact on what emerges on screen’ (Owczarski: 341). Agreeably, such conspicuous commentary is able to provide a blueprint for Warner Bros. to follow in order to continually please its audience.

Christina Spurgeon notices a transition from ‘mass media to the new media of mass conversation’ (Spurgeon: 2). Indeed, since the Web entered the fandom equation after the first two films, the public have had access to pre-production information, pre-release press, and more ability to impact the direction of the franchise (Owczarski: 348), while their ability to communicate amongst themselves has meant word-of-mouth has never been more vital to brand success. The Internet has facilitated the formation of ‘brand communities’ that share peer-to-peer information, and are thus becoming a powerful force in the marketplace. Time Warner, acknowledging this ‘ecology of memes’ causing a bottom-up tectonic shift and attempting to capitalize it from the top down (Serazio: 23), are now obliged to cultivate brand loyalties by responding to fan demand in the attempt to establish purchasing habits. Meehan notes negative reactions to Batman casting were featured on the first page of the Wall Street Journal along with assurances that content would be modified to secure fan attendance (Meehan: 27). Later, fans posted positive reactions to Christian Bale’s casting on sites such as Superherohype.com and Joblo.com, while speculations over Batman Begins casting, characters, plot and production designs were daily updated on sites like Ain’t It Cool News, Batman on Film, Dark Horizons, and Chud (Dunkley and Bing: 71). Writing earlier in 1992, Jenkins notes: ‘fans lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural production and have only the most limited resources with which to influence entertainment industry’s decisions…Within the cultural economy, fans are peasants, not proprietors’ (Jenkins, 1992: 26). Since then, social media has given fans agency and status, and thus ensured the longevity of the franchise by creating a level playing field between producers and consumers, mediated through the media industry.

 

Fan-generated content such as criticism, reviews, fan fiction, films, songs, art, spoilers, recaps, wikis, websites, and campaigns depict how audiences engage with the franchise. In this way each are important elements of word-of-mouth promotion, given authority by their grassroots origin. Again we are witness to the democratising of the media industry, in which scholars such as Pierre Levy mark how the distinction between consumers and producers, spectators and creators will ‘blend to form a ‘circuit’’ (Levy: 58). This circuit (which this essay argues includes the media industry as integral mediators) has meant that responsibility for the franchise’s success has become shared between the three parties. Although Gray notes that industry-produced paratexts seek to monitor textual interpretations by enforcing their own readings of the film texts (Gray: 79), fan creative freedom is clearly vital for this circuit to blend smoothly. Certainly, while the industry at times attempts to protect itself from the rise of ‘prosumerism’ by policing its textual parameters, Constance Penley described fan activity as giving a text a deep massage that might hurt but is best for the long run (Penley: 3). In other words, relinquishing intellectual property saves the brand from dictating to their audience; fan engagement, now more visible, creative and purposeful with new media, helps to bring brand longevity by enabling personalisation and appropriation, which allows the brand to adapt through time and place.

Michel de Certeau used the term ‘poaching’ as a metaphor the complex nature of cultural consumption. He claimed that ‘readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves’ (de Certeau, 1984: 174). In participatory culture, fans are finding new, multimedia forums to ‘poach’ popular culture narratives such as Batman and constructing their own works that somehow voice their personal concerns, which are otherwise neglected by mass media. Indeed, Jenkins uses de Certeau’s analogy to highlight how popular narratives must be deconstructed and adapted by individual viewers or communities so as to better speak to their cultural interests and desires (Jenkins, 1992: 24), which may often be unrealised by the original text. Indeed, with such cult objects as Batman there exists an encyclopaedic fascination with the storyworld that entices fans, encouraging them to create their own subtext. As will be subsequently discussed in the study of experiential marketing, this intrigue enables a deeper connection and commitment to the personalised storyworld of the franchise.

Writing in 1990, Michael Budd et al. claimed that nomadic readers ‘may actually be powerless and dependent’, with ‘a subjectivity that must, perforce, wander here, wander there, as the media spotlight beckons’ (Budd, Entman, Steinman: 176). Yet the rise of new media has allowed popular culture readers more autonomy with their ability to ‘poach’ popular narratives made available across our networked society. Certainly, the Internet has provided an apt forum for multimedia realisations of Batman, allowing fans to create and circulate their own multimedia products as well as discussion across the global Bat-fan community. Matt Hills describes this fan appropriation as ‘an act of final consumption’, which transforms the public value of the text into a private one (Hills: 35). Indeed, as earlier discussed regarding Barthes’s ‘death of the author’, this ‘final consumption’ of Batman rests on each fan’s individual cultural memory of the franchise. In this way, fan-generated content may be viewed as a form of audience research by depicting how the viewers are making sense of the texts. Therefore, the proliferation of the franchise relies on the adaptability of Batman mythology, fan ability to mould or personalise Batman content, and the studio’s efficiency in reading and responding to fan content as market research.

 

The abundance of new media interaction with fans has forced marketers to adapt marketing strategy to incorporate immersive, sensory experiences that consumers now demand for their attention. Indeed, new media technologies- including computers, mobile phones and tablets- have transformed storytelling into a transmedia process that requires an active audience to construct meaning. The saturation of new media into today’s world has created what Manuel Castells called the ‘networked society’, in which spatio-temporal boundaries are broken down and informational technology becomes the basis of our social structures and ‘the processes of production, experience, power and culture’ (Castells, 2000: 500). Essentially, new media has changed the way we live our lives, and therefore demands marketing strategies to adapt to this social trend. As Mark Deuze observes: ‘technology is the skeleton around which advertising has formed’ (Deuze: 124). Thus, in this era of new media, strategies that provide consumers with control and complicity are most effective, including multi-device, viral, transmedia, guerrilla, and experiential marketing. Each of these tactics requires a process of interactivity and collaboration between marketers and consumers, ‘with the marketer helping the consumer to buy and the consumer helping the marketer to sell’ (Peppers: 12), notwithstanding the films as textual roots. Together these three parties create an entity that facilitates the extended promotion of franchise film.

Angela Ndalianis has written about the sensory experience of interactive and experiential marketing, though while she focuses on the consumer experience this section will incorporate the industrial perspective to understand how these new forms of sensory engagement with the franchise have enabled an extended following. Along with theories of Michael Serazio on guerrilla marketing, this section will argue that the relationship between the industry, the fan experience and the filmic text creates a sustainable franchise.

Ndalianis notes contemporary marketers’ exploitation of the ‘Experience Economy’, which involves the use of multimedia networks across time and space with the goal of engaging in sensory play (Ndalianis: 165). Indeed, with emphasis now on consumer control and complicity, there is a demand for immersive, multisensory interaction that produces an emotional response and connection to the brand that leads to long-term loyalty. As Brian Lonsway puts it, the Experience Economy is ‘literally an economy of branded emotion’ (Lonsway: 1). As the dictatorial flows of traditional media become replaced with the two-way dialogue of new media, there is a greater demand for experience-based marketing, and Ndalianis observes how the strategies of the Experience Economy have adopted theatricality and performativity within the public sphere (Ndalianis: 192), which allow consumers to become sensorially and emotionally involved actors in the marketing campaign.

Evidently, fans are complicit in the creation of their brand experience, and the Why So Serious? campaign perfectly exemplifies this joint relationship at work. This viral campaign for The Dark Knight involved active fan participation both on the Web and in the physical city space, using their collective intelligence as a community of fans to unravel clues. Participants were invited to partake in the role-play election of Harvey Dent and could choose to support Dent by subscribing to WeBelieveInHarveyDent.com, while others followed the Joker on WhySoSerious.com. They were contacted via telephone, the Internet, television and in public spaces, each involving elements of dramatic play. Crowds showed up to meeting points in their thousands sporting branded paraphernalia. Henrik Ornebring argues that the primary purpose of such alternate reality games ‘is not to create new opportunities for interaction, networking and audience participation in mediated narratives, but simply to create an enjoyable experience that will build the franchise brand in the minds of media audiences’ (Ornebring: 449-50). Certainly, the game experience is a product in itself, a sensory memory that involves the participants in the construction of personalised meaning and ultimately an emotional connection to the brand. From the perspective of the participant it is simply an interactive, pleasurable activity. Indeed, this trend of growing consumer control has led to guerrilla marketing techniques, which denotes the attempt to inconspicuously surround the empowered, autonomous subject. Michael Serazio notes that ‘advertising based on that invitation (i.e. pull) rather than interruption (push) presumes to flatter the capacities of a free subject more conspicuously and then utilizes subsequent contributions to more effectively and individually tailor a message to that subject’ (Serazio: 3). Thus, the alternate reality game was strategically adapted to participatory culture logic by fragmenting a narrative that fans must decipher. The marketers (in this case 42 Entertainment) sought to create a storyworld outside of the film text, which the fans were complicit in constructing through the act of discovery. Serazio observes that discovery, ‘in Foucauldian terms, [is] a mode of governance set upon an active subject, not a form of domination that has stereotypically defined the exercise of power’ (Serazio: 4). As such, instead of the advertisers taking on the didactic dictatorial approach of traditional media, they seek ‘to stage a process of commercial discovery, engineer participation’ (Serazio: 16) that ultimately produces a more natural and therefore emotionally powerful bond with the brand. As co-producers of this complex storyworld, Why So Serious? participants developed an encyclopaedia interest that produces further curiosity, further exploration, and ultimately a deeper attachment to the franchise. Ndalianis corroborates this, finding that the enjoyment of such activities stems from a ‘meta-appreciation’ of the fiction (Ndalianis: 170). That is, with an active, multisensory role in the unfolding of the narrative, the participants feel part of the story and therefore develop deeper appreciation for not just the film texts, but the franchise as a whole. Indeed, as Batman steps into the real-world, fans are so intellectually and sensorially involved that they forget that the game is a marketing technique with the objective of selling a product, which therefore allows a more natural, trusting and emotional brand loyalty.

Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, labels these connections ‘lovemarks’ and argues that successful brands will command ‘love’ as well as ‘respect’ of consumers. In 2004 he advised marketers to develop multisensory experiences for consumers, as only a small amount of them will make purchase decisions based on rational criteria (Roberts: 170). This concept of building emotional capital certainly explains the effectiveness of the Batman franchise, particularly the Why So Serious? campaign: 42 Entertainment claim that ‘playing out the events of Gotham City in real time, the [alternate reality game] provided the opportunity to explore the strong characters, themes and backdrop of the world’ (AlternateRealityBranding.com, 2008). For example, participants were invited to ‘Write and perform a ‘Take Back Gotham’ song; Turn your own car into a ‘Dentmobile’; Arrange a Dent parade down Main Street’ (qtd. in Ndalianis: 52). Involving the fans in the textual construction and inviting them to leave their mark on the Batman mythology gives the fans the autonomy they now demand, as well as gifting them Batman as intellectual property. Stephen Dinehart notes that transmedial play is able to decentralise authorship (Dinehart, 2008). Undoubtedly, this creative freedom in play has produced a dual authorship between producers and consumers. This indicates that the fans have an intellectual stake in the franchise, which creates a deeper attachment and therefore a more sustainable continuation of the brand. Therefore, while the film text represents the product of initial interest, and the marketing invites a profounder engagement with the franchise using ‘a regime of governance that accommodates yet structures participatory agency’ (Serazio: 2), it is the fans that complete this sustainable model with their intellectual and emotional investment in both the text and promotion.

 

It is therefore conclusive that emotional attachment is vital to the timelessness of the Batman franchise. This is achieved through the creative freedom of play and adaptation, facilitated by new media technologies and interactive promotion. At its core, Batman’s versatile mythology allows this diversification and adaptability that enables the franchise to cross through time and space and continue throughout the generations, defying fragmentation by relying on individual fan loyalties. This sustainable model is structured on an equilibrium between the producers of Batman texts, the marketers, and the fans, who rely on one another for informational flows and proliferating forums to not only sustain but expand the brand throughout networked society. Only with the participation and exploitation of each of these parties has Batman survived and thrived over time. To progress this study would be to conduct empirical and ethnographic quantitative and qualitative research of fan engagement[1] with the franchise alongside an evaluation of Time Warner’s production and marketing strategy for Batman. Combined with conclusions drawn in this paper, such research would determine exact examples of informational flows between the parties involved that have resulted in the enhanced proliferation of the brand, and ultimately provide explicit evidence for how the franchise is effectively sustained and developed by the media triangle.

 

Cited Sources:

Acland, C. (2003). Screen traffic. 1st ed. Durham: Duke University Press.

Alternaterealitybranding.com, (2008). 42 Entertainment 2008. [online] Available at: http://www.alternaterealitybranding.com/tdk_sxsw/ [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Barnes, B. (2010). A Studio Head Slowly Alters the ‘Warner Way’. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/business/media/10warner.html?scp=405&sq=batman&st=nyt [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Barthes, Roland. (1977). ‘From Work to Text’, Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath. Glasgow: Fontana-Collins.

Bedbury, S. and Fenichell, S. (2002). A new brand world. 1st ed. New York: Viking.

Budd, M., Entman, R. and Steinman, C. (1990). The affirmative character of US cultural studies.Critical Studies in Media Communication, 7(2), pp.169–184.

Busch, A. (1995). Batman Lightens Up. Daily Variety, p.14.

Brooker, W. (2012). Hunting the Dark Knight. 1st ed. London: I.B. Tauris.

Carr, J. (1995). Wholly Hollywood, Batman! Stepping Out of the Stylish Shadows, Caped Crusader Goes Commercial. The Boston Globe, p.59.

Castells, Manuel. (2000). The Rise of the Networked Society, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

de Certeau, Michel. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Christopher, J. (2005). Batman Begins. The London Times.

Deuze, Mark. (2007). Media Work. Cambridge: Polity.

Dinehart, S. (2008). Transmedial Play: cognitive and cross-platform narrative | The Narrative Design Explorer™. [online] Narrativedesign.org. Available at: http://narrativedesign.org/2008/05/transmedial-play-cognitive-and-cross-platform-narrative/ [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Dunkley, C. and Bing, J. (2003). …WB Casts Next Caped Crusader. Daily Variety, p.71.

Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. London: Picador, pp 197-8.

Fleming, M. (2008). The Groundbreakers: Chris Nolan. Daily Variety, p.A30.

Foucault, Michel. (1979). The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. London: Penguin.

Friedman, W. (2005). Dollars Go Digital: Emerging Platforms Like the Net Growing the Fastest.Daily Variety, p.A1.

Fritz, B. (2011). First movie on Facebook: Warner Bros.’ ‘The Dark Knight’. [online] Latimesblogs.latimes.com. Available at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2011/03/the-dark-knight-first-movie-available-on-facebook.html [Accessed 27 Apr. 2014].

Gomery, Douglas. (2003). ‘Industrial Analysis and Practice’ in Stringer, Julian (ed.) Movie Blockbuster. London: Routledge.

Gray, Jonathan. (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.

Griffin, N. and Masters, K. (1996). Hit and run. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hills, Matt. (2002). Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge.

Iampolski, Michael. (1998). The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film, trans. Harsha Ram. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers. New York: Routledge.

Kristeva, Julia. (1980). Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora et al., ed. Leon Roudiez. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Levy, Pierre. (1997). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.

Lonsway, Brian. (2009). Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the Experience Economy. New York: Routledge.

Marshall, P. David. 2000. ‘The New Intertextual Commodity,’ in Dan Harris ed., The New Media Book. London: British Film Institute.

Meehan, E. (2000). ”Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!’: Political Economy Of a Commercial Intertext. The Film Studies Reader, pp.23-33.

Ndalianis, Angela. (2012). The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Australia: McFarland Pub.

Ornebring, Henrik. (2007). ‘Alternate Reality Gaming and Convergence Culture: The Case of Alias,’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 10.4: pp 449-50.

Owczarski, K. (2008). Batman, Time Warner, and Franchise Filmmaking in the Conglomerate Era. Ph.D. University of Texas.

Penley, Constance. (1997). NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America. London: Verso.

Peppers, D. (1999). Introduction. In: S. Gordon, ed., Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Consumers, 1st ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, p.12.

Roberts, Kevin. (2004). Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands New York: Power House Books.

Scivally, B. (2011). Billion dollar Batman. 1st ed. Wilmette, IL: Henry Gray.

Serazio, Michael. (2013). Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing. New York: New York University Press.

Spurgeon, Christina. (2008). Advertising and New Media. London: Routledge.

Time Warner, (1999). Annual Time Warner Report.

Uricchio, W. and Pearson, R. (1991) ‘I’m not fooled by that cheap disguise’, in R. Pearson and W. Uricchio (eds) The Many Lives of the Batman. pp. 182-213. New York: Routledge.

Weinraub, B. (1992). Two at the Wheel of the Batmobile. The New York Times, p.A5.

 

Films:

  1. Batman. (1989). [DVD] USA: Tim Burton.

Batman Returns. (1992). [DVD] USA: Tim Burton.

Batman Forever. (1995). [DVD] USA: Joel Schumacher.

Batman & Robin. (1997). [DVD] USA: Joel Schumacher.

Batman Begins. (2005). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

The Dark Knight. (2008). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

The Dark Knight Rises. (2012). [DVD]: Christopher Nolan.

 

[1] See: Brooker, Hunting the Dark Knight Survey, 2010.

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Exploring Objectivity in Docufiction Filmmaking through the Concept of Hybridity.

As a result of ever-advancing new medias and technologies (from the development of the portable camera and synchronised sound to contemporary self-publishing) and in the advent of postmodernity, reflexive awareness of documentary modes of production have become part of the discourse in factual representation. Documentary has been perceived as fundamentally objective; ‘truth-telling- benign in intention, beneficial in effect, and demonstrably real’ witha certain cachet and a claim to artistic purity’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 12). Yet, as film production becomes more conspicuous it provokes questions of objectivity in the search for ‘truth’ on screen. Mock-documentary, then, is a symptom of this growing viewer consciousness of documentary form, and is able to explore and provide commentary for the issues raised regarding the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject with its use of reflexivity. Using the practical research of our short film, Firebox (Forder, Jennings, Stead, 2014), this essay will reveal how hybridity[1] is particularly interesting in this experimentation, as it deploys contrasting techniques to bring attention to the production process in order to experiment with how the audience’s interpretive process may change. In order to articulate how Firebox explores objectivity, this essay will establish that, with the amalgamation of Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight’s three ‘degrees of mock-documentary’, alongside observational techniques from the cinéma vérité tradition, and with the implementation of ethnoficition research and performance strategies, Firebox becomes a dense hybrid that distances the audience to a critical, and potentially more objective position.

 

Mock-documentary is an extremely complex form that provokes equally complex, layered readings from its viewers. Indeed, its reflexivity encourages questions of authorship as well as readership; in its subversion of the Classic Objective Argument, the form is able to expose the crisis of representation, while familiarising audiences with the discourses surrounding the ethics of ‘truthful’ documentary representation. This ‘knowing’ audience is essential for critiques to be absorbed, with their ability to distinguish between fact and fiction allowing them to engage with the critical reflexivity and ‘inherent playfulness’ of the form (Lipkin et al., 2006: 17) that challenges common-sense notions of representation, and experiments with ideas of perception and interpretation.

Although these texts are fictional, which in itself is a deliberate manoeuvre away from reality, Michelle Citron argues that fiction actually ‘allows for more authenticity by giving voice to that which we both consciously and unconsciously know. Yet at the same time, it works by deception, which ironically, by opening up a space of safety, may ultimately lead to honesty and truth’ (Citron, 1999: 282). Thus, the fictional nature of mock-documentary allows for the satirising of the proliferation of ‘reality’ production, which Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe observe is increasingly welcomed by audiences in the advent of ‘Reality TV’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). The more sophisticated fusing of fiction and non-fiction forms, therefore, allows experimentation with this search for ‘honesty and truth’, as will be subsequently discussed in relation to Firebox and the non-fiction research process involved.

 

The aim of our short film, Firebox, was to critique the distorted and unethical nature of media representation. Therefore, using a hybrid of aesthetic techniques we intend to draw attention to the superficiality of this kind representation by contrasting what the fictional filmmakers want the audience to see with behind-the-scenes view of the production process and the conflicting motives at play. We used obvious reflexivity, with one of the crew members, Lily, being complicit in the action, in order to break the illusion of the popular culture representation, as well as to parody the form with moments of naturalistic awkwardness and dramatic irony that contrast with the slick images of the stereotypical tabloid-style video opening. To add authenticity that adheres to the documentary aesthetic in addition to increasing realism we used non-actors and on-location shooting, meaning a lot of the footage is observational filming of training sessions that we have edited into the narrative, in addition to improvised scenes that we devised in collaboration with the boxers themselves. Ultimately, by combining varied techniques in our creative approach we hoped to produce a less cohesive film that calls into question audience identification with the documentary form and its perceived objectivity.

 

Roscoe and Hight propose three degrees of mock-documentaries: parody, critique and deconstruction (Roscoe and Hight, 1988). Firebox amalgamates elements of each degree in order to create a compound that most effectively draws attention to the issue of objectivity. The paradoxical complexity of this compound distances the audience, with similar intention to that of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation technique, verfremdungseffekt (Brecht, 1964). Indeed, it is through the fragmenting hybridity of aesthetics that alienates the audience from the narrative in order for them to establish an objective, critical perspective. As in Epic Theatre, some mock-documentaries, including Firebox, juxtapose action, dialogue and commentary to force the audience to make moral judgments (in this case about authorial objectivity). This strategy adheres to post-structuralist claims that textual meaning is generated through interaction with an audience. As Edward Said claims: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense’ (Said, 1983: 41). Therefore, the hyperconsciousness of some mock-documentary demands that the viewer reflect on the author’s and their own subjectivity in the interpretive process, especially in this less cohesive hybrid form which seeks to break empathetic bias to certain characters.

Firstly, Firebox’s satirical presentation of tabloid-style non-fiction programming borrows techniques from parody mock-documentaries. While parody mock-documentaries bear less explicit critique of the form itself, they utilize documentary aesthetics to emphasise comedic elements, often using the sober form to contrast with an absurd subject. For example, The Office (2001-2003) is a perfect example of documentary parody, using numerous signifying documentary conventions such as shaky camera footage, quick zooms, soft-focus shots, obstructed views and eye contact with the camera, all giving the impression of spontaneous ‘on-location’ action . It is structured as a typical television documentary with the use of ‘talking-head’ interviews, which audiences are taught to read as a non-fiction convention. Similarly, Firebox includes the use of talking-head interviews against symbolically establishing backgrounds (for instance boxing competition photographs to show the successes of the boxer), as well as coded ‘imperfections’ of focus, microphone distortion and sight of the film crew in certain shots to create a sense of authenticity and realism. By playing with the audience’s screen literacy, The Office and Firebox both challenge audience expectation of reality. Indeed, ‘the audience must be a ‘knowing’ audiences that recognises the object of the parody to be able to access critiques on offer’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 24). To this extent, these films rely on the audience’s ability to recognise documentary aesthetic conventions in order to comprehend, in these cases, the humour that derives from the contrast between the (perceived) rationality of the form and the absurdity of the subject, which ultimately arouses questions of form and content of ‘realistic’ documentary portrayal.

 

While the parody in mock-documentaries such as The Office does not necessarily make explicit criticisms of the form (instead using the conventions for comedic purposes), Firebox also uses its parodic humour to critique media practices themselves. ‘Critique’ mock-documentaries, according to Roscoe and Hight, are those that address an ‘underlying documentary agenda’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236), and which problematise the appropriation of documentary codes and conventions in media representation (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 235). This acknowledgment of implicit subjectivity in documentary production means that critique mock-documentaries ‘engage more critically in the form’s inherent reflexivity towards factual discourse’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). In Firebox this is achieved through the tensions presented between the subjects (members of the boxing gym) and the filmmakers (represented in the diegesis by one of our team), who strive to ascertain scandal and add incongruous subtext to the images. For example, Lily’s voice-over illustrates a deliberately melodramatic and falsified narrative that seeks to add drama to the fairly sober action. These contradictions between the producers and the subjects dramatises the inherent conflicting intentions or subjectivities and undermine ‘the pretence that a documentary filmmaker necessarily adopts a neutral and non-interventionist stance towards his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 236). This is exemplified when Lily attempts to construct ostensibly ‘natural’ scenes in the gym.

Peter Watkins’s Culloden (1964) similarly critiques the inherent bias of representation. By presenting documentary-style interviews at the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Watkins aims to reveal the constructedness of typical historical melodramas to emphasise the subjectivity of historical documentation. Watkins negotiates the ‘alienation coefficient’ (Lajtha, 1981: 9); similarly, Firebox does not adhere exclusively to Brechtian alienation techniques to achieve critical commentary, instead, like Culloden, allowing emotional identification with the characters, since a complete lack of empathy ‘can distance us to the point where we dismiss or lose sight of the essential issues’ (Lajtha, 1981: 10). In both cases this was achieved through improvisation that generated emotional involvement through the performers’ real connections to the action (some of the performers are descendants of real soldiers from the Battle of Culloden). Yet, the intention was not realism. Instead the emphasis on authorial bias is brought to the fore in Culloden through the presentation of the journalistic Classic Objective Argument, in which various members of each side are interviewed by a BBC-style news reporter. This generic form relies on expositional, interactive and observational modes of representation (Nichols, 1991), all of which require some degree of subjective interpretation. Therefore, the adoption of this documentary style is able to critique the effort to produce a balanced view, which we acknowledge would not have been provided during the time of the Battle of Culloden or noted in the records of the event. Certainly, the idea of a ‘balanced’ view implies a ‘fair’ judgment that derives from a given perspective of society, which is inevitably the perpetuated hegemony of the dominant class that control the media. Therefore, as R. Ericson, P. M. Baranek and J. B. Chan observe, these adopted political stances predicate the allegedly ‘apolitical’ nature of journalistic practice (Ericson et al., 1987, 1991). Critical mock-documentaries such as Culloden are then able, through their exposition of previously unexplored investigative method, to display the artificiality of representation and the discriminatory nature of perspective and interpretation in documentation.

Furthermore, during the battle scene in Culloden, a hand-held, shaky camera is used, which adds a sense of authenticity, while the editing and narration signal that it is a reconstruction (Lajtha, 1981: 11). With similar effect to Firebox’s mixture of non-interventionist, observational filming and edited sequences, the combination of aesthetics reinforces this negotiation between emotional involvement and critical distance that leads the audiences to question ‘balanced’ representations.

 

‘Deconstruction’ mock-documentaries scrutinize documentary form, essentially making the form the subject of the film. In so doing, such films challenge documentary’s relationship to ‘truth’, thus critiquing the perception that audio-visual representations have ‘a direct, unmediated relationship with reality,…based upon a specific ethical relationship between the filmmaker and subject, and that the filmmaker is capable of adopting an objective, balanced, non-interventionist stance toward his/her subject’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 237-9). This is largely achieved through the use of conspicuous reflexivity, which is presented in Firebox through the visibility of our crew member, Lily, and her motives that attempt to orchestrate on-screen drama, which ultimately cause the downfall of the protagonist. A canonical example of deconstruction mock-documentary is Man Bites Dog (1992), which presents the story of a documentary film crew filming a serial killer and eventually becoming implicated in the on-screen action. The crew are made visible throughout the action, including, for example, the flashlight getting in the way of the murder of the child. This text undermines the very foundations of the documentary form as it challenges the ethics and limitations of documentary filmmakers and deconstructs ‘the value system constructed by audience expectations of such texts’ (Roscoe and Hight, 1988: 239). As with Firebox, the fictional film crew, played by the actual film crew, use their real names, which further blurs the boundary between fact and fiction. This breaking down of barriers makes the audience feel more complicit in the action, which forces them, like with Brecht’s breaking of the fourth wall, to question how they are responding to action. Indeed, the comedic portrayal of tragic events seeks to create what Lipkin, Paget and Roscoe describe as ‘ethical unease’ that will lead to critique (Lipkin et al., 2006: 16-17). For example, the fairly sympathetic and humorous serial killer makes the audience question their identification with him as he commits his murders. Similarly, in Firebox the humorously hyperbolic voice-overs evoke comedy at the protagonist’s expense, though when shown alongside the juxtaposing quiet images of him looking lonely and awkward the audience become unsure of how to react. Additionally, Lily’s ambiguous character, at times polite and innocent, at others melodramatically wicked, makes the audience unsure of how to perceive her and the film crew. This confusion is advantageous to the ethical messages of both films as the uncomfortable relationships to the texts force the now critical viewers to question their own relationship to media representations, making them participants in the commentary of their own statuses as consumers of popular culture. This critique deconstructs the ‘mainstream behaviour’ of ‘seeing as believing’ in the face of mass media which blurs the boundary between journalism and entertainment, and thus begins to proliferate questions of accepted documentary objectivity.

While Man Bites Dog subverts the non-interventionist cinéma vérité style, another deconstruction mock-documentary, David Holzman’s Diary (1967), uses that very style in its own dissemination of the form. Based on the claim from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1963) that ‘film is truth 24 times a second’, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) comments on the assertion that documentary is able to access and depict ‘truth’ by exploring the relationship between film and reality, as the protagonist films himself in his daily environment in the search for his own truth. Through its exploration of voyeurism (perhaps a pre-emptive comment on representation in reality TV), McBride’s film seems to question ‘the customary notions of representation, of how we see and know the ‘reality’ of the world around us and how we communicate those perceptions’ (Sklar, 1987: 52). Indeed, the character’s frustration with the lack of ‘truthful’ insight from the camera creates a parody of cinéma vérité by drawing attention to the formulaic artifice of any documentary.

Firebox combines both cinéma vérité observation and reflexivity, used respectively in these two examples, to create less self-conscious realism and more alienation for a critical reading. Indeed, Terry Lajtha notes how Brecht ‘can use Epic and Dramatic theatre devices in the same production. Everything evolves around his desire to eliminate empathy’ (Lajtha, 1981: 14). Similarly, Firebox uses the logic of contrasting aesthetic styles to provide critical distance, though, like David Holzman’s Diary, retains allowance for some identification through the realism of non-interventionist techniques, most notably through the observational scenes of the boxer naturalistically interacting with his peers. In his uninterrupted state the boxer is visibly gentle and kind, despite the label of ‘aggressive and dangerous’ given by the voice-over. This immediately challenges the credibility of the film crew’s depiction.

 

What adds a new dimension to the commentary we present through Firebox is the hybridisation of mock-documentary conventions with ethnofiction research and performance techniques, along with observational filming strategies borrowed from the cinéma vérité tradition. While ethnofiction is used as an anthropological research method, such a method can be exploited to add authentic realism to a film. By using real people, improvising scenarios that directly correlate to their lived experience, ethnofictions are able to depict indefinable reality. In relation to Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions, Peter Loizos describes ‘the use of improvisation and fantasy as projective methods in the exploration of people’s lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 46) that serve ‘to convey something fundamental about real lives’ (Loizos, 1993: 50). These ‘projections’, presenting unconscious, implicit feelings through the explicit act of performance, dramatise fundamental truths that could not be discovered in any other way. Indeed, our research process for Firebox involved extensive interviews with our actors, in which we put forward relevant questions and hypothetical scenarios. We then instructed the actors to internalise the thoughts and feelings that these discussions provoked, and subsequently improvise scenes that we outlined with a stimulus or turning point. From this process we developed the broad themes of aggression in sports and boxer-coach relationships; themes which the actors were able to speak about more freely through improvisation, and more knowingly than any scriptwriter could articulate.

Peter Watkins uses similar research techniques in Punishment Park (1971), a mock-documentary about counterculture figures being put through brutal trial for their crimes against the USA. Many of the amateur cast related their performances directly to their own lives, expressing their true political views in their improvisations. Even the perpetrating police officers and the prosecuting panel held, to some degree, the opinions they argued in the narrative. Indeed, complete control of dialogue was given to the actors after a rough outline of narrative sequence was given by the director, meaning ‘no two takes were the same’ (Gomez, 1979: 10). Dr. Joseph Gomez notes how the camera woman, Joan Churchill, would simply weave in and out of on-going action and circle the actors in a spontaneous manner (Gomez, 1979: 10). We used a similar technique during Firebox shooting, both in improvised and observational scenes. The fictional set-up of both films is able to construct a framework environment that, as Johannes Sjöberg observes, ‘triggers the associations of the protagonist and allows for a creative flow through the improvised acting’ (Sjöberg, 2009: 3). Such improvisation, with its roots so connected to reality, is able to provide a deeper level of realism. For example, our actors were able to bring into discussion their relationship as boxer and coach, making the implicit respect more explicit through the dramatic play, while the cast of Punishment Park were given fictional platforms on which to debate their true beliefs.

The resulting realism in Punishment Park adds credibility in conjunction with the documentary conventions, and emotional investment in the subject matter. However, in Firebox, the realism of some of the performances works less in conjunction with an more in deliberate opposition to the stylised editing and the melodramatic performance and voice-over of Lily, the crew member. This is most obvious during the musical montages, and the final scene in which a series of naturalistic shots are un-naturalistically edited together in quick succession to artificially add tension. The contrasting styles draw attention to the distorted representation being constructed by the fictional filmmakers, while also making the film less fluent and harder to watch, thus reinforcing the Brechtian-style critical distance. This jarring incongruence is reinforced by observational cinema techniques. For instance, in the direct cinema style of figures such as Frederick Wiseman, among others, we spent a significant amount of time simply filming our subjects in their natural environments (the boxing gym) without necessarily recording. This meant the presence of the camera became increasingly normalised, and we were able to capture something closer to reality and further from conscious performance. The non-interventionist, non-fiction sequences are layered with Lily’s voice-over, which makes blatant attempt to impose fabricated meaning onto the images in the plight to deliver a scandalous news story. Consequently, the seemingly unmediated representation set beside obviously stylised and edited material challenges any previously discernable objectivity; the viewers are lead to question whether they can trust any of the varied representations delivered.

 

In conclusion, given that mock-documentaries provoke questions regarding ‘the permissibility, usefulness, and even danger of mixing the functions of documentary and drama’ (Lipkin et al., 2006: 14), we chose to mix numerous documentary and drama aesthetics and genres in order to provoke further questions about the form, as well as broader queries regarding the crisis of representation. The contrasting styles of both fact and fiction draw stark attention to the artifice of representation, which through any filmic portrayal are inherently subjective despite any roots in reality. To this extent, such a hybrid mock-documentary achieves a more hostile critique than a straight-forward Christopher Guest-style film, which exploits the form more to add to the comic or satirical value of the subject, and aims to entertain rather than challenge per se. We have taken the hyperconscious, deconstructive, critical mock-documentary form further by creating a more complex hybrid form that simultaneously features aspects of reality and stylised construction to confuse and confront, eliciting interrogation of authorship, motives and interpreted textuality. Had we made our film longer, we may have had the opportunity to experiment with additional aesthetics, such as disorientating jump cuts or incoherent layering of sound and image. Using these non-linear tropes reminiscent of French New Wave Cinema- which is itself a postmodern hybrid of Italian Neorealism and ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood[2]– and implementing them into this mock-documentary composite would yield greater audience disorientation and ultimately a more analytical position, which would produce further scepticism over the concept of objectivity.

 

Bibliography:

Brecht, B. and Willett, J. (1964). Brecht on theatre. New York: Hill and Wang.

Citron, Michelle. (1999). ‘Fleeing from Documentary: Autobiographical Film/Video and the ‘Ethics of Responsibility’ in Waldman, D. and Walker, J. (eds). Feminism and Documentary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ericson, R. (n.d.). Visualising deviance, negotiating control and representing order. Open University Press.

Gomez, J. (1979). Peter Watkins. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Lajtha, T. (1981). Brechtian Devices in Non-Brechtian Cinema: Culloden. Literature/Film Quarterly, 1(1), pp.9-14.

Lipkin, S. N., Paget, D. and Roscoe, J. (2006). Docudramas and Mock-documentary: Defining Terms, Proposing Canons in Rhodes, G. and Springer, J. (eds). Docufictions. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.

Loizos, P. (1993). Innovation in Ethnographic Film. Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Nichols, B. (1991). Representing reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (1988). Building a Mock-Documentary Schema in Rosenthal, A. (eds). New challenges for documentary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roscoe, J. and Hight, C. (2001). Faking it. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Said, Edward. (1983). The World, the Text and the Critic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Sjöberg, Johannes. (2009). Ethnofiction and Beyond: The Legacy of Projected Improvisation in Ethnographic Filmmaking. Available at: http://antoine.chech.free.fr/textes-colloque-JR/Sjoberg.pdf [accessed 20.05.4]

Sklar, R. (1987). When Looks Could Kill: American Cinema of the Sixties. Cineaste, 16.1(2), pp.50-53.

Filmography:

  1. Culloden. (1964). [DVD] UK: Peter Watkins.

David Holzman’s Diary. (1967). [DVD] USA: Jim McBride.

  1. Firebox. (2014). [DVD] UK: Eleanor Forder, Jemima Jennings, Lily Stead.

Man Bites Dog. (1992). [DVD] Belgium: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel.

The Office, (2001-2003). [DVD] UK: Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant.

Punishment Park. (1971). [DVD] USA: Peter Watkins.

 

[1] Although a highly contestable term, this essay will use the working definition of ‘hybrid’ as the combining of disparate elements; in this case, the fusion of differing dramatic styles that work with opposing artistic theories. For further reading see: Homi Bhabha. (2001). The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. Leitch, V. (ed.). New York: Norton.

[2] See: Greene, N. (2007). The French new wave. London: Wallflower.

How has new media changed the media industry?

While the topic of much contemporary debate, there is little agreement over the future power relations of the media industry. Although the adoption and development of new media has begun to challenge the hegemonic models of socio-economics (Freeman and Louç̃a), there is no guarantee that commonsense practices will emerge and produce a democratic revolution of the industry. Certainly, new media and technologies have provided consumers with more agency than ever, yet this idea of media convergence (Jenkins) introduces the potential for new realms of monopolisation. This essay will investigate the negotiation between the democratic nature of new media and corporate efforts to maintain concentration of industrial power, deliberating between the possibility for equal opportunities, collaborative insights and unmediated representations, and the continued quest for profits- a negotiation that Eugenia Siapera describes as ‘a tension between the tendency of user contents towards diversity, and the tendency of ‘monetization’ or capitalization over such contents to impose certain limits and controls to this kind of diversity and online exchanges’ (Siapera: 53). The concepts of consumer control and media reform will be studied alongside the idea of longstanding media conglomeration and the issue of, and ethical struggle against, monetisation of new media and the continued control of media corporations.

 

From video on-demand to user-generated content, new media is increasingly passing control over to the consumer. Next generation users represent the empowered consumer, allowing them to demand what, when and how they consume media, creating a continued struggle for the industry to attract attention and monetize consumption. Henry Jenkins speaks about the age of participatory culture and collective intelligence (Jenkins), noting the increasing agency of the general public in the production, distribution and consumption of media. Certainly, this creates scope for major change in the media industry because, as Siapera finds, it is with user empowerment ‘that we may locate the potential for change, for struggle towards a more equitable distribution of wealth and power’ (Siapera: 60). Already shifts in media power are occurring, with 70% of survey respondents trusting consumer reviews posted online in the decision process of consumption (Nielson) . However, it must be noted that a similar 70% of these consumers say they trust branded websites (Nielson). Thus, the change corporate to consumer power is tangible yet slight.

Additionally, new media and technologies have led to globalisation and the breaking down of spatial and temporal barriers, thus creating freers flow of media images and information. The consequent trend of widespread user-generated content has undermined the traditional media business model of selling content to users, and has opened up the possibility of bottom-up flows of information with the ability to bypass mass media monopolies. Moreover, this has invigorated the call for free rather than dictatorial flow of information and the public’s entitlement to intellectual property that may allow global democracy through collective intelligence. Certainly, aggregate blogs such as the Huffington Post depict this change in the production of media content, moving towards a more inclusive circulation of information. This trend is also accompanied by the continuous decline of national newspapers of 5-20% year on year (The Guardian). However, these figures reflect the increasing reliance on the internet as a source of news, as well as the adoption of tablets. Evidently, major media corporations are able to harness this new media trend by investing in online and mobile editions, following the consumer wherever he goes.

In ‘The Long Tail’, Chris Anderson notes the increased revenue of niche products with cheap distribution, exhibition and availability through the internet (Anderson). The implication is that smaller companies are able to produce, promote and circulate their products with the use of new media, with the prevailing trend of viral marketing yielding a fairer chance for small or start-up businesses in the competitive market. An obvious example for this would be the YouTube sensation, Justin Beiber, and his launch to fame through new media outlets. Indeed, Jose van Dijick notes how sites like YouTube originally intended to provide a democratic forum for ordinary people to launch their talent, observing that these video-sharing sites are essentially ‘mediating platforms between the masses of aspiring amateurs and the ‘old’ Hollywood media moguls…they provide a new link in the upward mobility chain of the commercially driven star-system’ (van Dijick: 52). Yet, in practice traditional media is left far from redundant since ‘viral’ fame is only recognised by the mainstream when it is acknowledged by traditional mass media. Thus, ‘old’ media remains an integral part of the industry, with new media merely representing a more level starting point.

Richard Barbrook writes about new media’s ‘gift economy’ for information exchange  and goes as far as to refer to the internet as a ‘really existing form of anarcho-communism’ (Barbrook) with the idea of collective effort of the masses. Although the emergence of the ‘prosumer’ may provide what some view as a less hierarchical and more meritocratic model, with the idea of peering and transparency in ‘wikinomics’ (Tapscott and Williams), one may also consider the implication of exploitative crowdsourcing for private gain. Indeed, to link it to the previous point regarding video-sharing sites, media corporations are able to harness this bottom-up model by using these supposedly ‘democratic’ forums as bait for talent- a free, ‘gift’ economy. Certainly, notable sites such as YouTube are owned by the major corporations, and Google’s conditions for use make uploaded content their property, giving them the rights for promotion, distribution, and censorship (van Dijick: 49). So when Jenkins discusses how Web 2.0 ‘was envisioned as a new frontier space where grassroots initiatives, communal spirit and ‘free’ amateur culture had a chance to blossom’, one must question how free the resulting platforms are. Furthermore, Elizabeth Van Couvering notes that the concentration of new media companies mirrors that of traditional media (Van Couvering, 2003), meaning the same hierarchical pressures remain. Clearly, even ‘user-generated’ content does not necessarily denote user power over display and circulation. Therefore, what has changed is the way in which media is picked up, but a truly democratic model is far off. The corporations have been able to turn ‘commons-like structures towards commercially driven platforms’ (van Dijick: 51), meaning that the guise of democratic media production is actually orchestrated by the same elitist power of the media owners. Thus, ‘UGC is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), illustrating little change towards the democratising of the industry.

 

Evidently, for every step new media takes in the direction of unmediated consumer control, traditional media corporations are close behind with profit-driven plans. New media outlets represent further potential for vertical monopolisation, thus hindering the progression towards a democratic media industry. Through this, these firms are able to ‘operate in ways commensurable with industrial capitalism, based on mass production and control of distribution’ (Siapera: 49), rather than an egalitarian system of disintermediation. Their monetizing efforts, then, towards copyrighting and pay walls means the ‘dynamics of the new media are infused with power relations’ (Mansell: 98), mirroring the unequal distribution of power and wealth in society in the same way that the old media industry did.

To this extent, it seems that the political economy of the media has merely shifted online. Indeed, new media revenue is subject to the same financial strains as traditional media, relying on the sale of advertising space and consumer analytics (Siapera: 49). For example, the extreme success of Facebook is based on the implementation of such a model, with Facebook continually looking for new ways to convert new user dynamics into a profitable platform using this revenue system. In the third quarter of 2013 the social media giant’s revenue from advertising grew by 66% to $1.8 billion, with nearly half of that accounting for mobile advertisements (BBC News, 2013). One can here observe that the company is continuing to harness consumer trends that see a consistent rise in mobile interaction, allowing them to capitalise on social media use rather than looking to provide a felicitous forum for grassroots conversation and collaboration. This institutionalisation of new media means that the fundamental economic system remains unchanged. Evidently, open source sites are trailing behind privatised platforms, which challenges the predictions of a public-led media industry.

 

Initially, new media systems such as the search engine were imagined to further empower the consumer with the ability to control one’s access to information. However, corporate sovereignty can here also be observed; through additional monopolisation, publishers retained overarching autonomy. For example, Google’s acquisition of YouTube gives them the power to saturate further advertising space, as well as the ability to manipulate supposedly organic searches across these platforms. As Siapera notes, ‘online corporations prioritize the mainstream…in opting for traffic maximization they steer clear of any substantial controversy’ (Siapera: 57). Certainly, it remains in their interest to provide a platform most desirable to fellow corporate initiatives, with an inclusive, ‘natural’ user experience pushed to the side-lines. Powerful brands are able to invest more, and in turn media owners manipulate search queries to allow their clients to capitalise. Consequently, alternative viewpoints are made harder to find; clearly, the dictated flow of traditional media has made its way online. Bergquist and Ljungberg corroborate with this, arguing that ‘some of the user/developers experience power relationships that are expressed as an elitism of the inner circle and exercised as the right to hinder a person in contributing to the common good’ (Bergquist and Ljungberg: 315), as is illustrated with the example of search engine manipulation. Thus, the concentration of media ownership remains an overriding feature of the industry. This carry-over of top-down structure into new media leaves corporate media with ever-more autocratic and hegemonic power, which as Herman and Chomsky discuss in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ (Herman and Chomsky), has created (and patently sustained) an unequal hierarchical society despite an ostensibly more consumer-controlled media.

In addition, new media has seemingly, by its egalitarian premise, provided a voice for those previously denied. Certainly, developing countries have increased their share in world internet users from 44% in 2006, to 62% in 2011 (ITU Telecommunications). However, this change has altered (and improved) but not removed the digital divide; the defining line between those with and without a voice has changed from socio-economic factors to that of digital literacy, generational factors and willing participation. So, although changes have been made that begin to blur class lines the media remains unequal, with those lacking new media cultural capital left in the ‘old’ media one-way flow of information.

 

Siapera’s insistence ‘on a plurality of engines, a diversity of portals and providers, and clear criteria for inclusion/exclusion of different points of view’ (Siapera: 58) aligns with Jenkins’ sentiments. He emphasises the importance of ‘[fighting] against the copyright regime…to expand access and participation to groups that are otherwise left behind, and to promote forms of media literacy education that help all children to develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture’ (Jenkins: 259). Both conclusions on this subject require intervention by the general public, yet it seems that the lure of commodities and services provided by companies overtakes the instinct to redistribute power. The questions of whether the public care enough about how ‘authentic’ the images they see are or if everyone has a voice in the world is somewhat contentious. As in his criticisms of the culture industry, Adorno cynically observes the ‘passive dupes’ of commodity culture who have no intellectual engagement with the media and instead relish in the passivity of dictated messages (Adorno, 2002: 492). Ultimately, new media has brought about major changes in the industry, most notably with the introduction of consumer empowerment. Yet, dominant new media has a similar capitalist model of profit-driven incentives, despite the fact that more democratic grassroots platforms have potential to become socially resourceful forums, allowing equal opportunities for all. As discussed, mass media are able to compete with free models using personalised consumer targeting and native advertising, which creates a more desirable experience for users. Therefore, due to societal focus on the individual, users are more likely to support what best suits their consuming experience, rather than what will result in public benefit.

References:

Adorno, Theodor. 2002.  Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. London: University of California Press.

Adorno, T. and Bernstein, J. 2001.The Culture Industry. London: Routledge.

Anderson, Chris (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion.

Barbrook, R. (2005). The High-tech Gift Economy. Internet Banking, E-Money and Internet Gift Economies, 3.  http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_12/barbrook [Accessed: 3 Nov 2013].

BBC News. 2013. Facebook revenue surges 60%. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24751441 [Accessed: 4 Nov 2013].

Bergquist, Magnus and Ljungberg, Jan. 2001. The power of gifts: organizing social relationships in open source communities. Information Systems Journal vol. 11.

Freeman, Chris and Francisco Louca. 2001. As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolution to the Information Revolution. London: Oxford University Press.

the Guardian. 2013. ABCs: National daily newspaper circulation August 2013. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/table/2013/sep/06/abcs-national-newspapers [Accessed: 3 Nov 2013].

Herman, E. and Chomsky, N. 1988.Manufacturing consent. New York: Pantheon Books.

ITU World Telecommunications. 2011. The World in 2011: ICT Facts & Figures. [report] Switzerland: International Telecommunications Unions.

Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence culture. New York: New York University Press.

Mansell, R. 2004. Political Economy, Power and New Media. New Media and Society, Sage Publications, 6 (1), pp. 96-105.

Nielson Global Online Consumer Survey. 2009.Global Advertising Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most. [report] United States: The Nielson Company.

Resnick, David. 1998. Politics of the Internet: The Normalization of Cyberspace. In. C Toulouse and W.T Luke (eds.). The Politics of Cyberspace, 48-68. London: Routledge.

Siapera, E. 2012. Understanding new media. London: SAGE.

Tapscott, D. and Williams, A. 2006. Wikinomics. New York: Portfolio.

Van Couvering, E. 2003. ‘Media Power on the Internet: Towards a Theoretical Framework’, paper presented at the Research Seminar for Media Communication and Culture, London School of Economics, 25 April, London.

 

Explore and access Hip Hop culture’s negotiation of ‘racial burdens of representation’.

As one of the most globally prominent subcultures, hip-hop bears an extraordinary burden of representation for the African-American community it speaks for. Since this representation is projected through mass media, it relies on the endorsement of predominantly white media conglomerates that hold no such burden and merely seek marketability. Just as Theodor Adorno speaks of the destructive nature of the ‘culture industry’ (Adorno), a capitalist world inevitably demands the commodification of hip-hop culture in the continuous quest for profit, regardless of the detrimental effect of such hyperbolic, sensationalised images have on the representation of black, working-class youth, and despite the need for re-addressing old racial politics.

This essay will investigate how the burden of racial representation affected the rise of hip-hop to its prominent state, exploring the authenticity and potential political power that mainstream hip-hop artists have had to forfeit in order to gain their standing, and looking at why realistic, political representations remain ‘underground’. The introduction of a spectrum of hip-hop representation will contest the opinion that ‘mainstream’ unambiguously equates to negative images, using the case studies of duo Dead Prez in comparison to the commodification of leading artists-cum-entrepreneurs Jay-Z and Kanye West. The third category will examine hip-hop figures that perfectly depict the genre’s commodification by almost parodying stereotypes such as 2 Chainz. Textual analysis of lyrics and branding will establish the implicit difficulties of the burden of racial representation throughout the spectrum, and therefore introduce the idea that mediated images cannot provide an ‘authentic’ picture of ghetto life to mass audiences.

A range of hip-hop acts provide varying representations of the black youth culture, but only those presented through ubiquitous mass media determine the global hegemonic view. The question that arises is whether these mainstream acts are responsible for depicting a realistic or positive image of black youth, given their status and agency. Historically an under- or mis-represented minority, pressure to find the bearer and most effective form of the burden of black representation is prevalent. Chuck D commented that, given mainstream media’s neglect and exploitation of the black community, hip-hop may be seen as the ‘Black CNN’; ‘I thought it could be used- under the radar- for getting the information out [to] Black communities. It [still] does, but it’s not really under the radar…Packaged, endorsed, homogenized. A big white pimp is sitting over it’ (qtd. by Kitwana: 47). Evidently, hip-hop’s negotiation of racial representation is problematized by the industry structure and has affected how rappers respond to this burden.

Hip-hop duo, Dead Prez, produces ‘revolutionary but gangsta’ tracks in which they rap about social ills and issues with the music industry that prevent their mainstream success and hinder the reach and impact of their messages. They explicitly note the lack of realistic representation:

 

‘I know it’s part of they plans

To make us think it’s all about party and dancin’

And yo it might sound good when you spittin’ your rap

But in reality, don’t nobody live like that’ (Dead Prez)

 

Although their image provides a more realistic perception of black life, their focus on sincere lyrics rather than fetishized images mean they are excluded from the narrow range of mainstream hip-hop. Corporate media are not concerned with activist response but rather consumer response, and therefore filter content to reinforce their own agenda. As Timothy Guzman notes, ‘the majority of rappers are used by the major labels to sell propaganda’ (Guzman), such as ideologies of individual agency and the glamorization of commodity indulgence. Thus, Dead Prez’s music is ‘so real that the radio will never play it’ (Dead Prez).

            The next category of rappers is best characterised by Jay-Z and Kanye West, who achieved mass success through the marketization of signifiers of authenticity, both in terms of lyrical skill and conforming to the accepted narratives of black ghetto ascendance. Despite statuses of authenticity, both rappers also epitomize commodified hip-hop in both their music and private lives. Their branding and displays of economic power and material wealth make them extremely marketable, and are therefore highly endorsed by corporate media. The images they perpetuate focus on possessive individualism as well as stereotypical signifiers of black culture. Certainly, mass media exploit these representations in order to promote commodity culture, making hip-hop a saleable asset. Overlooked, then, are the realities of black youth unemployment and lack of social mobility; while Reagan mobilised the perception of self-induced poverty and criminality, mainstream hip-hop extends this with the notion that black prosperity is achievable through commodity culture, which undermines the implicit issues faced by black Americans. It additionally reduces black agency to bodily pursuits of racial conformity. Carried through from Reaganism is the emphasis on personal agency, meaning concepts of communal aid through realistic representation that gives voice to otherwise silenced issues is pushed from the agenda. Though by their premise regarded as credible spokesmen for black youth, these artists avoid explicit political critique. For example, Jay-Z raps: ‘[my songs] ain’t politically correct/ This may offend my political connects’ (Jay-Z). Ironically, his appraisal is limited to musical aesthetics and notably circumvents actual political criticism, probably because of the very political connections (famously with President Obama and powerful corporate sponsors) he is mindful of offending.

Guzman claims ‘[Kanye West and Jay-Z’s] music has no substance or positive meaning behind the lyrics. It is music that destroys the minds of urban youths’ (Guzman). This bold statement seems contestable given the opposing argument that such rappers provide an uplifting representation that was also previously denied; indeed, these artists also represent aspirational black figures. However, the significance of such representation is limited as ‘no utopian public image or monument is available to symbolise collective aspirations’ (Mitchell: 888) because of the issues to eschews, as discussed above.

Alternatively, they more implicitly represent a kind of Trojan Horse of the music industry that is able to exploit the system. Certainly, Todd Boyd described Spike Lee’s public image as ‘a compromised image of Blackness for mass consumption in return for the financial power to challenge the racial status quo elsewhere’ (Boyd: 138). To this extent, it seems reasonable that in a society of racial prejudice those able should use anything at their disposal to gain dominant standing and consequently a voice for an underrepresented class. Corroborating this is the inclusion of some politically-conscious content, most notably with West’s 2013 Yeezus album. Indeed, once credible mainstream success is established labels are able to market anything with existing branding. New Slaves in particular introduces provoking themes to mainstream discourse that are otherwise neglected. West boldly confronts the idea that blacks remain enslaved in America, mirroring Paul Gilroy’s theories of the legitimising and entrapment of commodity culture (Gilroy). He positions himself as a victim of ‘rich nigga racism’ (West), as if to authenticate his elevated position as still marginalised by dominant culture. Although no solution is reached (and the outspoken themes may be viewed merely as a shock-factor or market niche), this text could be read as the implementation of subliminal messaging to mass audiences, paving the way for more sincere conversation in years to come.

Mickey Hess writes that ‘a theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’ (Hess: 298). This argument suggests that moments of realism can enter the mainstream as long as they are teamed with marketability, implying that mainstream hip-hop may be used as a platform for some sort of reformist racial representation. This is somewhat problematic as racial representation that is mediated by marketing strategy is inevitably inauthentic and unrealistic, and, as Tricia Rose writes, ‘corporate media outlets empower these businessmen-rappers, underpromote the more sophisticated rhymes, and play down the vigorous and well-informed analysis and criticism’ (Rose: 11-12).

No amount of realism is visible in the third category of rappers. Typified by 2 Chainz, this branch of hip-hop epitomizes the damaging representation of black youth in its reduction of black consciousness to the identification with violent, sexist and hedonistic images of masculinity rather than real contemporary issues. 2 Chainz is a mass-circulated figure who produces standardised beats, simplistic and repetitive lyrics and focuses on fetishized elements of commodity culture. Through his overt performativity of clichéd fashion and gesticulation he perpetuates a stereotypically simplistic image of black youth culture that Rose calls ‘neo-minstrelsy’ (Rose: 29) and Kevin Powell labels ‘a cultural safari for white people’ (Powell qtd. by Kitwana: 53). Although enjoyed by the masses, this performance is detrimental to the realistic representation of black culture. Bill Yousman explains that ‘White youth adoption of Black cultural forms in the 21st century is also a performance, one that allows Whites to contain their fears and animosities towards Black through rituals not of ridicule, as in previous eras, but of adoration’ (Yousman: 366). Indeed, the novelty makes such acts non-threatening to dominant structure as it adheres to an accepted model of blackness; the monopolisation of independent labels has reduced hip-hop to a narrow range of images that are easily circulated to a wide audience. Limiting these images simplifies the representation of black youth culture and perpetuates the flawed concept that masculinity is achieved through such displays of sexism, aggression and possessive individualism. Additionally, to those unconnected to hip-hop culture, such representations denote unrealistic perceptions of black pathology and immorality, yet essentialist illustrations dilute white guilt and reduce the need to address racial inequalities. Guzman notes that ‘the music industry use rappers to further demoralize people who have no idea what is happening in their communities and the world’ (Guzman). This circulation of political apathy keeps the masses focused on commodity indulgence and away from discussions of bottom-up progression, which would jeopardise corporate power. Indeed, these black mainstream figures forfeit potential for progressive race relations because it is absent from industrial motivation. Instead, dominant structures are left unchallenged by the immense powers of the masses with the distraction of ‘big booty hos’ and ‘the Gucci store’ (2 Chainz). Global audiences that rely on media representations are adopting these misguided images of black youth culture (Kitwana: 123); a white hip-hop fan said: ‘the stuff in the music, it appeals to our sense of learning about other cultures and wanting to know more about something that we’ll probably never experience’ (qtd. by Hurt, 2007). The idea that audiences are ‘learning’ through these hyperbolic, unrealistic depictions suggests that hip-hop artists have the burden to represent an accurate image of black youth culture so as to address the issue of race relations.

However, a broader question is whether hip-hop should or can be responsible for projecting authentic racial representations. Tupac said: ‘I don’t know how to be responsible for what every black male does…Yes, I am going to say I’m a thug, because I came from the gutter and I’m still here!’ (Tupac). Certainly, discourses that position hip-hop as the encouragement of black social deviance are somewhat perfunctory; in many ways mainstream hip-hop is a microcosm of American culture with the manifestation of broad themes of identity crisis. Quinn notes the ‘(re)assertion of alternative models of gendered and sexual relations that chimed with an increasingly liberalized and sexualized U.S. society’ (Quinn: 132). Therefore, if hip-hop speaks for American society, its role is more importantly an outlet of social concerns rather than an authentic image of a single social group.

Furthermore, it is debatable as to whether popular culture is an appropriate arena for addressing race issues. Mass media is an incredibly powerful hegemonic tool, one previously absent of black representation, and has the ability to globally imbue ideological discourses. Hip-hop’s international presence on mainstream media makes it an apt forum for the improvement of race relations, and has the potential to provide the ‘catalysts necessary to jump-start an international human rights movement in this generation, a movement with the potential to parallel if not surpass yesterday’s civil rights success’ (Kitwana: 11). However, the consolidation of traditional media means a continuity of mediated representations is controlled by very few corporate figures. Thus, nuanced discussions are replaced by the fortification of commodified cultural capital. Nevertheless, new media outlets promise democratisation of the media industry with user-generated content and prosumerism. By its premise, new media provides a commons-like platform for individual and group representation by bypassing traditional media and corporate mediation. In theory, this suggests that hip-hop acts would be able to circulate both authentic and positive representations of the African-American community in order to introduce realistic perceptions that may lead to activism and progressive political agendas. Yet, the lack of continuity and ubiquity of new media content creates fragmentation and diminished impact. Consequently, representations with potential to alter hegemony rely on being ultimately endorsed by traditional media, meaning ‘user-generated content is firmly locked into the commercial dynamics of the mediascape’ (van Dijick: 53), and the same obstacles apply.  

Additionally, the very nature of mediated imaging is problematic as it is separated from lived experience and relies on, as Edward Said theorizes, the reader being the creator of meaning (Said). Moreover, the nature of popular culture denotes passive engagement that people indulge in during their leisure time. Such escapism is rendered essential in capitalist societal pressure for daily profit-hunting, producing what Adorno labels ‘passive dupes’ (Adorno: 492). The lack of a receptive audience makes popular culture a questionable arena for enlightening racial representation.

Hip-hop began as a forum for the discussion of black social issues, communal spirit and empirical representation of a marginalised race. Its global appropriation through commercial mediation has produced the circulation of out-dated racial politics. Kitwana comments: ‘if white hip-hop kids ignore hip-hop’s history and do not resist the temptation to reproduce the old racial politics, we will have lost a beautiful democratic momentum set in motion by American youth, one that has the vision and capacity to leave the old racial politics on the pages of history where it belongs’ (Kitwana: 106). However, it seems inconceivable that hip-hop can bear the burden of racial representation, whether in terms of authenticity or uplift. The idea that sensationalised mainstream hip-hop images are ‘uplifting’ seem troubled as they provide erroneous messages about the prosperity of black youth culture, and yet ‘authentic’ images are too confronting to be accepted as popular culture. In reality, all that exists is this theatre of human anxiety, the dramatization of identity crisis through hyperbolic images that is in equal parts relieving and damaging; it allows escapism for a range of groups and individuals while channelling their human angst, and yet also abuses the representation of American black youth as a platform for this. The genre has allowed the elevation of black figures, though only under the terms of the white corporations. Evidently, they must find a way to break free from corporate media as well as the entrapment of commodity culture that is used as a ‘distraction from and compensation for a wider inequality’ (Gilroy: 6) before progressive racial representation may be circulated in order to confront prevailing race relations.

 

Cited Sources:

2 Chainz, Birthday Song (Def Jam, 2012).

Adorno, Theodor. 2002. Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno. London: University of California Press.

Boyd, Todd. 1997. ‘The Day The Niggaz Took Over: Basketball, Commodity Culture, and Black Masculinity.’ in Out of Bounds: Sports, Media and Politics of Identity, ed. Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dead Prez, Turn off The Radio (Full Clip, 2002).

Gilroy, Paul. 2011. Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP.

Guzman, T. 2013. Why does the Music Industry keep ‘underground hip hop’ underground?.Silent Crow News, Available at: http://silentcrownews.com/wordpress/?p=2405 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].

Hess, Mickey. 2005. “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society. Taylor & Francis Group.

Hurt, Byron. 2007. Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Independent Lens Series, PBS. First broadcast, February 20th.

Jay-Z, ‘Death of Autotune’ (Roc Nation, 2009).

Kitwana, Bakari. 2005. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Mitchell, W. 1990. The Violence of Public Art: “Do the Right Thing”. Critical Inquiry, 16 (4), pp. 880-899. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

Quinn, Eithne. 2005. Nuthin but a G Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip-Hop Wars. New York: Basic.

Said, Edward. 1983. The World, the Text and the Critic. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tupac, Changes (Interscope/Death Row, 1992).

Van Dijick, J. 2008. Users like you? Theorizing agency in user-generated content. Media, Culture and Society, 31 (41), Available from: doi: 10.1177/0163443708098245 [Accessed: 28 Nov 2013].

West, Kanye,  New Slaves (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2013).

Yousman, B. 2003. Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap Music and White Supremacy. Communication Theory, 13 (4), pp. 366-391. Available from: doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2003.tb00297. [Accessed: 27 Nov 2013].

Many indie directors have transitioned from the (semi)independent domain into the mainstream. Comparing two films from one director’s filmography – one a (semi)independent production, the other a mainstream production – discuss whether there are inherent stylistic, narrative or thematic differences that are attributable to the shift from indie to mainstream.

The filmography of Gus Van Sant documents a definite transition from independent into mainstream production, particularly with the examples of My Own Private Idaho and Milk. This essay will argue that inherent stylistic, narrative and thematic devices conclusively distinguish Van Sant’s shift into mainstream cinema, including the use of narrative guidance, objectives and plot trajectory, character sympathy and resolution. His use of artistic techniques debatably give Milk an art-house aesthetic that appeals to a mass audience in search of the cultural capital associated with high-brow culture. However, I will be theorising that the fundamental narrative structure in Milk is specifically geared towards a mainstream audience, with any art-house techniques being used merely as a means of aiding mainstream cinema imperatives of enjoyment, easy comprehension of the story and creating maximum catharsis for the audience, rather than for the sake of art.

 

Milk depicts the story of the election of Harvey Milk to San Francisco Supervisor during the 1970s. Van Sant provides an emotive portrayal of his incredibly likeable protagonist, leaving a powerful message of perseverance and self-expression. Meanwhile, My Own Private Idaho, which Van Sant made earlier in his career, is the abstract tale of homosexual prostitutes, with a loose base on works of Shakespeare. It provides a theatrical, unnaturalistic snapshot of the lives of these young men, leaving an ambiguous impression for its audience.  

 

Audience consumption of these films is primarily important in differentiating them. They can be characterised by their respective adherence to Brechtian and Stanislavskian practices, the fundamental reception strategies being verfremdungseffekt versus the forth wall and suspension of disbelief. Through the alienation technique of verfremdungseffekt, Brecht wanted his audience to think not feel emotions, and therefore wanted them to hold a critical detachment from the action and characters[1]. This is not to say that all art film adheres to Brechtian practice (in fact, much independent cinema follows realism in a similar way to Stanislavski), but it is an example of the subverting of Hollywood conventions. On the other hand, Stanislavskian strategy asks its audience to emotionally invest and believe in the action by the building of a forth wall[2]– an ideal taken up by the continuity style of mainstream Hollywood. The result is that mainstream representations such as Milk become more affecting than the thought-provoking, reflexive tone of many independents such as Idaho.

            Additionally, passivity is key to mainstream cinema viewing. From what Adorno and Horkheimer have explored with their theories on the ‘passive dupes’[3] that indulge in the superficial novelties of popular culture, one can determine that popular cinema is for passive, indulgent enjoyment, while independent cinema is for artistic expression and challenging, which seems to closely follow this differentiation between Idaho and Milk. Van Sant seemingly made a conscious move to the mainstream in an effort to reach the masses: ‘[making mainstream films] was like me going back, or trying to, in sentimental movie fashion, going back to make popular art, art for the populace.’[4] This reach for the mainstream audience explains why Van Sant’s storytelling techniques become more apt for the passive mass audience. Peter Bradshaw writes: ‘I felt that Milk is a slightly staid film, closer to the middle-of-the-road side of Gus van Sant’s film-making persona, the bland side’[5]. Considering this analysis, one can determine that Van Sant’s shift to the mainstream has lost the interest of his art film following, to whom the challenge of active viewing is what makes cinema so stimulating. Bordwell corroborates this point, stating that ‘the Hollywood spectator, it is claimed, is little more than a receptacle; few skills of attention, memory, discrimination, inference-drawing, or hypothesistesting are required’[6]. With the continuity style exemplified in Milk, cinematic techniques are purposefully used to stimulate specific emotional responses from the audience at specific times, with the result of a seamless storytelling mechanism. While this lends itself to the forth wall practices of Stanislavski, Idaho sticks to the Brechtian audience engagement, which is related to what Edward Said theorises about the production of meaning: ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense.’[7] This imperative explicitly distinguishes Idaho from Milk, which demands nothing by receptivity.

 

Stylistic elements certainly contribute to the production of these varied audience interactions.

Blogger, Tempest in a Teacup, wrote: ‘Van Sant often tailored his use of camera angles and shots, among other cinematographic tools across his films, in a far more experimental manner than the Hollywood blockbuster to enhance his films’ effectiveness in conveying the mood and meaning within his settings’[8]. This corroborates what was aforementioned regarding Milk’s art film aesthetic; however, though this blogger views these cinematographic tools as ‘experimental’, I would argue that this is merely a façade disguising mainstream continuity in order to appeal to a mass audience in search for high-brow capital. Certainly, the context of Van Sant’s previous art-centric filmography provides intertextual reference and prejudice to the reading of this film, though a deeper evaluation proves little outside of Hollywood convention. For instance, the colour and quality of the film gives it a dated look and differentiates it from the over-saturated visuals of most Hollywood blockbusters. Yet, this stylistic choice merely adds credibility by likening it to the real footage from that period; indeed, the use of media footage helps to establish this, creating increased suspension of disbelief rather than challenging experimentation. For example, the real footage announcing the deaths of the politicians provides true emotion that is tangible to the audience who has intertextual knowledge of the true story. Additionally, the use of a handheld camera during crowd scenes enhances realism and audience complicity. Photographic stills, newspaper articles and screen captions, although appearing to be experimentally artistic devices, merely serve to depict how these images would have appeared in the news, and guide the narrative to allow passive viewing.

Very differently, the truly experimental and confronting style of Idaho includes freeze-frames of the characters in sexual positions, which has the opposite effect, estranging the audience. This unrealistic representation draws attention to construct of representation, emphasising the point that nothing can be truly represented through art. It allows the audience to appreciate the sordidness without emotional investment, providing distanced judgment rather than emotional involvement, and active engagement rather than passive narrative guidance. Van Sant uses other distancing techniques such as repeated time-lapse images of flying fish and landscape during scene transitions. This abstract imagery keeps the audience detached and yet curious, demanding full analytical engagement in order to decode metaphorical visuals that represent the loneliness of the characters. Most notable, however, is the inclusion of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and the use of a chorus ensemble; another Brechtian practice, which highlights the use of an ensemble to voice a range of narrative stimulants. These seemingly unfitting sequences challenge the audience to appropriate certain readings and significances to the main plot of Mike’s, the protagonist’s, search for his identity, as well as expecting a certain degree of literacy. The juxtaposition of the two plots creates further fragmentation, requiring invested intellectual engagement from the viewer.

 

What ultimately distinguished Milk as inherently mainstream in comparison to Idaho is the narrative style.  Milk’s non-linear narrative helps to build this idea of an art-film aesthetic, however this essay will argue that the ultimate intention and effect of the narrative is that of a mainstream film. As Robert P. Kolker says of continuity style adopted by Hollywood mainstream cinema: ‘narrative flow is pieced together out of small fragments of action in such a way that the piecing together goes unnoticed and the action appears continuous.’[9] Notably, this does not specify a linear narrative, and, although the disjointed narrative in Milk jumps back and forth in time, providing almost an art film feel of experimentation with temporality, it serves to reveal layers of the story in a way that most emotionally affects the viewer. For instance, the dramatic irony, including the fact that Milk’s death is announced at the beginning of the film, increases audience sympathy as they watch the action unfold. Additionally, the flashes to Harvey voice recording in 1978 serves as a narrational voice-over rather than any fragmentation of narrative, bringing to audience’s attention to certain significances through reflective narration and guiding rather than distancing. Therefore, this is actually another example of narrative guidance that places the film so firmly in the mainstream category. Moreover, it retains a linear progression and overall structure, meaning it is not truly fragmented or alienating, as it may be art film. Indeed, narrative elements are carefully and strategically tied together by the end in order to dictate exactly how the audience should react.

This narrative flow is aided by the establishment of objectives and plot trajectory, which are progressed over the course of Milk’s campaign. The narrative voice-over is then used to guide the viewer through the progression, giving an unambiguous presentation. On the other hand, in Idaho the plot objective is unclear, apart from the quest for the protagonist’s mother, which comes in the middle and is left unresolved. Here Van Sant uses an episodic structure; although the plot seems to move forwards in time, there is often no clear link or definitive time frame between scenes. Mike Restaino remarks that ‘the structure of the picture was enough to scare anyone who disliked provocative cinematic storytelling right back into the mall where they belonged’[10]. Indeed, the incomprehensive narrative estranges the viewer, making it unpalatable for a mainstream audience who expects to be fluently guided through the film. This lack of structure and trajectory portrays a snapshot of the characters’ lives and emphasises the protagonist’s confused, lonely and loveless existence, allowing the audience to make detached judgments without constant dictation of sympathy, which makes it all the more provocative. Moreover, while Milk’s narration provides seamless and comprehensive transitions, Idaho includes diegetic narration in which the characters provide exposition, monologues in verse, and the notably postmodern moment when the photos in the magazines speak directly to the audience to deliver background information to the prostitution industry. In these moments there is a lack of characterisation, which seems to adhere to Brecht’s technique of stepping out of character and breaking the forth wall in order to remind the viewer that they are watching a film, which further fragments the narrative with the modernist imperative of distancing the spectator.  

 

This leads into the point of character sympathy. Kolker claims that ‘the classical Hollywood style asks…that the audience be embraced by that story, identify with it and its participants’[11].This definition is also qualified by contemporary Hollywood, and once again places Milk firmly in this category. The film encourages a strong identification with the hero figure, sympathetically portraying his private and public life, his good intentions and his undeniable charm. The exploration of his romantic relationships allows further emotional connection for the viewer. In addition, the antagonists are unambiguously established, being placed as an obstacle for Harvey’s objectives. The audience is able to recognise the offensive statements of the opposing parties as they have been presented with the perspective of the gay community. This hero/antagonist formula is typical of mainstream cinema, making it accessible to a mass audience that is used to passively following a standardised storyline.

            This sympathetic investment makes Milk more affecting in comparison to the distanced thought-provoking style of Idaho. Much of the performance in the film is relatively uncharacterised and not complex, with little explicit insight into character motivation. Through detached delivery, the audience is invited to make unmediated judgments of the characters; indeed, we seem to learn more facts about the protagonists than their personalities, which allows an objective perspective. However, there are moments of powerful emotion between the two main characters that are made more powerful in comparison, seeming less contrived and predictable. The chorus characters speak their dreams and experiences but are not explored as characters, with overlapping conversations in chorus scenes providing less realism and more a sense of overwhelming pace of life. This creates little emotional investment as the information is presented unmediated. These choreographed chorus scenes contrast with intimate scenes in which deep feelings are shared, emphasising this fragmentation of two juxtaposing plots that keeps audience intellectually rather than emotionally engaged.

 

The narrative device that places the definitive nail in Milk’s mainstream categorisation is the inclusion of cathartic resolution. The end scene is made up of an emotive march led by Milk’s supporters. Memorial candles light up the night scene, with sombre faces and the final words of Milk’s voice-over on top of a lyrical piece of music. There is an overwhelming sense of tragedy and hope, almost demanding that the audience see the death as a martyrdom, and to feel despair as well as pride for the character. Such a cathartic ending is typical of Hollywood, which guides the audience to specifically feel a certain way. The musical score is very evident here and throughout the film, as it unambiguously guides narrative affectation, which typifies mainstream passivity.

In Idaho, no resolution is made, as indeed there was no objective established. This is highlighted by the closing caption of ‘have a nice day’, symbolising the mundaneness of the snapshot of life, and emphasising that this kind of life continues after the viewers have stopped watching. The difference between the two endings may be defined by what Colebrook distinguishes as ‘narrative-semantic and stimulant-affective’[12]. In other words, the thought-provoking versus cathartic experience, or cognition versus affect. Mainstream cinema generally does not explicitly invite audience response, while Brechtian techniques in independents such as Idaho provoke a cognitive reaction beyond the cinema, into the social realities of our world.

 

Finally, one must consider the thematic variances of the two films. While Milk imparts themes of sexual liberation and social revolution, as well as broader concepts such as overcoming adversity, in Idaho there are no such clear-cut morals or impressions. As Bradshaw notes: ‘Van Sant tells a straightforward story of a guy the audience can all cheer for: a sympathetic, non-partisan, and essentially monogamous figure’[13]. This denotes a transition into the mainstream as there is certainly no ambiguity regarding the film’s sympathies or intended morals. For instance, Van Sant’s reading of Dan White’s unresolved sexuality is presented rather than left up to the viewer to decide. The use of the star system is also significant here; David Denby remarks that ‘by casting a famously macho actor as Harvey Milk, Van Sant has made the central humanist desire for self-acceptance and pride newly powerful.’[14] Certainly, the intertextuality of Penn’s public persona is used to shape these themes.

 

Scott Tobias ‘found Van Sant drifting away from the personal core’[15] in his later films such as Milk. Indeed, this shift notes a move away from his auteur work in place of mass-market appeal that demands certain standardised techniques. Although the intertextual knowledge of Van Sant’s work as an art film director may lead to questions of Milk as a mainstream film, it is evident through this investigation of stylistic, narrative and thematic differences from his early work that Milk is inherently mainstream in all of these categories, with the most significant element being the film’s unequivocal narrative guidance.

 

Word count: 2526


[1] Reni Ernst, The Spectator and not the Actor is the Central Focus of Brecht’s Stagecraft, (Dublin: GRIN Verlag, 2008) p. 3.

[2] Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[3] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 492.

[4] Gus Van Sant, quoted in ‘All the world’s an art school’ by Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian, 24 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jan/24/features.weekend1 [accessed 28.05.13].

[5] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

[6] David Bordwell, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, (London: Routledge, 1985), p. 7.

[7] Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983) p 41.

[8] Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].

 

[9] Robert P. Kolker, ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000), p. 17.

[10] Mike Restaino, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, Pamela Jaye Smith Articles, http://www.pamelajayesmith.net/articles/my-own-private-idaho/ [accessed 28.05.13].

[11] Robert P. Kolker, ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000), p. 16.

[12] Claire Colebrook, ‘Earth Felt the Wound: The Affective Divide’ in Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (Vol. 8 / No. 1 / Winter 2011), p, 49.

[13] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

[14] David Denby, ‘True Love’, The New Yorker, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/12/01/081201crci_cinema_denby, [accessed 20.05.13].

[15] Scott Tobias, ‘My Own Private Idaho is a personal statement and a River Phoenix memorial’, A.V. Club: The New Cult Canon,

http://www.avclub.com/articles/my-own-private-idaho-is-a-personal-statement-and-a,94005/ [accessed 01.06.13].

 

Bibliography:

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Bordwell, David, ‘The Classical Hollywood Style’ in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, (London: Routledge, 1985).

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘Milk’, The Guardian, (22.01.09), http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/22/milk-film-review-gus-van-sant-sean-penn [accessed 21.05.13].

Colebrook, Claire, ‘Earth Felt the Wound: The Affective Divide’ in Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (Vol. 8 / No. 1 / Winter 2011).

Denby, David, ‘True Love’, The New Yorker, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/cinema/2008/12/01/081201crci_cinema_denby, [accessed 20.05.13].

Ernst, Reni, The Spectator and Not the Actor is the Central Focus of Brecht’s Stagecraft, (Dublin: GRIN Verlag, 2008)

Hattenstone, Simon, ‘All the world’s an art school’ , The Guardian, 24 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2004/jan/24/features.weekend1 [accessed 28.05.13].

Kolker, Robert P., ‘The Film Text and Film Form’ in Film Studies: Critical Approached, ed. John Hills and Pamela C. Bibs, (Oxford: UP, 2000).

Restaino, Mike, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, Pamela Jaye Smith Articles, http://www.pamelajayesmith.net/articles/my-own-private-idaho/ [accessed 28.05.13].

Said, Edward The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983).

Stanislavski, Constantin, An Actor Prepares, (New York: Routledge, 1989).

Tempest in a Teacup Blog, ‘Gus Van Sant’s Milk: We Will Recruit You’, Blogspot, (2010), http://t3mpestinat3apot.blogspot.com.au/2010/05/gus-van-sants-milk-we-recruit-you.html, [accessed 30.05.13].

Tobias, Scott, ‘My Own Private Idaho is a personal statement and a River Phoenix memorial’, A.V. Club: The New Cult Canon,

http://www.avclub.com/articles/my-own-private-idaho-is-a-personal-statement-and-a,94005/ [accessed 01.06.13].

 

Filmography:

Milk, Dir, Gus Van Sant, Focus Features, Axon Films, 2009, DVD.

My Own Private Idaho. Dir. Gus Van Sant, New Line Cinema, 1991, DVD.

Compare the representations of memory and time control in mainstream and independent films. Use Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in your analysis.

While sharing a common idea, Looper and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are fundamentally different films that attract very divided audiences. Both include what Smelik notes as a warning of the cataclysmic implications of technology- a moral ending characteristic of Hollywood science-fiction[1]. However, the core difference between the two can be expressed by the fact that in Eternal Sunshine the use of memory technology may be seen as more of a metaphor, while Looper aims to fascinate with its time travel technology. With this in mind, I will be exploring how the films differ thematically, generically and stylistically, as well as the way they are marketed and consumed.

 

Most apparent is the generic difference between these films. Looper is recognisably an action film, while Eternal Sunshine may be categorised as a psychological drama. Mainstream time travel films tend to be very much in the high concept category, independents in the experimental. Ian Long writes: ‘High Concept appeals to basic human curiosity or interest… Science fiction’s preoccupation with time, identity and alternative future makes it a natural home for High Concept’[2]. This is corroborated in Looper, with a review remarking that with it ‘you’ve got a high-concept action film rooted in science fiction and driven by characters’[3]. Independent film tends to focus more on experimentation, making it, in the same vein, apt for philosophical debates and audiences. To this extent, though both films include similar concepts of technology, only Looper would be widely acknowledged as a science fiction film, because of the privileged status it gives science.

 

With this differentiation in genre comes a divided demographic and consequent marketing strategy. Both use stars, but Looper puts Willis in his type cast, while Eternal Sunshine subverts audience expectation, creating an experimentation in performance rather than playing up to genre. This appears to divide the audiences into the passive mainstream, and the active art-house viewers; the former comfortable in their understanding of the characters, the latter challenged and provoked. However, the two are not inextricably linked. With the two-tiered system of communication in mind, film-literate audience will also find intellectual stimulation and cinematic allusions in Looper, while the mass mainstream audience (making up the majority) will look at it purely as a form of passive entertainment. This adheres to Adorno’s theory that ‘passive dupes’[4] indulge in mainstream popular culture, and helps to clearly differentiate the two audiences of complicity and passivity into high and low brow categories.  

Such audience distinctions display varied forms of consumption. Rian Johnson actively uses new media to mediate fan involvement and extend their curiosity, encouraging such blogs and videos that study the franchise and find loophole in material- typical discriminatory behaviour of fandom. Indeed, John Fiske asserts that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[5]. Independent films are less about fandom and more about individual engagement; the affecting nature of the material and style makes it a personal experience.  

 

Themes in the mainstream films are generally more focused on a fascination in the technology of memory or time control, while independent films tend to investigate the moral codings that the concept of this control initiates. Certainly, much of the discourse surrounding Looper deconstructs the film’s ‘rules’ of time travel. For example, Kevan Roche writes: ‘[Looper] does a good job of giving the audience just enough of an explanation to logically follow the plot and action, while also being vague enough to inspire questions and debate about the overarching structure of how it actually works’[6]. Again, this highlights the combination of passivity and fascination in the consumption of mainstream film.

However, Eternal Sunshine explicitly depicts a philosophical discourse regarding the ethics of memory control. Twice are Nietzsche quotations (to which the film title alludes) spoken by Mary, including: ‘how happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot/ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!/ Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d’[7]. This engagement with philosophical debate clearly puts the film’s intentions before the audience, along with symbols that aid the argument. For instance, Joel changes his mind about getting memories erased, but is powerless. Furthermore, the erasers are portrayed as irresponsible as they get high while in the process of deletion. Taking this point further, Reeve claims that memory control is not the given debate, but more is the Freudian focus on love’s roots in childhood[8]. This positions the literal technology even further in the background, using it merely as a foundation on which to experiment. Meanwhile in Looper, the technological system is at the forefront of the film’s plot and fan discourse. Though some morals may be found in Looper, it seems evident that such readings are not the primary intention. As shown, most science-fiction fans find pleasure in deconstructing the time travel system, rather than finding philosophical codings. Eternal Sunshine viewers tend to come away appropriating the argument that has been put forward into their own life, which may not necessarily include the literal concept of memory control.

 

Stylistic variances denote that Looper is less about affect and more about the idea of the pace-turning thrill-seeking. While both films include a film noir-style narrative voice-over, that featured in Eternal Sunshine is a stream of consciousness, less coherent, more providing a tone and atmosphere. In Looper it is direct, concise and informational. In the same vein, shot transitions in Looper are deft and scene-to-scene progressions are clear, while in Eternal Sunshine we are often unsure what time period we are entering in each scene. Furthermore, stylistic devices such as lighting, sound and focus distortion are used to portray the fading of memories in Eternal Sunshine. In Looper, effects are less alienating, and more aesthetically pleasing, which again denotes the primacy of the spectacle, the aesthetics of astonishment. Eternal Sunshine techniques are closely linked to Deleuzian theories of affection[9], while Looper’s are powerful and visually impressive (for instance the spectacular sequence when the Rainmaker kills the looper). Affect is therefore an important difference between the two. Colebrook claims that ‘art may well have meanings or messages but what makes it art is not its content but its affect[10]. This may be contested because of the hybridity of Looper’s style, but that typical art film affection is only explicitly foregrounded in Eternal Sunshine.

Joel interacts with his memories with a consciousness towards the activity of deleting them, allowing affecting self-reflection for him and the audience. While characters in Looper also interact with their future selves, the interaction is more focused towards feeding the plot progression. Here, the audience is complicit in the fictive world as they follow the twists and turns, though self-reflexivity is not demanded of them; they can remain passive on a deeper level, engaged on the superficial level. Even Old Joe even says ‘let’s not talk about time travel or we’ll be here all day’. This line almost satirised the genre by acknowledging the insignificance of intellectual depth.

 

Emotion is far more significant in Eternal Sunshine through the developed sequences of the couple’s relationship, while in Looper his marriage is shown merely through brief flashbacks. The increased sympathy stimulates metaphysical discourse rather than superficial engagement with story as mere stimulus for the hero’s plight. Though criticisms of Willis’s performance aid this argument of a very superficial engagement with his relationship, viewer empathy seems of less importance to the enjoyment of the film. As Smelik articulates, independent memory or time control films are more concerned with the portrayal of emotions than realistic technological inventions[11]. With Looper, a full picture of time travel is attempting to be portrayed, and is what interests the mainstream audience.

 

Narrative structure also aids the distinction between the two representations. The fragmented style in Eternal Sunshine is arguably more true to human experience, due to the complexity of emotional implications being affecting for the audience. Looper follows the typical Hollywood ending of inevitably making the protagonist the ultimate saviour. Though the fate of Looper’s remaining characters is left unstated, it is very much implied. Moreover, audience focus has remained on the hero, meaning there is a satisfaction of resolution when the ‘loop’ is ‘closed’. Thus, the ambiguity that comes with the tenuous subject of time and memory control manifests itself in different ways in the two distinctions: here, Hollywood convention smooths out such issues with narrative closure and close adherence to the unambiguous formula of the action genre. As Shaw writes, ‘Classical Hollywood films do indeed tell us precisely how to respond to emotional scenes, using every technique in the book…In so doing, they achieved a remarkable uniformity of emotional response in audiences worldwide.’[12] While not a ‘classical’ film, Looper’s narrative is certainly ‘Hollywood’, and follows these conventions that result in more unequivocal, passive, pleasure-viewing. The motif of the stopwatch symbolises the theme of the manipulation of time. This reflects the fact that everything within the plot as well as the creative process is pre-determined, progressing to a resolution. Indeed, everything in mainstream cinema is strategized and scheduled, allowing the audience to remain passive. Meanwhile, independent films such as Eternal Sunshine ‘allow for the ambiguity of affect by foregrounding the ambiguity of memory, which results in a non-linear, fragmented narrative structure’[13]. Here, audience response has less ‘uniformity’, as it is more personally affecting; the viewer’s role is more active.

 

Ultimately, both films look at the ability to control destiny, and queries over how much we can learn or how much we are shaped by our memories. The main difference is evidently the thematic use of time and memory control, which is determined by the genre and the target audience. For Looper, it is the novelty of time travel as a technology and a focus on the action hero. Eternal Sunshine uses concept of memory control as stimulus for social experimentation and commentary by stimulating affect in viewers.

 


[1] Anneke Smelik, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009), p. 57.

[2] Ian Long, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript, http://www.euroscript.co.uk/scifiworkshop.html, [accessed 10.05.13].

[3] Matt Barone, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/12/2012-year-in-review-best-movies/looper [accessed 07.05.13].

[4] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 459.

[5] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[6] Kevan Roche, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), http://whatculture.com/film/looper-analysis-deconstructing-its-time-travel.php [accessed 06.05.13].

[7] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 52. 

[8] David Reeve, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

[9] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[10] Claire Colebrook, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002), pp. 24-5.

[11] Smelik, p. 63.

[12] Daniel Shaw, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151. http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n2/shaw.pdf, p. 146.

[13] Smelik, p. 62. 

Bibliography:

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Barone, Matt, ‘The 25 Best Movies of 2012: Looper’ (21.12.12), http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/12/2012-year-in-review-best-movies/looper [accessed 07.05.13].

Carroll, Noël, Engaging the Moving Image (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Colebrook, Claire, Understanding Deleuze, (Allen & Urwin: 2002).

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Long, Ian, Sci-Fi Workshop, Euroscript, http://www.euroscript.co.uk/scifiworkshop.html, [accessed 10.05.13].

Nietzsche, F., The Gay Science, (New York: Random House, 1974). 

Reeve, David, “Two Blue Ruins: Love and Memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ed. Christopher Grau, (USA: Routledge, 2009), p. 4.

Roche, Kevan, ‘Looper analysis: Deconstructing Its Time Travel’, (04.10.12), http://whatculture.com/film/looper-analysis-deconstructing-its-time-travel.php [accessed 06.05.13].

Shaw, Daniel, ‘A Rejoinder to Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Motion Pictures‘, Film-Philosophy, (vol. 12, no. 2: 2008), pp. 142-151, http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n2/shaw.pdf [accessed 07.05.13].

Smelik, Anneke, ‘The Virtuality of Time: Memory in Science Fiction Film’ in Technologies of Memory in the Arts, eds. Liedeke Plate & Anneke Smelik, (Palgrace Macmillian: 2009).

How is authenticity constituted in the contemporary music industry? What is its purpose? Please illustrate with a case-study of a particular genre, artist or group.

In today’s music industry, notions of ‘authenticity’ are not necessarily acknowledged or questioned, given the context of mass ‘commercial’ music. Yet, for some musicians their key selling point is their authenticity; their originality, real talent, and genuine belonging to their given subculture, proven by their display of habitus.  I will be arguing that authenticity can never be definitively ascribed to an artist, and that it does not necessarily need to be in the context of the contemporary mass-market music industry (at least in the mainstream). I will be looking at the case study of rapper Rick Ross, and will problematize this study with a re-evaluation of the concept of authenticity in hip-hop.

 

An authoritative definition of authenticity is that by John Fiske in his discussion of fandom. He writes that ‘authenticity…is a criterion of discrimination normally used to accumulate official cultural capital’[1]. In other words, the distinction of authenticity is something that fans use to characterise themselves as true fans. Yet, this arouses the question of whether this authenticity, then, is something subjectively attributed by the audience rather than inherent in the artist. Indeed, as will be explored through this essay, authenticity is hard to conclusively define.   

 

Hip-hop rapper Rick Ross is a prime example of where fabricated authenticity, or indeed public inauthenticity, presents a viable and successful product in today’s music industry. Born William Leonard Roberts II, this popular rapper is rumoured to have been a prison guard at the penitentiary in which notorious drug lord, Rick Ross, was incarcerated in the 1990s. The ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross makes claim that this public figure stole his name and identity in order to create a hip-hop persona, thus infringing on ‘publicity rights, false advertising, unjust enrichment, and unfair business practice’[2]. This case begs the question of why, with this public information of inauthenticity, this musician continues to gain success.

            Certainly, Gilbert and Pearson write that ‘artists must speak the truth of their (and others’) situations…[The singer’s] fundamental role [is] to represent the culture from which he comes’[3]. This denotes a kind of honesty from the artist, which is lacking in the case of Rick Ross who makes claims to a drug empire that seemingly aims to impress his fans. Grossberg corroborates this when he speaks of ‘honesty to experience’[4].  He articulates the concept of authenticity as how fans can ‘find some sense of identification and belonging, where they could invest and employ themselves in specific ways’[5]. In other words, authenticity signifies the resonating with their common desires, feelings and experiences. Within hip-hop fandom, such canonized figures such as Biggie Smalls and Tupac represent true authenticity in the scene. Biggie reached out to his community by dedicating his song ‘Juicy’ to ‘all ma n***as in the struggle’[6], and goes on to talk about having to ‘hustle’ in order to ‘feed his daughter, thus denoting a perceived authenticity. There has been a shift in values for many of the biggest hip-hop stars of today; Ross raps about his lavish lifestyle. In his song ‘Street Life’, he raps: ‘ain’t nothin’ but the street life, that’s money, cars and hoes, it’s the only life I chose’[7]. Apart from being fairly simple and unimaginative, it also appears decidedly inauthentic to characterise ‘street life’ through displays of wealth.  However, such exhibitions of prosperity and hedonism also find their way into the lyrics of esteemed rap stars, so how does one distinguish between the authentic and the inauthentic? This leads us on to the importance of discrimination and distinction in the discussion of authenticity.

Fiske’s thesis that ‘fans discriminate fiercely…the boundaries between the community of fans and the rest of the world are…strongly marked and patrolled’[8] is extremely relevant here. Indeed, ‘true’ hip-hop fans obtain enough cultural capital by being able to distinguish either side of the authentic/commercial paradigm. Fiske observed that Dr. Who fans in the Tulloch and Alvarado study (1983) ‘frequently used official culture criteria such as ‘complexity’ or ‘subtlety’ to argue that their preferred texts were as ‘good’ as the canonised ones, and constantly evoked legitimate culture- novels, plays, art, films- as points of comparison’[9]. Certainly, ‘authentic’ hip-hop fans attribute such features to the work of Biggie, denouncing ‘mainstream’ figures such as Ross as ‘simple’ and ‘derivative’. In contemporary discourses, it has become a real hip-hop versus ‘shit-hop’ feud.  

However, even such hailed artists subscribe to inauthentic strategies. Biggie’s image was consciously doctored in order to speak to and for his demographic. His mother relates that lyrics referencing the lack of food to eat, having to eat ‘sardines for dinner’ in his ‘one-room shack’[10] was a ruse, part of his on-stage persona. Certainly, Biggie, born Christopher Wallace, attended private school, and was always provided for by his mother.  Furthermore, when he was first signed, his manager P. Diddy insisted on the input of popular music as ‘hooks’ that would be palatable for a mass audience. This relates to Shuker’s case study of Bob Marley and the Wailers, who were ‘watered down for white consumption’[11]. In both cases, it seems that there exists authentic talent, while their public personas are altered, possibly explaining why such inauthenticity is forgivable for such revered artists.

         Indeed, there is a potentially excusable argument. Forman Murray writes, ‘successful acts are expected to maintain connections to the ‘hood’ and ‘keep it real’ thematically, rapping about situations, scenes and sites that comprise the lived experience of the ‘hood’. At issue is the complex question of authenticity as rap poses continually strive to reaffirm their connections to the ‘hood’’[12].  However, there exists the difficulty of ‘keeping it real’ and also appealing to a mainstream audience for maximum profit. Additionally, since the rap scene has preconceived standards of what makes an authentic artist, then rapper are forced to adhere to such a mold, even if that means deviating from their true, authentic self. 

Interestingly, Mickey Hess implements theories of W.E.B. DuBois to add a new perspective, writing: ‘A theory of hip-hop’s seemingly conflicting concerns of authenticity and marketability may work to reframe W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double-consciousness in commercial terms as artists work to produce marketable music for mainstream listeners yet at the same time to maintain a necessary level of authenticity to a place of cultural origin’[13]. Therefore, even the truly authentic have to find that balance as, in a capitalist society, their art must be commodified and profit-driven in order to be continued. Shuker corroborates this with the assertion that ‘such views of mass art forms…as compromised by its association with capitalist commodity production, are flawed’[14]. He speaks of the prevalence of artists with concerns of profitability, and claims that ‘a concern with marketability is not necessarily at odds with notions of authenticity and credibility; indeed, the latter are themselves marketable commodities’[15]. Thus, authenticity cannot denote disregard for profit margins, but instead must be what is attributed to the act by the audience.

Fornas’ argument helps to define why hard-core fans may continue to canonise these figures that have elements of inauthenticity. He claims that authenticity is not intrinsically opposed to artificiality, as authenticity is essentially a construction we ascribe to what we perceive[16]. Therefore, as a construction attributed by the audience, authenticity can be whatever the audience wants it to be. It could be viewed that Biggie earned his authenticity by becoming complicit in gang culture that ultimately left him murdered- definitive proof of his affiliations to the culture he sought to stand for.

 

Steven Feld asserts that ‘authenticity only emerges when it is counter to forces that are trying to screw it up, transform it, dominate it, mess with it’[17]. Therefore, it seems that it is because of the rise of the manufactured pop star that causes these discourses of authenticity. However, this evidence ultimately seems to conclude that, although revered in niche subcultures and fan communities, authenticity cannot be conclusively defined, nor does it need to be in order to be enjoyed. Particularly in a contemporary context, mass market does not demand authenticity, as mainstream audiences are able to connect with inauthentic artists because they do not belong to the social group to which that artist is supposedly trying to stand for. In today’s industry, the purpose of authenticity is merely to distinguish between different fan communities and the selling point of different musicians. 

 

Word count: 1,414

 [1] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[2] Eriq Gardner, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

[3] J. Gilbert and E. Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 164-5.

[4] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 206.

[5] L. Grossberg,, We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 204-5.

[6] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[7] Rick Ross, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[8] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 34.

[9] Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[10] Biggie Smalls, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

[11] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 47.

[12] Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 72.

[13] Mickey Hess, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005), p. 298.

[14] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 34.

[15] Roy Shuker, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 35.

[16] J. Fornas, Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995), p. 275.

[17] C. Keil, and S. Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994), p. 296.

Bibliography:

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Fornas, J., Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, (London: Sage, 1995).

Gardner, Eriq, ‘Judge Rejects Warner Bros. Records’ Motion to Dismiss Ricky Ross v. Rick Ross Lawsuit’, HollywoodReporter, 7/18/2012 [accessed 18.04.13], http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/rick-ross-freeway-ricky-warner-bros-sue-maybach-music-351204.

Gelder, Ken, The Subcultures Reader, 2nd ed, (USA and Canada: Routledge, 1997).

Gilbert, J., and Pearson, E., Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound (London: Routledge, 1999).

Grossberg, L., We Gotta Get Out of This Place (London: Routledge, 1992).

Hess, Mickey, “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip Hop’s Persona Artist” in Popular Music and Society (Taylor & Francis Group, 2005).

Keil, C., and Feld, S., Music Grooves (Chicago: Sage Publications, 1994).

Moore, Alan, ‘Authenticity as Authentication’ in Popular Music, Volume 21/2, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 209–223.

Murray, Forman, “Represent: race, space, and place in rap music” in Popular Music and Society (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Thornton, Sarah, ‘Exploring the Meaning of Mainstream’ in Club Cultures, (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

Shuker, Roy, ‘”Every1’s a winner”: The Music Industry’ in Understanding Popular Music, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2001).

Smalls, Biggie, ‘Juicy’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Ross, Rick, ‘Street Life’, youtube.com, [accessed 18.04.13], www.youtube.com.

Rubidge, S. ‘Does authenticity matter? The case for and against authenticity in the performing arts’, in Analysing Performance, ed. P. Campbell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.), pp. 219–33.

Willis, Ellen, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, ed. by Nona Willis Aronowitz, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011 [1981]), p. 221.