Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Killing's Space

I find space tantalising, its just unbounded potential inviting speculation. Take the continuous mantra of space in football: looking for, finding, and, most importantly, making space. More important than the killer pass or the beautiful chip, is the unnoticed run by a team-mate which dragged the defenders out of position and opened the room for the moment of genius. And obviously a great defence is one which sees the space and squeezes it, blocking the potentials. Watching a team like Barcelona excel at both aspects of the game is to view the manipulation of space at its best, as the understated architecture of the highlights reel.

That this philosophy of football emerged in Holland isn't going to prevent me from drawing parallels to the Danish crime drama 'The Killing', which ended its BBC4 run last weekend. A brilliant character study of the effects and impacts of a single, long (20 episode) murder investigation, the manipulation of space is, arguably, its master-stroke. However, where football players create space to fill it, in the Killing, space is used simply for its potential, simply for its ability to tantalise. Its the universally abhored vacuum, and if the characters in the Killing don't fill the space then the audience's mind will.

Its there when Theis and Pernille sit across the table, silently staring at their hands, its there when Lund repeatedly ignores Meyer's (and everyone else's) questions, and when Troels silently observes hostile debates before unleashing his strategic ploys. The cloud of possibility, inviting invention and elaboration over and over, is what any mystery story must do well in order to engage the audience, but The Killing makes this essential trope its omnipresent theme. Everything is suspect, nothing can be certain, simply because little is ever said. We also thus empathise with the characters even more than we would if we could be privy to their thoughts. By creating such well rounded characters of possibility, the writers and actors of the show allow us to literally inhabit those characters. The characters are thus only complete before the eyes of an audience.

While verbally the theme may be the creation of space, visually the program aggressively limits it. The locations are cramped, often claustrophobic, with the only possible sweeping wide shots (the murder location itself) inhibited by only being shown at night, as indeed are almost all external scenes. Internally the locations are split and partitioned, while awkward camera angles obscure almost all peripheral action. Partly this is simply a continuation of the verbal theme, it invents the audience to imagine, to extrapolate and imagine yet further about what they are not being shown. Its not coincidence that the widest angle views come only in the final episode, once everything is revealed.

It goes further however, because in The Killing, the locations are largely unimportant except for what they symbolise, whether that be 'City Hall', 'Police Station' or 'Murder Scene'. The actual backgrounds are often bland, with items of singular impact scattered sparingly, such as the picture of Christ over the head of a forlorn Theis at the end of episode 17. This is the crux though, unlike brilliant social dramas like 'The Wire', where the city is as much a character as anyone, The Killing is about humans, and humans in a very specific, but not uncommon, situation. That the action occurs in Copenhagen is superfluous to the plot, this is an examination of murder and a study of its (many) victims rather than an expose of a society.

All of this room for interpretation which is left in the program creates an incredible murder mystery. But one also has to ask, with that level of audience participation, how did my viewing of it (in English subtitles) differ from the original Danish audience? Or the French? Its a great thought, and it shows that The Killing's greatest artistic premise is also a brilliant decision from a business perspective: because The Killing is everywhere and anyone, and thus crosses national boundaries with ease. And it does it because it makes the space.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Media in the Middle East: Or "What I'll be doing all through summer"

So, I haven't been posting much recently (the long ago written bit on Logicomix notwithstanding), and this has basically been because, for us Postgrads, its dissertation time, or at least, dissertation proposal time. So, while I'm going to write something about the Danish drama 'The Killing' soon, I thought I'd justify myself by writing up a quick summary of my proposal. It'll help me get my thoughts in line, and maybe someone will find it interesting!

So, I want to look at the media, particularly the internet, in the Arab World. Yeah, I know, its very original, but bear with me. Firstly, there are two ways people are looking at these 'Facebook revolutions' in Egypt and Tunisia. One group of people reckon its a cause of the revolution, the majority of the rest of people think its just a tool. The tool interpretation is basically uninteresting, except to say “could this have happened without the tool?” (answer: probably yes). Its also difficult to analyse this close to the event. The more interesting interpretation is that since the emergence of 'new media' 20 years or so ago, cultural attitudes have been changed and altered by this media. These changes and shifts in society have contributed to the changed perceptions necessary for the current social revolutions to occur. Sounds a bit more interesting doesn't it.

To explain further, lets think about how the media in the Middle East has been analysed in the past. Generally it was viewed as a 'public sphere', a sphere for free discourse where the relation between state and society could be rationally discussed and transformed. This idea was taken from a theory Habermas came up with to describe a phenomenon he perceived in the emergence of democracy in Europe. Unfortunately it doesn't quite translate well to the Middle East. Not only is the media debate punctured by state censorship, and cultural intolerances, as well as the media's commercial bias, but the authoritarian states themselves have no interest, or reason, to take any notice of these debates. Arguments on Al Jazeera don't translate into state policy. So, the media in the Middle East is viewed as a LARGE public sphere, but a WEAK one.

However, that isn't to say that the media isn't causing changes in people's social attitudes, even if it isn't affecting state policy. So, Marc Lynch, in a great book, set out to describe and define the public sphere of satellite television (particularly Al Jazeera) to understand what the message and underlying norms were that were being absorbed by the eagerly watching Arab population. He saw argumentative debate, self reflection, and diverse opinions being aired and theorised that these norms were being inculcated in the watching Arab population, creating profound shifts in social thinking. Unfortunately, this hasn't gone beyond theory. No-one yet has come up with a conclusive study to link television programming in the Middle East to a shift in public attitudes and norms. Mostly this is to do with the difficulty of gathering public opinion data in the Arab World, and the lack of existing data. So, this remains a theory.

I would love to be the one to prove Lynch's arguments, but the difficulties noted above apply even more to me, as a postgraduate student with limited funds and time. So, I want to look sideways slightly. Lynch's study was essential, you need to define what the influences of the media ARE (I.e. what are the messages behind what people are watching) before you can assess their impact on the viewers (the bit that's missing from the academic literature). But Lynch was only looking at satellite television, for good reason. However, I want to try and emulate his study with the internet. I want to try and define and document the content and boundaries of the Arab Public Sphere on the internet. Again, if I can document the underlying message and influence of the relevant internet content, I can both theorise as to its effects and also set the stage for future studies to empirically assess its impact, just as Lynch did with Al Jazeera.

So, this is my dissertation, to analyse internet viewing habits in the Middle East, and to assess the content that is being viewed and read, with the aim of perhaps gaining some understanding of how it might be affecting social attitudes in the region. Right, well, here goes!

Logicomix and the Frame-story: Part 2

Having discussed my disappointment at Logicomix, and its poor use of the frame story structure, I wanted to think about the genius of the frame story, and what it can do when its used well. As an Arabist (sort of), the first example that springs to mind is obviously One Thousand and One Nights, and its witty and delightful frame upon frame. But as an organically evolved literary conglomeration, its difficult to read more into that use of the frame story, there is no single author who employed it with a purpose, its simply a device for creating the never ending story itself. Two other of my favourite authors stand out however: Conrad, particularly in 'Heart of Darkness', and Borges in, well, most of his short stories.

In both cases the frame serves two purposes. On the one hand it distances the story, and the narrator, from the author. It thus allows the author to characterise the narrator in a particular way, without compromising their position of authority as the ultimate narrator. This then allows the second device, which is the shaping of our reading of the internal story. Thus the opening of Heart of Darkness situates our story within its time, and, through the analogy of the Roman invasion of Britain, sets our perceptions for the following story. It also allows us to see Marlowe from the external, to shape our perceptions of his honesty as a narrator before we hear his account. In the same way, Borges frequently uses his frames to cast doubt on his narrator, framing his stories as bar tales or hearsay, allowing him to suggest the fantastical, or the impossible, and provide a subtle commentary while retaining the force of the central story.

It is interesting then, to return to comics, to consider Art Spiegleman's Maus, particularly in light of the passionate debate that has been raging at the Hooded Utilitarian. In Maus, Spiegelman uses the frame to provide context and shape our reading of the Holocaust story, but he refuses to use it to distance himself from the frame. The frame story of Maus IS Spiegelman the artist writing/drawing the comic you are reading. By doing so, the impression of doubt is not put on a fictional narrator as in the previous two examples, but neither is it put on Artie exactly. This shift puts the doubt on the medium of comics themselves. It creates the doubt, frequently made explicit by Spiegelman, that comics cannot represent real life, that reality must be twisted and shaped by its transformation to the comics medium. Maus then, employs the frame story as a tool of self-reflection, and of post modernist analysis.

Of course the frame doesn't stop there. The 'Artie' character of the frame is just a comics representation of the real Art Spiegleman who is drawing even the 'real' Artie. And Spiegelman hints at this as both stories continue, and the animal masks which have caricatured both the internal and framing stories begin to slip, hinting at the humans beneath. By casting doubt on the ability of his drawings to represent the holocaust, Spiegelman also has to acknowledge its inability to represent even the dilemma of truth values in comics.

It can be argued, as Noah does at HU (and I agree) that Spiegelman doesn't go far enough with this, that Maus hints at the deeper problems of artistic representation but doesn't address them (understandably, his focus is the Holocaust, not the nature of truth in art!), but either way, this is one of many examples of what the frame story as a formal structure can do well. It essentially uses doubt and distance, and when that is understood, it is capable of allowing admirable levels of self reflection and depth to a work of art. It is this wonderful aspect of the frame story which was missed in the Logicomix example discussed previously, and, while not the only problem with that book, it remains a glaring mis-step on the part of the authors.