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Archives from The Flâneur's Arcade (2007-2017)

Tag: marshall mcluhan

Reversal of Fortune



Hillary Clinton campaigned on the appeal of being the first woman to run for the highest office in the United States, banking on the same identity politics that buoyed Barack Obama to power in 2008. But while it was true that many Americans were misty-eyed with the image of a first African-American president, Obama had many other gifts that Clinton sorely lacked. There was an ease about the Senator from Illinois, a nimbleness in speech, and the keenness to tap into the zeitgeist. He knew Americans wanted hope and change.

So it was with the confidence of repeating this feat of firsts, boosted by the favorable augury of the polls, that Clinton supporters gathered at the Javits Convention Center in New York. But the party soon turned into scenes of inconsolable wailing, as they watched blue state after blue state turn red.

While Clinton failed to make the case for electing the first woman president, Donald Trump is by no means a conventional choice. A Washington outsider, with no political experience, besting 16 other Republican candidates in the primaries, then going head to head against an establishment candidate backed by mainstream media and Wall Street money, and finally, pulling-off a stunning reversal of fortune on election night. He was outspent by Clinton 2:1, running a lean campaign by criss-crossing tirelessly around battleground states, and by his provocative use of social media, presenting his case directly to the people. (Let us not now forget who Citizens United and lobby money helped the most in this election.)

In some way, Trump’s win is also a first. He is the first reality TV candidate–raw and unfiltered, and prickly at the edges. He is also the first social media candidate, with an uncanny command of the medium. Marshall McLuhan said that radio created Hitler and television created JFK; this time, YouTube, Twitter, and the comment section created Donald Trump. The comment section, which Camille Paglia observes has become “a whole new genre” (Reason TV interview), is the anarchic countervailing medium to the composed article. In McLuhan’s terms, it is cool, participatory, and auditory, as opposed to the hot, linear, visual form of the article. Twitter has that same low-res, audile quality. This is where you hear the voices of dissent against the imposed narrative. Professional Internet troll Chuck Johnson gloats: “The trolls won,” and called this election, “the comment section against the article.” Surprising it was a candidate in his 70’s who seized upon the medium of the moment and understood its message.

Mainstream media’s inability to grasp the meaning of Trump’s victory is a signal of their decline and irrelevance. They continue to explain it in terms of absurd identity politics: those white working class voters in the Rust Belt must be racist, so it goes. But Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had not voted Republican since the 1980s. Did they just turn Aryan supremacist overnight? Even liberal filmmaker Michael Moore (who hails from Michigan) is incredulous of this narrative.

You have to accept that millions of people who voted for Barack Obama, some of them once, some of them twice, changed their minds this time. They’re not racist. They twice voted for a man whose middle name is Hussein. That’s the America you live in.

from The Daily Caller

Trump’s message “Make America Great Again” succinctly captured the thirst for upliftment in blighted manufacturing towns of the Midwest, while Clinton’s clunky slogan “Stronger Together” plastered on her jet plane never really took off. In her vision of inclusion, those who Trump addressed as the “forgotten man and woman” felt excluded. In a feat of firsts, it is the billionaire playboy and real estate mogul that put the traditionally Democrat base of working class Americans on the side of Republicans. It remains to be seen whether he can effect a reversal of their fortunes.

The TV Personality


Fran Lebowitz promoting her children’s book in 1994

People who are in television routinely are recognized by everyone. Every single person that you will see on the street… I personally found that to be too much fame. Fame is something very much sought after in this culture–like money. Now, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as too much money, but there is such a thing as too much fame. And I think that writers have the perfect amount of fame. You have just enough to get a good table in a restaurant, but not so much that people come over and annoy you while you are eating. But if you are on television… I know people who are in television–they can’t walk down the street, people will come up constantly.

Also, it’s not just the number of people who recognize you, it’s the way in which you are perceived if you are in television because television is a very intimate medium–it’s in their house, they think they know them… A TV personality will be approached much more–and much more familiarly–than a big movie star, because the TV personality, they think… “Well, hi! It’s YOU… you see me in my underwear… you’re in the house… Oprah hi! Come over to eat! Oprah, you want to come over my house for dinner?” They think that Oprah is their next door neighbor. They don’t think that of Al Pacino. They know ’cause they see him at a distance. It’s different.

(starting at 16:00)

What a great McLuhanesque insight on the distinction between the medium of TV contra the cinema. McLuhan called the movie medium “hot,” whereas TV was “cold,” and elaborated on the differences thus:

TV is a medium that rejects the sharp personality and favors the presentation of process rather than of products… [It] is a cool participant medium… The TV image is of low intensity or definition, and, therefore, unlike film, it does not afford detailed information about objects…

The TV producer will point out that speech on television must not have the careful precision necessary in the theater. The TV actor does not have to project either his voice or himself. Likewise, TV acting is so extremely intimate, because of the peculiar involvement of the viewer with the completion or “closing” of the TV image, that the actor must achieve a great degree of spontaneous casualness that would be irrelevant in movie and lost on stage. For the audience participates in the inner life of the TV actor as fully as in the outer life of the movie star…

…Newscasters and actors alike report the frequency with which they are approached by people who feel they’ve met them before. Joanne Woodward in an interview was asked what was the difference between being a movie star and a TV actress. She replied: When I was in the movies I heard people say, “There goes Joanne Woodward.” Now they say, “There goes somebody I think I know.”

…The movie is a hot, high-definition medium… The old movie-fan tourists had wanted to see their favorites as they were in real life, not as they were in their film roles. The fans of the cool TV medium want to see their star in role, whereas the movie fans want the real thing.

(from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964)

Not quite the same point–McLuhan delves further into the formal effects of the image technology–but analogous in conclusion.

Lebowitz had also told the interviewer her novel was coming along well and could come out the following year. Two decades later, we still have yet to see that long-awaited opus from the author with the most notorious writer’s block. Writing, she says, is a painful process for her. On the other hand, she talks–or interviews–very well. Whereas McLuhan had this awkward, geeky TV style, Lebowitz is a natural hoot. A great TV personality. She should just hire a stenographer to follow her around and transcribe her aphoristic gems into a book.

Critical Triads

Marshall McLuhan Leslie Fiedler Norman O. Brown

Marshall McLuhan, Leslie Fiedler and Norman O. Brown are the linked triad I would substitute for Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault… North American intellectuals, typified by McLuhan, Fiedler and Brown, achieved a new fusion of ideas–a sensory pragmatism or engagement with concrete experience, rooted in the body, and at the same time a visionary celebration of artistic metaspace–that is, the fictive realm of art, fantasy and belief projected by great poetry and prefiguring our own cyberspace.

(from Salon, “The North American intellectual tradition”, by Camille Paglia)

Kinatay Ang Critics


Left: with Brillante Mendoza; Right: autographed program


Again with Mendoza, and “long-poem” poet Vince Serrano

I finally saw Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay at Greenbelt as part of the week-long film festival sponsored by the Italian government. Kinatay (“butchered”), the gruesome story of the kidnap/murder of a junkie prostitute in the hands of corrupt cops, won Mendoza the best direction award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

It was a contentious win. Variety bemoans the “obvious statements made banal by heavy-handed ironies”. Critic-blogger Benito Vergara also noticed the numerous lack of subtleties:

The prostitute’s stripper name, for instance, is Madonna. There’s a quotation about never losing integrity on the back of Peping’s criminology school uniform. There’s a faded poster of Jesus, heart surrounded by thorns, just above the basement room where Madonna is about to be raped and murdered. There’s a massive billboard that reads, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.”

(from filmeyeballsbrain.com)

There is nothing of the sort. If anything, it was the subtitling that did the movie a disservice by underscoring what were actually not so obvious. Madonna is not an unusual stripper name in Manila. The motto on the uniform is in fact indecipherable in the muted lighting. Even the billboard signs that supposedly comment on the action were not gratuitously used at all. Yes, Mendoza is making “legible” ironic gestures, but these are hardly in your face, and are quickly drowned out in the white noise and frenetic kaleidoscope of the city.

Roger Ebert decried Kinatay as the worst film in the history of the festival. Nothing is further from the truth. Ebert’s comments are actually more telling of his inability to grasp new cinema. In McLuhan’s terms, his bewilderment is symptomatic of the visual, literate man’s helpless flailing before the audile and tactile.

He complains:

On the sound track, there are traffic noises, loud bangings, clashings, hammerings and squealings of tires. They continue on and on and on. They are cranked so high we recall the guitar setting of “11” in “This is Spinal Tap.” They are actively hostile. They are illustrated by murk. You can’t see the movie and you can’t bear to listen to it.

(from Cannes #4: What were they thinking of?)

But the the movie is all about sounds and textures. It simply follows the character of Coco Martin, a neophyte cop, as things unfold in real time without rhyme or reason. Pretty much like how much of life happens.

Ebert reads movies like printed text. This habit enforces the narrative elements of 19th century novels with the strictness of grammar schools. Hence, his typical aversion to comic book adaptations with their lack of psychological realism and lineal logic.

The adventures of Captain America are fabricated with first-rate CGI and are slightly more reality-oriented than in most superhero movies–which is to say, they’re still wildly absurd…

(from rogerebert.com)

Captain America

When the mild-mannered alter ego transforms into the superhero, Ebert fails to see the glamour conferred by the costume, and instead dismisses how “the new Steve Rogers, is now [simply] a foot taller and built like Mr. Universe… [adopting] a costume and a stars-and-stripes shield, which serve primarily to make him highly visible…”

This inability to grasp the iconic is brought about by the pressure of lineal logic imposed by the sequential nature of printed text. According to McLuhan:

Literate people think of cause and effect as sequential, as if one thing pushed another along by physical force. Nonliterate people register very little interest in this kind of “efficient” cause and effect, but are fascinated by hidden forms that produce magical results.

(from Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan)

In a way, we cannot blame Ebert because his reading is within the nature of the movie as a medium: “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users”. Furthermore, it is a hi-def medium, or “hot” in McLuhanesque, as opposed to “cool” TV with its mosaic-like pixelation (actually, “snowiness”). What Brillante Mendoza accomplished in Kinatay, with digital filming technology, is to turn down the resolution of the movie, immersing the viewer in the black ink of night with ambient lighting (or lack thereof), as the protagonist makes his unwitting descent into hell. We are literally left in the dark as to what is happening in the scenes, and are forced to rely on our other (audile and tactile) senses to orient ourselves in the penumbral landscape.

And, not surprisingly, this is precisely what Ebert complains about!

For at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour, maybe an eternity, Mendoza gives us Queasy-Cam shots, filmed at night in very low light, of the interior and exterior of the van as they drive a long distance outside Manila to a remote house.

In turning the movie into a cool medium to tell a hot crime story (the butchering of a hooker), Mendoza gets the audience involved in depth in the characters’ experiences. This is reinforced by the use of nondescript performers, which makes it even more similar to TV’s use of everyman actors as opposed to the hard glamour of old Hollywood stars.

Ebert preempts contrarian views from likely avant-garde “theoreticians” by declaring his stoic indifference and recusal from any rebuttal:

There will be critics who fancy themselves theoreticians, who will defend this unbearable experience, and lecture those plebians like me who missed the whole Idea. I will remain serene while my ignorance is excoriated. I am a human being with relatively reasonable tastes.

Yes, his tastes are indeed “relatively reasonable”. That is why he is the go-to reviewer on a movie night out. Ebert works best as a middle-ground critic for the middle-brow–as the cultural arbiter of taste for the bourgeoisie. His audience do not need to be subjected to such real-world grisliness after a good dinner, coffee and mints. They need his little sensible narratives with character development and dramatic arc. It is the reassuring order of print for the visually literate. They cannot handle the delirium of real space and time, where nothing seems to happen, or, more correctly, where things simply happen without purpose. Like Peping, we are unwittingly implicated in a crime that unfolds casually and told as a matter of course. (“No drama is developed. No story purpose is revealed.”)

It is no surprise that Ebert and his literate audience feel “alienated” because narrative order is expunged in real space and time. It creates a morally chaotic, or at least indifferent world, where savagery, such as depicted in Kinatay, truly exists. Moreover, their most reliable orienting faculty, the visual, is purposefully impaired, and they are forced to deploy their audile and tactile sensoria to navigate the free fall into the lower depths. They cannot remain aesthetically detached, and are recruited to participate in depth as they are dragged into the muck. Getting your hands dirty is the risk of using the sense of touch.

But this is not just a “theoretical” quarrel about the formal biases of Ebert’s literate culture. I was riveted in my seat and felt sick in my gut while watching Kinatay–not by the ostensible violence as one would for Noe’s Irreversible or Passolini’s Salò–but from a deep disgust at the moral nihilism at the base of Philippine society. Kinatay is Mendoza’s singular outrage against this latent animal viciousness in people, from the Maguindanao massacre to the piles of decapitated corpses dumped by drug lords in the streets of Mexico.

Kinatay is ultimately a Sadean mockery of the Enlightenment’s confidence in a rationally ordered Nature. Ebert’s “civilized” audience (the printed word is the civilizing medium) needs exquisite surfaces and an organizing principle even in their depictions of the Holocaust.

What is most amazing about this film [Schindler’s List] is how completely Spielberg serves his story. The movie is brilliantly acted, written, directed and seen. Individual scenes are masterpieces of art direction, cinematography, special effects, crowd control.

(from rogerebert.com)

They cannot fathom that such a hell on earth indeed exists. Well, Mabuhay! Welcome to the Philippines.


Addendum (12/22/11):

Jovito Palparan
Wanted: Gen. Jovito “The Butcher” Palparan

Two days after Jovito Palparan Jr. was stopped at an airport in Pampanga province from leaving the country, the government launched a manhunt for the retired major general tagged by activist groups as “Berdugo (Butcher)” for the string of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances attributed to him. (from the Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Indigenous peoples in the Cordillera are pushing for the arrest and detention of General Jovito Palparan believed to be behind the torture and death of many highland leaders… Palparan was assigned to the Cordilleras from 1991 to 1994 and has been pointed out as the mastermind in the torture and killing of Marcelo Fakilang. Fakilang was tortured and killed in his own hometown in Betwagan, Sadanga, Mountain Province in 1992. (from Sun Star Baguio)

[Human rights] violations are part of Arroyo’s policy… [Arroyo] praised Palparan during one of her State of the Nation Address… “Gloria [Arroyo] recognized Palparan for going after activists whom they regarded as criminals. It is a policy of government. Gloria should also be punished,” Mrs. Cadapan [mother of an abductee] said. (from bulatlat.com)