As you probably know if you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I’m fascinated by indigenous media use as a model for community media practice. Whatever that means. So I was struck by this bit of a book I’m reading at the moment:
It was costly and difficult to bring hired videotapes almost 300 kilometres from Alice Springs to Yuendumu and to stop them from being scratched or damaged in the sandy desert camps and few commercial videos in the video shops in Alice Springs were attractive for the Warlpiri to hire. So the community came up with the idea of connecting all the video recorders in the camp a low-frequency, low-powered community television ‘station’ and using it to distribute a single videotape to all the sets in the community (Bell 80)
Firstly, I thought, ‘This is Youtube – this is what Youtube does for dancers.’ Before Youtube, dancers would distribute edited bits of archival film (featuring dance, of course) via video, and later as digital clips on CDs. Then Youtube happened, and suddenly all those locally distributed clips were online, available to everyone. Previous networks of exchange and the associated hierachies of knowledge and supply were dismantled. Everyone could watch archival clips, could see the original lindy hoppers (and balboa dancers and blues dancers and charlestoners and black bottomers and…) and experiment with the movements they saw. In my thesis I wrote about the way this upset hiearchies of knowledge in the local Melbourne scene, and how it had the potential to disrupt the commodification of dance (and knowledge) by dance schools and teachers.
Of course, the results weren’t quite so radical. Learning moves from grainy, downloaded Youtube clips is difficult, and many people would much rather just be taught the moves by some dood in a class. Many people don’t know where to begin when searching for archival clips online – you need to know terms (black bottom, lindy hop, charleston, Al Minns, Frankie Manning…) before you can search effectively. And of course, dance classes serve a range of functions beyond the transfer of dance knowledge – they socialise new dancers, they provide peer groups for the lonely, fellow addicts for the junkies and so on.
But Youtube is fascinating for the way it changed how dancers acquire and watch archival footage. Within a year, things I’d written about in my thesis were changed, utterly. And in the last year, Faceplant has changed things again. The most important part of faceplant for this particular community is the way it’s integrated and conglomerated a host of different media. Audio files, youtube clips, online discussion, blogs, newsletters, event notices, email: all of them centralised in one site. Facebook, though it is effectively a gated community* has also suddenly connected thousands and thousands of dancers all over the world. And in a very public, collaborative way. I’ve been fascinated by the way ‘being friends’ with a few key, well-traveled dancers can connect you up to a host of international scenes.
This was proved most clearly in the recent passing of Frankie Manning, just a few weeks before his 95th birthday. I’d like to write more about that, but I don’t feel up to it, really. And I think Frankie deserves more than one poorly written post on my blog; I’d like to write something properly. But this one event illustrated most clearly the connectedness and sheer speed of communications within the online swing dance community. It has also pointed out, thoroughly, that my ideas about localised communities are still very important: we might all be online, but we are still thoroughly grounded, embodied and localised by dance.
Of course, we can still make the point that this sort of media use – as with the Yuendumu example – is not like traditional broadcast media. The difference is not so much that we aren’t really working with the ‘few-to-many’ model of distribution, but that these are smaller groups taking up ‘new’ media and adapting them to their own particular circumstances. Wether those circumstances require dealing with dust or a way of seeing elders.**
*Thanks for that term, D4E.
**And of course, here is where parallels between Yuendumu and swing dancers arise again: the Warlpiri media collective has been very concerned with filming and then distributing the filmed image of elders. Just as swing dancers have been focussed on distributing filmed images of elders – swing era dancers. Both, of course, are managed by extensive social and pedagogic networks. And both rework ‘pedagogy’ for their particular contexts.
Bell, Wendy. A Remote Possibility: the Battle for Imparja Television IAD Press: Alice Springs, 2008.
1. Dollhouse is crap.
– I’m pretty sure it fails the Bechdel test.
– the gender stuff sucks arse. A bunch of beautiful young women kept, powerless, by a business which rents out their bodies for vast sums of cash. It’d be horrifying if there was no chance of it ever coming … true… Wait. Ok. So this one sucks for even more reasons.
– the gender stuff sucks arse. One of these ‘actives’/slaves begins to remember who she is and destabilises the internal workings of the business. Or does she? Even Alias had better gender politics. The female protagonist at least knew who she was and made a series of choices. Echo is, really, just a vehicle for male fantasies. In this case, it’s Joss Whedon’s fantasies. And they scare me. Whedon: fail.
– the gender stuff sucks arse. I thought it was going to get clever and tip all this stuff sideways. I’m still waiting. Oh, gods, just watch an episode or two and you’ll see for yourself.
– the race stuff sucks arse. Whedon repeatedly fails ethnicity.
I’m beginning to think Buffy was a fluke. Joss Whedon sucks.
2. Sarah Connor Chronicles is awesome.
– it passes the Bechdel test. It even encourages us to think about different types of femininity and whether or not cyborgs can be female. And then it makes us think about masculinity in the same ways.
– it not only has a bunch of violence and shooting-up (as per most SF these days), it also deals with the effects of violence and living with violence and terror on the lives of people.
– the second season ends with the ‘nuclear’ family set up in season one (with Sarah as ‘mum’, John and Cameron as kids living in the middle class suburban family home) crumbling. The patriarch is done away with, the mother discovers she’s actually much happier when in control of the family, directing its motion when literally on the move, Cameron is rescued from adolescent oblivion and John learns that heterosexual romance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. So the gang are back on the road, with Sarah as head of seriously badass single parent family.
– the program deals with the difficulties of adolescence in a complex way. John is continually reminded of his responsibilities as the future of humanity, but is still constrained by the middle class nuclear family. There’s tension between his eventual role as male hero and his relationship with his active, powerful, controlling mother. Not to mention his desire (and isn’t that a complicated mess) for the cyborg Cameron. His mother’s power is also complicated: it’s at once essential to the group’s survival (she is ruthless) and also highly problematic. I was most fascinated by the way she began to crumble in the suburbs: without purpose she began to suffer, quite horribly, from post traumatic stress disorder (as they all did, really).
– time travel is tricky. Unlike Dr Who, which does not in any way deal with paradox and time travel in a clever way, SCC makes it clear that time travel is complicated and that paradox is difficult to avoid. We’re left wondering if these time traveling heroes and villains are so effectively separated from their reality that their skills and missions and motivations have become meaningless. As each action changes the future, their original, independent missions seem less and less important or even logical. Which humans are good, which evil? What does it mean for humans to work with the machines, when Judgement Day is, essentially, marking the machines’ commitment to killing every single human? Even the terminators’ motivations seem skewed by changing context: is Weaver a baddy or a goody? Can John Henry be redeemed by his human/christian teacher and the friendship of a human child?
All the moving about through time (disassociating characters from their temporal and social contexts) and changing of futures means that missions in the ‘now’ are unanchored from their intended purposes. This flux is perhaps best illustrated by the terminators’ moving so far from Arnie’s original (and unimpedable) mission: to terminate Sarah Connor.
– Cameron is problematic.
As that series of posters above makes clear.
Cameron’s obviously sexualised: she is presented as the object of John’s unrequited (and eminently problematic) sexual desire. She presents herself at various moments as a sexualised entity: in the final moments of season one she pleads with John not to kill her because she loves him. This is a transparent effort to delay termination by a cyborg temporarily ‘corrupted’ from her mission to protect John. It is, clearly a lie, a moment of deceit. But we have spent almost the entire season being carefully led to read her as a potential love interest for John – his desire for her suggests that she should, ‘naturally’ return his interest. But this isn’t your average heteronormative love story. It is made quite clear that Cameron has been ‘programmed’ to protect John so as to avert Judgement Day. She is clearly fixed on this male character, but her motivation is not heterosexual desire. Or is it? We are reminded by the character Jesse (another ‘love interest’ from the future) that John Connor has formed an intense and apparently unnatural attachment to Cameron in a future world. And that she reciprocates this.
The buffybot problem is quite clear here: is a machine-woman operating to protect a particular male character anti-feminist?
– I’m prepared to let SCC go a little further with this storyline – I like the way they’ve presented these female cyborgs (Cameron and Weaver the ‘mother’) as incomplete or otherwise troubling.
It’s difficult to just accept them as your stereotypical ‘buffybot’ fantasy model cyborgs. Both cyborgs have become characters in their own right, and both are clearly negotiating their way through some serious gender stereotypes: Weaver must ‘learn’ how to be a ‘mother’, and continually fails to perform ‘correct’ femininity (and not only as a mother – she is also a corporate chief). Jesse – Reece’s ‘lover’ from the future (though, it turns out, not from his particular future; she is a Jesse from another time line, a time line created by Reece during this ‘now’) also fails to adhere to familiar gender stereotypes. As does Riley, John’s girlfriend-from-the-future. Sarah Connor herself is challenging. Though she approaches the ‘mother lion protecting her cub’ caricature, her continual deviation from this role is enabled by her more complex relationship with John, Reece and Cameron. Sarah herself has problems with motherhood, or with her role as a mother. There are a series of incidents where it’s made clear that Sarah enjoys or at least finds great satisfaction in her ‘professional’ dealings with freedom fighters, underground characters and general sneaky/terrorist/badass types. She’s also mad-keen on making plans. Sarah seems to also find it difficult to occupy the conventional mothering role and these badass roles. But it’s actually quite nice to see a character exploring the fact that mothering isn’t simple or ‘natural’, and that it isn’t always a wonderful blessing.
– it keeps me thinking. Unlike Dollhouse, I’m not prepared to give up on SCC yet; it doesn’t make me so angry I want to scream. It keeps me wondering how it will resolve these tricky relationships.
It references Linda Hamilton (even if this Sarah Connor doesn’t have Hamilton’s fully ripped hardbody), and we’re continually reminded of her transition from Arnie’s innocent, almost-helpless victim to the hardbody badass of T2: gender is flexible, femininity and gender is flexible. I’m still not sure about Cameron: is she a buffybot? Or is she something more? If she’s something more, we have to allow for cyborgs having emotions, identities, personalities beyond her programming. And if this is the case, what does it mean for a woman to have been ‘made’ by other machines?
I like it. But I don’t have much to say about it right now.
Here’s a little round up: Western Swing is ME.
I am currently in love with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This is in preparation for the Hot Club of Cowtown tour next month. I saw them in the UK (at the Marlborough Jazz Fest) in 2004, and they were freakin’ GREAT. The next week I saw Casey McGill’s band at a dance camp and they told me that their bass player had absconded for the HCCT. I’m not sure whether that’s a tragedy or an awesomey. Bad foot is still ME.
My foot is still bung. I have been to see a podiatrist to strapped me up. That helped the first time, but not the second time. I am also doing exercises to strengthen the muscles in my calves/shin to help out my plantar fascia (ie so it’s not overloaded). I am down to get orthotics next week, but they mightn’t work. Basically, these fibroids in my foot are never going to go away and they can’t be cut out. So I’m looking at pain management and impact reduction. I danced two half dances on the last weekend and it HURT. The problem is not so much the impact (which hurts and hurts normally), but the fact that there’s pivoting and my foot actually twists when we do lots of turns and things. That’s where the pain is at. It sucked to find out how much it still hurt, but at least I know where I’m at. Though I think I’d have preferred to continue in blissful (and hopeful) ignorance. If I can’t dance again, I’m really not sure what I’m going to do. If it’s not lindy hop, it could have been something else – I come from a long line of dancing, lumbering folk, and I can’t fight my DNA. Perhaps I’ll learn an instrument. Any suggestions? Maybe the drums? Bass? I did a lot of singing at school, but that was a long time ago. Allergies are GO.
I am having trouble breathing and my ear is all glued up. Again. Still, I’ve had much less trouble with my health since I moved to Sydney, so I’m certainly not complaining. It is melaluca flowering season, and there goddamn paper barks all over every street in every inner city suburb in Australia, so I need to deal. Won’t be long now, though, and I can come off the antihistamines. Library is MINE.
I have been back to the Con’s library this week. It is a joyful place. Though it is full of students, now, and that sucks. They’re almost uniformly middle or upper class, supernerds and 70% male. Guess that’s what a career in hardcore arty music requires. The jazz section was all dusty when I first got in there. Now it has at least some use. The refec near the library is SHITHOUSE. The actual room is quite nice – it has a lovely little stage (with nice piano), and would be perfect for a dance gig. The acoustics are magical. But the food is inedible. I was reduced to pre-made sandwiches. Most of the students in this (actually quite nice) mini-refec were eating packed lunches. There you go. emusic is not all mine. Yet.
I am blowing through my emusic downloads ridiculously quickly. Even when I ration them. There’re simply not enough. Quickflix is suspended.
Since we moved to Sydney the DVDs have been slower to arrive, have almost always been terribly scratched, and we never get anything in the top 50 of our list. I have suspended our account until we’ve decided what to do. We’re still on one of their unlimited DVD accounts, but I’m not sure it’s worth it, as we only get about 3 a week, which isn’t much better than getting 12 a month max, is it? The video shop here is pretty good, so we might just go old school. Though using a video shop means I have no natural limit on my DVD viewing. Dr Who and Farscape rule my world.
Screw BSG with its upsetting gender politics and ridiculously FAILED science. I am all about rebooted Dr Who and Farscape. I didn’t dig either the first time I saw them, and never really got past the first couple of episodes. Now I love them. Farscape passes the Bechdel Test. Dr Who does not. Rose + her mum. Talking about the Doctor. Though every now and then Rose gets to discuss a drama with another female character, there’s not much woman-to-woman action. I think it’s partly to do with the newer format – story arcs only last an episode, rather than a week’s worth of episodes. There’s not as much character development. And a bit too much kissing. I like Eccleston, but I’m not struck on Tennant. His bottom jaw sticks out too far. I liked Eccleston’s big nose and ears a whole lot. And was the Doctor always this manic? I’ll have to rewatch some old ones (I liked brown, curly haired, long-scarf, jelly baby Doctor best). I am a crocheting demon.
I should post some pictures to prove it. But I love complicated afghan patterns, and have been compulsively crocheting as I watch my way through the Commonwealth’s greatest contributions to popular culture. We went to Spotlight in Bondi Junction the other weekend so I could stock up on yarn. That joint was totally trashed on Saturday afternoon. I need another supplier; perhaps I could order online in bulk? The poor Squeeze is buried in gorgeously three dimensional flowers, in various combinations, so perhaps it’s time to stop.
No. I am bike YAY!
Yesterday we rode down the Cook’s River after work for a quick ride. It was overcast, humid and coming up a storm. It was great. The sun set over the river, we saw wildlife, we dodged nonnas out walking and talking and planned a longer down-stream walk for a future date. This river goes to Botany Bay, you know. I am still dealing with the fact that we live in Sydney.
I’m surprised by the historical weight I’m carrying in Sydney. It’s like all these suburbs and places are full of all the post-Invasion history of this country. Every bit of history I remember has something to do with Sydney. And most of it is narrated by songs from the Peter Coomb’s song book which delighted so many good little Australians in the 1980s.
And we’re bound for Botany Bay.
I’m sure that that song has celtic roots as well. One of the strangest moments of my post-MA European travel was being shut in at a Cornish pub where a heap of drunken … Corns? Cornishpeople? sang one of those sorts of ‘traditional Australian songs’. But with celtic names. My Irish grandfather used to sing The Wild Colonial Boy. So even though I’m caught up in all this Australian music, it’s just as Irish as the American folk music I dig.
I did arrive in Australia in 1982, straight into rural Wagga Wagga, so moving to New South Wales is far more familiar than moving to Melbourne did in 2001. The humidity is lovely. It’s not as heinous as Brisbane’s, but it’s nicer and wetter than Melbourne. And my skin loves it. The Squeeze declared last night, as we rode up the hill towards the lightning and iron-grey sky: “Moving here was the best thing we’ve done!” He’s delighted by the tropical storms. So am I – I’ve missed them. There’s something wonderful about a good, heavy-like-a-hot-shower rainstorm, complete with lighting and crashing thunder. Far, far better than drizzly, wingey bastard Melbourne weather. Even if it didn’t rain, it’d be cloudy and overcast forever. I don’t miss that shit. Though I’m thinking the Victorians are. Dollhouse sucks arse, Pushing Daisies is delightful.
That’s it in a nutshell, really. I’m not impressed by DH.
1. The FBI/BSG guy is a crap actor. He’s so crap I can hardly watch him on screen. That scene in the last episode where he and the ‘dead wife’ DH client chatted in the kitchen? It was so, so, so bad. I groaned. I gnashed my teeth.
2. The opening credits are incredibly, crappily bullshit.
3. I’m still not entirely sure about the gender stuff. There’s an awful lot of talk about the women ‘dolls’ as sexualised bodies. And though there’re references to their missions which don’t involve sex, we spend a lot of time looking at them having sex or wearing very high heels or tight, booby shirts, or generally packing a whole lot of very conventional, bullshit femininity. It’s a bit too Alias for me, but with less self-determination on their part. I had hoped there’d be a clever twist to undo some of this, but I’m beginning to lose hope. Joss Whedon is hyped, but, really, Buffy was his pinacle. I didn’t mind Serenity (look, I’m losing the italics, ok?), but it wasn’t great. The film wasn’t great cinema. The series wasn’t that good – a little too heavy on the patriarchal family structure for my liking. Yes, I get the whole male captain/father parallel, and that Mal might perhaps have been overcompensating for his wartime mistakes with other people’s lives, but still… Actually, it takes Buffy an awful long time to lose her patriarch. I’ve rewatched a bit of season 5 lately, and she’s STILL got Giles there, Watchering. So perhaps Buffy isn’t so great either… God, if this is the best we can do, this string of compromises.
Anyways, I’m not impressed by DH
4. Did I mention the terrible acting by FBI guy?
Pushing Daisies, though, is wonderful.
It’s charming. It’s clever. It’s lovely to look at. Its visual style has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s brighter, more colourful stuff. It’s a bit surreal and hyper-colour, but not dark like Burton. Well, except for the premise of the series: the pie maker protagonist can bring dead things back to life. For a minute. If he touches them within that minute, they go back to being dead. If he doesn’t, they stay alive and something has to replace them in the deadness. The point of the series: Emerson Cod (finally, a show with a not-white central character!), a private detective, works with the Pie Maker to solve murders. For profit. Pie Maker brings his childhood sweetheart, Chuck, back to life in one of the earliest eps, so they can’t touch. They love each other. The other main character is Olive, who, by the end of season two, is the very best character.
Why do I like this program?
1. The hyper-colour, phantastical mise en scene.
2. Passes Bechdel Test.
3. Olive. With her pet pig Pigby.
4. The male protagonist is a pie maker. There’s a lot of talk about food and baking pies and comfort food. It’s very lush. Here, have a look.
5. The singing scenes. Olive sings a couple of songs. One of which is ‘Eternal Flame’. Yes, a Bangles singing scene. The other is ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’. It’s wonderful.
Also, there’s singing.
6. Chuck’s spinster aunts (who raised her) are cheese fans and also used to be synchronised swimming super stars: Darling Mermaid Darlings. One has an eye patch.
7. Most of all, I love the dialogue. It’s very, very wordy. Lots of fast talking. But it’s all puns and onomatapeia (sp?) and all those other lovely wordnerd things. It looks good, it sounds good, and it’s funny. It makes me giggle.
8. It’s not horrid. There are some pretty gross deaths, but it’s not upsetting. Most of the programs I like these days are horribly dark. But Pushing Daisies is not. It’s lovely. The Pie Maker and Chuck love each other. Olive is tiny and super tough and awesome. She can bake pies or solve crimes. She’s great.
9. I watch it before bed, when I’m tired, and it helps me get to sleep. It’s nice.
The only thing I don’t like about it is that it was cancelled before the end of its second season. Apparently they’re screening the finale in the US in their summer, so at least we’ll get that degree of closure. But still. It’s really great telly. Here’s the first bit to prove it:
I really like Bones, but it’s a little lacking in scientific… hell, logical reality.
1. Would you use an elevator to reach the floor of a building where a bomb had blown up and caused a fire?
2. The computer machine thing that the girl lab person (what was happening in that sentence?) uses to recreate an image of the victim works a little too quickly. It’s also a little dodgily convenient. I doubt its existence. I also doubt (in the nicest possible way) an artist’s ability to write a program so sophisticated it could ‘build’ a picture (a 3D picture!) of a person from a bone fragment. Maybe she does have mad programing skills, but that sort of seriously specialised mad programing skills? Nope.
3. Whatsit Boreanz isn’t the best actor. He’s fully built, but has dodgy posture (though that’s improved a bit). I think he’s a cheery person in real life. This isn’t a critique of the program, merely an observation.
4. I do like it that Bones’ boss is also an alpha chick. And that Boreanz doesn’t really mind being bossed about women. Ace.
I’ll post more observations about Bones as I come to them.
Also, we are watching Mad Men. It tends to rely on the ‘woah, things were weird in the 50s’ effect a little too much. The story moves so slowly and there are so few parallel story lines, it makes for quite boring viewing. I like the 50s stuff but not enough to be distracted from the fairly boring story line. Quite frankly, I don’t really care about the protagonist’s ‘secret past’. Not even for curiousity’s sake.
And, on an even sider side point, today I spent about four hours in three different book shops. Firstly, I went to Kukinyani (doods, I just cannot spell that). I spent about two hours there, wandering around the young adult fiction section. Then I spent some time in the illustrated books section (can’t remember the fancy word for comics I’m afraid). Mostly I was with the YA stuff. I put together a very expensive pile then left all but one book with a very nice campy boy who recommended Alison Bechdel‘s other book when he saw I had the most recent Dykes to Watch Out For book.
I ended up going home with an Ursula K. LeGuin short story collection (in the Earthsea universe) – one of the pretty re-releases. I left the Bechdel book and three Jane Yolan books (The Heart’s Blood series) in the pile.
Then I went to Galaxy Books. I remember it being better than it is. It’s also a bit expensive. And they don’t have a separate YA section. Which is annoying.
Then I went to Abbey’s and spent a loooong time in the YA section, and then an even longer time just kind of cruising the ground floor. Many more YA books added to my list. And then some other awesome things, including a book (in the serious style guides/editing/how to write a book section) telling you how to write a book using proper pirate talk. It’s apparently an historically accurate guide to pirate vernacular. It also looks just like a ‘real’ pirate book. And rocks. I’ve just been reading Tanith Lee’s Piratica books (all three, and all three are utterly awesome – totally rockingly awesome), and suddenly, I’m totally into pirates. Not sure I want to write a pirate book, though. At any rate, I then had to kill a bit of time, so I started looking through every shelf quite carefully. And instead of just looking, I had a proper girl look, and actually took things off the shelf, moved them around, looked properly and closely. It was ace. My interest was especially caught by books about:
– music and dance in Australia (not actually all that awesome, disappointingly)
– a French widow champagne maker who smuggled the stuff internationally during the French revolution
– R. Crumb’s 1980s life and art (saucy but also interesting, especially his drawings of blues musicians)
– explorers who died on the job – for Australia Day: Captain Cook was speared and then eaten by Hawaiins. Awesome.
… there were a bunch of others, but I can’t remember them. Basically, my eyeballs were kind of blowing up after all that really small font. Suddenly, I just want to read and read and read. Wish I was rich.
I don’t mean this to sound as if I don’t read and read and read usually. I’m always reading. It’s just that, all of a sudden, I’m discovering new books that I haven’t been leant or bought second hand. Suddenly, I’m looking at non-fiction (what is with that?). It’s weird.
I’m still having trouble with the price difference between adult and YA books. Why are YA books between $10 and $17 (unless they’re something bullshitty like the Twilight crap) and adult books over $20? They’re often the same size. The font is frequently the same size (especially if we’re talking about those terrible ‘books for women’ – not the romances, those terribly books with bright covers and stories about shoes and chocolate). So why the price difference? Not that i’m complaining, mind you, but I am confused. Also, I wish books were cheaper.
Glen was right. After ep 3, True Blood is really neat.
It’s addictive. I think I need to negotiate the politics, but for now, I’m just loving it. I Need. To. Watch. It. All. The. Time.
Other programs I’m watching:
Dawson’s Creek, season 2 (from the beginning, a consecutive viewing). Increasingly intolerable;
Sanctuary (kind of dumb);
season 1 of Buffy (if ever you feel a little oppressed by the patriarchy, Buff will help you out. But only seasons 1 and 2. Then it gets too dark);
season 4 of The Wire (double awesome).
Deadwood from the beginning again.
Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Some other stuff.
Robocop 2. So boring I stopped watching 2 minutes in. The Squeeze is enthralled;
Persuasion, BBC version. Can’t remember it, think it’ll be neat;
Escape From New York. Sweeeeeeet;
new Coen Brothers’ film. Disappointing and a bit boring;
Spoiler alert: I give the entire game away in this post. If you’re keen to watch The Wire, don’t watch the clips – they will ruin it for you. I’d even be careful with some of the text.
I have some problems with the West Wing. I no longer think it’s the bee’s knees. Partly because I’ve since watched The Wire, which is the bee’s knees, but also because we’re rewatching season one now, while we also watch The Wire.
What issues do I have with the West Wing?
1. the music is really intrusive and pushy. The Wire has ruined me for telly with a score. There’s no music in The Wire, beyond what the characters hear in their ordinary settings. But the West Wing is rank with it, and it’s pushy. It’s busy telling you, ‘hey, this is a really serious bit’ or ‘look out – he’s angry, he’s angry!’ You’re not left to figure out how you should feel on your own. The Wire doesn’t baby you or preach – it figures you know how you’re supposed to feel. And the West Wing has that horrid, overly florid music that really gets up my crack.
2. america is wonderful. The West Wing is, essentially, a story about the wonderfulness of the American democratic process. It almost tries to problematise some legislative issues, but it doesn’t quite make it. Ultimately, any problem with the American electoral system, laws, powers of the president or general legal system are solved by the wonderfulness of the president. Jed Bartlett/Martin Sheen (and the two are inextricable) is presented as this too-wonderful man, whose sheer charisma absolves the broader structural problems in American civics. He’s so smart, so charming, so wickedly brave and sneaky, our problems with his policy or with the way the government he leads works are nudged aside. This feels, ultimately, untrue and deceitful. The West Wing promises a clever, insightful gaze into the white house. But really, it offers you a bunch of fast dialogue with very ordinary, very familiar and very unradical story lines and characters.
3. the dialogue is clever. It’s not. It’s quick. But every character speaks, ultimately, the same way. The first time I watched this show I thought ‘my, I’d love to work in a place like that, where everyone is really clever and everyone is stretched and really used for their best abilities’. But now, I’m not buying that. With rewatching, the stories and dialogue aren’t so clever. I’m really not seeing any new types of character relationships or story arcs. There’re some overly moralising stories about drugs or health care, but, really, it’s the same old preachy shit. And while these guys are presented as the ‘good guys’ – the left – they’re really only soft left. And I don’t even want to talk about race. Well, perhaps a little. Black, in the white house? You’ll be holding doors for the president, getting told off for speaking out about racism (in ep 15, season 1) or getting killed, eventually.
The Wire, in contrast, is really quite radical. We spend as much time with the drug dealers and shooters and strippers as we do with the police. In fact, the institutional structures and discourses of the illegal networks are far more complex and sophisticated than the police and ‘legal’ institutions. The police team working ‘the wire’ are really following a couple of steps behind the B&B crew, trying to figure out how they manage to hide their dealings using a telephone network. You’re really left thinking that the B&B organisation – particularly under Stringer Bell’s direction – is organised crime.
Issues of crime and class are dealt with in long-reaching, long-term story arcs. They’re not resolved in an episode with some ideological bravado from Toby, some practical problem solving from Leo and some balderdash paternalism from Bartlet. Problem solving – solving cases – isn’t quick or simple. It doesn’t use high tech forensics. It uses, at best, wire taps on pay phones and blokes on roofs with film cameras. Some of the police are utterly crap and incompetent. Some of them have potential, but fail to realise it. And sometimes, the cases don’t get solved. There are also frustrating moments when the characters fail to communicate and royally fuck up a ‘simple’ resolution. So the story lines aren’t as clear and simple and easily resolved. West Wing is dealing with the disadvantages of an episodic format – it can’t really work with longer, sustained (and ultimately more complex) story lines. But really, there’s no excuse for dialogue that looks clever, but isn’t, really.
4. the gender stuff. Basically, the chicks on the West Wing are dumb arses. They look good – they sound clever. And CJ is tall. But they’re really not the smartest kids in the class. Evidence? Let’s say we’re faced with a tricky moment in American legislative process. We’re pretty sure the audience won’t understand or have any useful knowledge about this process. We need to clue them in, but we have about 45 minutes to get the story done, and really, this little narrative knot is more important for making a point about Bartlet’s persona or Josh’s impending romance. So how do we clue in the audience? The West Wing gets old school and uses some exposition. Basically, one of the clever characters (usually one of the lawyers – Toby, Josh or Sam) explains the process to someone else. 95% of the time that person who needs things explaining is a woman. This could be excused by the fact that the characters are in their first term in the white house -they’re new to the job. But why is it always CJ or Mandy or Donna who needs to have something explained to them? It’s fairly rare to see Sam having something explained. Unless it’s emotional stuff. If it’s something to do with dating, Sam’s having it explained to him by… some chick. If it’s something about being kind, Josh is having it explained to him by Donna. If there’s a story about the futility of young men lost in wars, it’s Mrs Lanningham explaining to young Charlie.
This is one part of West Wing that I’m finding increasingly intolerable. That and the music. I’ve just about had enough of hearing Toby rant to CJ or Sam explain sampling process to CJ. The latter I am almost furiously frustrated by. CJ, as a PR wiz, should have at the very least, a working knowledge of basic sampling processes, at least as they’re applied to polling and public opinion surveys. I mean, fuck, my undergrads could figure it out after an hour of lecture and a couple of readings. CJ doesn’t understand it? Jeez. I just wasn’t buying it. And if it’s simple enough to explain in three minutes of expository dialogue, I’m a little surprised so competent and articulate and clever a woman as CJ can’t get it after hours reading briefing papers… or perhaps the people who write these briefs need a little help? And I don’t think I need to talk about Mrs Bartlet and the cafuffle over her office in the first season. This woman should have been, by this point in her husband’s career, an astute political animal. But she makes first year blunders that are really quite embarassing.
I really need to point out a few more points where The Wire kicks West Wing arse. But let’s pause for a little Stringer Bell action.
The dialogue and the story lines. You think there’s a lot of walking about and fast talking in the West Wing? Try figuring out the local dialects of Baltimore. Both black and white. Cop and stevedore. All-male and all-female groups. We regularly stop the DVD to try and figure out what’s going on. What did he say? Who’s that? What’s going on now? There are zillions of characters, the story line is incredibly complicated, and there’s a lot of talking. But it’s all very satisfying, once you’ve figured out what’s going on.
[spoiler alert: there’s lots of spoiler action approaching]
Issues of class are dealt with in the most interesting ways. I was particularly struck by the parallels between McNulty’s and Stringer Bell’s struggles with class in the third season (which we’ve just finished watching). McNulty starts seeing (dating is too generous a term for this relationship) a well-connected white woman PR hound. She, essentially, uses him for his body. He tries, a couple of times, to hang out in her world – high powered political negotiations and shmoozing parties. He’s left feeling stupid and clumsy. As he says at one point (and I must paraphrase), ‘I’m the smartest guy in the western. But I couldn’t keep up with what she was doing’. His street knowledge and truly formidable problem solving smarts were simply useless in that forum. He simply didn’t have the social nous – or social skills to negotiate that space.
Similarly, Stringer Bell begins to move into real estate development, investing the massive amounts of money he’s earnt dealing drugs. He begins to deal with the city housing officials and the complicated network of laws, bylaws and committees regulating building and industry in Baltimore (a journey paralleled by Cutty’s attempts to found a boxing gym for young people, but that’s another story). He fails, miserably, mostly because he simply doesn’t speak the ‘language’ or know how to read the high-level machinations of this setting (spoiler alert: here‘s a nice clip where we see Stringer’s frustrations played out).
Both are very intelligent men. Stringer Bell has been studying business at community college at night. McNulty is ferociously intelligent, and solves problems with a combination of terrier-tenacity and cutting smarts. Bell is perhaps the more impressive personality, managing a massive drug dealing business, organising the different local bosses into a cohesive network of businessmen. But he is hampered more clearly by his race when he tries to move between classes. Both are dealing with the greater challenges of class – of education, of not speaking the right language (or knowing how to negotiate language), of not walking or moving the right way. Even their physical experience with and relative comfort with physical violence becomes an impediment, confusing their responses to conflict. While neither does anything as ridiculous as start a fight, both use their physical threat – their posturing and willingness to physically mix it up – marring their efforts to deal with individuals and settings where violence is not at all appropriate.
This next clip is 100% spoiler. If you haven’t seen season 3 or are considering watching the program, don’t watch it. But it’s an interesting comment on class in The Wire.
All of this is not discussed in snappy dialogue. It is expressed in a series of incidents, over a series of episodes. Both characters do spend time on exposition, but their articulation of their frustrations is in character – these are men who are also very much verbally competent. Their language skills are impressive. It’s just that they’re also contextually dependent and don’t transfer to new settings terribly well.
The Wire is also impressive for the fact that it actually has queer characters who stick around.
There are dykes and fags, here, and they’re not subscribing to gender or sexual stereotypes. Omar is a ruthless, fearless killer whose violence is triggered in large part as a response to the murder and torture of his lover. Kima is involved in a long term relationship with a lawyer and dealing with new parenthood (her relationship with McNulty is interesting – she’s not interested in him sexually, but she’s obviously drawn to his charismatic, chaotically destructive person and becomes increasingly like him in her behaviour). There are other queer characters who bend gender norms, but I can’t give away too many spoilers.
Really, The Wire is fabulous television. And The West Wing fails.
The other night we watched the last couple of episodes of The Circuit. It was some of the best television I’ve seen in ages. I even teared up.
For those who aren’t familiar with the program: it’s an SBS miniseries set in ‘indigenous Australia’. I use that phrase specifically, partly because 90% of the cast are aboriginal, but also because the physical location – the Kimberly – is absolutely essential to the story and look of the program. But this ‘indigenous Australia’ is not an homogenous ‘nation’ – it’s a complicated place peopled by a host of different ethnic and cultural groups, and by individuals with their own specific needs, wants and agendas.
The Circuit is interesting for its location, its stories and simply for its presentation of a ‘legal drama’. But it’s even more interesting for its production: cast and crew were a mix of indigenous and white Australians, the stories were written by indigenous authors. Working and filming with inexperienced crew and cast in geographically remote locations posed particular problems, but also made for stunning visuals.
More prosaically, The Circuit follows a young aboriginal lawyer Drew Ellis as he comes from Perth to work for the Aboriginal Legal Service in Broom for six months. In the very first episode he is established as a child of the stolen generation whose father was taken from his family and disconnected from his land and kin. The program’s story is, ultimately, about Drew’s traveling towards his own cultural heritage. It’s also a story about family and families – the cases heard by the traveling court are almost exclusively domestic stories of domestic violence, property damage and ‘cultural fraud’. These aren’t stories about white collar crime, but about the ordinary crime of everyday life in a community.
The Circuit tells the story of a traveling court – a magistrate, lawyers and police who travel a ‘circuit’ of local communities hearing local cases (and I’m reminded of song lines as I type this). As one of the producers notes in the behind the scenes ‘extra’ on the DVD, The Circuit presents an overwhelming number of cases and people in a very short period of time. There is no time to get to know new cases or clients or stories (not even for the lawyers).
I wasn’t entirely sure I liked the program when I first saw the first episode – the acting was patchy and the camera work and editng were a bit wanky. But really enjoyed the last few episodes. For the most part, these were stories about men – about fathers and sons and men negotiating new lives which accommodated both ‘traditional’ law and Europeam, mainstream Australian law. This law dealt largely with violence – with men’s violence towards women and to other men, and with the effects of violence on grown children – men who had been taken from parents, men who had been sexually abused. These men were, for the most part, aboriginal, but not exclusively so.
One of the most touching parts of the story involves Drew’s efforts to locate his father’s extended family. He’s initially and continually unsure of the project – his colleagues and friends encourage him, making the point that it’s ‘important’. His white wife, while ambivalent, is, essentially, also encouraging. But Drew becomes increasingly reluctant to seek out and make contact with his family. This was the part I found most moving – he was afraid and nervous and excited and afraid again.
As a middle class city boy moving to the bush, he was confronted by the social reality of aboriginal communities in the region, understandably challenged by the crime and violence and effects of white invasion. But he was also tempted and seduced by the importance of family in the lives of his aboriginal friends – Bella’s large, welcoming family; Sam’s place within a complicated network of family and friends. I really liked the way Drew’s mixed feelings were dealt with in the story – he obviously wanted, quite desperately, to find a place in this extended community. But he was also afraid of what he might find and what it might mean to dig in deep and commit himself to staying and living in the region. When he asks Sam to explain the exact terms of his relationship to recently discovered ‘cousins’, he’s obviously attempting to map, precisely, his place in this family, his role and responsibilities. But Sam repeats: “They’re cousins on your dad’s side,” and that’s enough – clearer definitions of exact genetic relationships aren’t important. What is important is that he belongs to ‘that mob’ and that they belong to him.
I think it’s this point of reciprocity that was most moving. An older man, Jack, sees Drew at a trial in a remote community and mentions “I knew your grandmother’s family”. Drew is confused, stunned, unsure: could finding his father’s stolen family simply be as simple as being ‘seen’ out in the community by a member of this extended network? He asks his friend Sam for his advice: “He reckons he knows my family,” and his friend encourages him to seek them out. From here, Drew begins to both seek out and avoid learning more. The part I liked the most, though, was the way that Jack decides that he won’t let Drew disappear. Jack turns up again, later, at another court session. Drew asks him what he’s doing there: “I’m waiting.” He’s obviously waiting for the younger Drew to be ready to explore his family. To be ready to take on the emotional weight. To be ready to commit to the broader community of the region as a lawyer, as a man, and as a member of a family. The Jack follows Drew back to Broome, and eventually Drew decides that he’ll commit to another six months in Broome with the ALS, and more importantly, to seeking out his family.
The part of all this that I really liked was the older man’s patience. He didn’t badger or attempt to bully Drew into coming back with him to meet his family. He didn’t argue or attempt to convince him. He just waited until Drew was ready. Sure, it was an awesome display of passive aggressive manipulation, but more importantly, this older man’s waiting and simply being visible and present in the life of a younger man who lacked connections with family and elders was a key part of the narrative generally. This is played out in Sam’s relationship with his estranged teenaged son. Sam ultimately chooses to reenter his son’s (and wife’s) life, and spends hours one night waiting for the son’s drunken anger to wear down so he reestablish himself as a father.
I liked this emphasis on patience and waiting. I liked the way it wasn’t a story filled with ranting, American style exposition. There was a lot of quiet patience, younger men being waited for, and older men learning to wait. I also liked the way Drew’s story wasn’t just one his father being ‘stolen’ and then ‘lost’, beyond the reach of his family. I liked the way it wasn’t a story just of a man returning to his country to find his people. I liked the way it was a story of a family and a people – a community refusing to let children be lost. I liked the way this older man took on the responsibility of caring for Drew, and of refusing to give him up. But in a quiet way. I like the thought of a family refusing to let its young men disappear or walk away from their place and community. I liked the idea of a community having responsibility for its members, as much as the members have responsibility for their community. In fact, I like the way the distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘community’ was collapsed. The more time Drew spends in the region, the more people see and recognise him, the more firmly he is established as a part of a complicated network of people and place. Eventually, he can’t exist outside this network – he learns to work in the community more efficiently as a lawyer, but also as a son and cousin and part of a wider community.
I also liked the way Drew’s response to all this was ambivalent – he had to negotiate his own acceptance of this new life and new family. Sure, it was inevitable (and you get the feeling that his family were never ever going to let him completely cut himself off again – they’d found him and were keeping him), but his own active negotiation and acceptance was also essential.
I also liked the way the local community reached out to newcomers to find a place for them in the extended community network – the older European woman Ellie is sitting at the beach with a group of women teaching and learning a dance for an upcoming festival. The older women tease her about her reluctance to date an older aboriginal man who’s been flirting with her. The woman who’s been teaching the children the dance says at one point, after demanding they do it again until they get it right: “We could use more dancers,” looking at Ellie. Ellie makes an excuse and leaves the group. But it’s clear that she’s being invited to join the dance not just as a way of including her in the group, but as a way of including her in the wider community network. It is as important to the community (and dance) to include her as it is to make her feel ‘belonging’ or ‘included’. It reminds me of the way white researchers in remote aboriginal community speak of being given a skin by the local community – it is important for them to have a place so that others in the community know how to deal with them and interact with them. Because there’s a system of rules and law dictating how people should and do interact with each other, and with the land.
So The Circuit is, mostly, a story about a community finding a ‘skin’ for Drew – a way of integrating him into the community, into the system of respect and family and land and law. It’s also about his finding a place for himself, but its more important for him to understand that he is also being claimed and found in return. He belongs to that community as much as it belongs to him.
[all images from here]
Get into it.
Best telly ever. Ever. I mean, it challenges West Wing for good. I’d say it’s better than Deadwood. Really. It’s more interesting than The Sopranos. It’s so, so good.
Here’s a little taste:
I’m glad I’m not the only one who cried like a freakin’ baby watching the ABC this morning. I cried and cried. It was just nice to see such a mark of respect. I kept thinking ‘those aboriginal doods are the first aboriginal people – the first indigenous Australians to be given such formal respect, EVER!’ It was just so exciting and wonderful. Sure, there were some problems with that second speech there, but still – it was like, all of a sudden, Australia had suddenly realised that there were people who’d been here before the skips rocked into town. Like they went, “Holy shit! We’ve had our heads up our bums for 200 years! Let’s get on it, STAT!”
I know it’s only a symbol, but holy moly, if that doesn’t give good evidence to the power of symbols, I don’t know what would. That was some seriously hot shit. Now I have an idea how people feel when they go to the dawn service for Diggers or put up flags in their front yard. It was like, all of a sudden, I had a reason to be really proud of being Australian. It was like, amazingly, even though people had been doing fuckful things for 200 years, and then refusing to admit they’d been fuckful, they suddenly, really, did think “Oh, man. That was some bad shit. We have to apologise.” And then they did! I was just proud. It was like a couple of kids had suddenly realised they were being mean to another little kid and apologised to him all on their own. Now I’m hoping they’ll be taking that kid home for detty-and-a-bandy before out to the back yard for a rousing game of tiggy.
And I was also really struck by the power of turning your back on someone. No fisticuffs, no nasty retorts. Just turning away. I think that’s a nice alternative to bombing the shit out of people. I know it’s the solution I’ve used on discussion boards when I’ve had a gutful of sexist dickheads, or I’m dealing with trolls, but who’d have thought it would be so useful when dealing with the Liberal party? And that it just keeps getting more effective?
For those who are about to reconcile, we salute you.
edit: and I’m just thinking: it’s the overwhelming symbolism of having those elders in parliament while they were speaking. I just kept thinking, ‘it’s like they didn’t exist before. And now, all of a sudden, parliament has discovered they exist. They’re recognising them, and they’re honouring them’. I know that’s problematic in itself, but goddamn, I just can’t get over it.