Wednesday, 31 March 2021

I WANT MY MTV [289]


Sunday 1st August 2021 marks forty years since MTV launched with an opening sequence comparing its innovation, playing musical promo videos around the clock, with the Apollo 11 moon landings. 
 

But that innovation has long since evaporated, just as the words “Music Television” has from under its logo: MTV is now a parade of reality shows, a genre admittedly pioneered by them with 1992’s “The Real World,” its original programming shunted off to automated sister channels which, in the UK, includes names like “MTV Hits,” “MTV Base,” and the infuriatingly tautological “MTV Music.”

 

The usual explanation given for this shift was the advent of online streaming of video content from around the 2000s, initially with MySpace, and especially with YouTube. This fits with personal experience: I only had a direct subscription to MTV from 1999 to 2002, and what non-musical shows there were numbered few: there was “Jackass” and “The Real World,” but “The Osbournes,” the show that precipitated the shift away from the music, had not launched yet. Whenever I saw MTV after then, the character of the channel had moved away, although watered-down substitutes like TMF and Viva existed for a while.

 

However, it was when watching “I Want My MTV,” a September 2020 entry in the A&E Network’s “Biography” series of documentaries, that I began to realise why this shift has happened, and why MTV is no longer a part of it. Towards the end of a feature-length look at how young TV executives attempted to start a revolution in television on a miniscule budget, and how it struggled to convince record companies to make videos for their songs, the documentary concluded that the channel’s audience wanted to see itself on television, not just have somewhere that catered to them – this is perfectly reflected in the reality shows that followed like “Jersey Shore,” “My Super Sweet 16,” “The Hills” and “Catfish.”

 

What became clearer to me is that MTV had begun as a creative outlet of one, which has now been supplanted by a multitude of outlets. The initial videos shown on the channel were often by bands that were proactive in creating their own videos, adding individual style to a genre sprouting from the necessity of providing a stand-in if the artists could not appear on a TV show in person: I knew that The Police shot their video for “Message in a Bottle” in a dressing room between engagements, but I did not know that Devo turned down stand-up ads of themselves in shops to use that money to shoot the “Whip It” video. The most surprising of these was REO Speedwagon noticing the potential of MTV before their record company, readying videos of four songs in time for its launch. 

 

Add in to this the ever-changing stream of channel idents, left to the freedom of animators and designers to create as they wished, and the message was clear: if you had what MTV was looking for, you stood a very good chance of appearing on it. The sense of ownership generated by the slogan “I Want My MTV,” created as a campaign to get cable providers to sign up to the channel, was only needed for those wanting to sit back to watch the results. 

 

One genre of songs that has disappeared from the UK charts has been the comedy record, which I argue is because the impetus to create something like this is more easily completed through the mechanics of placing the song, or the video of the song, onto social media or YouTube, instead of submitting it through the traditional route of record companies and record pressing plants – the faster you can get something out, the better, especially while the joke’s still funny. 

 

If that immediacy can now be applied to anything creative, so why wait for it to funnel through the established structures of network television before it can be seen? No wonder we went elsewhere.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

WE HAVE FIESTA AND FERIA [288]


Two weeks ago, I bought a book I remember checking out, on multiple occasions, from the library of my secondary school. “Let’s Call It Fiesta,” written by Edouard Seidler and subtitled “the auto-biography of Ford’s Project Bobcat,” was published when the Ford Fiesta first went on sale in 1976. I had been transfixed by the vast array of conceptual designs and models made by various parts of the company, as Ford grappled with producing their first “world car” since the Model T, although I didn’t try to draw them myself either back then, or now. The book chronicles how both an oil crisis, and competition from small cars like the Renault 5 and Fiat 127, created the smallest Ford so far.

Last week, Ford announced that their factory in Valencia, Spain, built to manufacture the Fiesta, will begin making engines for their electric car range. This marks the end of the road for the Ford Mondeo after twenty-eight years, and the end of their producing and selling large family and executive cars in Europe, breaking a link that extended back through to the Consul, Granada, Cortina and Sierra - the nearest car left in their range will be the Mustang Mach E, the electric crossover vehicle as forward-thinking as the Sierra was (which I have talked about previously). When the Mondeo is withdrawn from sale, Ford of Europe will only have two vehicles that are not sports utility vehicles, crossover cars, or vans: the Focus, a smaller family car that replaced the Escort in 2000, and is currently the size of the original Cortina; and the Fiesta, which is now the size of the original Escort, and twenty inches longer than the original version of itself.

 

There hasn’t really been a time since the 1980s began where Britain’s best-selling car wasn’t either the Ford Fiesta or the Ford Escort. At different times, they have been the standard, middle-of-the-road car: a front-wheel drive hatchback, about fourteen feet long, and big enough to carry a family of four, or five at a push, along with luggage or a pet. Since 2014, the Fiesta has been the best-selling car in UK history, overtaking the 4.1 million sold by the Escort from 1968 until its replacement by the Focus. Indeed, the longevity of the Fiesta may be down to Ford never having changed the name.

 

However, as evidenced by the numerous designs in the book I now own, the Fiesta has continued to sell because of the space it leaves for the personality of its owners. The original 1976 car was designed by Ghia, to this day a Ford-owned Italian firm of coachbuilders and concept car designers, whose name was once used by Ford as their byword for luxury. There was nothing brash, imposing or excessive about the original Fiesta design, but the curve created by the side windows is a subtle, more European touch. The ubiquity of the Fiesta makes it a part of most driver’s journeys, from having learned to drive or taken their test in one, to it perhaps being the first car of their own. For years, the Fiesta has been the default “British” car.

 

The fragmenting car market is now weakening the Fiesta’s hold – as off-road and crossover vehicles continue gaining popularity in Europe, even Ford could sell you Fiesta-sized versions of each in the EcoSport and Puma. Crucially, with the Fiesta having increased in size over the years, and with the Ford Ka city car now withdrawn due to lack of interest, Ford no longer makes a car to compete with the current Fiat 500, or the upcoming new electric version of the Renault 5, both of which were precisely the reason Ford made the Fiesta in the first place. It is easier than ever to find the car you want - I guess the Ford Fiesta will continue until we don’t need it anymore.

Sunday, 21 March 2021

WE'LL BRING IT BACK NO MATTER WHAT IT TAKES [287]


“Bandit? This is Mr B., and I'm gearjammin' this rollin' refinery, you got another smokey on the rubber?”

I’m surprised I am not more of a fan of Burt Reynolds. Perhaps his career trajectory, by his own admission taking roles that were often more fun than challenging, means we try to focus on his more critically successful roles, like in “Deliverance,” “Boogie Nights,” “At Long Last Love” (with hindsight) and “The Longest Yard.” However, that kind of self-correction does overlook the fact that, if you want a film that guarantees to put a smile on your face, you really can’t do much better than one that gives Burt Reynolds the ability to play a version of himself – that kind of charisma is too hard to replicate.

In watching “Smokey and the Bandit,” you are reminded of a lot of films that will come later, particularly the outlandish car chases of “The Blues Brothers,” but also of “Fast and the Furious.” The strange vernacular of CB radio, a powerful device that links whole groups of people to help the Bandit’s shipment across state lines, entered general usage after the film, no longer the reserve of convoys. Sally Field, shedding the image created of her in TV shows “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun,” plays a runaway bride that drives as well as the bandit, and Jackie Gleason’s sheriff Buford T. Justice, spouting the “sonbitch” swearing that was woven into the script at Reynolds’ suggestion, having been inspired by his father, became the basis of Boss Hogg and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the stars of whom also have roles in “Smokey and the Bandit.” With that series, and with Roger Corman making a rip-off film named “Smokey Bites the Dust,” such a thing as “Smokey-sploitation” can be said to exist.

As told by his daughter, Alfred Hitchcock was, apparently, a fan of “Smokey and the Bandit.” When I first heard about it, my first action was to try and rationalise it: the film was released by Universal Pictures, and it would be rather odd for one of its largest shareholders, through the sale of “Psycho” and his TV show, to talk down one of its releases. Hitchcock was also known as a collector of fine art, most notably Paul Klee, the sort of thing that requires contemplation with a furrowed brow.

And yet, the plot of the film is hinged on a “MacGuffin” as big as any of those in Hitchcock’s films, and probably one of the MacGuffin-iest of them all: Coors beer, more specifically Coors Banquet Beer, using “banquet” in the same sense as the KFC Boneless Banquet. 

Bootlegging beer is something rather alien outside of the United States, but in an age where anything can be bought everywhere at any time, the idea that Coors could only be bought in eleven states in the US to 1976 is already rather strange, while the company’s decision not to pasteurise its beer made it illegal to bring it into any further states. However, because it tasted nice, it became a national sport to try and take some home with you, creating the narrative timebomb of “Smokey and the Bandit”: Cledus Snow and the Bandit had to get the beer to its destination within 28 hours before the beer went off. Coors only started nationwide distribution across America in the mid-1980s, using refrigerated trucks.

Sunday, 14 March 2021

SWINGS BRINGS NEW TECHNOLOGY [286]


On 23rd August 1994, the K Foundation, an art group best known when performing as pop group The KLF, travelled to the Scottish island of Jura and burned a million pounds of their own money inside a disused boathouse. A visual record of the event was made to a Hi-8 video tape. Even after curtailing their musical career in 1992, continuing royalties from record sales led to a decision on what to do with the surplus that had not been spent on other art projects, so it was chosen to make an artwork using money as its medium. The name of the piece is “K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.”

On 3rd March 2021, the YouTube channel “BurntBanksy” posted a video depicting the burning a print of a work by Banksy, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit,” marking the moment when a physical work of art becomes a digital one. A non-fungible token (NFT) representing the physical work was minted in a blockchain before the burning, which was subsequently sold on an online auction site for $380,000, marking a $285,000 increase in value over its original form when purchased by a blockchain firm. Banksy’s original work depicts a traditional auction room, its title contained within the frame of the work being sold.

 

Both art works were considered as cynical moves after their creation, particularly the latter being derived from the work of another artist, but it is clear that the K Foundation were most interested in the moments their work was created and existed, whereas the NFT created from the burnt Banksy print, and the selling of it, was intended to be the end product. 

 

With the international art market currently in the grip of a speculative bubble blown by NFTs of Jack Dorsey’s first Tweet (sold for $2.5 million), a corrected version of the “Nyan Cat” GIF image ($800,000) and “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a JPEG compendium of images created by Mike Winkelmann, known as “Beeple” ($69 million), and the knowledge that this bubble is powered entirely by blockchains, from the minting of the NFTs to the existence of the cryptocurrencies used to buy the works, what has been created is an alternative ecosystem of existence that is dependent on the provenance of computer code.

 

Two weeks ago, I had never even heard of NFTs, let alone have various articles explain the concept of fungibility, which I had also never heard about previously. The notion of an item being rendered irreplaceable with another item only by its registration in a system that may require more energy in its lifetime to maintain its code than the original item would have needed to be created in the first place has become something that needs to be contemplated, let alone the virtual token acting as something to which a monetary value can be assigned in place of the item itself. 

 

If I did that with this article, how much do you think I could get for it?

Sunday, 7 March 2021

IT’S MORE THAN I DARE TO THINK ABOUT [285]


One of the many arguments for public service broadcasting is the ability to commission and broadcast a long-form polemical documentary, composed almost entirely of stock footage, telling a huge and difficult story, with the guarantee that it will be watched by a small but highly engaged audience and, because of the rights for the stock footage, cannot be issued on home video. It is entirely the sort of project in which the BBC is expected to invest, but it is also the signature form of Adam Curtis, whose latest series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” was unveiled on the BBC iPlayer in February 2021.
 

Curtis specialises in densely-packed stories about how power is structured, from how memory and history is manipulated by politicians in 1995’s “The Living Dead,” through the exploration of concepts of freedom in 2007’s “The Trap,” to how computers distorted our view of the world in 2011’s “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” From the feature film-length “Bitter Lake” (2015), which looked at the failure of the political good-versus-evil narrative, Curtis’s work was freed of the constrictions of TV schedules, free to flourish on the BBC iPlayer, telling stories bigger still: “HyperNormalisation” (2016) was a two hour, forty-minute film about how we reached where we are as a society today, and why we don’t know where to go next. 

 

These series and films mix sociology, politics, psychology, philosophy, along with eclectic uses of music and stock footage to support the narrative: Curtis has explained that his signature use of the latter, starting from 1992’s “Pandora’s Box,” came from trying to find a way of illustrating the concepts of rationalism and systems analysis found in that series, compounded by the twin threats to a filmmaker of desperation and deadlines. Watching films by Curtis can be intoxicating in the conviction with which his narratives are told, and with the inspiration in the visuals chosen, but you can also see how his work inspired similar videos on various subjects on YouTube and other video services, as stock footage libraries and professional video editing become ever more accessible. 

 

Lasting seven hours over six parts, the last running for two hours, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” is billed as an emotional history of our times, about how power shifted from the old ruling classes and elites towards individuals, and how this shift created its own set of problems. The lives of individuals like Jiang Qing, the single-minded Chinese actress who became wife of Mao Zedong and chief of Chinese propaganda; Michael X, an enforcer for a London slumlord who became a Black revolutionary; and Julia Grant, a transgender woman whose transition challenged the medical gatekeeping of her time. Good or bad, they were out on their own by necessity, and despite the system. 

 

Watching all six parts of the series is overwhelming – I am supposed to be sceptical of grand narratives like the one weaved by Curtis through these episodes, building a picture of a world that has lost its way, but the central premise of the series is that it is not clear where we are going, so having Curtis attempt to untangle the threads, building on both the themes and the weight of his previous work, is welcome. I get the feeling that the final two-hour episode was originally envisaged to be the whole story, but you realise the magnitude of events being weaved together required the previous five hours of explanation first. My takeaway from it was that revolution is not possible because the world has been made too complex to understand in a predictable way, and that while using computers made the complexity more manageable, it rendered consciousness essentially useless – you can see the world how you want, but it won’t make any difference. This is where populism and social media could then exploit “high-arousal” emotions in people, like outrage and suspicion. Anything can be made to be anything, and societies have become exhausted.

 

I was grateful for two examples of human gullibility, excavated and woven into the narrative, that I should have framed: “Operation Mindfuck,” the thought experiment that placed a fake letter in “Playboy” magazine about the conspiracy theory of the Illuminati, because an 18th century Austrian society being in charge of the world today was supposed to be transparently a silly thing to believe; and that the imagery of the Ku Klux Klan was not only a fictional creation from the novel on which the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) was based, but that the novels of Sir Walter Scott that inspired that imagery was itself fictional.   

 

It is hard to expect a documentary series to provide answers for how we should get out of the hole that has been described, but “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” makes clear that whatever comes next, especially after the catastrophe of Covid-19, will be something we have to think about, and whether individualism is something stays or melts back into society, we may have more reason to be confident about making those decisions than we thought. 

 

The series is a towering achievement for Adam Curtis, not least because of its size and ambition, but also because it feels like the climax of the stories he has told across the last three decades. It is also telling that BBC Three, the online channel for which the series was nominally made, has been chosen to return as a regular over-the-air TV channel from January 2022, as if the stories told for it need to be seen as widely as possible. I suspect Curtis is already looking for what that next story will be.

 

The series ends with the line chosen to begin it, written in Curtis’s customary bold Arial font, from the anthropologist David Graeber, from his book “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”: “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.” I have a copy of that book, so I should perhaps read it again.