Monthly cultural round up: August

This month’s culture quota was added to by a week at home with a dodgy neck, which included a trip to the Dendy Premium as a place where I could be reclined for two hours while the cleaner came. It is a hard life sometime.

Movies

The Ghost Writer I knew very a little about the film going in, but it was the film which was on at Dendy Premium at the most convenient time, so I went and saw it. Having Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams (who I completely love as Adelle DeWitt)  in it certainly gave it a good start, and it must be said that I do love a good suspense thriller. Not quite Hitchcock, but entertaining enough and beautifully filmed. it did have that vague sense of confusion and unease which we like to see in a good thriller, if ultimately it wasn’t quite as thrilling as it could be. Disposable entertainment, but enjoyable.

Books

Interface Neal Stephenson and Frederick George This was a reread, and it was entertaining to read it as the Australian election was going on. Even though it was written quite some years ago, many of the ideas are still very current, and, during this election, the whole question of the entirely focus-grouped campaign was very relevant. The book handled the transition between humour and politics and drama well, and is quite a compelling read. Didn’t suffer from a re-read.

Imperial Bedrooms Brett Easton Ellis This took me very little time to read and I enjoyed it the way one “enjoys” Brett Easton Ellis. Suffused with paranoia and nihilism, it was a sketch of a person with no moral centre, and selfishness to the core. Reading it felt like slipping back into a very familiar yet totally alien world. Understanding it is enhanced by having read his other books, not for actual events, but for the emotional tone.

Television

Dead Set This was absolutely wonderful television, clever, funny, scary, dramatic, well acted and well scripted. We watched the entire series in one sitting and then watch a bunch of the extras on the DVD, something we rarely do. The characterisations were great, and I thought it was interesting that in the end it was the women who were the strongest and most decisive characters. A must see for zombie fans, and for anyone who enjoys excellent television and can cope with a bit of gore.

Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.

We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.

Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.

While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….

So what’s it about now?

Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….

All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.