#telosvision: rose-tinted window

while i

must admit that, unlike several people in my twitter stream (twitream), i have been quite enjoying Charlie Brooker’s well-observed if somewhat hyperbolic satire on current trends in entertainment, Black Mirror, in my opinion there was something else this week that provided an equal insight into the worrying nature of TV culture.

a few days ago, it emerged that some footage of a polar bear nursing her cubs that featured in an episode of the BBC’s latest flagship nature documentary, Frozen Planet, had been filmed in a Dutch wildlife park, and not in the Arctic, as viewers had ‘been lead to believe’.

despite the fact that the origin of the footage was documented in a ‘making of’ video posted on the series website, the response to the mass publicization of the ‘revelation’ in the press (and not just the trash rags) suggests that the incident has scandalised a significant section of the audience.

it doesn’t seem to matter that thanks to the editing work, the audience got to see an aspect of the lives of polar bears that would have been otherwise impossible to film without, as David Attenborough has pointed out, the mother killing either her cubs or the cameraman. the point of contention is that the audience was ‘left’ to assume that the footage was ‘genuine’.

the nature of outcry was perhaps best summarised by Conservative MP and chair of the Commons media select committee, John Whittingdale, who claimed that it would have been better for the series if (like all politicians always and everywhere) it had been ‘entirely open’ about the matter.

now the reason i think this story is so significant is not that it further evidences the tabloid obsession with stirring up anti-BBC (read ‘TV license’) foment, or that it demonstrates how worked-up some people will get about relatively trivial issues, or even that it suggests some worrying implications regarding how those in the government charged with over-seeing the media see the role of documentary film making – although those are all interesting and worrying aspects.

the reason i think this story significant is because it demonstrates very clearly how uneducated many people are about what television is and how it is made, and therefore how uncritical they are in their viewing of it.

in the earliest days, films consisted of one continuous shot captured by a single camera in a locked position running until its film ran out. There were no plots or actors; the simple ‘movements’ of everyday life (people or animals walking and running or buses and cars on the roads) were enough to captivate an audience.

as such, the first films made and shown were ‘documentaries’. part of the attraction of these reels of footage (which is obvious when you think about it) was the way in which life looked so different through the selective lens of the camera. film footage made the drab and ordinary, exciting.

despite its popularity, the scope for this new-found medium was very limited. that was until people began cutting film and splicing different sections together. not only did this increase the amount of time for which a film could run, it also allowed the possibility for story telling.

this profoundly important evolutionary stride is generally attributed to Edwin S. Porter, a former electrician who took a job at Thomas Adison’s film laboratory at the end of the nineteenth century. in Porter’s seminal 1903 film Life Of An American Fireman we see the realisation of some of the multitudinous possibilities that cut and splice editing allows:

a fireman on a ladder appears at the window of a smoke filled room. he lifts a woman through the window which is centre-screen, filmed straight-on. then, a cut, and we now see the fireman from the back, woman shouldered, descending the ladder.

this simple scene, and several others like it, shocked audiences – what kind of witchery was this?

soon a vocabulary of film-making emerged – a cut meant one of two things: 1. a change of perspective, or 2. a shift in time. cuts that showed a change of perspective would show the same event occurring from from a different angle. cuts that represented a shift in time showed the same subject(s) doing something else, which implied that time had passed.

as the use of this emerging vocabulary developed, the distinctions between the two blurred – a shot from a different perspective no longer showed the same thing happening again, but instead picked up the action from the new angle at the point in time that the cut occurred.

this innovation was key to the art. by no longer repeating the action when the camera moved, it became easier to create the illusion in the audience’s mind that there was only one camera; a single, but omni-present eye.

this feature of film-making remains essential to the medium. when swept-up in the world of a film, a modern audience no longer thinks of a cut as representing, in effect, a different perspective.

it’s an irony that early films used one camera but seemed like they were ‘seeing’ from many different perspectives, whereas modern films use several cameras to create the illusion of one, continuous perspective. but, of course, it’s not an illusion that we fully believe, is it?

to ‘play’ with cameras and cuts is fine in the context of drama, however, what the outcry about Frozen Planet suggests is that when it comes to documentary, much of the modern day audience are less sophisticated viewers than their nineteenth century equivalents.

although Edison’s audience marvelled at the novelty of the spectacle he created with his static, open camera, they were also entertained because they saw it as both familiar, and magical; unreal. Porter’s audience recognised this all the more once he learned to cut, rearrange and paste his film.

today, it seems, we have become so used to the tools of the film-maker’s trade that we are no longer aware of them. cuts are not magic tricks and cunning lies, but just ‘the way things are’. at the cinema, we still love to be taken in by the camera when it plays with and confounds our expectations – perhaps this cut means time went backwards, not forwards; maybe the person we’ve cut to from behind is not the same as the one we just saw from the front, etc.

it used to be, however, that a filmmaker achieved these results through a kind of agreement with the audience. this unspoken contract is often called ‘the suspension of disbelief’. this pact works because we, the audience, want to be entertained, and the filmmaker wants to entertain. what is more, both parties understand that this is impossible if the audience keeps what it knows about filmmaking and how editing works and so on at the forefront of its mind while it watches.

the Frozen Planet incident, however, suggests some worrying trends:

entertainment is so ubiquitous a goal in television that sections of the audience have got so used to suspending it, that they no longer start from a position of disbelief.

 we are losing sight of the fact that, as early cinema audiences so clearly recognised, even before you add cut-and-paste editing into the mix, reality is thoroughly different when viewed through a lens – or rather what we see through a lens is a different kind of reality (as Marshall McLuhan noted, “the medium is the message”).

audiences are increasingly essentialising TV along genre lines and in accordance with Modernist principles. i.e. if Sky+ says it is News or History, or Documentary then it will be ‘true’ and without ideological or other forms of bias, in a way that Drama or Entertainment might not be.

in 1985 Neil Postman wrote, in Amusing Ourselves To Death, that trends in the consumption and production of TV suggested that “culture-death is clear possibility”. while most of the time i try to hope that while sharp and timely, his perceptive critique has proved only partially true, every now and then i get the sense that it’s all worse than i care to believe.

yes, Charlie, a TV can be like a black mirror, reflecting back to us the full grotesqueness of our own appetites, but in order to recognise it as such, we’d have to turn it off. much of the time, however, it stays on and functions like a rose-tinted window on a world we increasingly believe is real.

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  • Comments (2)
    • TayabIqbal
    • December 13th, 2011

    There are too many sheople (people + sheep lol) that believe everything they read! It makes me so mad!

    It’s like, why can’t everything be completely real and true like Eastenders!

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