Tag Archives: stardom/fandom

Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?


Right, another quick film review then. We went to see “Chevolution” the other night, a documentary about the famous photograph of Che Guevara. The film does a fairly good job delivering the historic facts about the picture’s origins (it was taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz in 1960) and how it became the most reproduced photograph of a human being. Unfortunately, some of the people asked to comment on the image’s cultural and political significance are not doing a very good job at that and rather deliver some lofty polemics. Here are some of the deeper insights I distilled from “Chevolution”. Continue reading

Big Brother and the “people like you and me” genre


When I came to the UK last year, the TV show “Big Brother” was already ailing, it seemed. After ten seasons or so, the country had lost interest in the idea of locking up a bunch of ever more quirky human beings to broadcast their attempts to kill time. As a last outburst – as a Big Brother supernova, if you like – the media had just squeezed every last drop of news value from the death of Jade Goody, the most famous Big Brother candidate in the UK. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 announced that it will discontinue the show in 2010.

It seemed to me that Big Brother passed away rather quietly – no uproar, no vociferous calls for five more seasons, just a few flashbacks to the most unforgettable moments. But Big Brother certainly deserves some credit. If it didn’t invent it, the program definitely popularized the “people like you and me”-genre. It was the epitome of Andy Warhol’s prediction that we shall all enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, in some cases converting these into 15 minutes of shame.

Now, if we say that people got tired of Big Brother, did they also get tired of the “people like you and me” genre? I would love to say that the answer is “yes”. After ten seasons or so, we came to realize that it’s boring to watch other people going about their day-to-day life. In fact, it would be nice to say that we rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be and that we no longer need the distraction of watching locked-up Big Brother candidates.

Unfortunately, there’s only little evidence that we got tired of the “people like you and me” genre. In fact, it appears to me that we got bored with Big Brother because it wasn’t Big Brother enough… if you know what I mean. How cumbersome to put people in a house for three months until they finally perform something worth broadcasting. How constraining that all those moral conventions of regulated mainstream media still apply. Big Brother was only the beginning, not the end, of the 15-minutes-of-fame culture.

The irony of it all is that we have indeed rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be – and how fun it is to share them with everybody out there. Instead of one Big Brother, we now have millions of little brothers all filming and broadcasting themselves. It is easy and tempting to apply a strict moral judgment on this trend; one that condemns the shameless self-promotion and exhibitionism. But it is equally possible to herald Youtube videos as a form of cultural expression and identity-shaping self-representation. I postpone this debate until the next pub visit later.

Brüno and the not so terrifying terrorist

I always thought that the movie Brüno was a very ambivalent kind of thing. The people I watched it with definitely got a lot of laughs out of it. You have to admit, with the brain switched off, it’s quite entertaining. No? Fine, some found it boring at best.

Now, with the brain switched on, I had some trouble making up my mind. Either, the movie was great because it revealed people’s intolerance, immorality, stupidity, and so on. Or, it actually ridiculed gays and their efforts to be accepted as equal members of society. Either, Sacha Baron Cohen was a genius in pulling off these controversial characters, or he was just comfortably riding on Hollywood’s PR and marketing machinery.

The latest revelations about the making of the film certainly tipped the scale in favor of the negative point of view. Watching the movie, I was convinced some of the parts were staged. Fair enough. Turns out, they were not only staged, but the producers and Cohen tricked people into the interviews with Bruno by giving them false and misleading information. Okay, not so cool. But I guess we all knew that somehow…

What I didn’t know was that Cohen also publicly lied about how they shot some of the scenes, in particular the part with the alleged terrorist. On the Letterman show (see below), he described in all sincerity how they had to go through the CIA to find him and deploy bodyguards when interviewing him. Not really, sorry.

According to The Guardian the “terrorist”, named Ayman Abu Aita, is “a Christian Fatah representative – of the movement’s political wing, he stresses – for Bethlehem district. He is also a member of the board of the Holy Land trust, a non-profit organisation that works on Palestinian community-building.” The article goes on to tell quite a different story about how the interview came about.

After that, I find it hard to see anything but a well-staged PR and marketing campaign in Brüno. Some may think, “I hate to say I told you so…”

When Jack Bauer is using a computer…

Watching the TV series 24 is good fun. At least for me it is. One thing that always cracks me up is the way Jack Bauer and all the other good and bad guys are using computers. I have two questions: Why don’t they ever just use some Windows/Linux/Mac OS application? And if you’re working for the FBI, what operating systems are they running? Does anybody know?

The first thing you have to notice about the stuff on their screens is how flashy and shiny it is. Objects are flying all over the place, numbers and other symbols are steadily moving up and down in the background, everything is at least 3-D. No developer would ever do this to the system’s resources, especially when it’s purpose is to search through millions of fingerprint records as fast as possible. Such an interface is also highly distracting. They must all be dizzy at the end of the day.

The second thing that’s so fantastic about their interfaces is how they depict the operations that are carried out. Let’s say somebody has to crack some crazy file encryption. The screen then shows a billion symbols or so that are supposed to look like something is being matched up or calculated, much like the Matrix code. The same with database searches, for example for fingerprints. What database would visually fly through all its records until returning the correct entry? My favorite is deleting stuff. Files are actually really wiped off the hard drive in front of the user and the audience, illustrated by some fading icon…

I’m sure there’s tons of information out there about the way computers (and technology in general) are shown in pop culture. The big question is where the people making these movies and series get their ideas from and how their ideas shape the way computers actually develop.

Anyways, this is a nice list of computer usability bloopers in TV/cinema. And here’s an interesting interview with some industry people who actually design these fake interfaces. Any other information is highly appreciated!

Mediated Mourning

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

Don’t get me wrong. I did feel sad when I found out the King of Pop had passed away. I remember my sister and I singing along to his Best Of album for hours straight, or numerous attempted moon walks after a few beers or so (no, none of this is on Youtube… at least I hope not).

Following the news in the days after his death, I was continuously assured that I wasn’t alone in my grief. Rather, the entire world was mourning with me. If the media’s job is to tell me what’s going on around the world, then there wasn’t anything else going on at all. In that sense, MJ’s death is the best thing that could have happened to the regime in Iran.

We are currently witnessing a so-called “media event” – something nearly everybody in society (or nowadays in the world?) is following through the mass media – or maybe has to follow because there isn’t anything else on TV when they occur. There was no escaping Billie Jean when I drove home from Berlin this week.

I always thought the term “media event” is a strange one. It seems to imply that there are ordinary events, and then there are “media events”, which are somehow really, really important for everyone. But who says so? And are they really?

Supply, Demand

Of course, it’s not always easy to judge whether something qualifies as a media event or not. For me, maybe half a dozen come to mind for the last ten years or so (9/11, Diana’s funeral, Obama’s inauguration, etc.). However, if one carefully watches news programs (especially U.S. and tabloid-like ones), you quickly get the idea that they try to sell you some kind of media event all the time. Everything is “Breaking News”.

Hadley Freeman from The Guardian puts it very eloquently:

The 24-hour news culture and the explosion of the gossip magazine industry – both of which require either constant change or, more commonly, heightened emotion, combined with a fragmented media and the diminished importance of religion in most people’s lives – have made the idea of a collectively shared Big Moment more desired than ever (…).

He points out both the supply side and the demand side of media events, or “Big Moments”, as he calls them. On the supply side, the news industry loves Big Moments because they love the revenues viewers they attract. So they are more than happy to blow anything out of proportion that is remotely scandalous or newsworthy.

But maybe we, the audience, love media events as well. Indeed, we may need them as a society to maintain a sense of collectivity and integration. That’s just a fancy way of saying that it somehow makes us feel at home in society when everybody else is mourning too. Funerals bring families back together. This funeral is a massive media spectacle, but with similar social effects.

John Rash from AdvertisingAge reminisces about the power of Michael Jackson to bring people together, already long before his death. We all have our Michael Jackson memories (see mine above). Is there any artist or band today that may even dream about selling 50 million copies of a physical (!) record? Probably not. And why not? Because the market for music, news, and culture in general, is fragmented and individualized (think iPod). Rash puts it most polemically

[M]aybe, deep down, with shared cultural experiences also expiring, we’re also mourning because we miss each other.

“Am I part of the cure…?”

So everybody’s happy, right? The news industry attracts the viewers it needs and the audiences celebrate their societal reunion. We may well leave it at that. Or we can go get another coffee and use this Sunday morning to think about two more issues. Which is what I did.

Who decides whether something qualifies as a media event, i.e. as something everybody has to watch and that is worth changing the program or front page for?

9/11 was an obvious one. Obama was almost as obvious. He was elected American President. Still, his moment was somehow bigger that those of previous presidents. Lady Diana? Fair enough, she was Princess Diana and married to Charles. But that doesn’t really explain why her death was one of the biggest media events in recent years. Finally Michael. Although he was enormously talented and recorded some great music, we may still wonder where his big moment came from.

Here’s one explanation. Media events are events involving individuals/groups/objects/things that everybody in society can relate to, probably in some highly emotional way. And why can everybody relate to these things? Because they’ve been in the media all the time!

Michael was born through the media and lived through the media right until his death. That’s how we know him, that’s why we are united in his death. Obama’s moment was bigger, because he created more media attention than any president before him. Diana’s media event was what it was because every second of her life had been covered in celebrity magazines.

In other words, the news industry is responsible for the build-up of media events, it doesn’t just cover them when they take place. And it is guilty in a more general sense as well. Enabled by technology, it drives social fragmentation by catering to every single individual taste. We can use the media to construct our own personalized and customized world. Paradoxically, this makes the news industry and its media events both a disease and part of the cure.

A final note to all those out there who cannot relate to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. I’m sorry that you were completely forgotten for about two days or so. The news didn’t mention you and so you didn’t exist for a while. I’m even more sorry that everybody on TV probably made you feel really bad for not relating to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. That’s another thing about media events. Even if you never thought you cared about something – when it’s on TV 24/7, you think it’s time that you do.