There’s a fascinating new long read What the Fluck just posted by Adam Curtis.
Every month or so there is a new scandal - mass snooping by the NSA, allegations of price-fixing by giant energy companies, major banks corruptly rigging interest rates, giant modern bureaucracies like Serco and G4S ripping off the taxpayer, children’s entertainers from the past charged with sexual abuse.
But these stories never seem to add up to a bigger picture. They are isolated events . And our reaction is always the same - shock and horror, and then it all subsides and we are ready to be shocked and horrified when the next scandal comes along.
It’s like a ritualised dance - or the surprised kitty.
I’m only halfway through, but it’s awesome in the typical Adam Curtis way. A fantastic sprawling interconnected weird hot mess of a story. Always wanted to call something a hot mess.
Commit to reading it on your computer so you can watch the videos.
Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s new film Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself.
Synopsis: George Plimpton hung out with U.S. Presidents, played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, forced Willie Mays to pop out in Yankee Stadium, photographed Playboy models, was named the “Most Eligible Bachelor in Manhattan” by Esquire Magazine, played goalie for the Boston Bruins, struck the triangle for the New York Philharmonic and acted alongside John Wayne, Warren Beatty and Matt Damon. Some of these things he did well. Some he didn’t. But they were always amusing and inspiring. Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is a film that joyfully celebrates a life lived fully, richly and strangely. In fact, for many, it’s difficult to imagine this life was lived by just one man.
Vice magazine recently interviewed one of my all time favourite filmakers Adam Curtis. I love that in his stories he makes totally original and creative connections and parallels, like no other journalist. It helps that he’s funny too.
VICE: So, as you see it, there is a basic failure in the way news has been reporting on the modern planet. Is there something inherently difficult about this?
Adam Curtis: Well, yes, what I’m talking about is three things: finance, computers and management theory. They shape people’s lives these days, yet they are absolutely unstoryfiable – you cannot turn them into a story. No one’s really found a way to describe this odd world we live in. I mean, I live in Holborn and every day I go to the BBC I see these waves of people going into offices and I know they’re going to spend their time in front of their computers being told, “If you like this then you’ll like that,” and being managed by all these systems. No one’s really found a way of describing that world to those people. And that’s what journalism should be doing. It really should.
Can you give me an example of how it’s failed?
There was this enormous financial crisis in 2008, which I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of. I don’t understand it. I don’t believe I’ve been told what has really happened because all I’ve heard are stories full of jargon about “collateralised obligations”. So I just feel lost. I’m lost in a world built from the jargon and terminology of the system of thinking that actually gave us the crisis in the first place, which is economics.
And this has neutered the abilities of journalists to explain the world to us?
Yes. I think it’s a real phenomenon of our time. The way power works has shifted into areas that journalism hasn’t found a way of explaining. It hasn’t found a way of pulling back and showing it to you in ways that haven’t been captured by the mindset of the people who are inside that thing. We did it with politics very well from the 1960s onwards. Starting with the New Journalism of the early 60s, which you would call immersionist journalism, people got in and found ways of describing what was going on in politics in a way that the politicians couldn’t capture.
How do you mean?
Well, you could pull back as if in a helicopter and look at them and go, “Look, they’re like that.” People sort of did the same with science, so you can pull back and still see it in a social context. But now it’s almost like we’re inside the machine and we can’t pull out and see it. I think news is really stuck.
OK, so when did this all start happening?
The early 90s. I’m quite interested in researching this at the moment. It’s partly due to the rise of 24-hour news in the 80s and it’s partly down to one married couple, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda is responsible for the VHS revolution through her workout videos and Ted Turner invented 24-hour news [with CNN]. Turner’s big idea was that he would get rid of those posh BBC reporters, who spent two weeks putting together pieces on what’s happening in Cyprus or wherever. He would get rid of that because it was boring and he was absolutely right. He exchanged it for this sense of immediacy, that stuff just happens. And that’s the thing of our time, stuff happens – it just does. No one has a sense of what’s coming these days, no one has a sense of the future. Turner openly said that what he wanted to shift news away from is the idea of packaged analysis and move it towards a sense of immediate experience. CNN did this very well at the beginning, then the Cold War came to an end and it all got a bit complicated.
You’ve talked before about how the end of the Cold War destroyed news narratives to such a point that everything got confused.
All the institutions that grew up within the Cold War, like the spies and the security agencies and the politicians, they suddenly didn’t know what was going on. So you get a simplification of the world, which comes from this lack of comprehension. You get these two-dimensional villains like Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi, these dark forces. And the journalists begin to describe the world as being full of rogue states, sadistic dictators, drug smugglers, paedophiles and human traffickers. You get this simplified but frightening world where all these shadowy figures just make things happen. That takes you through the 90s and then what happens is September 11, which seems to prove that all of that is absolutely true, and that there really are dark forces out there. And that’s why the VICE generation are apocalyptic and frightened. They have a vision of a dark, shadowy world which they can’t quite explain.
So how does the way the news is reported reflect my generation?
Well, the great wonder of our time is also a disease of our time: the desire to experience things for ourselves. It’s just the thing at the moment, what we don’t want is to be told stuff. We don’t like elites any longer because we’re all like each other. We want to know it ourselves, we want to feel it. It’s partly due to the rise of individualism. But what we get to is what I call the “duchess paradox”, where everyone is now a duchess in society. The real problem with that is that if you’re all duchesses then what’s the point of being a duchess? Everyone’s a celebrity now. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, they want to be treated like celebrities. They want to go to spas, they want to get married in big, posh houses. People will pay for VIP tickets to concerts. It’s extraordinary. Everyone is desperately searching for where it’s at. The point is there is nowhere it’s at – “it” simply just doesn’t exist. It’s the great tragedy for that generation: they just want to experience something.
There’s a compilation of his scarce interviews over the past few years here.
In 1959, white novelist John Howard Griffin began taking the drug Oxsoralen, which, in combination with sunlamp exposure, turned his skin black. No other alteration to his appearance was necessary, apart from shaving his head. He had become, to all eyes, a black man. Essentially, he had changed race for his career.
Griffin traveled through the Deep South of the United States with the aim of discovering what it was like to be black. A Texan by birth, he had been taught by society that black people were different and inferior. A variety of experiences – ranging from smuggling Jews to safety with the French Resistance, to suffering from years of blindness after being struck by shrapnel in WWII – had a profound effect on him. What’s more, Griffin began to question whether racism was merely a “Southern problem,” or if it was, as he had come to believe, a “human problem.”
For a month, Griffin got a close-up look at how black people were treated. He called it “a dirty bath” of hatred. His book, Black Like Me, documented his journey and saw him receive death threats from some of his fellow white men. He was even hanged in effigy.
Go read the story of another nine of the most courageous undercover journalists
This is a great little article from the excellent photojournalism blog No Caption Needed
The Everydayness of War
Posted by Lucaites
I was having a conversation with a former student recently who was exasperated by the fact that the war in Afghanistan, approaching its twelfth anniversary, is the longest American history and yet it is rarely on the front pages of our newspapers and but for the occasional report of U.S. troops being killed—usually in small numbers—there is hardly any public debate or discussion about it. And the question, of course, is why? Why is it that a war that is costing us roughly $100 billion a year, and has taken nearly 2,000 American lives, while wounding another 15,000 seems to have no traction in the public consciousness?
I thought of this question when I came across this photograph circulating in a number of different slideshows this past week. The scene is from Syria, not Afghanistan, but what makes the image distinctive is the way in which it frames the act of war in an ordinary and everyday environment. The soldier here is a sniper, but he doesn’t wear a uniform, dressed instead in a camouflage vest that covers what appears to be athletic running gear. He is not on a conventional battlefield, but rather in what appears to be someone’s living room. And he has converted the equipment of everyday life into weapons of death as he perches himself on a couch and uses seat cushions and pillows to balance and aim his high powered rifle. Curtains seem to provide him with a modicum of cover. And more, he exudes an uncanny nonchalance, simultaneously focused on the task before him and yet altogether relaxed. Notice for example how he holds his cigarette while adjusting his scope, implicitly dividing his attention between the two. War for him has become routine, neither here nor there, a condition of everyday life that can’t be ignored and so becomes commonplace, part and parcel of living in a constant zone of conflict.
There is no parallel to this image or the experience it represents in the United States. The wars we have been fighting in the Middle East over the past eleven years are wars fought at a distance. We are typically reminded about them only when someone we know is directly affected by them—killed or maimed—but even then for most of us the effect tends to be temporary as we mourn our loss and then quickly return to going about our lives without any serious concerns for our immediate personal safety. In short, these wars have not become part of our everyday being. And as such, they become too easy to forget, or worse, to ignore.
Photo Credit: Goran Tomasevich/Reuters
The film follows veteran reporter Sergio Haro and his colleagues at Zeta, a Tijuana, Mexico-based weekly, as they dauntingly ply their trade in what has become one of the most deadly places in the world to be a journalist.
Since the paper’s founding in 1980, two of the paper’s editors have been murdered and the founder viciously attacked. Despite the attacks, the paper has continued its singular brand of aggressive investigative reporting, frequently tackling dangerous subjects that other publications avoid, such as cartels’ infiltration of political circles and security forces.
Human Rights Watch has documented an alarming rise in attacks and threats against journalists and human rights defenders in the context of Mexico’s “war on drugs,” virtually none of which are adequately investigated. Human Rights Watch’s most recent report on Mexico—Neither Rights Nor Security—documents killings, disappearances, and torture committed by security forces in five of the Mexican states most-affected by drug-related violence, including Baja California, where Zeta is published. Several of the cases of torture documented by Human Rights Watch in Tijuana were covered in the pages of Zeta.
FJP: If you’re in New York, the Human Rights Watch film festival runs from June 14 to June 28. Information about this and other films is here.
I present a Louis Theroux Masterclass at Docville Documentary Film Festival in Leuven, Belgium from the 4th May 2012. It’s basically just a hilarious 90 minute interview. If you’re not familiar with him then you’re missing out, a good place to start is the UFO Weird Weekends.
This guy is a world class ruler. Integrity, balls and a fantastic sense of humour.
Last night a new BBC2 documentary aired entitled Twilight of the Porn Stars in which he revisits the pornstars from his previous 1998 documentary. I’ll post it when it crops up. You can read a related article that he wrote for the Guardian here.
Your Front Page, In Binary
The New Zurich Times (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), one of Europe’s oldest newspapers, celebrates its move to bring the entirety of its content online by publishing the front page of its print edition in binary.