Culture Industry and Spectacle

In October of 2010 I was part of a group of scholars who undertook an event ethnography of WildScreen International Film Festival in Bristol, UK. The festival bills itself as the “most influential and prestigious event of its kind in the world”. It was a unique and refreshing experience, unique because it was the first time I conducted field work in a context of exuberance and excitement (though there was a fair amount of desperation if one took the trouble to look), and refreshing because many of the people at the event were excited to be studied and welcomed critical feedback about what they were getting up to there. Also they liked to talk … a lot. They seemed into having us around.

One of the things that jumped out of the general exuberance on the first day was a commitment to fostering positive social and environmental change. The festival organizers presented an apparently simple formula for making this happen: “entertain to inspire.” Inspiration, they further reasoned, could be a catalyst for positive action.

As appealing as this formula appeared at first blush, the details of how it might actually work proved consistently elusive. One of the questions that members of our group asked repeatedly throughout the event was how people knew that this formula was actually working. We asked it to representatives and agents of various production companies, television channels, NGO leaders, and film makers. We also asked to panels of experts called “Movers and Shakers,” which included commissioners from National Geographic Wild and a variety of high level European television channels, as well as famous wildlife film presenters. The standard response we received was generally something like: “we know that we are succeeding in entertaining people, because our ratings are good; we know that we inspire people because we get so many e-mails from young people saying that they want to be just like us (part two of this response most often came from presenters).” How did they know that this entertaining and inspiring was leading to positive action? Most respondents left this last part of the question alone or responded with something vague and optimistic.

But not everyone was convinced by these sentiments. A particularly outspoken participant was Richard Brock, a former producer for the BBC who has worked with David Attenborough, and who has started a program called the Brock Initiative to support grassroots film makers as a means of bringing about genuine and effective conservation. Brock adamantly and repeatedly reminded participants of the need to use film and television as “a political tool,” to expose hypocrisy and injustice done in the name of the environment and conservation. Though he was the most vocal proponent of such approaches, I found that a number of film makers were experimenting with a variety of techniques to realize the goal of bringing about positive socio-environmental transformations through film. In  the course of the event I also noted a number of fundamental challenges/obstacles that film makers were struggling to overcome in an effort to actualize the imperative of catalyzing/fostering positive environmental action.

The first had to do with the political economy of natural history film in the context of television — especially cable television and all the viewing options it offers. These challenges included the costs of actually making the films, both in terms of time and money. Film makers who make cheaper films that are still entertaining to audiences will often have a competitive advantage over those who make expensive films, especially those that challenge audiences with complex arguments and ideas. In competing with other film makers and television channels it is necessary to consider who is making similar films their schedule for finishing. At the same time it is necessary to consider the intertwined elements of audience attention spans (how can you keep people from changing the channel) and time slots (how much time is available and at what time of day). When large numbers of viewers are consuming entertainment as a form of escape (as opposed to engagement) these considerations create considerable pressures to present films that are pleasant and non-confrontational, with enough variety to offer choices but similar enough to one another that those choices are predictable, and presented in sound bites that will snag channel surfers and that can easily be broken up to accommodate commercial presentations.

In addition to these structural constraints, which have intensified considerably in recent years, it is important to also consider the nature of film itself and its relationship to established presentations of nature to western audiences. As Guy Debord argued, mass media technologies are particularly effective means of alienating and fetishizing just about anything, nature included. This is precisely because they decontextualize that which they present, such that its wider context can be ignored or actively erased. Certain bits can be isolated and amplified such that they appear as the total, while other bits (usually those that are unpleasant or challenging) can be systematically hidden from view. The result is that we are repeatedly presented with versions of nature that are almost always exciting and beautiful, and therefore both comforting and entertaining. The story of this nature and our relationship to it, is commonly mediated either by an invisible narrator — like James Earl Jones —  or a charismatic presenter — like David Attenborough and George McGavin. Any problems or threats that we may see in these presentations generally appear amenable to technical solutions, which can be supported by green consumption and/or charitable giving. Rarely are audience members themselves implicated in these problems.

While the constraints I have just outlined have been noted in a number of scholarly works, they were also clearly articulated by many of the people we talked to in the course of our research. Among the most interesting film makers, with whom we interacted, were those who were approaching their craft in ways designed to circumvent or transcend such constraints. Patrick Rouxel, whose film Green one the award for the best film at the festival, was notable among them. My reflections on Green are informed primarily by my own observations of the film, followed by a question and answer session with Patrick following an encore screening.  My main insights are informed by Debord’s argument that spectacle and its insidious effects can only be countered through and with spectacle, but only a spectacle that accounts for and reveals the conditions of its own production. I recognize that Green is a uniquely experimental film, the impacts of which are difficult to know. However, it is an experiment that will be important to watch and support. Not only does it reveal some of the conditions of its own production, but it challenges audiences to consider and feel their connections to those conditions — as both perpetrators and victims (the lines between which it renders difficult to discern).

For me an especially notable aspect of Green is that it flies in the face of profit motives and the related dynamics I have outlined above. Rouxel can afford to challenge his audiences precisely because he gives the film away. It can be downloaded from his web site, as well viewed on You Tube. He distributes DVD’s of the film for free. The difference can be felt in the unique aesthetic and feel of the film, which I suspect is a large part of the reason that it won the prize for best film. I encourage readers to Green themselves to see what I am talking about, as I only present the broad strokes here.

First of all the film moves quite slowly and without narration. In the absence of all the usual noise and motion I found myself paying far more attention to the details, which in many cases were extraordinary.  Things were much less straightforward than I was accustomed to in watching nature films. Beauty and ugliness were rendered simultaneous, as in a particularly memorable scene in which leaves from chain sawed trees floated gently through suddenly resplendent sunlight. In the place of narration I variously found myself identifying with the Orangutan (actually a composite of several) and human consumers whose actions connected and contributed to the destruction the film portrays. I found these techniques remarkably effective. They moved me to feel and think about nature in ways that I never had (the opposite of what nature films usually do).

My usual self would be critiquing the use of an iconic and anthropomorphic animal, and a composite one at that, as the main mediator in the film. But I found myself disinclined to feel and think this way. Instead I found this choice eminently appropriate and effective. The perceived likeness of the Orangutan to me allowed me to identify with her plight. For instance, anyone who has ever been in the hospital or otherwise found themselves at the mercy of strangers (not all of them nice) will be like to experience a deep visceral reaction to moments in this film. Watching orangutans cling to the last standing tree, and later wandering through a desolate landscape separated from loved ones, I could not help but remember how I felt watching footage of Katrina in 2005. Yet, at the same time, I was aware that Green was not human and that the empathy I felt for her could also extend to more than human nature. This had been something that I understood intellectually for some time, but this was the first time that I can recall experiencing on a more visceral and emotional level.

Next, I appreciate the techniques whereby Rouxel connected different industries and kinds of consumption to these various emotional experiences. As Jamie Lorimer points out in his piece on these web site, some of these techniques were from a standard documentary style. At the same time, however, they seemed less accusatory and judgmental to me than I am normally accustomed. Having identified with Green, I later found myself identifying with an attendant at the Orangutan rescue (essentially a hospital) who was reading a magazine, just after watching a sequence connecting deforestation, to the paper pulp industry, to urban consumerism, to books and magazines. I found this sequence especially effective at revealing the paradoxes of spectacular production, as one of its shots featured a shelf of glossy coffee table books focusing on Orangutans as an endangered species. Then here was a well intended individual working to save Orangutans, while engaging consumption implicated in their demise. I found that I was able to identify with him, and the other consumers in the sequence, as well as I had indentified with Green in previous scenes.

My feelings during this scene were reinforced when Rouxel later explained that his motivation for making the film was his own culpability as a consumer, but that making the film in no way absolved him. All this resonates strongly with my convictions that we are enmeshed in environmental problems that concern us all in ways that need to be more complexly understood and felt.

Those who are familiar with my writing could attest that it is not normally this positive or enthusiastic. And I wish to be clear here that I have no illusions about Green and similar projects. I agree with many of the critiques that appear on this web site and that I heard at Wild Screen in the wake of the film’s award. On its own, I am certain that the impacts of Green would be relatively minimal. Nevertheless, I am excited by the potential collaborations, education, and movements its experiments portend. For me these experiments reveal careful and intentional engagements with constraints and connections not normally engaged. Taken together with complementary experiments and understandings, the potential impact of the film could be significantly amplified. I am thinking specifically of Dan Brockington’s points on this site about the paradoxes of big conservation, corporations, and deforestation — and Jamie Lorimer’s concerns about Rouxel’s presentations of the rainforest as an a-social space.

Rather than seeing these concerns as antagonistic to Rouxel’s film,  I imagine possible ways in which they could strengthen and broaden what could be taught, learned, and done with Green. I believe that the spirit of intentional experimentation that made Green so meaningful for me could be taken even further in these kinds of collaborations. This kind of opening and connecting, I am almost certain, will be essential to creating spaces and possibilities for people to learn and feel the connections and contradictions of global capitalism’s ongoing and intensifying environmental crisis. Such learning and feeling, I am also almost certain, will be essential to countering this crisis in creative and equitable ways. Green is of course a drop in the bucket, but it is a uniquely tangible drop, one that offers a lot to learn and feel.