Canadian Literature (a quarterly) highlights “Recasting History: How CBC Television Has Shaped Canada’s Past” (2019); at this post I also discuss Peter Watkins’ take on film language

Update: At the current post I discuss comments from the British documentary filmmaker Peter Watkins concerning the effect of contemporary film language on people’s view of life.

I think what Watkins says makes good sense.

The fact his views do not have a lot of traction among academics involved with study of film history is irrelevant.

Watkins’s discussion brings to mind a May 12, 2020 BBC article entitled: “How the news changes the way we think and behave: The latest research suggests that the news can shape us in surprising ways – from our perception of risk to the content of our dreams, to our chances of having a heart attack.”

This is a most interesting article.

I’ve never watched a lot of news video of any kind. I’ve never watched a lot of television possibly because I did not grow up with television as a formative experience during childhood and adolescence.

It may be the case that my brain is not wired for watching television and movies.

An excerpt from the above-noted BBC article (I have omitted embedded links in the excerpt) reads:

It turns out that news coverage is far more than a benign source of facts. From our attitudes to immigrants to the content of our dreams, it can sneak into our subconscious and meddle with our lives in surprising ways. It can lead us to miscalculate certain risks, shape our views of foreign countries, and possibly influence the health of entire economies. It can increase our risk of developing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression. Now there’s emerging evidence that the emotional fallout of news coverage can even affect our physical health – increasing our chances of having a heart attack or developing health problems years later.

[End of update]


A previous post is entitled:

Recasting History (2019) features informative analysis of CBC profiles of Canadian history

Recently I came across a review of the above-noted book at the Canadian Literature website.

Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review describes itself, at its ‘About’ page at its website, as “an academic quarterly that publishes peer-reviewed scholarly articles in French or English related to the field of Canadian literature, broadly defined.”

A recent review at the Canadian Literature website (accessed on March 2, 2020) is entitled: “CBC’s Canadian History.”

The review, which I read with much interest, highlights Recasting History: How CBC Television Has Shaped Canada’s Past (2019), published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (purchase at

The author of Recasting History is Monica MacDonald; the review is by Sherrill E. Grace.

I’ve provided a link to the website because, as the Canadian Literature website notes, “Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.”

The link says “” but it takes you to a page on (not However, at the top left of the site there’s a note that says: “Deliver to Canada.”

An excerpt from the review reads:

The trajectory MacDonald charts follows the evolving mandate of the CBC over almost fifty years and illustrates changing approaches to historiography and the rise of professional journalists who gradually took over the telling of our history from academic historians.

As the review notes, Recasting History is a fine study of the history of CBC history programming over a span of close to fifty years. It’s a book that warrants a close read.

Peter Watkins

Monica MacDonald in Recasting History refers to the work of the British filmmaker Peter Watkins. I was most interested to read MacDonald’s account of Watkins’ approach to filmmaking, and of his views about Canada: A People’s History. I was intrigued to learn, through online reading, that his work has been well received by some and adamantly ignored by others.

A November 2008 Atlantic article is entitled: “He Saw It Coming: The forgotten filmmaker who anticipated our modern media madness.”

An excerpt reads:

Watkins specializes in historical and current-affairs re-creations, but his real subject has always been the media—and on that subject he is a startlingly current filmmaker, even though almost a decade has passed since his last film. To the degree that he is known for anything, it is for a 50-minute film he made in 1965 called The War Game, which was underwritten by the BBC, then buried for 20 years, most likely at the behest of 10 Downing Street. A fictional account of a nuclear war’s consequences for the United Kingdom, The War Game tracks the conflict from its first horrifying impact on the county of Kent, through to the spread of disease and starvation, and finally to the breakdown of civil order and the imposition of quarantine and martial law. The BBC, in justifying its refusal to air the film, stated: “The effect of the film has been judged too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.”

I was interested to read Monica MacDonald’s account of Culloden (1964), one of Watkins’ history-related films. It’s a film that CBC producers have studied as part of their research as MacDonald has noted.

Peter Watkins has a website which you can find it through a browser search.

I am pleased to share the following except (the opening paragraphs of a longer piece) from the site:


The Global Media Crisis – Peter Watkins

The following statement is the first of two parts. It is specifically concerned with the language form of the mass audiovisual media – i.e., the use by the MAVM of a repetitive, standardized structure, and abbreviated time and space, to control the audience. I am concentrating on this little debated aspect of the media first, because it has played an essential role in developing the narrative structure which has been in place, and enforced, since the birth of the cinema. It is my contention that had we acknowledged and critically confronted this Monoform language decades ago, we would probably not be where we are today – in the grip of the relentlessly abbreviated MAVM and so-called ‘social media’.

Part II will discuss aspects of the new technology (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and their subterranean relationship – in combination with the MAVM – to the increasing acceptance of global authoritarianism and the rise of populism. Part II will also introduce some thoughts on the role of the print media in the growing crisis, and critical research by the French author Juliette Volcler on the growing (mis) use of SOUND, including by the mass media. It will also present alternative media education principles and practices, and a number of references to supportive voices for my own work over the past 50 years.

By the ‘global media crisis’ I mean a composite of issues relating to the standardization of the mass audiovisual media, which began early in the 20th century with the development of the language form used by Hollywood to narrate and structure cinema films. This language form, which fundamentally has never changed, was adopted by international TV in the 1950s and is now taken on by the internet, YouTube, social media, etc.

In the mid-1970s, during summer courses at Columbia University in New York City, a group of students and I studied and specified the characteristics of this uniform and repetitive language form which frames almost the entire output of the MAVM. We called it the Monoform.

With few exceptions, the Hollywood Monoform has been adopted by virtually all creators of commercial films, most documentary films, and by all aspects of television production including news broadcasting. This global adoption of one language form – in effect a standardization of the mass audiovisual media – is a central issue of the media crisis. It means, for example, that a documentary film can basically have much the same form and narrative structure as a Netflix drama series.

The Monoform is like a time-and-space grid clamped down over all the various elements of any film or TV programme. This tightly constructed grid promotes a rapid flow of changing images or scenes, constant camera movement, and dense layers of sound. A principal characteristic of the Monoform is its rapid, agitated editing, which can be identified by timing the interval between edited shots (or cuts), and dividing the number of seconds into the overall lengthof the film. In the 1970s, the Average Shot Length for a cinema film (or documentary, or TV news broadcast) was approximately 6-7 seconds, today the commercial ALS is probably circa 3-4 seconds, and decreasing. [1]

It is my belief that the excessive demands of these flashing images on our emotional and intellectual responses can lead to blurred distinctions between themes, and to a confusion in selecting and prioritizing our reactions (e.g., to the news scene of a bleeding body in a bombed area in Syria, which is followed by a commercial message, and sooner of later, by the image of a similarly bleeding body in a film or TV drama, etc.).

Despite academic claims that audiences have become ‘media literate’, the standardized rate at which audiovisual information is delivered is probably far too swift to be properly managed by the brain, which has to digest and process the rapid and continual change of visual (and audio) information from one scene to the next, and to the next, and to the next, and so on. I can anticipate a negative response from the media education sector to this analysis on the grounds that it is ‘arrogant’ to presume that audiences cannot understand or decipher the workings of the Monoform (even if they believe such a thing exists). But the fact that viewers ingest the Monoform every day is not a precursor to understanding how (or why) it functions in the way that it does. The form itself may neutralize any understanding of how it works, including by habituating us to its presentation, not to mention its more subterranean and less perceivable properties. As this subject is never raised by the MAVM, and is too rarely discussed by media educators, there is hardly a wealth of analysis or information for people to rely on.

[End of excerpt]

Feb. 27, 2020 Oxford University Press film review comes to mind

In reading Peter Watkins’ views, and Monica MacDonald’s Recasting History, I’ve been thinking of a related topic, namely a Feb. 27, 2020 Oxford University Press film review entitled: “Dangerous Beauty: Aesthetics, Politics, and Power in Anthropocene: The Human Epoch.

An excerpt from the above-noted review – which addresses themes related to how film language works well, or does not work well at all, in particular circumstances – reads:

I could provide a close reading of Anthropocene’s imagery, text, and techniques divorced from their implications and stakes, but this would further depoliticize the film’s problematic politics. These stakes particularly matter because Anthropocene is intended for a general audience. Briefly, however, several key features distinguish Anthropocene as a film. It centers on the visual, with limited narration (actress Alicia Vikander), few interviews, little music, and often the sounds of the landscape shown. Like Edward Burtynsky’s photography, Anthropocene employs dramatic visual techniques, predominantly aerial views, sweeping panoramic shots that cross considerable terrain, and slow pacing that accentuates the spatial reach of certain phenomena. It does drill down to specific sites but all too briefly. Frequently, Anthropocene features colors, patterns, and textures at large or small scale, rendering these images largely unidentifiable, thus abstracting and aestheticizing objects, processes, and phenomena. Like Burtynsky’s photography and previous films, aesthetics play a major role in driving the film’s narrative arc, which is one of its main problems. [1]

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