André Picard sums up current coronavirus situation – Globe and Mail, May 14, 2020

Click here for previous posts about COVID-19 >

I used to subscribe to the Globe and Mail but the columns of a widely-read Globe columnist got on my nerves and I stopped subscribing.

The columnist in question no longer writes regularly for the Globe but I have not re-subscribed. I subscribe to many services but the Globe is not one of them.

The fact a columnist such as the one I refer to has been given free rein for many years at the Globe means that by subscribing, I would be supporting a news organization that promotes a worldview that I do not espouse. The worldview in question is not conducive to the well being of the world.

From time to time, however, I do read various Globe writers such as André Picard when their columns or news reports are available outside a paywall. On an individual basis, such writers perform a valuable public service. They serve to make the world a better place.

A May 14, 2020 Globe article by André Picard is entitled: “Promises aren’t enough anymore – it’s time for the government to massively increase testing.”

The article apply sums up relevant information related to testing, tracing, and isolating during the ongoing pandemic.

Each jurisdiction in the world by now has launched itself on a particular trajectory regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

In Canada, as the above-noted article by André Picard sums up exquisitely well, we are not making progress on testing and that is a problem. Unless that problem is addressed, many additional Canadians especially those among us who are living in poverty and racially and ethnically or otherwise marginalized are doomed to die from COVID-19. Unless that problem is addressed, we are going nowhere fast.

Rationing of (my own) access to news sites

During the lockdown, I have time to work on writing and organizing projects of a kind I have been working on for many years. In order to work on such projects, I’ve found it useful to clear my desk and ration my access to news media.

I want to refer in this context to a previous post entitled:

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

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

What Peter 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. I mean, who cares? I am not an academic. I have an interest in what academics have to say but I also like to look at things from my own perspective restricted as it is.

I also have an interest in what appears on news sites but I limit my exposure.

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.

Since the beginning of March 2020 I’ve been checking news sites and Twitter every day to get a sense of the information infrastructure related to COVID-19.

I’ve now switched back, however, to my previous (pre-March 2020) regime of news-following, in which I check news sites on weekends while the rest of the week I stay off of them except for sites I access briefly via Twitter. I also listen to CBC Radio at times such as The World at Six.

News video rewires the brain and wears it out

I’ve never watched a lot of news video of any kind and that has not changed at the current time.

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. We did not have a television in our house in Montreal in the 1950s when I was growing up.

Occasionally I would watch “Rin Tin Tin” and “Gunsmoke” – I also became familiar with the “Davey Crockett” narrative – at a friend’s house but I never got into the TV-watching habit. The habit never took hold of me.

As I look back, I note that the shows I watched – and comic books and some of the news magazines that I read – were typical propaganda-style narratives related to American settler history.

The most important part of the shows, from my perspective looking back, is that I learned something about story structure – I learned something in my childhood years, through reading and by occasionally watching TV shows and movies at movie theatres, about how stories are put together.

I learned something about how narratives are structured. I learned something about how definitions of reality are constructed.

I have done large amounts of labour-intensive volunteer work for many years; I would not have been able to do such work had I been spending large amounts of time consuming screen-based entertainment. Volunteer work serves as a primary form of diversion and entertainment for some of us. It’s also one way of expressing human agency in the world.

Possibly my brain is not wired for watching television and the movies. I can’t see the point (given that I tend to get restless and bored) in most cases of watching more than a few minutes of film unless I’m involved with putting together a production of my own. In the latter case I’ll watch film footage endlessly. Once in a while I’ll also watch a full-length production of a play or movie and will often take the time to analyze how it was put together but not very often.

An excerpt from the above-noted BBC article (I have omitted the large number of 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.

Recasting History (2019)

A previous post is entitled:

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

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

The review highlights Recasting History: How CBC Television Has Shaped Canada’s Past (2019), published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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

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. I found it most interesting to learn how some journalists decided that, given their own formative experiences as writers, they were in a position to deem themselves more capable of reporting about history – such as about events of the Second World War – than professional historians.

In this case, my preference is to go with the academics – to go with the professional historians. That said, all ways and means of story construction warrant close analysis, a project that is open to everybody – academics and non-academics alike – who cares to undertake such a form of analysis.

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 the CBC broadcast series entitle 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.”

The fact Peter Watkins has lacked traction with some elements of the film industry is a minor detail.

What matters to me is that Peter Watkins has something of interest to say.

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 happens to be an “unsecure” site. If you wish to visit the site, you can find it through a browser search.

I am pleased to share the following except (the opening paragraphs of a longer piece) from Peter Watkins’ 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.

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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