Assignment 5: What is Reality? (Revised)

Introduction 

In introduction to his film ‘Hypernormalisation’, Adam Curtis says the following:

“We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed – they have no idea what to do. 

…what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.” (Curtis, 2016)

Curtis’ style of filmmaking is to assemble footage from a wide variety of sources: news programmes, interviews, popular culture, in order to illustrate the unashamedly subjective story he is trying to tell. In approaching this assignment, I take this as inspiration, using current visual culture I will attempt to demonstrate the conflicting nature that faces us from the relentless media noise of modern society. In doing this I see many parallels with Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ – although first published in 1967 this work appears both prescient and relevant to our image saturated, late capitalist consumer driven world. Debord saw the spectacle as the “everyday manifestation of capitalist driven phenomena: advertising, television, film and celebrity.” (Morgan and Purje, 2016) Using Debord’s text and examples recent examples from visual culture I aim to demonstrate this prescience.

Advertising 

“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” (Debord, 2009:10)

In ‘No Logo’ (2000), Naomi Klein describes how from the cultural influence (and astronomical growth in wealth) of multinational corporations can be traced back to a management idea from the 1980s: “successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.” (Klein, 2000: 3) For ‘pioneering’ businesses like Nike, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Intel producing goods became only an incidental part of their operations:

“What these companies produced primarily were not things…but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.” (Klein, 2000: 4)

In frequently saturated market places, current advertising exists to establish, perpetuate and consolidate brand identity. Often it is a lifestyle that is sold rather than the product itself. An example of this is Coca-Cola – a product that has existed since the late 19th century, has consistently led the way in brand development and was rated the fourth most valuable brand in the world in 2016. (Badenhausen, 2016)

For their 2016 advertising campaign ‘Taste the Feeling’, Coca-Cola used fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Nacho Ricci to create slick image that appear both genuine and aspirational, described as “Norman Rockwell meets Instagram” a style which aspires to capture an authenticity that appears to feature unscripted moments in a contemporary way. (Nudd, 2016) These adverts present images that are youthful, fun, cool, diverse and sexy while all the time emphasising the positive effect the product is having on the lives and friendships of the people depicted through the omnipresence of the bottle of Coke each of the models are holding. The insinuation is blatantly simple: drinking Coke is the way to share this lifestyle.

News 

“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” (Debord, 2009: 4)

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” (Baudrillard, 1995: 79)

2016 proved a most divisive and controversial year for news and current affairs where assumptions about the power of the media seemed to be both confirmed and refuted. Two high profile ‘shocks’ that were widely touted as not going to happen, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have led to much analysis of why the mainstream media appear to have got it so wrong. Much has been made of the impact of social media, fake news and a distrust of mainstream media outlets and politicians. The US election for example is now thought of as a rejection against the status quo – it appears that Hilary Clinton’s professionalism, credentials for office and carefully managed image are major reasons why she was not elected with a section of the electorate viewing her as the representation of the establishment and not representing them. Despite multiple scandals throughout the campaign concerning his views and previous misdeeds, outlandish pledges and an image that was frequently lampooned as ridiculous (comb over hair, orange complexion, badly fitting suits) Donald Trump projected an image of the ‘man on the street’, despite being anything but – one of the richest men in America. Attempts to dismiss his statements made with questionable basis on truth were attacked as conspiracies by the liberal media. Trump’s campaign actively capitalised on a distrust of politicians and the establishment as well as the uncertainty about what is true and what is not.

If it is true that image is all then how can the success of politicians such as Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage be explained?

In the UK concerns about immigration have been a major area of debate for some time, increasing in prominence over the last few years due to the worsening global; refugee crisis. In August 2015 David Cameron described a “swarm of migrants” coming across the channel for in search of a better life. While the comments drew much criticism for the way they dehumanised migrants and seemed to appeal to fear of the ‘Other’, there were also voices of support with newspapers such as the Daily Mail providing front pages with photographs purporting to prove that immigration was out of control. In September 2015, however, a shocking image of a dead child lying on a beach having died trying to flee the war in Syria was widely reported and another picture took the headlines and the mood suddenly changed to demands for intervention in the refugee crisis with many calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene and grant immigrant’s asylum.

By October another picture made the front pages purporting to be of a potential child refugee seeking asylum who appeared to be an adult. Although there was much debate about the authenticity of the image with reports both that the pictured man was actually an interpreter and not an asylum seeker, the implication was clear – it important to support migrants only if they fall into the

category of deserving support and we must be constantly vigilant of those who wish to abuse our hospitality and trick their way in. The truth of the issue became less important than the ideological stance taken by various news outlets.

It appears that much of the current affairs reporting that is presented to us is both contradictory and unable to offer suggestions about what the correct course of action is. Confusion reigns with the ideological stand points of organisations displayed blatantly – the effect of which has been described as post truth.

Social media 

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (Debord, 2009: 2)

“Here’s me outside the palace of ME! 

Construct a self and psychosis 

Meanwhile the people are dead in their droves 

But nobody noticed 

Well actually 

Some of them noticed. 

You could tell by the emoji they posted.” (Tempest, 2016: 22)

In an essay about the legacy of ‘Society of the Spectacle’, John Harris asserts Debord’s prescience:

“the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme.” (Harris, 2012)

The way social media has entered our lives, and it could be argued, has replaced experiencing life directly could be classed as this “surreal extreme.” Instagram, twitter, Facebook and the selfie all form part of how many of us project ourselves onto the wider world. In ‘Nosedive’, an episode from the anthology series ‘Black Mirror’, the logical progression of our society continuing to be obsessed by social media is satirised. In the apparently near future, ‘likes’ have become currency, a means of providing societal hierarchy and enabling conformity. In order to gain access (and importantly to continue to be able to use) services approval ratings must be maintained. Failure to do this means affects where you can live and work and who you can socialise with.

Some aspects of celebrity culture have embraced the selfie as a means of projecting their self image. A strata of celebrity who seems to be famous for being famous have emerged. Australian comedian Celeste Barber demonstrates the often ridiculous nature of these celebrity selfies through her Instagram account which shows how the pictures may have looked if made by a real person. It seems that image and images will only gain in currency going forward, compounding the need to live through the prism of technology rather than real lived experience.

Conclusion 

When challenged about whether he simplifies complex reality to support his subjective world view, Adam Curtis replied:

All reality is incredibly complex and chaotic. To make sense of it we have to tell stories about it – which inevitably simplifies. And that is what politicians – and journalists – do. What I try to do is to find new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turn them into new stories. My aim is to use those stories to try and make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” (MacInnes, 2015)

When faced with the question what is reality? I find Curtis’ explanations here reassuring and positive – perhaps the only way to combat and possibly explain the complexity of the modern world is by engaging with it through art be it satire, social commentary or merely playful. The most dangerous thing we can do is believe there is only ever one reality and we also should not be too wedded to our own beliefs.

Bibliography: 

Baudrillard, J. (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War did not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Badenhausen, K. (Ed.) (2016) The world’s most valuable brands. In: Forbes [online] Available at: http://www.forbes.com/powerful-brands/ [Accessed December 2016]

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Blade Runner (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott. USA/Hong Kong/UK: Warner Brothers

Curtis, A. (2016) HYPERNORMALISATION. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/02d9ed3c-d71b-4232-ae17-67da423b5df5#comments [Accessed December 2016]

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Ex Machina (2015) Dir: Alex Garland. UK: UPI/Film4/DNA films

Harris, J (2012) Guy Debord predicted our distracted society. The Guardian, 30th March 2012. Available at:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/30/guy-debord-society-spectacle [accessed January 2017]

Her (2013) Dir: Spike Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures

Hypernormalisation (2016) Dir: Adam Curtis. UK: BBC

Klein, N (2000) No Logo. London: Flamingo

Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world (2016) Dir: Werner Herzog. USA: Saville Productions

MacInnes, P. (2015) ‘Adam Curtis: “I try to make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” The Guardian, 24th January 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2015/jan/24/adam-curtis-bitter-lake [Accessed December 2016]

The Matrix (1999) Dir: The Wachowski Brothers. USA: Warner Bros.

Morgan, T. and Purje, L. (2016) An illustrated guide to Guy Debord’s “the society of the spectacle”. Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/313435/an-illustrated-guide-to-guy-debords-the-society-of-the-spectacle/ [Accessed December 2016]

Nosedive (2016) Black Mirror, series 3 episode 1. Dir: Joe Wright. USA: Netflix

Nudd, T. (2016) Here are 25 sweet, simple ads from coca-cola’s big new ‘taste the feeling’ campaign. Available at: http://www.adweek.com/creativity/here-are-25-sweet-simple-ads-coca-colas-big-new-taste-feeling-campaign-169075/ [Accessed January 2017]

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs: A Primer. (2nd ed.) New York: Phaidon Press.

Tempest, K. (2016) Let them eat chaos. London: Picador.

Assignment 5: Response to tutor feedback

Unfortunately, the feedback for this assignment confirmed my fear that I had strayed too far from the brief and my submission did not meet the required criteria. While Pauline found the work interesting, she recommends changing the format into either a conventional illustrated essay or extended annotations. She also points out correctly that I do not meet the 2000 word guidance. On a positive note, she found the choice of images interesting and the themed groupings clear. She also understands my rationale for wanting to produce something different because of the amount of reading in the course, however, I did not mean this as a criticism of the material – if anything I have become too involved in the reading and the course has certainly whet my appetite for further study of cultural theory. My motivation for producing a visual essay was simply to experiment and attempt something different. I also wanted to pay homage to the visual essays in Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ which perplexed me when I first encountered them in the course but began to appeal more as I progressed. Pauline makes two points about this that I do not fully consider – Berger presents his visual essays in the context of his book and television series and without this they are quite unsatisfactory – I had not really thought that it was Berger at fault rather than me. In hindsight, I was too preoccupied with not wanting to lead and influence how the images are read by the viewer (even to the point of not fully explaining my rationale) and clearly this was a mistake as the approach fails to demonstrate my learning – as Pauline rightly asserts, Berger was presenting his book without the need to be assessed as a degree student! She also felt that leaving the various quotes unattributed strayed too far from academic convention.

Although Pauline thinks the rationale I included with the images was clearly expressed, she felt this could provide an introduction to the images. She also points out that I do not fully explain my reason for choosing the style of font I used which was intended to evoke the computer age while simultaneously having a retro feel, it is a strange paradox that it is necessary to take this retro approach in order to signify the digital age. She mentions that there is mileage in exploring how computers have developed over the past 20 years and the relationship between this and the increased digital noise we face in modern life – a key point I wanted to make. Another reason for using this font was as an homage to Stephen Shore’s ‘The Nature of Photographs’ which I cite as an influence. The font used in the book resembles a typewriter font which gives the text accompanying the photographs a particular, distinctive feel. Pauline also quite rightly points out that Shore has chosen images that have a particular author/photographer and this influences the way we read the book (even if we are not entirely familiar with the photographers featured by the very nature of their inclusion we are aware they are important.) The anonymous/uncredited pictures I have chosen do not share this.

Suggested possibilities: 

Keep the groups of images and write accompanying text relating to the material covered in section 5.

Focus on one group of images – are so many needed? Are there overlaps/duplication?

Use Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (as I indicated this had particularly influenced me) perhaps using this as a further text to comment on the quotations or tease out ideas concerning reality.

Decide on a route to pursue: essay or annotations.

Although it is disappointing that I have missed the mark on this occasion I have again found Pauline’s feedback invaluable in being able to pick out what I need to do to improve and point me in the right direction. The clarity of expression in Pauline’s writing inspires me to practice and improve my writing style – through all of the feedback I have received I have found thoughts expressed that I have shared or have wanted to present myself and have not been able to. This ability is something that has not only helped me develop through the course but also provides inspiration for the future.

Assignment 4: Visualising the ‘Other’ through ‘Taxi Driver’ (revised)

Introduction 

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:

“[the essay] takes as its starting point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)

Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)

To explore these assertions, I have chosen the film ‘Taxi Driver’, a first-person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper, specifically Freudian and Lacanian notions of the male Gaze (and the dichotomy between active male and passive female), scopophillia, voyeurism, narcissism and fetishism as well as patriarchal hegemony.

Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to ‘Taxi Driver’. A postmodern reading of ‘Taxi Driver’ would emphasise the need of the requirement of the viewer to be able to recognise these references and appropriations in order to make a full reading of the text. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of ‘Taxi Driver’ as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis

Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self-destruction and delusion.

Taxi Driver and authorship 

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.

Conversely, Paul Schrader based the screenplay for ‘Taxi Driver’ on what he termed the low point of his life: in 1972 at twenty-six he was divorced and unemployed, living in his car and drinking heavily. When he was hospitalised with a gastric ulcer he realised he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. During his recuperation, he read about the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer. Bremer was an undereducated, lower middle-class man designated as a psychopath by the newspapers who ran extracts from his diary that provided the inspiration for the voice over of the film. Bremer believed that the only way he could achieve the attention he craved and found was lacking was to assassinate a famous politician, he settled on Wallace after failing to penetrate Nixon’s security. It is the combining of Schrader and Scorsese that makes ‘Taxi Driver’ – the brutal realism and authenticity of Schrader’s screenplay combined with the cinematic knowledge and referencing of Scorsese. (Taubin, 2000: 9-10) The vérité style of Schrader’s later directorial effort ‘Blue Collar’ (1978) suggest that ‘Taxi Driver’ would have been a much different film if he had directed. It could be argued that Travis is the surrogate imaging of how Schrader’s life could have easily gone following this experience with the added complexity that Scorsese is only able to articulate the narrative using the references from a life of film study rather than experiences in the real world.

The main two stylistic influences on ‘Taxi Driver’ are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first-person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma; for ‘Taxi Driver’ this is Vietnam rather than WWII. Scorsese appropriates some of the stylistic innovations of New Wave directors such as Godard, for example, the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’ fractured psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind and can be read in reference to Lacan’s notions of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real – the small nudges forward are disconcerting and emphasises Travis’ discontinuity.

Taxi Driver - walk

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in ‘Taxi Driver’, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on ‘Taxi Driver’. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western ‘Shane’) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver. The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent. The change here from hero to anti-hero can be explained in the context of America at the time as it moves away from the trusted order of earlier times to the climate of the late 1970s with the rise of racial and feminist politics and discourse that questioned the status quo.

Taxi Driver and the look 

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear-view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even African Americans seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage. Another reading however is that far from representing a critique of patriarchal order ‘Taxi Driver’ reaffirms this: Travis is a flawed representation of masculinity and he lacks agency due to the non adherence to masculine norms.

Frequently we are made to share Travis’ viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of ‘Taxi Driver’ is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.

The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self-image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self-narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:

“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.” (Taubin, 2000: 22)

Taxi Driver - you talkin to me

In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.

taxi driver - theatre

Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’ 

“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)

Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody he comes into contact with – he is completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self-loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance? Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.

African Americans represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all-night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed pimps on

the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.

That these two themes of race and gender difference are so overt in the narrative is an indication of the political landscape of mid 1970s America – a time where the optimism of the post war years has given way to counter culture and tension between major segments of society through the civil rights and feminist movements. The Vietnam war is also another important touchstone which has since become synonymous with the decay of ideals that were projected through earlier mythologising genres such as the western.

Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver 

“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)

Since ‘Taxi Driver’ is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and his lack of self-awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)

Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is also deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore, showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre. Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” Conversely, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.

Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetish and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and a way to exact revenge on those who threaten his masculinity. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’ release, yet also show his impotence demonstrated by his failure to commit suicide. In a final ironic twist however, the final scenes of the film show Travis hailed as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.

Taxi Driver - guns

An interesting comparison can be made with the later film ‘Falling Down’ (1993) in which the protagonist snaps under the pressure of modernity and begins a vengeful journey across Los Angeles. Unlike Travis, the Michael Douglas character in this film is played as an everyman who we are encouraged to empathise with, a victim of circumstances and an anti-hero we can identify with. Comparing the structure of both films is the most telling comparison, ‘Falling Down’ has a clear, linear narrative and definite denouement. ‘Taxi Driver’ is open ended and we are left with both uncertainty and a sense of foreboding as the credits arrive.

Conclusion 

It is difficult to argue that ‘Taxi Driver’ restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism and used as a symbol of the decline of the American dream in the film. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? ‘Taxi Driver’ is a complex portrayal of an anti-hero it is difficult to like and yet we are able to identify with the extreme feelings of loneliness, lack of connection and alienation Travis feels and experiences. If we are honest with ourselves the extreme narcissism, deluded sense of self and fear of the ‘Other’ are all parts of the human psyche that we experience to one degree or another. In the end, it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the films denouement, we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.

Taxi driver - ending

Bibliography: 

Barthes R. The death of the author in pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London: Penguin.

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

pps. 57-65 Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2006) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Austria/Netherlands: Amoeba Film/Kasander Film Company

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (2012) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Ireland: BFI/Blinder Films/Film4

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi driver. London: BFI Publishing.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.

Assignment 4: response to tutor feedback

My immediate response to Pauline’s feedback was admiration for the clarity of her writing and her ability to seemingly effortlessly articulate ideas I shared but had somehow not been able to express in my essay. The indication that my submission is solid and that the choice of ‘Taxi Driver’ works well as an examination of visual performance and conflicted masculinity is reassuring. As is the reassurance that my summation of Mulvey’s position of how patriarchal society is aligned with Hollywood cinema.

Pauline is direct in emphasising her frustration that I submitted assignments 4 and 5 together which makes any recommendations she may make towards the fifth assignment redundant. At the time, I did this I felt driven by the simple pragmatism that the final assignment needed to be submitted at a certain point for me to hit my deadline. The reality of the situation however was that assignment four sat virtually completed quite a while before the final date and I can only explain my failure to submit earlier to be based on a lack of confidence in what I had produced and feeling that by taking some more time I would be able to improve the essay. This lack of certainty is something I need to be very mindful of as I progress in my studies as I now recognise how much of a barrier to my progression it has become.

The main piece of criticism Pauline offers is that the areas of theory I am referring to could be more clearly demonstrated, particularly in the introduction. Below is a summary of the recommendations Pauline makes:

  • Would be helpful to provide images as alluded to in the assignment brief.

This is not something I had considered at all but something that makes perfect sense as soon as it was mentioned. I must admit to not picking up on this suggestion when I read the brief.

  • Make the introduction clearer as to which areas of theory covered in the unit are incorporated in the essay. For example – Freud and Lacan, fetishism, narcissism, the mirror phase, the real and the imaginary, postmodernism (i.e. the way Scorsese references other films/genres – a postmodern conceit and require a viewer who understands such pointers), gendered looking and the male gaze (that Bickle is an anti-hero and flawed example of masculinity)

These are all points that I felt I had covered in the essay. Going back and reviewing however I realised that I was not explicit enough with this referencing. The points about post modernism and the reading of Bickle’s flawed masculinity being the issue rather than a critique of masculinity itself are both points that I totally missed in my writing and would be useful to include.

  • The effect of first person narrative in film could be discussed – could tie in with Lacanian theory.

I agree with this but worry it could lead to too much digression.

  • May be some mileage in exploring how the film may be autobiographical with Bickle being a surrogate for Scorsese. Another layer of complexity is added if Scorsese is creating narratives more from other films than from lived experience.

The inspiration for the film was something I originally included but ended up editing out as it felt too biographical and moving away from the theoretical basis of the assignment. The notion of Scorsese creating narratives from films rather than lived experience is an interesting one particular when combined with the way screen writer Paul Schrader based Bickle on a combined imagining of himself at a very dark time in his life and the attempted assassination of Alabama governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer in 1972. Schrader had recently gone through a marriage break up, was out of work, living in his car and drinking heavily. When he became hospitalised with a gastric ulcer he realised he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. His recovery coincided with coverage of Bremer following the assassination attempt, and his imagination was captured. Like him, Bremer had been living out of his car and had become convinced that killing a politician was the surest way to get the attention he felt starved of – when he failed to penetrate Nixon’s security he turned his attention to Wallace. Segments of Bremer’s diary were published in the papers and Schrader was fascinated by the way this undereducated, lower middle class, Midwestern psychopath would talk to himself in his diary – this became the basis for the use of voice over in ‘Taxi Driver.’ (Taubin, 2000: 10)

Where this becomes particularly interesting is in combination with the way Scorsese takes Schrader’s screenplay, what appears to be a deeply personal self-meditation, and adds the stylistic elements to the film which come from his own limited experience of life – films. Another telling scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ is the scene where Scorsese features as one of Travis’ customers. Sitting in the cab he describes in lurid, misogynist and racist terms how he will punish his wife and her lover’s infidelity. Scorsese says his decision to play the scene was pragmatic after the actor booked dropped out – budget and time constraints meant recasting was not an option. This feels disingenuous to me, Scorsese would have been well aware of how his self-inclusion in this most controversial scene would have been read and assertions of the reasoning are likely to be to distance himself from what the character says. Another scene has Scorsese witnessing Travis walks past him as he approaches to pick up Betsy from her office. This is both a direct reference to Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films and something more – Scorsese’s gaze never flickers from Bickle, his head following his movement across the frame so there is no doubt he is watching him. It is as if he is telling us as the viewers we need to keep a close watch on Travis.

  • Film could be placed in the context of America and the Vietnam war.

I felt I had done this but reviewing the essay again realised I could be more explicit about this as clearly the context is very important to ‘Taxi Driver’ is an important consideration of how the film finally looks.

  • Lacan could be referenced in relation to the early scene in the film which is orchestrated to stylistically represent Bickle’s state of mind in a visual way – this would bring account back to its theoretical base.

I assume that Pauline is referring to Lacan’s notion of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The scene shows Travis walking towards the camera, first in an extreme long shot which then dissolves into a medium shot before again dissolving into a close up. The street is deserted except for Travis and the effect of the dissolves is that he appears and reappears before our eyes which is one of the first clues towards his disturbed psyche. Usually, cuts represent the passage of time, and while this is true of this scene, the small nudges forward are disconcerting which emphasises the technique and Travis’ discontinuity above all else.

  • There are two films which make interesting comparisons:

‘Rear Window’ – there are comparisons to be made with the theme of voyeurism and the spectacle, the way James Stewart has his view confined can be compared to the barrier that is made by Travis’ taxi, and, the link of the way Scorsese references Hitchcock in ‘Taxi Driver’.

‘Falling Down’ has the effect of drawing the viewer into the merging of self and the damaged persona – although most viewers would totally understand the psychological disintegration represented in this film whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ is much more ambivalent.

‘Rear Window’ was certainly a film I had thought about in relation to ‘Taxi Driver’, particularly as it is also cited by Mulvey in her essay. ‘Falling Down’ does have many similarities with ‘Taxi Driver’ but the character’s breakdown is presented in a much more simplistic and superficial way that I would not want to make comparisons. I thought about referencing other films in my essay but was worried about becoming side tracked – it seemed important to retain focus on ‘Taxi Driver’ as the main text.

  • Demonstration of racism can be explored in relation to cultural norms in America at the time – the civil rights and feminist movements were at the fore at the time of making.

Again, the cultural context of the time was in my mind and it is only on rereading that I realised I had not made as much of this as I thought I had.

  • Revise use of the word ‘blacks’ which is fine as a direct quote but otherwise not.

I agonised over my use of this term, which I intended to be used in the sense that this is the term that Travis would have used, if not something worse and more derogatory. (The terms spooks and niggers are used in the film, for me the whole point of their inclusion is that to leave them out would have been unrealistic – they emphasise a casual racism and demonstrate the racial tension of the time.) Pauline’s comments take me back to my worries about a lack of suitable alternative terminology that I felt when I wrote my essay. I have chosen the term ‘African American’ as a replacement but I must confess it is the best of a group of terms that I find are all unsatisfactory. (For example, coloured, people of colour, dark

skinned.) All of these terms seem to be loaded with liberal apologism, perhaps it is only right however that I feel uncomfortable using these terms as a white man.

Assignment 5: What is Reality?

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It is a strange paradox that in studying Understanding Visual Culture I have spent little time looking at images with my head stuck mostly in books full of dense writing and few pictures. For this reason I have chosen to produce a visual essay in response to the last assignment for the course. Reading Berger’s Ways of Seeing in one of the early projects I distinctly remember finding it difficult to formulate a response to the visual essays in the book. At first I thought it was because the images are dated, but on further reflection I realised that without the comfort of words to guide my responses I was finding having any sort of response difficult – this was because I was trying to second guess Berger rather than have confidence in my own reading.

Along with wanting to experiment with a different approach for this assignment, and push myself out of my comfort zone at the same time, I also wanted to acknowledge the influence of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle on me during the course. For me the first exercise that requires reading this was a revelation. Taking the advice of the course notes I stuck with the piece, reading and rereading until it began to make sense and eventually I could see elements of what had already been studied falling into place. Debord and the Situationists had real purpose and believed in changing the world through their work. As I move toward the next part of my degree having a purpose for my work is something that I am preoccupied with and I know I will continue to find inspiration and strategies for producing work through what I have studied during this course.

Originally I intended to write about the way technology, and particularly social media, is altering our ability as human beings to engage with each other and even make sense of the real world. Two recent films were an inspiration to me: Hypernoramalisation directed by Adam Curtis (who I have previously discussed in assignment 2) and Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world directed by Werner Herzog. Both films can be described as documentaries but this does not really do justice or accurately describe what they are. Both film makers present an unashamed subjective world view, and while I do not agree with everything they say I admire their assured confidence.

I originally thought about producing a slideshow/film in the spirit of Curtis’ work but decided against this, deciding on a book format – which seems fitting given how important books have been to me throughout the course! A slideshow would mean that the amount of time each page could be viewed would be controlled, instead I wanted the viewer to have the ability to flick between pages and take as much time as needed to study the images. I decided to use quotes from different texts (Society of the Spectacle, Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard, a poem by Kate Tempest, the films Blade Runner and Her – I also shortlisted many other quotes from both the course and popular culture that I did not use) as a lead into the images and broad theme setting. One of my favourite photo books is The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore and I used this as inspiration. Shore uses short, enigmatic sentences as accompaniments to the photographs he has chosen in the book, with the effect being to kick start the imagination and study the images in way you may not have otherwise. For the images I brainstormed some topics that I felt would fit with the theme of how reality exists in the modern, digital world. They included: Famous people, reality TV, politicians, advertising, business, dead celebrities, scandal, technology, films, news, globalisation, google, facebook, art, commodities and consumerism. I wanted to appropriate images off the internet as the process of doing this would form some sort of curation, I was also interested about what results would come back in my search results. This proved much more difficult than I anticipated and I spent a great deal of time looking for the right images to use. I also did not want any text in the image collages which compounded my difficulties, I wish I had decided that this was the approach I was going to take earlier as collecting images that for the brief over a period of time would have led to better results. I was also shocked by how difficult it was to find pictures I had seen before but could not remember where – for example I recall reading an article about an artist potentially being sued by Donald Trump for producing photoshopped images of him in outrageous situations but could not find the article again.

Stylistically I wanted the text elements of the project to have a retro computer feel and chose a blocky font and green writing reminiscent of an early personal computer. It was important for me that the quotes I chose had no context and I deliberately left off the authors details. For the images I wanted the effect to be haphazard, with the pictures different sizes, overlapping and arranged randomly. The finished effect does not have the effect I envisaged, however, I am not sure how I would change it. If the pictures were the same size and aspect ratio the effect would be too ordered. Perhaps featuring more images slightly smaller would be a better approach however. Each quote has two pages of images in response, the intention is that they would sit next to each other as a double page spread. Each page has a different response to the quote so that the reader can infer further meaning from their juxtaposition. Unfortunately, on exporting to PDF this effect was lost, I will attempt to find a way to rectify and if I cannot will publish as a linear document.

I hesitate at this point to say any more about my image choices as this will influence how meaning is read in the essay. I am unsure if I have managed to fulfil the brief for this assignment but I have enjoyed the process of putting the essay together, albeit that finding the right pictures and preventing repetition has proved to be much more challenging than I had first envisaged.

Bibliography:

Baudrillard, J. (1995) Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, J. (2004) The Gulf War did not Take Place. Sydney: Power Publications.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Blade Runner (1982) Dir: Ridley Scott. USA/Hong Kong/UK: Warner Brothers

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Her (2013) Dir: Spike Jonze. USA: Annapurna Pictures

Hypernormalisation (2016) Dir: Adam Curtis. UK: BBC

Lo and behold, reveries of the connected world (2016) Dir: Werner Herzog. USA: Saville Productions

Shore, S. (2007) The nature of photographs: A Primer. (2nd ed.) New York: Phaidon Press.

Tempest, K. (2016) Let them eat chaos. London: Picador.

Assignment 4: Visualising the ‘Other’ through ‘Taxi Driver’

Introduction

In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:

“[the essay] takes as its staring point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)

Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:

“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)

To explore these assertions I have chosen the film Taxi Driver, a first person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper. Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to Taxi Driver. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of Taxi Driver as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self destruction and delusion.

Taxi Driver and authorship

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)

Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.

The main two stylistic influences on Taxi Driver are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma, for Taxi Driver this is Vietnam rather than WWII. From New Wave directors such as Godard, Scorsese appropriates some of stylistic innovations such as the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’s psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind.

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in Taxi Driver, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on Taxi Driver. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western Shane) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver.  The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent.

Taxi Driver and the look

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even the blacks seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage.

Frequently we are made to share Travis’s viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of Taxi Driver is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.

The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:

“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.”

In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.

Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’

“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)

Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody else he comes into contact with – he is so completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance.  Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.

Blacks represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed black pimps on the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.

Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver

“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)

Since Taxi Driver is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and through his lack of self awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)

Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore by showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre, Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” On the other side, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.

Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetishism and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and to exact revenge on those that have made him feel less of a man. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’s release, yet he shows himself to still be impotent through his failure to commit suicide at the very end. In a final ironic twist however, Travis is shown as being held up as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.

Conclusion

It is difficult to argue that Taxi Driver restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? Taxi Driver is a complex portrayal of an anti hero it is difficult to like and yet manages to get the viewer to empathise with Travis. In the end it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the end we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.

Bibliography:

Barthes R. The death of the author pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Freud, S. (1991) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. London:  Penguin.

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema in pps. 57-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema (2006) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Austria/Netherlands: Amoeba Film/Kasander Film Company

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (2012) Dir: Sophie Fiennes. UK/Ireland: BFI/Blinder Films/Film4

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taubin, A. (2000) Taxi driver. London: BFI Publishing.

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir: Martin Scorsese. USA: Columbia Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Zizek, S. (2006) How to Read Lacan. London: Granta.

 

 

Assignment 3: Response to tutor feedback

Completion of my third assignment was motivated by the need to complete in order to gain an extension for the course. This resulted in me submitting an essay with which I was not entirely happy which cut through my usual worries about my submission – I replaced this with a pragmatism that I could rewrite the assignment if necessary. My feedback from Pauline is better than I expected although this has not resulted in a more favourable self-appraisal of my work. A number of points are raised that I was probably aware of at the time I pressed the send button but the general response that I have provided a well-argued piece is pleasing.

I began my response to feedback with going back and redrafting the essay, but have stopped myself. The reality of my situation is that I have an extra 6 months to complete UVC and it has already taken 2 years to reach this point in the course. Rewriting the assignment will take time that I can ill afford and may not succeed in articulating everything on my mind. With this in mind I have decided to write here about what I would do differently and what I need to focus on for the final two sections of the course.

The main feedback from Pauline is about the end of the essay – my question of whether there is anything inherently wrong with the advert, that is it is just a piece of harmless information was meant to be provocative and lead to thoughts about whether this is true. The act of asking the question in itself was intended to be rhetorical in the sense it could be read in multiple ways, I realise now however that for the purposes of the assignment I should have provided a clear viewpoint. Pauline is strong in her use of terminology, describing advertising as “propaganda designed entirely to encourage us to spend money.” Although also accepted as a part of capitalist society. This is the view I share but felt was one that was too strong to express in these terms. Ironically, my motivation for choosing this advert was my opposition to the way the viewer is subtly interpellated into the ideology that John Lewis wants to represent – the way to happy family relations is through spending money. If the child protagonist in the advert was one of my children I would have preferred more agreeable behaviour in the lead up to Christmas than them only being able to show their love for me through consumerist behaviour.

Assignment 3: Decoding Advertisements

Choose a current advertisement or advertising campaign, and, drawing on the work of Barthes and others analyse it to show how it derives and conveys its meaning to its intended audience.

In his essay, ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes chooses an advertisement for pasta sauce to analyse because, “in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional; the signifieds of the advertising message are formed a priori by certain attributes of the product and these signifieds have to be transmitted as clearly as possible.” (Evans and Hall: 33) Although twenty-first century advertising is on the surface more sophisticated and diverse than Barthes would have recognised, I believe this remains as true now as it was in the 1960s. The simple truth remains: adverts exist solely to sell things. To illustrate this, I have chosen to study the Christmas advertising campaigns of the department store chain John Lewis which have somehow become as much of an indicator of the Christmas season as selection boxes being on sale in the supermarket.

Until 2007, John Lewis did not advertise at all on television, and although the Christmas advert that they put out that year displayed some of the signatures that subsequent campaigns would become known for, it is a pretty conventional piece. The following Christmas however, they began developing tropes that would become their signature style: high production values, a narrative arc strong in seasonal sentimentality, a quirky, stripped down cover version of a familiar song. With the 2011 campaign, ‘The Long Wait’, the adverts had become embedded in the national consciousness and became to be seen as an annual event. (Stone, 2013) With this in mind this is the advert I have chosen to study in depth as it also represents the year that John Lewis stopped directly promoting specific products, or even their own stores and as a tangible shopping experience and instead began tapping into our cultural knowledge and aspirations and linking this with the brand. Despite this seemingly bold move, subsequent Christmas ads have continued in this vein and are credited as making a significant impact to John Lewis sales over the critical seasonal period which is so key to retailers.

The synopsis of ‘The Long Wait’ is as follows: a young boy is impatiently waiting for Christmas to arrive. The passage of time is shown through the use of quick cuts of similar scenes unified by our protagonists frustrated facial expression. We know it is the lead up to Christmas because we see the boy eating chocolate from his advent calendar, looking out of a window with a Christmas tree behind him, and, at one point he is dressed in a Shepherds’ costume apparently having starred in a school nativity play. The imminent arrival of the big day is signified by a family meal during which the boy hurriedly eats before jumping from the table and rushing to his room and climbing into bed, pulling the covers tight up to his neck and squeezing his eyes shut. We see the child waking the next morning, his eyes open and he realises it is the day he has been waiting for – Christmas. He jumps out of bed, but instead of rushing to the stocking that is at the bottom he goes to his cupboard and brings out a present. The wrapping is poor in comparison to the presents at the bottom of his bed – the suggestion being he has wrapped this himself. The camera cuts to the parents’ bedroom, seemingly alerted to the boy’s presence the adults wake bleary eyed – from their point of view we see the boy holding a present in his hands with a broad smile on his face and the caption: “For gifts you can’t wait to give. John Lewis. Instore, online, mobile.”

This reading of the scene is possible through our ability to decode a number of signs in quick succession and relies greatly on our cultural knowledge as well as our understanding of cinematic conventions such as rapid editing and showing the passage of time through subtle changes such as changes in clothing and weather conditions. There is no dialogue with the only soundtrack being a cover version of The Smiths “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”, a song with a melancholy air and a sentiment that leads us to the false belief that the child is driven purely by impatient selfishness about the gifts he will receive. The success of the ad is that our reading turns out to be incorrect – the boy is not selfish at all; in fact, his impatience is based on wanting to give his parents a gift – the gifts he receives himself are secondary to this. This confounding of our expectations not only make the advert memorable but is shamelessly designed to appeal to the viewer – specifically the parents of young children. More importantly however, multiple audiences would be able to identify with the narrative because of the sense of realism that is portrayed and that despite the specifics of the people featured in the advert it is sufficiently general to allow us to recognise the family depicted have a lifestyle that is desirable and values we share.

In ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, Barthes described three messages contained within a text: linguistic, coded iconic and non-coded iconic. The linguistic message is easy to decipher from the text, as it is here in the John Lewis advert, the timing and choice of words are interesting in this instance however. By placing the caption at the end of the advertisement we are more likely to remember that this is an ad for John Lewis, if we have enjoyed the narrative we have been shown then it could be argued we share the ideology being presented and are interpellated by the assertion that giving gifts at Christmas is a way to show our love to those close to us. The non-coded and coded iconic messages are difficult to separate. The non-coded iconic message works on the level of denotation and is partly shown in the synopsis I have given above while the coded iconic message works on the level of connotation and is essential to our ability to understand what is happening. For example, we can learn a great deal about the people being depicted in the advert, and can therefore deduce who the target audience are, by analysing the denoted and connoted signs that are presented. Everything in the advert is carefully chosen to be ‘average’ and ‘normal’ so the viewer can identify with what they are watching: a suburban semi-detached house with a small garden; a nuclear family consisting of a man, woman and two children, all of white race; parents who seem neither too young or old – all indicators of an nice, average, middle class, conventional family. While many adverts appeal through the presentation of aspirational lifestyles, glamorous people, celebrities and exotic locations, the success of ‘The Long Wait’ relies on our ability to identify with what we are seeing as a representation of our own lives.

If we consider ‘The Long Wait’ to be a successful advert then we must also recognise this is because it succeeds on an ideological level, our understanding relying on what Barthes referred to as what “goes without saying” in his essay ‘Myth Today’ (Evans and Hall, 1999: 58) The normalcy of the family unit and the way they celebrate Christmas through the exchange of gifts works on the level of myth: if something goes without saying suggests bourgeois assumptions and the product of history rather than nature. (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 125) The characters in the advert, particularly the boy, are empty vessels, robbed of their individuality and history: “A signifier is an empty vessel until it is filled with meaning in order to signify. The less specific we are about the signifier therefore, the greater its potential to signify exactly as we wish.” (Howells and Negreiros, 2011: 129) With this in mind what is the message contained within ‘The Long Wait’? I would argue there are multiple readings: John Lewis can be trusted to provide the gifts that your family will love at Christmas and lead to domestic bliss; John Lewis will help transform your selfish brats to loving children who will show their love through the giving of gifts; the way to happiness is through gaining commodities; John Lewis shares your family values and is not interested in the sole, crass pursuit of profit. Another reading of course would be that the advert is nothing more than a ‘spectacle’ as described by Debord, a metaphor for society through which we no longer live life directly and where living has become representation: “The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.'” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 96) Read through the prism of Debord, ‘The Long Wait’ represents a reified vision of the world with capitalism subsuming us through the fetishisation of commodities. I suspect Barthes too would have much to say against the glorification of capitalism that the advertisement represents, but once a Marxist reading is undertaken this can cloud judgement as strongly as the ideology it purports to be against – maybe it is nothing more than an advert to promote a department store which happens to do this in an entertaining and way while making the viewer remember what is good about Christmas. What is so wrong with that?

Bibliography:

Althusser, L. (2001) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. (2009) Mythologies. London: Vintage.

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Debord, G. (2009) The Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay Press

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Saussure, F. de. (2009) Course in General Linguistics. Memphis: Books LLC.

Sherwin, A. (2014) John Lewis Christmas advert 2014: It’s sickly and sweet but surprisingly potent. The Independent, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/john-lewis-christmas-advert-2014-its-sweet-sickly-and-surprisingly-potent-9842404.html [Accessed May 2016]

Stone, J. (2014) John Lewis Christmas ads: How they evolved from 2007 to 2013. The Guardian 6 November 2014 . Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/nov/12/john-lewis-christmas-ads-2007-2013 [Accessed on May 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallop, H. (2014a) It’s funny how John Lewis Christmas advert is now part of our Christmas countdown. The Telegraph, 6 November 2014 Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/11212935/Its-funny-how-John-Lewis-Christmas-Advert-is-now-part-of-our-Christmas-countdown.html [Accessed on May 2016]

Wallop, H. (2014b) John Lewis adverts from Christmas past. Available at: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/john-lewis-adverts-christmas-past-173056309.html [Accessed on May 2016]

Williamson, J. (1995) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Marion Boyars.

 

 

Assignment 2: Response to Tutor Feedback

Extremely impressive to have my feedback, especially such detailed notes, only hours after I had submitted the assignment. Pauline’s work ethic and ability to quickly come back with such useful pointers is inspiring and a little humbling.

Positive: 

Overall – really good work

Putting a lot into assignments

Extremely impressive bibliography

Good point about Duchamp’s Fountain being an early example of challenging the nature of the art object.

Some good points on how appropriation attempts to undercut notions of authorship, originality etc.

Visual collages used to compare and contrast sets of images worked well and supported text.

‘New Portraits’ could be interpreted as incorporating the work of others as well as everyday objects.

Less Américains interesting example, good analysis here.

Good feedback for Berger/Benjamin projects.

Negative: 

For hard copy sources give page numbers for references.

Duchamp not DuChamp.

Linked appropriation to postmodern art and culture but could have taken the opportunity to say something more broadly about Postmodernism.

Passage on Sherrie Levine could have been clearer.

Ideas expressed much better by Pauline: 

appropriation attempts to undercut notions of authorship, originality

Appropriation is a deliberate stratagem to encourage us to think about the whole value system within which the art world operates.

Challenging the nature of the art object.

The status bestowed on any object by the context of the art gallery

[Appropriation art] questions the pervasive idea of the autonomous artist, operating without influence.

Amateurish nature of pictures [for new portraits] can be very interesting and important when attention is drawn to them.

Just about any image can become interesting if presented in a particular way. Scale, paint, tone, saturation create something almost out of nothing.

It is interesting that the notion of trying, or maybe claiming, to challenge the idea of ‘authentic’ artwork, and thus one of great cultural and monetary value, cannot be avoided once an artist is part of the art market system.

Authorship is everything.

‘Counter narratives’ e.g. Personal albums of Nazi soldiers.

Suggestions for further study: 

Gerhard Richter

Use of small, ordinary photographs or a boring advertisement and transferred to a large canvass.

E.g. Seascape 1975

Chuck Close

Self portrait 1997

Capitalizes on digital nature of images with a pixelated painting

Roy Lichenstein

Sued unsuccessfully for comic book appropriation work

Francis Alys

When faith moves mountains, Lima, 2002.

Similar concerns to Muniz, collaboration with hundreds of people moving soil off a mountain in Peru

Assignment 2: The Displaced Image

Find three examples of work in which the work of others is incorporated.

Find three examples of work that appropriates, copies or references everyday objects and reuses them as works of fine art.

Appropriation art pushes the boundaries of our understanding of what art can be and very much depends on whether you subscribe to the notion that anything can be art. Appropriation artists are in direct opposition to ideas of artistic genius and even authorship, appropriation is about the concept and those who oppose appropriation art criticise that it is devoid of talent and even that it represents illegal theft. Most appropriation artists care little about this, in fact for many this is the very point of their work. Appropriation can be defined as the act of borrowing, stealing or taking over others works, images, words and meanings for ones own ends, including amongst other things; recontextualisation, pastiche and referencing. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009) Appropriation is frequently pervasive with postmodern art and culture and is the borrowing of ideas or images and incorporating them into new representations or objects. (Pooke and Newall, 2008)

In the early twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp challenged the very nature of art with his ready made urinal sculpture ‘Fountain’ (1917). To be successful however, the concept that anything can be art if the artist says so requires others to agree. It was not until the 1960s that this really became the case when pop art explored themes of consumerism, the banal and embraced what was deemed low culture. A decade later the idea began to gain real traction with postmodern artists like Sherrie Levine who took the work of another artist, rather than an everyday object like DuChamp, and presented it as their own work. An approach which challenged the value of art, originality and the myth of artistic genius rather than what art can be.

For the purposes of this assignment I have chosen work that is unified by having been made consciously as the work of an artist rather than looking at how artworks can become significant culturally and their meanings changed through the way they are used. I have chosen the artists and artworks here based on my own interest rather than trying to make some wider comment about what appropriation is in modern art. I have tried however to make a selection that enables discussion of different aspects of what appropriation can mean, as well as the many ethical and legal difficulties this can present.

Richard Prince: New Portraits (2014)

‘New Portraits’ is a series of screen grabs taken from Instagram and ink jet printed onto 6 foot canvasses. Prince experimented with various printing techniques before deciding upon the canvass as the way he wanted to present the series, the surface was tightly wound giving the canvas almost the appearance of photo paper. The printing process meant the whites were brilliantly white and colours intense, saturated and rich. The way the ink fused with the canvas also made the image slightly out of focus: “When I first saw the final result I didn’t really know what I was looking at. A photographic work or a work on canvass?” (Prince, 2015)

Hannah Jane Parkinson (2015) is less enthusiastic about the final effect achieved, she regards the quality as awful, “The text of the comments in particular is so blurry it feels like I’m looking through contact lenses clouded by having slept in them.” Although she does concede this is hardly surprising as iPhone screenshots were hardly intended to be blown up to this size.  This is part of the meaning of ‘New Portraits’ however, not only are images not intended to be shown in a gallery setting but they were never meant to have any sort of existence other than a digital one. Indeed, one of the criteria Prince uses when choosing which images to appropriate is that they would only appear, or better still exist, on Instagram. He shows (perhaps wilfully) his age and separation from the young people for who an online existence is so natural they could be termed ‘digital natives’ – he refuses to use the term selfie: “Selfies? Not really. Self-portraits. I’m not interested in abbreviation.” And quaintly thinks that Tumblr is spelt tumbler. By presenting ‘New Portraits’ in this way, Prince confronts questions about art, ownership, voyeurism, identity and image projection in the twenty-first century.

Prince describes his arrival at ‘New Portraits’ as a natural progression in his work. In 1984 he made portraits by asking friends to select five images of themselves and give them to him, he would then select and rephotograph one. This had many advantages, the friends did not need to sit for their portrait and they were guaranteed to like the chosen image as they had provided it themselves. He admires Larry Clark, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, but concedes he would not know where to begin to take a great portrait, he has tried but did not enjoy the experience, he feels more comfortable in his bedroom looking through other peoples pictures: “Looking. Wondering. Anticipating. Hoping. What will be on the next page.”

Before arriving at Instagram Prince experimented with Twitter. He made a series of text/tweets called ‘The Family’, 36 photographs of his extended family, captioned with a short description then inkjet printed. Although he liked twitter it is mainly text based and he wanted to combine images and words, which is how he came upon Instagram: “if Twitter is editorial…then Instagram was advertising.” The iPhone became his studio as he began to explore what was available. He started looking at the Instagram accounts of people he knew, and was soon led down a “rabbit hole” where he would check out new Instagram accounts based on who these people were following and their likes. He describes this as a psychedelic, out of body experience, “where you suddenly look at the watch and it’s three in the morning.” He struggles to articulate why he chooses the pictures he does, but sees similarities to a previous series where he made paintings of jokes – he would read a joke book and if he found one out of 101 it is a good day:

“People on IG lead me to other people. I spend hours surfing, saving, and deleting. Sometimes I look for photos that are straightforward portraits (or at least look straightforward). Other times I look for photos that would only appear, or better still . . . exist on IG.”

When deciding how to present ‘New Portraits’, Prince was unsure, although he was definite about what he did not want to do: he did not want to do anything physical to the photograph, whatever he wanted to do needed to happen inside the photograph. When screen saving an Instagram image you get three or four comments along with the person’s profile (which he felt was important to include.) He not only wanted to add his own comments to feature and be his contribution to the piece but often found his comments would appear out of frame, at the bottom due to the many comments that had already been made. By accident he hit upon a system where he could manipulate the screen shot to include his comments – if he reported those above as spam they would disappear which would enable him to get the effect he was after. The style of the comments he makes is deliberately obtuse and unintelligible, a mixture of nonsense and the seemingly profound. He calls the technique ‘birdtalk’ and it is also the system he uses on Twitter: ” Short sentences that were funny, sweet, dumb, profound, absurd, stupid, jokey, Finnegans Wake meets MAD magazine meets ad copy for Calvin Klein.” The irony is that presented next to other Instagram users comments the absurdity of his words do not seem at all out of place.

Richard Prince is no stranger to accusations of theft and even litigation, most notably being sued by the photographer Richard Cariou when he rephotographed Cariou’s images and slightly modified them for his ‘Canal Zone’ series. Initially the court ruled in favour of Cariou, but Prince was deemed not to infringed copyright on appeal. Prince has consistently (and in typical style) said that copyright does not interest him and that it never even occurs to him to ask for permission. He also comments wryly that others have only become interested in copyright infringement as his success, and wealth, has grown. “For most of my life I owned half a stereo so there was no point in suing me, but that’s changed now and it’s interesting.” (Crockett, 2015)

The alternative modelling collective Suicide Girls responded to being appropriated by Prince for ‘New Portraits’ in pragmatic fashion – rather than threatening legal action (an approach they both could not afford and had little chance of success given the Cariou case) they decided to play Prince at his own game and offer the same images he has used for a $90 rather than $90,000. Like Prince, the comments section was used to change each picture, they added the comment “true art” to each one before printing the screen shots in exactly the same way and at the same size that Prince had. On the Suicide Girls website, co-founder Selena Mooney (aka Missy Suicide) comments that this is not the first time their images had been used without permission for commercial gain, what she objects to in this instance however is the inflated prices that the pieces are selling for and how this is an example of art being put out of the reach of normal people like her for whom the only thing they would spend $90k on would be a house. Of course selling the same images at 99.9% off their original price succeeds as a means of generating publicity, and most likely revenue, for the Suicide Girls website and brand. It does nothing to alter the value of the ‘original’ Richard Prince work, what you are buying for $90 is not the work of an internationally renowned artist who has been validated by the market and thus deemed to be able to command these astonishing prices, but a copy which is only worth the $90 it sells for.

New Portraits.jpg

 

Mishka Henner: Less Américains (2013)

If ‘New Portraits’ represent an established artist elevating the banal and throwaway then ‘Less Américains’ shows an emerging artist appropriating an admired classic. Robert Frank’s 1958 ‘The Americans’ is regarded as the ‘bible’ of photobooks, completely revered in photographic circles and beyond criticism. The title is a pun on ‘Les Américains’, the first edition of the photobook which was published in French because Frank could not find a US publisher – a reminder of how favour and fame can change dramatically over time. ‘Less Américains’ could be described as a ‘remix’ of ‘The Americans’, the 83 images from the original shown in the same sequence, except Henner has digitally erased parts of each photograph leaving only outlines and white space where there were once faces, bodies, graphics and flags. By doing this Henner tackles a number of conceptual themes: the fetishisation of vintage work, notions of authorship and ideas about memory – despite being created from some of the most famous photographs of all time some of the pictures are almost unrecognisable in their abstraction.

‘Less Américains’ is not only a comment on photography but also asks questions about the photobook as an art form that is experiencing a period of huge popularity that shows no sign of diminishing any time soon. The book itself features the images sequenced in the more well known Steidl edition rather than the original French version, except for the cover which echoes ‘Les Américains’. The essay by Jack Kerouac that introduces the book is included although in Henner’s version most of the words are blanked out making the text incomprehensible – the essay is also now credited to artist Elisabeth Tonnard with no mention of Kerouac. Henner chose to self publish the book using print on demand technology which allows him to fulfil ‘Less Américains’ as a physical object with all the gravitas that entails while ironically not requiring the approval of a traditional publisher.

The development of Henner as an artist is interesting and gives insight into his motivations for creating ‘Less Américains.’ He originally studied sociology and was drawn into photography after seeing the 2003 Tate exhibition ‘Cruel and Tender’ and being inspired by the work of the Dusseldorf school of photographers who elevated the seemingly ugly and banal, such as industrial estates, into the profound. He started working as a traditional documentary photographer on long term projects in London and Manchester and was just starting to make a name for himself in this field he dramatically changed direction and embraced conceptual art. He was motivated to reach an audience outside of what he saw as the conservative and narrow world of photography concluding that the documentary work he had been producing had little to do with the truth.

The inspiration for ‘Less Américains’ came from what Henner saw as the creative/destructive relationship demonstrated by Robert Rauschberg’s 1953 work ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing.’ Similarly to Rauschberg, Henner feels he is creating something new from Frank’s photographs through his process of digital erasure. Unlike Rauschberg who completely removed all traces of De Kooning’s sketch without even taking a photograph of it, Henner is using Photoshop to alter a facsimile of the original images which remain untouched. His working methods were to take several months experimenting with erasing different parts of the photographs and meditating on what the results mean both aesthetically and conceptually. He likened this to the way a painter works, playing with shape and texture.  For me the work forces close examination of the images and for me to question not only what I am seeing but also my ability to remember, on the one hand the Henner’s images seem recognisable and yet they are also definitely new works. Despite thinking that I know ‘The Americans’ well, some of Henner’s pictures are only recognisable when viewed alongside the source material.. Sean O’Hagan describes them as more like “surrealist puzzles than photographs” and the only reason they are controversial is because of the source material. (O’Hagan, 2012)

less-americains

 

Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake (2015)

Adam Curtis describes himself as a journalist who makes films for television (Harris, 2015) but his brand of journalism is not something that is instantly recognisable. His films defy classification: they are history, current affairs, polemic, experimental and opinionated. For more than 20 years he has been producing films that are unified by being made entirely of found, archive footage which is matched with a distinctive narration from Curtis himself, described by Sam Wollaston as “schoolmasterly in tone and apocalyptic in message.” (Wollaston, 2015)

Curtis has long been interested in the way the world is understood and journalisms relationship to this. Among the many themes in his work, it could be argued that exploring this relationship is his main preoccupation. For Curtis, while the world has become seemingly more difficult to understand, current affairs are presented in increasingly simplified terms – mainly as narratives of good versus evil. This is partly a considered strategy by those in power but also one that news organisations are complicit with, he believes that modern news programming and presentation is not conducive to dealing with the complex situations of the modern world which in turn leaves those in power unaccountable and is bad for democracy. Not understanding the mistakes of the past is a concern for Curtis and one he uses Bitter Lake to address –  he proves his thesis by demonstrating that a number of major concerns for us the modern world from Islamic radicalisation, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and the banking crisis, can be traced back to events set in motion in 1945 and a meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, aboard a warship on the great Bitter Lake in 1945.

Bitter Lake is made up almost entirely of archive footage, mainly (but not exclusively) unedited rushes from BBC journalists in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is the centre point of the film and Curtis uses this to prove his assertion that by not understanding the mistakes of the past we continue to repeat them. Because Curtis is famous for using found footage Jon Ronson imagines him holed up in a darkened room in some corner of the BBC, searching through hours and hours of forgotten videotape looking for some sort of marriage between his ideas and the pictures shot by others. The truth is slightly more boring, there is no special room only a giant open plan BBC office in London where he watches archive films ordered from anonymous warehouses. His choices are guided by instinct, he looks for a mood that he sees present in the films that can be used to give force to the arguments he wishes to make. This is the antithesis of what we understand as objective journalism – the concept that the world is shown to us exactly as it is, without prejudice or agenda – Curtis makes no attempt to hide the fact that what he is presenting is his world view. From the outset Curtis approaches his work from the opposite end of the spectrum – he already knows what he wants to say and he is searching for ways this can be shown. His view is that there is too much reliance on journalists presenting television and film as literal.

Curtis has an interest in forgotten images, archives and what he calls “hidden material.” This led him into contact with BBC cameraman Bill Goodwin who brought back to London hundreds of thousands of digitized rushes from the BBC station in Kabul – which represents most of what the organisation would have shot in Afghanistan. Goodwin found that no one at the BBC was interested and gave the footage to Curtis who was fascinated by the material, from which 10/20 seconds at most is used for broadcast and much of which had never even been watched back. He found much of the footage extraordinary and was immediately struck by how at odds this was with the simplistic stories that were presented about Afghanistan. This crystallized his opinion that it is not the journalists on the ground who are the issue but the news organisations and the way they choose to use, or not use, their work. For him these journalists are the heroes of Bitter Lake: brave and intelligent people working in difficult situations to trying and make sense of complex situations and he was conscious about not wanting to embarrass them through his use of unedited material.

The way Bitter Lake unfolds is unlike anything else and defies categorisation as either current affairs, documentary or art house cinema – there are elements of all of these in the work. Despite Curtis’s narration providing a strong narrative tie to the images, perhaps half of the film has no dialogue at all which is at first disconcerting and gives a dreamlike feel. Often we are unsure of what we are watching as we have become so used to tight editing that tells us how to react. Sometimes an extended scene is nothing more than a beautiful aside, the shots held longer than we expect having a mesmeric effect. At other times, the seemingly innocuous is transformed by a sudden, brutal act of violence – as a viewer, without the signposts we have become accustomed to seeing the effect is overwhelming. Curtis does not just use archive news footage however, the Tarkovsky film ‘Solaris’, ‘Carry On Up the Khyber’, ‘Blue Peter’ and the Afghan version of ‘The Thick Of It’ are all used almost as a way to make it clear that this is not a typical piece of journalism we are witnessing. ‘Bitter Lake’ is not only original in itself but also has not taken the traditional approach to broadcast being shown only via the BBC iPlayer. Some commentators have been disparaging of this saying that the BBC is showing a lack of faith in the project by not giving it traditional broadcast. Curtis himself sees iPlayer as the perfect way he can present this experimental work outside the confines of normal broadcast, hinting that without the innovation he would not have been able to make the film he envisaged. It is true that it is difficult to see how such a long and complex work could fit into what we traditionally understand as documentary broadcasting.

bitter-lake

Vik Muniz: Pictures of Garbage (2009)

Vik Muniz is a Brazilian born artist who is famous for appropriating famous images and art history and popular culture and reworking them using everyday materials before photographing the results. He could be described as a photographer but his work is often a mixture of drawing and sculpture with photography being used to record the final result. For example, ‘Action photo, after Hans Namuth’ (1997) is a recreation of the famous photograph of Jackson Pollock in his studio producing his iconic action portraits, but rendered using Bosco chocolate syrup. Muniz first experiment with this technique was following a project he undertook documenting sugar plantation workers on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Originally he intended the work to be a series of photographic portraits but was inspired to ‘draw’ images of the workers and their children using sugar and then rephotographing the results. ‘Sugar Children’ (1997)

His series ‘Pictures of Garbage’ represents an altruist break for Muniz, he describes reaching a point in his career where he wanted to step away from the fine art world and give something back, coming from a poor family he realised that it was only luck that had led to his success and with a twist of poor fortune he would have never have been able to achieve the lifestyle he had achieved. He was drawn back to Brazil and specifically to Jardim Gramacho – a huge 32 acre open air landfill site outside Rio. The waste is picked over by an informal workforce of Catadores (waste pickers) who make a living by reclaiming and recycling useful items from the dump. Muniz expected the Catadores, people at the extreme end of consumer culture, to be beaten and broken. Instead he found survivors. This changed his approach, instead of painting portraits he began a collaboration with some of the workers: first he would photograph them in a scene inspired by classical art before recreating these images in his studio using rubbish from Jardim Gramacho. The Catadores became Muniz’s art assistants; picking rubbish from Jardim Gramacho and transporting to Muniz’s studio where he directed them from a platform to produce sculptures before capturing the finished work as a photograph. There is an interesting irony in the use of rubbish here: the Catadores scavenge for items in the dump that have value or can be reused – an enterprise which takes huge effort for small reward. In collaboration with Muniz, the sculptures and subsequent photographs they make have no use value and yet the finished work sells for tens of thousands of dollars on the art market.

The project was also made into a documentary film ‘Wasteland’ (2010, dir: Lucy Walker) in which the humanity of the Catadores and their impressive resilience really comes through – despite their apparent desperate situation living in abject poverty literally in rubbish they are positive, likeable and driven to make their lives a little better, for example Zumbi who educates himself with the books that have been discarded in the tip as well as using these to set up a library for his co-workers. At the end of the process, the workers/art assistants attend the opening of the exhibited works at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art with Muniz and he donates all proceeds from the sale of the work to the workers cooperative. It is a feel good ending despite the fact that the very next day the Catadores will be back amongst the garbage, trying to provide themselves with some sort of living and existence. This has led some to criticise Muniz for at best being naïve in his intervention and at worst exploitative. To me he is an idealist, driven by the need to use his success to do some good in the world and particularly the country of his birth which is clearly faced with many challenges. Can art really change the world? I am not so sure, I do however admire Muniz’s need to try and make a difference, especially in this practical way that enables the Catadores to be collaborators in the project rather than recipients of handouts and pity. Whether this seemingly non political approach does anything to make real lasting changes I am not sure, I am also not sure how Muniz would go about achieving this or even if it would be desirable for him to do so.

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Broomberg and Chanarin: Holy Bible (2013)

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have worked together since the early 1990s, their politically motivated, conceptual and thematically designed projects developing in steady continuation since then. In 2008 the pair spent time embedded with the British army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan and their practice has focused increasingly on the depiction of war since then. The output of their experience was typically conceptual as they left their cameras at home and chose to ‘document’ events by exposing 50m long pieces of photographic paper to the Afghan sun. The project culminated in an exhibition ‘The Day Nobody Died’, a nod to the fact that their time in Afghanistan coincided with the deadliest month of the entire war. The project is definitely anti-mainstream war photography, that does not mean they do not respect those who choose to document war zones and are willing to pay the ultimate price like Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros who they describe as a different breed. They are only interested in visiting conflict zones to explore ideas about how human suffering is documented and then consumed as images and how individuals respond to this. They see the debates about photography and its relationship to truth and authenticity to be arguments that are long over, the only question that remains is what constitutes evidence. Against charges that their work is anti-photojournalism they respond that it is not, but it is anti-empathy.

Their ‘Holy Bible’ project follows directly from their previous work, the 2013 Deutsche Börse prize winning ‘War Primer 2’. For this they reinterpreted Bertolt Brecht’s original ‘War Primer’ – a 1955 book in which he coupled newspaper clippings with his own four line poems, keeping Brecht’s original text but matching them with contemporary images of the war on terror. While researching ‘War Primer 2’ they came across Brecht’s personal Bible in which had placed clippings and small annotations after running out of notebooks – the proved to be the genesis of the ‘Holy Bible’. At the same time they came across, and were deeply influenced by, the writings of Adi Ophir – a radical Israeli philosopher with particular expertise in the Old Testament. His book ‘Divine Violence’ (a section of which provides the afterword of the Holy Bible) draws parallel between the violence of The Bible and the violence of the modern world and reads it as a parable for modern governance and its relation to catastrophe and punishment. This struck a chord with Broomberg and Chanarin and their interest in how photography is used to understand the world and yet is often drawn to power, war, catastrophe and sites of human suffering.

Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’ contains images sourced from the Archive of Modern Conflict superimposed over a reprint of the King James version of the Old and New Testaments. Each of the 512 images are accompanied by text underlined in red which not only provides a new caption for the images but also a strange narrative throughout – one which is very much open to individual interpretation however. The Archive spans the history of photography and provides an unofficial version of the history of war which is opposite to the straightforward narratives we have come to expect. For example, there are shelves containing the personal albums of Nazi soldiers that contain pictures showing familial intimacy, human emotions, tenderness and desire – all counter to the narrative we are used to seeing and morally difficult to cope with. Although the time they spent in the archive was difficult and depressing spending so much time around images of suffering and death they also came across humour. They found a large collection of photographs of magic tricks and used these as a running motif throughout, almost to punctuate and relieve the horror of the disturbing images of death and destruction that are also contained. Each of the magic images are combined with the phrase “and it came to pass”  which provides a running motif and strange kind of punctuation throughout.

Can the Bible be seen as an everyday object? It remains the best selling book of all time but perhaps the time where it is the centre point of many peoples lives is gone – although it undoubtedly is hugely important to Christians all over the world and Broomberg and Chanarin’s appropriation of the sacred text could be seen as provocative at the very least and blasphemous by many. The work is fundamentally an object and requires experiencing the artefact itself to understand and disseminate. Much can be gained from the tactile feel of the book, I am not a religious person but holding Broomberg and Chanarin’s Holy Bible instantly transported me to school assemblies, weddings, funerals and christenings – the Christian touch points of my life. Apart from the names of the artists on the spine and the publishers name on the back, to all intents this is a real bible with embossed gold text and a cover with a texture that gives the feel of imitation leather. The pages are gold edged and there is a familiar red bookmark ribbon down the centre. For me the feel of the paper is the most tactile, it is a strange thin but strong paper that almost has the feel of tissue which I have only ever experienced in a Bible. The book somehow demands to be red from cover to cover, the obstruction of the text by the images make reading it as an actual bible impossible. The highlighted text seems captions each image but the connections are not obvious although they seem to form some sort of narrative, albeit with oblique and possibly personal meaning. The initial feeling I have when looking through the book cover to cover is to question the truth and meaning of what I have seen, not being overtly told how I need to respond to the images provides a puzzle and leads me to questioning old notions of truth and objectivity – the apparent hallmarks of photojournalism. It is also a physical struggle to get through with every page demanding attention and thought to link what has gone before – not to mention the length. I wonder what the archives of the future will look like, in the age of citizen journalism when anyone and everyone record almost every moment of their lives and experience how do we log and make sense of this? Despite this seemingly improved way of collating images the same old eco system of photo journalism driven by editors who are increasingly accountable to ad agencies and revenues prevails. Perhaps the only question remaining is the one that Broomberg and Chanarin ask with the Holy Bible: what constitutes evidence?

holy-bibleMiriam Elia: We Go To The Gallery (2014)

I have chosen to include ‘We Go To The Gallery’ by Miriam Elia for a number of reasons: I have owned the book for a while and it is a work I admire, the object itself is a convincing imitation of the Ladybird books I read as a child, it contrasts starkly with Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’, the threat of litigation by Penguin books and Elia’s response is interesting, and, unlike the other works I have chosen which are all quite serious, it is funny!

‘We Go To The Gallery’ is a parody of the Peter and Jane Ladybird books of the 1960s and 70s and pokes fun at the contemporary art world – the innocence and old fashioned optimism of Peter and Jane contrasting in amusing ways with the nihilism of the modern art scene. The book is instantly recognisable as the Ladybird books it pastiches, the size, printing, choice of paper, design, artwork and style of writing are all instantly familiar to anyone for whom the original ladybird books formed part of their childhood. For the first edition, a print run of 1000 funded by £5000 raised on Kickstarter, Elia used the Ladybird logo on the cover, thoughts of copyright did not occur to her because she was producing an artwork. When the project gained attention on social media, Penguin books, who own Ladybird imprint, sent legal letters stating that Elia was infringing their copyright and ordered her to pulp the remaining books. Elia obliged but then went on to rework her original changing the artwork and the children’s names to Susan and John and inventing her own publishing imprint, Dung Beetle books, in place of Ladybird. The new artwork was achieved using models from a modelling agency with the “right look”  and dressing them in period clothes before enacting the scenes. The second edition of 5000 has now sold out and a more affordable mass market edition of 20 000 is now selling well.

Penguin made no attempt to take legal action about the second edition. Instead, possibly ‘inspired’ by the success of ‘We Go To The Gallery’ they released their own Ladybird books for adults in October 2015, eight titles including The Hipster, The mid-life crisis and The Hangover. Elia responded with a mock up cover on her website for a book she may produce in the future: ‘We Sue An Artist’ and a printed response available on her website and published in The Guardian. With typical sardonic tone she reasons that Penguin were right to produce the new Ladybird books as independent artists are worthless to the economy, unlike Penguin who employ more people, who will feed more children, who will be able to buy Ladybird books. Also, and for me most cuttingly the “new books clearly demonstrate that it is the working class, not the intelligentsia, who present the greatest hazard to our cultural, artistic and political heritage.”

we-go-to-the-gallery

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