The Movie We Don’t Want to Talk About

Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterThis year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hollywood. That’s no coincidence. The first true blockbuster – the movie that helped create the modern industry – was director D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

If it had been any other film, the movie industry would be celebrating 2015 as a Jubilee Year, complete with historical programs and special Blu-Ray box sets. But instead, the anniversary has been met mostly with silence.

A few critics wrote about the film’s dark legacy when the anniversary of its release passed in February. I thought about writing something, but decided against it. I wanted to ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen.

"You rape our women." - Dylann Roof, terrorist

“You rape our women.” – Dylann Roof, terrorist

But the attack on the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week made me re-think that decision. The killer in Charleston- like thousands of white supremacist terrorists before him – made use of propaganda and symbols popularized by Birth of a Nation. How can I help fight these ideas if I don’t talk about them?

Based on the novel The Clansman, Birth of a Nation features reenactments of the Civil War that paint the Confederacy in the best possible light. After the war, it portrays Reconstruction as tyranny, and climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save the city from black men (played by white actors in blackface) who are trying to rape white women.

birth of a nation adThe movie was a huge hit. An enormous hit. It may have sold as much as $60 million in tickets in its first run — that’s in 1915 dollars. The Ku Klux Klan had been disbanded in 1872. But in 1915, the filmmakers organized Klan marches and balls organized around the film. But what began as a movie promotion turned real that fall, when the Klan was reorganized in Georgia. The original Klan didn’t have standard uniforms and didn’t burn crosses. The new Klan took these elements from Birth of a Nation and made them the standard symbols of terror that are now known across the world.

We screened Birth of a Nation in the first film class I took, as a freshman. Our instructor warned us about the racism we would see, but told us to look past it and focus on the filmmaking techniques Griffith used. As a senior, I took an African Americans in Film class. This instructor refused to screen it, and said the movie’s importance had been exaggerated by white critics.

Maybe so. But Birth of a Nation’s place in film history goes far beyond its success at the box office. It was the first masterpiece; it codified the grammar that will be used forever; it created an entire art form. Roger Ebert best sums up the way it is generally regarded:

“The Birth of a Nation” is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil.”

Ignoring the film is impossible. So, what do we do with this history of evil?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard made a series of television programs called Histoire(s) du Cinéma. It splices together scenes and frames from decades of films, overlaid with a track of Godard musing on various themes or (because Godard is quintessentially French) occasionally the voice of a skinny girl reading poetry in a garden.

1b-une-histoire-seulAlthough in many ways, the project is a celebration of cinema, Godard bluntly implicates the art form as complicit in the worst horrors of the past century. Would the Nazis have been as effective without their mastery of film? “Murnau and Freund invented the lighting of Nuremberg when Hitler didn’t even have been money in the Munich bars,” Godard says.

Evil is part of cinema, in the present, past and future. We can’t ignore it, and it’s impossible to simply extract and throw away.

I’m caught up in this film. The movie is racist. Does this mean I’m racist?

Griffith’s mastery of his art is so complete that it is impossible not to be engrossed in his storytelling. How can you not sympathize with the poor, downtrodden Camerons? This creates in uncomfortable feelings and questions for most white viewers.

Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in "The Birth of a Nation"

Henry Walthall and Lillian Gish in “The Birth of a Nation”

A shortcut out of the unease is to minimize the evil. Birth of a Nation star Lillian Gish defended Griffith against charges of racism, saying “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro,” and similar nonsense. Silent film popularizer Joe Franklin put the blame on people who somehow found the pro-Klan movie racist:

“Griffith certainly did not set out to make a biased film, and indeed most of the incessant storm that has continued ever since has been whipped up and sustained not by Negro interests but by political interests–ironically, the same sort of circumstance which caused the unrest in the South in the first place!””

This sort of thinking isn’t unique to Birth of a Nation. Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has spent decades trying to rehabilitate her image, even making the absurd claims that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were not fascist propaganda at all, but relatively straightforward documentaries.

This is why we need to teach film in public schools.

'The Birth Of A Nation'More now than at any time since the invention of the printing press, the West is an audio-visual culture. Teenagers coming out of high school are voting and buying guns for the first time. They need to understand that just because a film (or a YouTube video) makes something feel right doesn’t mean it is right. If they’re never told the story of Birth of a Nation, they won’t get that lesson.

isis1If Godard wished to continue exploring cinema’s sins, he would have ISIS’s Hollywood production techniques to use as examples. Some critics have compared their propaganda videos to 1990’s action films; I watched the disturbing video of James Foley’s execution as part of my job, and the cut and horrifying tracking shot reminded me of Hitchcock.

ISIS is using filmic techniques to recruit young people to terrorism in exactly the same way the KKK does. A basic understanding of these techniques can help arm our young people against the power of propaganda. They need to see and hear the ways in which great art can serve great evil.

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Nanook and “The Vanishing Race”

Nanook of the North (1922) dir. Robert J. Flaherty

The iconic Nanook of the North has been a staple in film schools for decades, and was just voted 7th-best documentary film of all time by the BFI.

Even though Nanook’s reputation as an artistic masterpiece are secure, its reputation as a piece of ethnography or proto-ethnography has waxed and waned since it was made in 1922. The film itself hasn’t changed, but the way critics examine it has.

"Cheyenne Warriors"

“Cheyenne Warriors”

It’s important to look at Nanook in the context of similar work outside the world of film. I examined late 19th and early 20th Century portraits of Native Americans taken by Edward S. Curtis, put on display at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and held in books in the museum’s library.

Both Flaherty’s and Curtis’s work went through three primary phases of evaluation:

1) Buying into the myth

In 1907, Curtis published “The American Indian,” to the acclaim of art critics, ethnographers, history buffs and to the general American public. He sold hundreds of sets of the photos, which were complete with descriptions of how Native Americans were said to live, hunt, believe and die. They bought into Curtis’s depictions entirely.

President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the forward Volume I:

Canyon de Chelly

“Canyon de Chelly,” Edward S. Curtis, 1904

“In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful. All serious students are to be congratulated because he is putting his work in permanent form; for our generation offers the last chance for doing what Mr. Curtis has done…. e has not only seen their vigorous outward existence, but has caught glimpses, such as few white men ever catch, into that strange spiritual and mental life of theirs; from whose innermost recesses all white men are forever barred. Mr. Curtis in publishing this book is rendering a real and great service; a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere.”

The New York Times gushed:

“Photo-History” is the apt word which has been coined to describe the work which Edward S. Curtis is doing for the North American Indian. Nothing just like it has ever before been attempted for any people. Some slight inkling of its value, both artistic and ethnographic, has been given by a few articles and pictures published in magazines and newspapers.”

"Nanook of the North - A story of life and love in the actual arctic"

“Nanook of the North – A story of life and love in the actual arctic”

Flaherty’s Nanook of the North was released in 1922, claiming it was a reflection of real life in the arctic. He sold his work in the same way Curtis sold his — as a picture of a vanishing people.

“What I want to show is the former majesty and character of these people, while it is still possible—before the white man has destroyed not only their character, but the people as well,” he wrote in his memoir. Flaherty presented his film as a look at the “actual arctic.” (Menand)

“Those who have praised Flaherty see him as a great artist and observer, or as Calder-Marshall called him, “an innocent eye,” a man who filmed out of love not greed. As Richard Corliss said, Flaherty “simply saw the truth and brought it home.” (Rony 116)

2) Criticism

A later generation of photographers and filmmakers turned a critical eye towards the depictions created by Curtis and Flaherty. They saw them as deceptive and fundamentally dishonest.

The photo was retouched to remove product labels from the machine-built lodges.

The photo was retouched to remove product labels from the machine-built lodges.

It was revealed that Curtis had essentially faked some of his most iconic images. The Native Americans he photographed weren’t people he stumbled across while exploring the West — they were modern people he had paid to dress up like their ancestors. Or, more accurately, dress up like Curtis’s romantic image of their ancestors. New tepees and war clothing were manufactured as props for his work.

The most infamous example is below. Image One is the original. Before publication, Curtis erased the clock and toned the photograph to give it a more “authentic” look. This is a typical example of Curtis’s manipulation. Curtis wasn’t trying to reenact Native American culture before European contact. He was staging a vision of Hollywood Indians.

clock originalclock touched up

“Generally the objects removed were of White manufacture. Among these were wagons, parasols, hats, suspenders, and product labels…. Assuming that adherence to the ethnographic present, and not simple deception, was Curtis’s motivation for retouching, it is interesting to note other evidence of acculturation left untouched. Machine-woven fabrics, rifles, medals and other jewelry of White manufacture, sheep, and horses appear frequently. These items, unlike those which Curtis had retouched out of his photographs, were all common in popular imagery of “Indianness” and therefore would not have appeared out of place to most Whites.” (Lyman 76)

"Nanook" bites into a record

“Nanook” bites into a record

Flaherty’s Nanook used many of the same tricks. In one scene, Allakariallak, the man who Flaherty calls “Nanook,” pretends he does not know what a gramophone is, and bites it. In the film’s most dramatic scene, Nanook hunts and kills a seal using a spear. Roger Ebert thinks he may have used a gun off-camera. Flaherty even had his talent build a special igloo missing a wall so his camera could show the interior.

These tricks bothered mid-20th Century filmmakers who championed vérité – and they (rightly) bothered my journalism professors in college. But the real deception was the way in which Native Americans were presented as a prehistoric “other,” rather than part of a living culture.

“…the Inuit portrayed in Nanook thus were using guns, knew about gramophones, wore Western clothing, and, although many had died from Western diseases, certainly were not vanishing” (Rony 109)

3) Rehabilitation

21st Century concerns of cultural imperialism, exploitation and appropriation would seem to convict both Curtis and Flaherty. But the past few decades have actually helped to rehabilitate their works.

Spotted Bull - Mandan on display at Crystal Bridges

Spotted Bull – Mandan on display at Crystal Bridges

The change has come about from a different way of seeing authorship. Rather than looking at Native Americans as victims of auteurs, contemporary criticism looks at them as participants in the creation of their myths.

“It is one of the proposals of the present study that The North American Indian should, to some extent at least, be read as a work of Native American autobiography and visual self-presentation, and that the hundreds of Native individuals who worked with Curtis during roughly three decades be considered its coauthors or co-creators.” (Zamir 10)

“De Heusch explained that the Inuit actors in Flaherty’s film willingly play-acted for the camera, a technique which he characterized as ethnographically sound, using French anthropologist Marcel Griaule’s use of role-play as an example.” (Rony 116)

Yebechai dancer

Yebechai dancer

Although the props Curtis used were manufactured, they were made largely by the Native Americans playing the roles. An exception – in this photograph of a Yebechai dancer, Curtis was asked to make the costume after consulting with the dancer, to ensure its use would not be sacreligious. Flaherty, for his part, showed rushes to his Inuit crew and they helped to print and develop the film.

The portrayal of the Native Americans, from this point of view, is subjective from a shared point-of-view between the White Europeans and the Native Americans themselves.

“Part of the appeal of participant obsevation is that it purportedly enables the Ethnographer to show how the anthropologist sees the native, but how the native sees himself. Flaherty encouraged the believe that he was doing just that. He explained, “I wanted to show the Innuit [sic]. And I wanted to show them, not from the civilized point of view, but as they saw themselves, as ‘we the people.” (Rony 119)


An English painting from an English poem inspired by Welsh mythology

We can think of parallels in other cultural exchanges. The “Celtic Revival” of the 19th and 20th Centuries was initiated by the English ruling class, who had been using Celtic myths in their own legends for centuries. The romantic image of the Celts as portrayed in novels and films is far from historically accurate. But this is not usually seen as a negative example of appropriation, because modern Celts were full participants in the myth-making. It was how the Celts “saw themselves.”

But, I don’t know how well this analogy applies. Just how much did and could the Native American subjects portrayed in these works really control and participate in the process? It seems as though there was a fundamental power imbalance between the owners of the works – Curtis and Flaherty – and those who helped create them.


“AMERICAN INDIAN IN “PHOTO HIST.” The New York Times, 6 Jun 1908, sec. Saturday Review of Books.

Duncan, Dean W.. “Nanook of the North.” Criterion Collection. 11 Jan 1999. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

Ebert, Roger. “Nanook of the North.” Roger Ebert. 25 Sep 2005. (accessed Jun 4, 2015).

King, Gilbert. “Edward Curtis’ Epic Project.” Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Mar 2012, (accessed Jun).

Lyman, Christopher M.. and Edward Curtis. The Vanishing Race and Other I.: Pantheon Books in association. 1982.

Menand, Louis. “Nanook and Me.” The Atlantic, 9 Aug 2004, (accessed Jun).

Rony, Fatimah T. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, a.: Duke University Press. 1996.

Zamir, Shamoon The Gift of the Face Portraitu.: UNC Press Books. 2014.

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2014 Best Picture Nominees – Ranked from Best to Worst

How I would fill out my preferential ballot for this year’s Academy Awards:

Both my vote and my betting pick for Best Picture

Both my vote and my betting pick for Best Picture

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
A gimmick is only a gimmick if it isn’t used well. In Boyhood, it is a technique. We see not a character grow old in makeup, but a real, live human being change before our eyes. This is an emotional pick for me. My son turned two just before I saw Boyhood, and the idea that he will grow up is only now turning real.

Out of all 8, this is the one that will be watched by the most people for the longest period of time.

Out of all 8, this is the one that will be watched by the most people for the longest period of time.

(dir. Ava DuVernay)
I saw the movie on a weekday. The audience stayed through the end credits song and applauded. DuVernay and actor Oyelowo pull up the impossible tasks of 1) telling a saint’s story in a way that avoids both haigiography and denigration and 2) marking a historic victory for freedom that avoids both self-congratulation and complacency.

Selma‘s existence serves to highlight the political dimension of the Civil Rights movement that has somehow gotten lost in the popular retellings. We forget that equality is not inevitable – it happens because people take action to create it.

A scene that oddly reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut.

A scene that oddly reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut.

Birdman (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The Broadway Russian Ark. The continuous shot is impressive, but doesn’t overwhelm the narrative in the way Joe Wright’s much shorter takes do. The narrative gets more than a bit formulaic, but the acting performances elevate the material. Keaton gives one of the best performances of his career.

Name the director from a single frame

Name the director from a single frame

The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
My favorite Wes Anderson yet. He’s finally at the point in his career where he’s comfortable with a plot, and the results are exciting. I can’t wait to see where he goes from here. Adventure is a good fit for him. I’d love to see him direct a Bond film a decade or so from now.

Anderson’s style also seems perfect for both time periods the film is set in. It’s modern, yet somehow simultaneously not modern.

In which musical greatness is defined as masochism.

In which musical greatness is defined as masochism.

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
Engrossing, exciting movie that took me on a journey I didn’t expect. The first 30 minutes lulled me into thinking it’d be an Oscar-bait biopic. Then, is surprised me, and again and again. The final showdown was beautifully cathartic, like the coda to a rock song. But it kept me thinking. Was it worth it? What does the movie want us to think?

Subtitle: Scenes from a Marriage

Subtitle: Scenes from a Marriage

The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)
A nice takedown of the manic pixie dream girl trope. A good, mainline biopic that occasionally dips its toe into the water of ambition, finds it too cold, and withdraws. (The strange fantasy sequence near the end of the movie, for example, seems like a start at a theme that was later cut)

Pretty much exactly the same plot as Sergeant York.

Pretty much exactly the same plot as Sergeant York.

American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood)
I think I saw a different movie than everyone else. Rather than jingoistic sadism or a paean to an American Hero, American Sniper focuses primarily on the moral injury suffered by soldiers when they kill. The movie’s didactic lessons – Al-Qaeda in Iraq is evil, PTSD is real, soldiers who suffer deserve our support – are nowhere near controversial. But, it’s nice to see any movie that reminds Americans about the wars they chose to forget several years ago.

This is where Skynet came from.

This is where Skynet came from.

The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum)
Fills this year’s World War II Biography slot at the Oscars. Cumberbatch as Turing was the most obvious casting decision of the year. The movie played it safe for the most part, but did its job admirably.

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Strategic exoticism in Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki aka The Journey of the Hyena (1973) dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty


There’s a romantic attraction to the unfamiliar, and enjoying the exotic can be refreshing and provide new perspective. I imagine the Buddharūpa I encounter in films and museums could be seen as kitsch by people who grow up with them. Locals here in Northwest Arkansas dismiss Christ of the Ozarks as “Milk Carton Jesus,” but might a visitor from Tibet find a pilgrimage to Magnetic Mountain spiritually transcendent?

Bond leading the Mujaheddin.

Bond leading the Mujaheddin.

Exoticism is the normal way we’re taught to experience other cultures through film and television. This is true whether it’s an English family living along the Ganges in the 1951 film The River, or an English MI6 agent foiling corporate blackmail in Turkey, Japan or Brazil, or an English policeman solving crimes in Wales in S4C’s Hinterland.

Touki Bouki couple
This is how the Bonnie & Clyde couple at the center of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1973 Touki Bouki experience Paris. They feel like they don’t fit in in Senegal, and make plans to illegally emigrate to France. A short excerpt from Josephine Baker’s song “Paris Paris” plays on the track whenever they make progress to their goal, the light, trite tone reminding us that Mory and Anta’s are two people who know Paris primarily from songs and movies.

Mambéty knows audiences outside Senegal with approach his movie from this same perspective – as will many people inside Senegal. So, he uses the symbols a romantic might see as “authentic” or “exotic,” and then puts them in context.

Two brief examples of what might be called “strategic exoticism:” The film opens with a young shirtless cattle herder riding a Zebu. The long, postcard-worthy shot cuts to a graphic scene of the cattle being slaughtered at a meat plant.

Touki Bouki - Zebu

Later in the film, Senegalese gather at a stadium to watch a traditional sport – which we learn is to raise money for a new monument to Charles de Gaulle.

Touki Bouki - Match

Mambéty uses other strategies as well to try and show us the complexity of contemporary Senegal. After the Zebu scene, Mambéty brings us to a small community where our protagonist lives. He gives us time to look, and listen. He shows us laundry hanging over wooden houses, a student in slacks and a shirt writing and drinking bottled water, a woman selling produce at a market, and a man delivering mail at a radio store. He hear an airplane fly by, a baby cry, a Muslim call to prayer, a siren sound, and a mother lecture her daughter over the man she is dating.

Touki Bouki

The camera enters the scene tracking the mailman, and the initial movement in the scene all follows his journey. The mailman is the one person in a society who sees everyone. Mambéty is teaching us from the outset that one viewpoint alone can’t tell the story of Senegal.

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Murnau’s Faust in 5 Frames

Faust (1926) dir. F.W. Murnau

Faust 01“”Faust,” with its supernatural vistas of heaven and hell, is particularly distinctive in the way it uses the whole canvas. Consider the startling early shot of Mephisto, his dark wings obscuring the sky as he hovers above a little village that huddles in the lower right corner.” – Roger Ebert

Faust 02Rembrandt’s etchings are brilliant studies of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and darkness in a work of art. An etching is a symbolically-rich form for depicting Faust, the classic, oft-told story of the battle between good and evil for one man’s soul.” – Darren Hughes

Faust 05“.. the film is dominated by [Emil] Jannings’s charismatic Mephisto, made up like a character in the kabuki theatre.” – Philip French

Faust 04“Decades before the advent of digital effects, Murnau was pushing boundaries in terms of visual innovation that still impress and dazzle today. While they may no longer seem photo-realistic, his use of super-imposition, model work, camera movement and other visual storytelling techniques single out Faust as one of the great technical masterpieces of the silent era.” – James Marsh

Faust 03“The cosmos aligned itself through emotion for Murnau—it’s not a substitute for literature, it’s pure cinema.” – Fernando F. Croce

Faust is available to watch on YouTube.

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Funny Games in our minds

Funny Games (1997) dir. Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s 1997 Austrian film Funny Games (and the 2007 American shot-by-shot remake) is a horror that constantly asks viewers why they keep watching.

Funny GamesA family arrives at a lake house for a vacation. They chat with their neighbors, but each of the lake’s homes are far apart enough to leave each of them isolated. While they settle in, a stranger comes to the door. He is a young man named Peter, dressed in white and wearing white gloves, and he asks to borrow eggs from Anna, the family’s mother. His accomplice, Paul, soon joins him. Paul hits the father, Georg, with a golf club, crippling him.

Peter and Paul (who refer to each other as “Tom and Jerry” or “Beevis and Butthead”) spend the rest of the day psychologically and physically torturing the family, promising to kill them all.

The violence in Funny Games is a bit of a paradox. Although most of the worst violence is off-screen, it feels more horrifying and awful than most of the “torture porn” that has come out since.

“In general, things that are not shown and that the spectator needs to imagine with his own fantasy can be much stronger than the things that are actually shown,” Haneke told cine-fils magazine.

It is our imagination – and not the movie – that conjures up the most disturbing images.

Funny Games - Plausible PlotPaul breaks the third wall several times during the film. He winks at the camera, says they must keep the torture going because “we haven’t even reached feature-film length yet.” Late in the movie, he even puts it on pause, rewinds and starts again, in order to prevent his victims from escaping.

Funny Games - bloody televisionThis way, Haneke reminds us that everything “happening” in the movie is our fault. We’re the ones wanted to watch a horror movie. If we don’t want to see a family tortured to death, we can leave the theater or turn off the TV. And Haneke isn’t even showing us the real violence — that’s all in our minds.

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Your Changing Body – Videodrome and Marshall McLuhan

Videodrome (1983) dir. David Cronenberg
McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O'Blivion

McLuhan stand-in Prof. Brian O’Blivion

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome explores the disorienting ways that new media technology ruthlessly transforms not only our shared cultures, but also our very bodies and minds.

Videodrome relies of the theories expounded by 20th Century thinker Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan believed “the medium is the message.” The actual content of our media isn’t what changes us. Debates about violence in our movies or politics in our books largely miss the truly transformative power of media.

The demise of the Western as a Hollywood staple is a reflection of cultural memes and interesting to study. But it is trivial compared to the switch from scrolls to the printing press or from radio to television. These changes in medium transformed not just the way ideas are expressed, and not even only the ideas themselves, but the way we actually think and behave.

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

When I was young, my parents were convinced that too much television would “fry my brain.” However, they allowed me to watch as much PBS as I wanted. McLuhan would argue that Masterpiece Theatre on PBS programmed my life just as The Simpsons (which I wanted to watch) would have.

The lines at the bottom of this page of "The Medium is the Massage" area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

The lines at the bottom of this page of “The Medium is the Massage” area visual example of the way McLuhan believed the alphabet changed our thought.

“In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs,” he wrote of the rise of automation.” (McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. 1964. New edition, Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1994.  7-8.)

McLuhan gave examples of how media has changed thought over time, beginning with Socrates lamenting the invention of the alphabet:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves… You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will not be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.”(McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. 1967. Reprint, Madera, CA: Ginko Press, 2001. 113.)

In order to hammer home the importance of medium over content, McLuhan uses the example of the light bulb.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

The lights at Wrigley Field, installed in 1988.

“The electric light is pure information. Is is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it us used to spell out some verbal ad or name…Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8-9.)

For the past ten years, Virginia Tech Professor Roger Ekrich has researched the West’s forgotten memory of a lightless night. He writes that Europeans and Americans used to wake in the middle of the night, and divide their time between a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.” This in between time would be used for study, prayer and sex. The rise of overnight lighting affected our mental and physical health, our sexual, social and spiritual lives, and changed the way we think and live.

This biological transformation of medium is one of the key elements of McLuhan’s work – and at the heart of Videodrome.

“All media are extentions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. The wheel is an extension of the foot. The book is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. Electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” (McLuhan, et al., The Medium is the Massage, 26-41.)

In Videodrome, this idea is taken perhaps only a bit farther than McLuhan intended. The character Professor Brian O’Blivion is a stand-in for McLuhan, claiming “the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.”

This becomes even more literal in the case of James Woods’s character, Max Renn. Renn views sadistic pornography called “Videodrome” through a scrambled satellite feed. This pornography acts as a rabbit hole to a world of conspiracies and hallucinations.

The conspiracies are impossible to follow and, if analogized as McLuhan’s idea of “content,” aren’t that meaningful. What is meaningful to Renn is that his body and mind are controlled by video and television.

videodrome vhs

James Woods as Max Renn in Videodrome.

He has become one with the media. Renn’s stomach and sex organs become a VCR. His hand becomes a gun – which is directed by whichever television program happens to be able to broadcast into him.

The idea of VHS tapes and television as an all-pervasive, world-controlling technology definitely dates the film. However, the zeerust adds an additional layer of interpretation for contemporary viewers.

McLuhan died in 1980, and Videodrome was made in 1983, just a little too early to experience the mass media revolution that began in the 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen a revolution every few years – personal computers, the internet, laptops, mobile phones, internet speeds fast enough for video, and smart phones.

There has also been an explosion of research inspired by McLuhan.Here are brief sample of the ways these new media – and not their content – have changed our biology:

woman binary“…most of us with access to the web spend at least a couple of hours a day online—and sometimes much more. During that time, we tend to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again. As we go through these motions, the net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory and auditory cortices. “The net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing people from thinking either deeply or creatively.” – The Difference Engine: Rewiring the brain – The internet is changing the way we think (The Economist, Aug. 6, 2010)

“But no matter how carefully Google attends to requests to modify our collective memory, the search engine may have already made its mark on the way individual memory functions… One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory—to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.”- Scientific Proof that Google Is Destroying Your Memory (New Republic, June 3, 2014)

child holding smart phoneIt’s not the Angry Birds, streaming videos, emails from your boss, or your Facebook updates that disturb your sleep when you spend an evening staring at your smartphone or tablet… Cells at the back of your eyes pick up particular light wavelengths and, with a light-sensitive protein called melanopsin, signal the brain’s master clock, which controls the body’s circadian rhythms.” – How Your Smartphones Messes with Your Brain – and Your Sleep (Scientific American blog, May 20, 2014)

These are all once-in-many-generational changes that have happened all in just one generation. We went from telephones, television and the printing press to a world where nearly anyone can broadcast their thoughts, sights and sounds to the globe simply by moving her fingers around.

videodrome virtual realityMcLuhan’s 1960s optimism preached that the youth and the teenagers would adapt to the new media. If they simply understood what was happening, they could thrive. But Cornenberg expressed the change in media as body horror. Renn knows how the media works, but that doesn’t do him any good. His identity is constantly and bewilderingly stripped from him, rebuilt, and transformed at speed to which he never has a chance to catch his breath. His body and mind are raped, and he is weaponized against everyone and against himself. His experience of being thrust into the new age is closer to Kafka’s than to the hippie’s.

"The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change." - Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

“The human capcity to adapt to change is being stretched to its limit by the rapid rate of technological change.” – Robert Gerzon, Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety

Also read: Jakub Vémola’s thesis ‘Reflections of Marshall McLuhan’s Media Theory in the Cinematic Work of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan


and read: Mitchell, W.J.T. “Addressing Media,” MediaTropes eJournal, 2008. 1-18. 

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