Michael Bay’s promotional aesthetic.

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University, UK

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A new teaser trailer for the forthcoming action film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in this series of films directed by Michael Bay, was circulated on the internet earlier this week. There is a lot that might be said about these films (that are derived from a series of Japanese toys and a rudimentary transnationally produced children’s cartoon). For example, they might be discussed as symptomatic examples of:

  • the serial status of commercial cinema
  • the apparent convergence of cinema with other media
  • the apparently infantilising address of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed “the culture industry”
  • the cultural practice of what Georges Bataille termed “non-productive expenditure”
  • popular culture’s eschatological preoccupation with narratives of disaster
  • or the dominant ideological configuration of mainstream cinema.

Regardless of the critical distaste with which Michael Bay’s films are generally regarded, they provide us with rich source material.

The latest 150-second trailer is, however, a striking piece of audio-visual material in its own right. It is highly condensed and elliptical, repeatedly interspersing shots with fades to black. Brief lines of dialogue from the human characters are scattered through the short piece, and the sound design blends this dialogue with droning incidental music and emphatically synthesised sound effects. As the sequence moves towards a climax, cutting together spectacularly intricate and dynamic shots of the Transformer robots battling and metamorphosing, spacecraft, flying machines, and the cityscapes of Chicago and Hong Kong, the diegetic sound becomes muffled and indistinct beneath the electronic noise, before dropping briefly into silence.

The schematic narrative appears to concern a manual labourer (played by Mark Wahlberg), who has bought a decrepit truck to rebuild in order to make the money to pay his daughter’s college fees. In a gesture of ironic intertextuality typical of the contemporary action film the truck is almost identical to the vehicle used in a car chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991), and, indeed, as Wahlberg stares at the truck, preparing to go to work on it, he mutters to himself, ‘Come on, you old wreck. Judgment day’. He realises that he has found a Transformer, bringing it to life by connecting it to a car battery, whereupon a shadowy security team descend upon his house, demanding to know the whereabouts of ‘Optimus Prime’, one of the principal robots in the earlier films. At that point, the sound design changes and there is a generic shift from the codes of the family melodrama (with a father and daughter struggling to make money) to a science-fiction action film, marked by explosions and images of destruction, extensive use of visually baroque CGI, mobile cameras, slow-motion, dramatic lighting, aerial shots, and a diegetic expansion or perspective shift from the intimate scale of the mid-West farmhouse in the opening shots to a global scale with shots of vast spaceships orbiting the earth. The short montage concludes with three shots showing ‘Optimus Prime’ fighting in a canyon with a robotic Tyrannosaurus in another gesture of intertextual citation, linking this film with the Jurassic Park series of films, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg (who, as producer, persuaded a sceptical Bay to direct the first Transformers film).

There are certain formal conventions that are specific to the teaser trailer, since they are designed to be incomplete and ambiguous – to seduce the viewer through a brief indication of what will be offered liberally by the film itself – but what is striking about this trailer is how well it works as a film in its own right. In some respects, it is far more exciting and more arresting because of its extreme condensation. It invites the viewer to assemble the narrative speculatively from these semantically dense fragments.  If we have seen the previous three films – or, perhaps, any films – we can anticipate how the full-length film will unfold, but I suspect the fascination and richness of these spectacular, suggestive images will be dissipated rather than amplified and elaborated over the course of two hours or more. Writing in 1915 on the emergence of the feature-length film in the wake of the ‘nickel boom’ in the US, the pioneering Chicago-based film theorist Vachel Lindsay wrote that:

There is not a good film in the world but is the better for being seen in immediate succession to itself. Six-reel programmes are a weariness to the flesh. The best of the old one-reel Biographs of Griffith contained more in twenty minutes than these ambitious incontinent six-reel displays give us in two hours (Lindsay 1915, 46).

The same might perhaps be said of this trailer; this 2½-minute, $165m blockbuster (which is the estimated budget for this film) is certain to be far more exciting and rich than the epic film that will be released later this year (just as the re-released ‘director’s cut’ of a classic film is rarely an improvement). In this sense, the teaser trailer is the ideal form of the narrative film. It follows the same structural principles of the feature-length narrative, providing just enough narrative and generic cues for us to be able to construct the narrative as spectators, but eschews the exposition, redundancy and overstatement that are deemed to be essential elements of the conventional narrative film. In other words, overturning the hierarchical relationship between the two texts, we might argue that the commercial feature film embodies, or aspires to reproduce, the promotional aesthetic of the trailer. Michael Bay’s films are often dismissed as extended music promos, spot ads, or trailers because of their emphatic stylisation, narrative incoherence, and tonal uncertainty, but in this respect there is a formal purity to the films. They reduce mainstream cinema down to its essential commodity form.

Reference:

Lindsay, Vachel. (2000 [1915]), The Art of the Moving Picture, New York: The Modern Library

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This extraordinary photograph says a great deal about contemporary Hollywood. Taken with a phone at the Oscars ceremony when the host Ellen DeGeneres stepped off stage to take a picture of herself with Meryl Streep as a stunt to try to get a record-breaking number of retweets, the photograph has indeed reportedly broken records for the most retweeted and most rapidly retweeted photograph circulated on Twitter.

The image itself reproduces a very familiar fantasy of Hollywood stardom, crystallizing the impression that life is a continual party for the wealthy and the beautiful, but at the same time it demonstrates the paradoxical double register of stardom, in which we are periodically reminded that stars are also just like the rest of us. On the face of it, the image appears to be an authentic, spontaneous snap; formally it resembles a photograph anybody with a smartphone might have taken at one time or another. This impression is reinforced by the presence of Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o’s brother, Peter in the bottom right, who accompanied his sister to the event and who has become in an instant a globally recognisable individual after joining the group of stars who pushed themselves into the frame. But of course, no matter how provisional and unplanned the photograph itself might appear to be, there is nothing accidental about the staging of the event and the distribution of people around the space. It is a contingent document of a very carefully staged industrial promotional event.

Nevertheless, there are a number of historically significant dimensions to this image. The most obvious of these is that at the centre of the picture is a lesbian woman, the host for the global TV broadcast, while just visible at the back is Lupita Nyong’o, who won the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ award for 12 Years a Slave (McQueen, 2013), the film that won the ‘Best Picture’ award. It is therefore an attractive visualisation of the American film industry’s self-representation as a liberal, inclusive and historically reflective film culture. More broadly and more significantly, however, at a point at which Hollywood distributors are abandoning the distribution of 35mm prints, it represents both the integration of cinema with digital communications technologies in a shifting screen culture, as well as an increasingly indistinct and complex relationship between film and television (as embodied, for instance by the presence of  Kevin Spacey who is probably best known right now for his starring role in the series House of Cards, which was produced by David Fincher and is the first in-house production by the on-demand internet streaming service, Netflix). The real historical significance of this image lies not so much in the speed with which it has been circulated, nor in its content, but in its status as a synecdoche for the contemporary global entertainment complex.

 

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

‘Deserting the human race’: Introduction to La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Dukes cinema, 27th Jan, 2014

(This was the introduction I gave for the screening of a new digital restoration of this film, which was screened within a series of ‘Gothic’ films)

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La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast) is the second of the six extant films that were directed by the prolific French poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, artist and director, Jean Cocteau.

The film is an adaptation of the French fairy-tale that was first published as a novella  by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740 and then later reworked and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. Published in 1756, this is the version of the story that has become the key source for all subsequent adaptations. Beauty and the Beast is one of the most well known examples of the ‘literary fairy tale’. These were first produced by groups of writers, chiefly aristocratic women, in 18th France who gathered in Salons. Thus they were initially intended for educated adult audiences, as upper-class women would entertain themselves and one another by retelling stories adapted from traditional folk tales, improvising and embellishing them. Storytelling in this context was a form of competitive intellectual game-playing as well as entertainment, a demonstration of the wit and creativity of the storyteller.

Literary historians have argued that these stories were often a coded means by which the women could imagine how their restricted lives might be improved – these fantasy narratives were a highly symbolic and oblique way of telling allegorical stories about contemporary reality as they experienced it. At a certain point in the 18th century, however, women such as Beaumont began transcribing and publishing the stories, which made them available to a wider audience and, in particular, to bourgeois and aristocratic children. As the audience for the stories changed, the function of them changed too so that one of the principal aims of the literary fairy tale became that of providing moral instruction to children – the very small minority of children who could read or were read to. For instance, the version of Beauty and the Beast that Cocteau worked from was published in a volume pointedly entitled, The Children’s Journal, or Conversations between a wise governess and several of her pupils of the highest quality.

There are certain features that came to characterise the literary fairy tale: they were short (so that they were reproducible – they could be easily read and memorised and lend themselves to retelling and adaptation); they were didactic or instructional (teaching the readers certain values or ideologies);  and, in particular, they restate repeatedly the message that power lies naturally with the aristocracy.

For instance, in terms of its ideological significance, Beaumont’s version, is often understood as a story that asserts the importance of honouring promises, the value of women’s self-denial (sacrificing their desires for the interests of others), and uncritical devotion to one’s father. However, there is, of course, some ambiguity in the story, which is one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast has remained fascinating to readers and audiences. Beaumont was a progressive thinker in the context of the period in which she lived. As a governess herself, she wanted women to have more access to education and more prominent social roles. At the same time, however, like many of the women attending the salons she was committed to the patriarchal social structure in which she lived. Similarly, Beauty can be understood as brave and determined (she is far more courageous than her father or the other men in the story) or she can be seen as submissive, while the beast, the symbolic epitome of masculinity, is both repulsive and fascinating, violently aggressive and loving, animalistic and civilised – as one of Beauty’s sisters observes in the film, for instance, in a sardonic comment on masculinity, ‘Lots of husbands are hairy and horned’. Jack Zipes suggests that what makes the story so powerful, and why it has been retold so regularly, and also adapted for film numerous times, is precisely that it lays bare and dramatises these contradictions. The story concerns characters wrestling with contradictory desires, instincts and obligations.

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Production began on the film in August 1945 and it was apparently a difficult shoot. In the immediate aftermath of the war in which resources were limited, they were working with old, unreliable cameras that frequently jammed, damaged lenses, film stock of onconistsent quality, and even had trouble sourcing fabric for dressing sets and cutting costumes. It took them a lot of work, for example, to find unpatched sheets for a scene where they’re drying linen in the garden. The house where Beauty and her family live was also next to a military airfield and their sound-recordings were often ruined by training flights passing overhead. Cocteau himself suffered for much of the shoot with skin rashes and excruciatingly painful boils that led him to resume an opium addiction, and he claimed that his hair turned white over the months spent working on the film. In his production diary, he reconciles himself to these difficulties with the consolation that heroic suffering is essential for the production of poetry.

However, these difficulties aren’t evident in the film, which is visually sumptuous and has a lightness of touch and a clarity that belies the frustrations of the shoot, and it manages to capture the strangeness of the fairytale narrative very successfully.

Cocteau didn’t direct many films – although he enjoyed collaborating, he saw himself primarily as a poet, and preferred to work alone – but what drew him to cinema was the sense that it was the best medium in which to convey a sense of what he called the ‘Marvellous’ – inexplicable, irrational interruptions in the fabric of normality. As he explained it,

The Marvellous would be […] a simple human miracle, very commonplace, which consists of giving to persons and objects a certain “unusualness” which defies analysis. (43, 1977)

This is a concept that was central to surrealist art and literature (and André Breton’s writing in particular), and so it is unsurprising that Cocteau’s first film, Blood of a Poet (1930), is one of the avant-garde classics of surrealist cinema.

In terms of style and structure, Beauty and the Beast is a much more conventional film – Cocteau said that Blood of a Poet was a ‘film for fifty film connoisseurs’, whereas Beauty and the Beast was made for a wider audience. Nevertheless, it retains a number of elements – strange, unexplained details, photographic effects, abrupt edits, as well as theatrical tricks such as ‘Pepper’s ghost’ – that are familiar from surrealist cinema in order to render the ‘unusualness’ of the space inhabited by the beast. These include the uncanny living statues in the beast’s mansion, the candelabras supported by human arms, the use of slow-motion and reverse-motion cinematography, the rather disjointed narrative, the disconnected relationship between music and on-screen action and the use of silence, and the curiously theatrical style of some of the performances.

But, of course, the figure of the beast himself is the clearest embodiment of Cocteau’s concept of the marvellous – the inexplicable, irrational disruption of everyday reality. Perhaps the most fascinating and uncanny element of the film, he is played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s lover, who had suggested the idea for the film in the first place. Like Cocteau, he too suffered during the film since Cocteau insisted that rather than wear a rubber mask, his make-up should be glued painstakingly to his skin so that his own face remained visible underneath the fur. As a result, he recalled:

It took me five hours to make up – that meant thirteen hours a day in the studio. Because of the fangs attached to my teeth, all I could eat was mush, and that by the spoonful. Between takes I scarcely opened my mouth lest the makeup become unglued: no one understood what I said, and that exasperated me.

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But the consequence of this physical discomfort is a very memorable cinematic figure. Indeed, for Cocteau, Marais’ commitment to art was an inspiration and he wrote that, as a consequence of this passion, when Marais played the beast he went through a transformation, ‘deserting the human race for the animal race.’ This vivid phrase describes both the transformation undergone by the actor, and also the decision made by Beauty within the narrative to offer herself to the beast. More broadly still, it is suggestive of the potential of cinematic fantasy to transport the viewer to an imaginary and impossible space.

The beast’s spectacular costume is the central attraction of a visually rich film – the production designer used paintings by Johannes Vermeer and prints by the French illustrator Gustave Doré as reference points for designing the interiors. This is a film that is all about light in one respect – it is central to the film’s aesthetic and the precise lighting scheme establishes a distinction between the glowing sunshine of Beauty’s world, and the shadowy world of the Beast, which is characterised by low-key chiaroscuro lighting, silhouettes and back-lighting, luminous smoke and fog, and dark rooms and corridors punctuated by sparkling highlights. Cocteau chose Agfa film stock over Kodak because, he said, he wanted the film to have the ‘soft gleam of hand-polished old silver’. It is a very accurate description of the film’s distinctive antiqued metallic lustre

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Cocteau was in an unhappy situation more generally when they were making the film. He had lived in Paris during the occupation and was accused by the BBC in 1944 of being a collaborator having published an article in 1942 praising the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (one of Hitler’s favourite artists). He wasn’t a fascist, and he was investigated and acquitted after the war by two tribunals, but would no doubt have been especially keen to put the war behind him.

Jack Zipes has suggested one of the remarkable features of Cocteau’s version of Beauty and the Beast is that it emphasises more strongly than any other film adaptation, the oedipal dimensions of the story: the daughter’s self-sacrificing devotion to her father. This is undoubtedly a plausible interpretation of the film, and the simple story invites a number of others; the American composer, Philip Glass, who has written operas based on three of Cocteau’s films including this one (wherein Glass’s opera was performed in exact synchronisation with the film), suggests it is a film about ‘the nature of the creative process’, as well as a love story. However, it seems quite likely that a powerful attraction of the film both for Cocteau, and for audiences watching it in the ruined and impoverished environment of post-war Europe, is also that it invites us to step into a fantasy world, a simpler, apparently innocent space (like the characters within the film who pass back and forth between normality and the magical space occupied by the Beast). The film opens with a written message from Cocteau, himself, inviting viewers to suspend their cynicism and watch the film with a childlike simplicity.

The film’s initial success – and the fact that it has been revived repeatedly culminating with this pristine new restoration – suggests that cinema audiences have always been very willing to take up the invitation.

References:

Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Philip Glass on La Belle et La Bete’ from the booklet accompanying the 1995 CD release of Glass’s opera.

Arthur B. Evans (1977) Jean Cocteau and his Films of Orphic Identity. London: Associated University Presses

Elizabeth Sprigge, Jean-Jacques Kim (1968) Jean Cocteau: The Man and the Mirror. London: Victor Gollancz

Francis Steegmuller (1970) Cocteau: A Biography. London: Macmillan.

Jack Zipes (1994) Fairytale as Myth/Myth as Fairytale. Lexington: University of Kentucky

New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings

Bruce Bennett

One of the running gags in Flight of the Conchords, the sitcom about the eponymous ‘novelty music’ duo from New Zealand, who are trying to make it in New York, is that the walls of their manager Murray Hewitt, the deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand embassy, are decorated with  posters diffidently promoting tourism to the country with such captions as  ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE SCOTLAND BUT FURTHER’ and ‘NEW ZEALAND, ONLY 18 HOURS FROM NEW YORK’, and ‘NEW ZEALAND, WORTH A GO’; but one of the funniest is a mountain-scape with the caption, ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS’.

Visiting New Zealand six years later, it is clear that this similarity is a crucial promotional device. When you fly in to Wellington airport, for instance, one of the first things you see is the exterior of the terminal building, which is decked with a large banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth’, while the interior of the terminal is dominated by impressive and beautifully detailed statues of Gollum catching fish underwater and Gandalf flying on the back of a giant eagle.

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These attest to the presence nearby of WETA digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects facility, but travelling through New Zealand you are constantly reminded of the importance of these films to the country’s cotemporary cultural identity and international prominence. Bookshops across the country have stands dedicated to the second Hobbit film, and it is difficult to escape the various locations used for shooting the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as you move around the country – I jogged up Mount Victoria in Wellington one morning, passing the point where the hobbits hide from the black riders beneath a bank, and later took the ski-lift up the volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and walked around ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Mead’s Wall’, the location for several scenes including the severing of Sauron’s hand.

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The neighbouring volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, meanwhile, also functions as Mount Doom in the films.

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On sale in almost every bookshop around the country is a Lord of the Rings location guide, newly updated to include The Hobbit trilogy, allowing tourists to plot a route around the country visiting the numerous locations. However, this project of over-writing the terrain of the country with a fantastic cinematic landscape goes into over-drive in the small town of Matamata, the dairy-farming and horse-breeding centre of the North island, Te Ika a-Maui, that is also the site of the set of the hobbits’ village, Hobbiton.

In the town centre a sign welcomes you to Hobbiton, and the adjacent tourist information centre is housed in a thatched hobbit house, while the windows and walls of local shops have been decorated with imagery from the films.

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The focus of a visit to Matamata is a 90-minute guided tour of the set. This was built as a temporary set on nearby farmland for the Lord of the Rings films with assistance from the NZ army who constructed a metalled road to the site – and the bus driver gave us a full account of the process by which the film-makers identified the location and negotiated with the fortunate land-owners, pointing out the famer’s house along the way, as well as his neighbour’s house which was commandeered by Jackson and his assistant as a production base for the shoot.

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After being partially dismantled on the films’ completion, it was rebuilt as a permanent set-cum-tourist attraction for the three Hobbit films and is now maintained by a team of staff. The company managing the site extended the set by constructing the ‘Green Dragon Inn’, which serves food and drinks at the end of the tour of the 44 hobbit holes, which are built to different scales to allow forced perspective staging (and only a handful of them have shallow interiors). It is an interesting  and popular tour – they were expecting 2000 visitors on boxing day but average around 1000 per day – and it is fascinating to see the amount of care with which the detailed sets were built, almost all of which is imperceptible in the films – such as the artificial oak tree above Bilbo’s house ‘Bag End’, or the apple tree that was changed to a plum tree (by art students who painstakingly replaced all the leaves), through to the artificial lichen covering the surface of the woodwork.

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The long-term value to New Zealand, and in particular, to film production in the country, of hosting these transnational super-productions is perhaps questionable. They offer a case study of how small national cinemas are occasionally invigorated by injections of US money due to tax breaks, comparatively high levels of privacy and extraordinary government support – it turns out, for example, that a 5,000 feet no-fly zone was established over the Hobbiton set to prevent paparazzi photographs, and, incredibly, one pilot who flew journalists over a location on the southern island was subsequently arrested and banned from flying in New Zealand.

James Cameron has just announced that three sequels to Avatar will be produced in New Zealand after negotiating a controversial increase of the tax rebate from 15 to 20% with a possible further 5% increase. Among the conditions of the deal are that the DVD and Bluray releases include a documentary focusing upon New Zealand’s importance as a base for the film’s production. The rationale for this deal is that the production will bring up to NZ$500 into the economy and may boost NZ film production more generally. While the long-term value of such mega-productions to the New Zealand film industry may be disputable, what is clear is that New Zealand has been made-over by Peter Jackson’s films into a quite different place, its landscape and architecture having become fused with the fictional mise-en-scène of the films. Once you are sensitised to it by the barrage of publicity, you begin to see the film’s scenography everywhere in the rolling pastoral hills and mountainous, volcanic skylines. Like the poster says in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand is like Lord of the Rings.

Everyday pleasures: cinema-going

Bruce Bennett

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As the term ‘cinema-going’ suggests, one of the historical pleasures of watching films has been visiting the structures in which they are screened. In An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, Annette Kuhn’s study of people’s memories of cinema-going in the 1930s, she found that for many of the people she interviewed, the cinemas themselves, the groups of friends they went with, or particular occasions on which they went to the pictures were at least as strong a memory as the actual films they saw. Cinema-going is, however, a vanishing pleasure since most of the films and audio-visual material we watch is viewed at home on TV screens and computer monitors, while the experience of watching a film at a multiplex is so expensive and alienating it can feel like undergoing a polite mugging. This is captured nicely in the episode of the sitcom Black Books when the protagonist, Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) pays a rare and reluctant visit to the local multiplex cinema after being locked out of his bookshop:

BB: ‘Excuse me. There seems to be some sort of mistake. I bought a drink and some popcorn and now I have no money left.’

Cashier: ‘That’s how much it costs.’

BB: ‘Why? Is it special popcorn? Does it produce some kind of dizzying high?’

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By contrast, the community cinema on Waiheke Island is a rare exception of a cinema that it is a pleasure to visit. It is in the basement of the community art gallery in the island’s main town of Oneroa and was staffed by volunteers on the occasions I visited. It screens first-run commercial films as well as ‘arthouse’ films and local productions, and has a good surround sound system and digital projector, however watching a film there felt like going to a cinema in another period. It was recommended to us by a volunteer who worked at the local recycling centre who said it reminded her husband of watching films in barracks rooms when he was in the army. The room is decorated with film posters, reels of film, miscellaneous bits of projection equipment and an old 35mm projector, while the ceiling is dotted with stars and crescents. One of the most pleasurable aspects of it is that in place of rows of cinema seats, the room is filled with a varied collection of sofas.

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It seemed appropriate to watch the new Peter Jackson film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in New Zealand for various reasons, but while I would like to have watched it in 3D and HFR, Waiheke community cinema seemed like the most suitable venue.

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Reference:

Annette Kuhn (2002). An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, London: IB Tauris.

 Perfect and ephemeral: Chaplin as cinematic sign

Bruce Bennett

Driving back and forth past this outhouse on the small island of Waiheke in New Zealand/Aotearoa over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by the incongruity of finding this image of Charlie Chaplin at what feels like, from a Eurocentric perspective, the edge of the world. The figure of Chaplin dressed in the costume of his most familiar character, the tramp (or ‘the little fellow’ as Chaplin called him), must surely be one of the most universally recognisable individuals ever to have existed. Like portraits of Che Guevara or Bob Marley, this has become a free-floating signifier that is detached from its original context and is familiar to people who’ve never seen the films.

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Although all the extant material is available on DVD now, Chaplin’s films are rarely screened in cinemas or on TV, and so it is odd that he remains such a familiar figure  that even children who’ve  never seen any of his films  are nevertheless able to imitate his splayed-feet walk. The insistent after-life of this mute cinematic figure may have something to do with the effectiveness of the films; whenever I have taught Chaplin’s satirical and sentimental feature film, City Lights (Chaplin, 1931), the finely judged ending always leaves one or two of my worldly undergraduate students with tears in their eyes, and I’ve watched my children in tears of laughter at some of the early Keystone comedies. However, it’s also a testament to the perfect construction of this cinematic persona, which reduces a character to a few disconnected, reproducible (and easily imitated) visual elements – the dandyish cane, bowler and jacket with tails, outsized trousers and clown shoes, and pedantic moustache (as borrowed later by Oliver Hardy and, to Chaplin’s intense irritation, Hitler).

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The costume was first used in the brilliantly simple Keystone production, Kid Auto Races in Venice (Lerhman, 1914) – the first film in which Chaplin appears – a short commentary upon performance and celebrity, in which the tramp, noticing that cameramen are filming the go-cart races on Venice beach, tries nonchalantly to insert himself into every shot, sidling into the frame as if he hasn’t noticed the camera. Although he wears normal shoes in this film, the costume is more or less fully-formed and is used with little variation thereafter in different narrative contexts so that Chaplin’s character stands apart visually from those around him, emphasizing his (self-) importance.

Writing about Great Garbo’s icon-like face (or face-object) in the Hollywood film, Queen Christina (Mamoulian, 1933), Roland Barthes suggested that,  ‘In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn, but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once, perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’. This captures very well the contradictory quality of Chaplin’s image – smooth, flour-white, fragile, perfect, totemic. It is not an image of an individual – and, indeed, in photographs of Chaplin out of costume and not wearing make-up he can be hard to recognise – but of an individual rendered as a pure cinematic sign.

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Reference:

Roland Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies

Semiotic ghosts: Dubai’s architectural hallucinations

Bruce Bennett

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Travelling from the UK to New Zealand recently we stopped for two days in Dubai in order to make the long journey more manageable. Even allowing for the dislocating effect of flying across time zones and two sleepless nights since the hotel we were staying in was packed with raucous teams competing in the international women’s Rugby Sevens tournament, Dubai seems a jarringly strange city.

It is the materialization of a defiantly aspirational vision of the future that predates and disregards anxieties about peak oil and catastrophic climate change. The combination of high-rise office blocks and hotels, luxury gated communities and freeways presupposes an economically stable future in which oil continues to flow freely from the ground, and we continue to travel by car and jet plane. It is a city under construction and new buildings appear so frequently that, one taxi driver told us, he and his colleagues sometimes struggle to find their way around the financial centre.

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Driving into the centre of Dubai on the 14-lane freeway what I was most strongly reminded of was William Gibson’s brilliantly economical short story,’The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981). In that story, while driving through present-day California, a photographer working on an assignment on futuristic architecture of the 1920s and 1930s has visions of an alternative present that resembles the future as it was imagined in films, architectural designs, visual art and the illustrations and cover art of pulp science fiction journals and novels from that period (such as those published by Hugo Gernsback through magazines such as Amazing Stories).

“Then I looked behind me and saw the city. The books on Thirties design were in the trunk; one of them contained sketches of an idealized city that drew on Metropolis and Things to Come, but squared everything, soaring up through an architect’s perfect clouds to zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. That city was a scale model of the one that rose behind me. Spire stood on spire in gleaming  ziggurat steps  that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with the crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations. You could hide the Empire State Building in the smallest of those towers. Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury. The air was thick  with ships: giant wing-liners, little darting silver things (sometimes one  of the quicksilver shapes from the sky bridges rose gracefully into the air and flew up to join the  dance), mile-long  blimps, hovering dragonfly things that were gyrocopters…”

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One of the photographer’s friends reassures him what he’s seen are “semiotic ghosts”: “bits  of  deep cultural imagery that have split off and taken  on a life of their own, like the Jules Verne airships that those  old Kansas farmers were  always seeing”. This term captures very well the phantasmatic bricolage of Dubai’s spectacular architecture. Deceptively compact, viewed through the filters of a windscreen, exhaust smoke and the haze of the desert sky, these buildings could have been a painted backdrop or a hallucination. They are a striking collision of old and new forms, a point made particularly evident by the building that copies (and scales up) the clock tower on Westminster Palace. The illusion that Dubai is a future city irrupting from the past like a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was completed by the little prop-driven plane that took off repeatedly and circled over the shoreline, ejecting parachutists competing in the International Parachuting Competition.

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All buildings present us with a symbolic representation of the future – they are designed and built in anticipation of possible future uses and contexts and so they are necessarily anachronistic; they show us the future as it was imagined in the past. What is so striking about Dubai is that these coastal cities are so new and yet still they appear to imagine the future in spatial and architectural terms that are at least a century old. The future will be more of the same.

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This is a new short piece I co-wrote with Imogen Tyler as a blog post for the online journal, New Left Project: blog http://goo.gl/IvFQom

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I’m very excited that my new book, The Cinema of Michael Winterbottom: Borders, Intimacy, Terror, is being published by Wallflower Press / Columbia University Press on 1st January, but have just found that the Kindle edition of the book has gone on sale on amazon today: http://goo.gl/Yy6TKJ

Gary’s war on terror: soldiers’ stories, the ‘discourse of impropriety’ and the comedy of terror

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University

(This is an edited version of the paper I gave at the University of Northumbria symposium, ‘Acting Up; Gender and Television Comedy’ on 14th Jan, 2012.  A revised and  extended version of this entitled, ‘The comedy of terror: ‘Gary: Tank Commander’ and the TV sitcom’s “discourse of impropriety”’, will be published in 2014 in Lacey, S. & Paget, D. (eds.). Representing the War on Terror. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. N.B., three series of Gary: Tank Commander have been broadcast to date, but at the time I gave this paper the third series was still in development)

Writing on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, the journalist Ryan Gilbey suggested that a notable feature of film and television treatments of the war on terror has been the absence of comic accounts of recent history but suggests that ‘defiant comedy is surely one of the sharpest weapons at our disposal’ (Gilbey, 2011, 52). Even more than the first gulf war, which generated what Jean Baudrillard termed ‘an improbable orgy of material’, the war on terror has produced an overwhelming deluge of films, TV drama, news coverage, books, articles, blogs across a range of media, but the scarcity of comic treatments of the ongoing conflict is clear. There are a few notable exceptions that include Team America: World Police (Parker, 2004), Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (Hurwitz, Schlossberg, 2008), In the Loop (Ianucci, 2009) and Four Lions (Morris, 2010) but in general and perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been approached as a topic that must be treated with solemnity – it seems that it is self-evident that this is no laughing matter and this is what makes Gary: Tank Commander all the more interesting.

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Two series of Gary: Tank Commander were produced for BBC Scotland, the first broadcast in 2009, the second in 2011. It was initially broadcast on BBC Scotland but in 2011, the two series were re-run on BBC3. A third series is currently in development. They were derived from a pilot TV comedy called Gary’s War, which was commissioned and broadcast by Channel Four but never developed. Gary’s War is a mock documentary about a soldier, Corporal Gary McLintoch, returning home after fighting in Afghanistan. McLintoch ,the tank commander is played by Greg McHugh, who wrote Gary’s War and the subsequent series, which are based on the same scenario with an expanded range of characters. The first series follows aspects of Gary’s day-to-day life after returning from fighting in Afghanistan with the fictional tank regiment and in the second series he has returned from Iraq. With the exception of the first episode of series two in which the characters are waiting in an aircraft hangar in Afghanistan for a flight to Cyprus for r and r, almost all of the action is set on and around the Scottish army base on which Gary is stationed.

The programmes focus on the farcical attempts by McLintoch and the three other members of his tank crew, Jacko, Charlie and Adam, to carry out their mundane duties which include doing guard duty, chaperoning a visiting US general on a homeland security exchange, recruiting in the local shopping centre, standing in for striking firefighters, participating in a debate on the pros and cons of the Iraq war with students, transporting their tank along the motorway, trying to buy a second-hand cooker for Gary’s father while undergoing manoeuvres, and auditioning for roles in an army recruitment video.

They are overseen by Capt Fanshaw, the vague, upper-class English company commander, and Sgt Thomson a perpetually furious sadist who seizes gleefully any opportunity to punish them. The four men tackle their tedious tasks grudgingly or distractedly and are generally looking for short cuts or ways out of the jobs they’re assigned. In this respect the programme is in the rather passé tradition of sitcoms and film comedies about reluctant and incompetent soldiering that extend back to Chaplin’s 1918 film Shoulder Arms and the 1931 Laurel and Hardy film, Beau Hunks, via such films as Carry on Sergeant (1958), but the most direct models for GTC are The Phil Silvers Show (1955-59), M.A.S.H. (1972-1983), Dad’s Army (1968-77), and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum (1974-81). All of these series are concerned not with soldiers in battle, but with the intimacies and domesticity of army life and the negotiation of power relations within the largely homosocial context of a military organisation and the celebration of small acts of resistance.

In terms of narrative organisation and in terms of visual and performance style the two series are relatively conventional, following the flexible minimalist narrative framework that almost any sitcom adheres to. Most episodes involve the four main characters being presented with an unengaging task, such as the job of patrolling the grounds of an estate where world leaders are attending a conference on climate change. Through a combination of their own boredom and incompetence and distraction by other events, such as the appearance of climate protestors dressed as rabbits who are trying to break into the conference centre to talk to Barack Obama, the characters will be diverted from the task. Finally they will improvise some sort of solution to the disruption, but they almost always fail to mollify their sceptical sergeant. And of course the tasks they’re given are all fairly marginal to soldiering.

However, there are two distinct and generically unconventional narrative and stylistic motifs running through the two series.

The first is that an element of the mock documentary pilot episode is carried over so that episodes are punctuated by shots in which Gary addresses an off-screen interviewer reflecting on a range of topics from terrorism and religion, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to soldiers’ pay and official enquiries. These are captioned with text that picks out certain words or phrases – usually irrelevant and unilluminating. There is no indication that any of the rest of the programme is a documentary, so these inserts are unexplained and generally only have a tenuous relationship to the frame narrative.

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Documentary pastiche 1: Gary (Greg McHugh) discusses the arrangements for the transfer of power in post-war Afghanistan

The second motif is the periodic insertion of short videos and YouTube clips made by Gary and his colleagues filming themselves playing pranks on one another, making spoofs of Bin Laden’s video tapes, and producing parodies of music videos. This picks up on one of the characteristics of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that almost every film and TV programme has acknowledged, which is the proliferation and widespread circulation of films by soldiers themselves through file-sharing sites – the unprecedented hyper mediation of the conflict. For instance, Brian De Palma’s 2007 film Redacted about a war crime by US soldiers in Iraq is composed entirely of simulated documentary footage, news reports, soldier’s videos, video blogs and youtube clips.

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Documentary pastiche 2: Gary and crew in Iraq performing Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’

In particular the device alludes to a famous viral video made in 2005 by British soldiers in Iraq miming to the Tony Christie song,’ The Way to Amarillo’. This means that virtually the only footage we see of the protagonists in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the two series is in these absurd comic sequences in which they are clowning and often in drag. Again they have little obvious connection to the narrative.

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‘The Way to Amarillo’, as performed by the Royal Dragoon Guards, Al Faw base, Iraq, 2005

The question I want to ask here is whether we might understand these programmes as critical or defiant and as texts that raise questions about how comedy or humour can function as critical – there is an ambivalence in these programmes that invites a reading of them as, if not oppositional or subversive, then at least defiantly comic.

Masculinity and camp

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The gendering of counter-terror. The Hurt Locker

A consistent feature of popular depictions of the war on terror has been the consolidation and retrenchment of a very traditional form of martial masculinity, the reactionary dimension of which is legitimised by its apparent authenticity. This is epitomised by The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2008) with its intense narrative focus upon a reckless, solitary, emotionally repressed bomb disposal technician who is addicted to the thrill of the warzone. To be sure, the treatment of gender in such not films is not unambivalent and uncritical, but nevertheless, the war on terror has revitalised action genres both on film and on television. 24 is television’s  counterpart to The Hurt Locker in its foregrounding of a cyborg-like protagonist that is part-human, part-machine – the traditional masculinity that is reiterated in these films comprises a particular physicality – hard, phallic, disciplined bodies  – and is aligned with emotional instability (typically against a backdrop of domestic disarray),  murderous aggression and coolness and paradoxical emotional continence. Gary: Tank Commander reproduces this focus upon male characters but, from the absurd title onwards, displays a consistently satirical attitude towards conventional models of masculinity. The protagonist, Gary, is presented in defiantly camp terms throughout, sporting a spray tan and bleached hair and a less than athletic physique. He is a sexual innocent as far as we know, who delights in plastic pop music and continually fails to understand the crude innuendos circulating around him. His campness, which consists of his theatricality and flamboyance is depicted as what Susan Sontag terms, pure or naive camp since it is rarely knowing or self-conscious and yet remains attractive and entertaining both for his friends and the spectator. One of the most notable features of the series is that, except for the exchange of bemused glances between his friends when Gary fails to get the double entendres, his campness remains unacknowledged and unpunished. There is a generic pretext for this in so far as British sitcoms have for a long time featured effeminate or camp characters – Dad’s Army and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum are good examples, but there are many others – however, Gary: Tank Commander is distinct since this sexually ambivalent character is not the pathetic and feeble butt of running jokes, nor a bitchy, bitter and repressed outsider who comments acidly from the margins. Instead he is a tank commander, an emphatically masculine role, who outranks his friends but who also remains very close to them and the centre of their friendship group. They are like a gang of schoolfriends who frequently launch into songs together. Although he is a comic character, our laughter is directed at his limited understanding of the world around him, rather than at his campness. The problematic stereotype is the focus for much academic discussion about the representational politics of TV comedy, but this series negotiates this rather deftly in so far as the character is drawn in positive but unconventional terms.

Indeed one of the genuine pleasures of the series is the enthusiasm and complete seriousness with which he and his friends launch into their well drilled performances of songs by Aqua, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, often cross-dressing in elaborate improvised costumes. There is of course a neat coincidence of the etymologically distinct senses of camp in this sitcom, which brings together the army camp – the term derived from the Latin for field – with the gay slang term for tasteless and exhibitionistic – derived from the French term camper – to portray or depict. While there may be tenuous semantic connections, the programme argues for their cultural proximity, presenting Gary’s campness as a normalised element of life in a military camp as it appears on film and television.

And In its portrayal of camp life, what the programme identifies and highlights is the intrinsic campness underlying the excessive masculinity of many supposedly serious war on terror dramas. The most direct example is Generation Kill, which was broadcast the year before Gary: Tank Commander and which follows a group of US marines invading Iraq at the head of the invasion force and travelling north through the country to Baghdad. There is a great deal of spectacularly filmed fighting, but the series is as concerned with the social textures and culture of the unit of soldiers living and fighting together – with the frustrations of bureaucratic inertia and status anxiety. It shares with the sitcom format a preoccupation with quasi-familial relationships and the intimate and affective structure of the workplace. It is primarily concerned with how these men interact and the eroticised and stressful hyper-masculine environment that means that conversation about sex is obsessive. This is underpinned by boasting, teasing and abuse and playful flirtation with one another to the extent that, as one character observes, ‘Marines are so homoerotic – it’s all they ever talk about.’

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Sgt. Rudy Reyes moisturises in Camp Mathilda, Kuwait, Generation Kill

This is epitomised by the figure of Sgt Rudy Reyes – fruity Rudy as he’s known by the others – who is depicted as a body-conscious narcissist who sports a florid customised uniform with additional scarves and camouflage netting. Although apparently straight, Reyes is a potentially queer figure who troubles the other characters around him. As one of the marines says reassuringly to a new member of the unit, ‘it doesn’t make you gay if you think Rudy’s hot. Everyone does.’ Where Gary: Tank Commander is interesting is in its casual refusal of this disavowal. The tense misogynistic and homophobic anxiety around sexuality that pervades Generation Kill and which is expressed in continual wisecracks and insults (alongside a constant racism)  is entirely absent from Gary: Tank Commander.

Documentary, soldiers’ stories and embedding

Another way in which Generation Kill exemplifies television’s engagement with the war on terror is in its adoption of a docudrama mode. The series is derived directly from three articles written by a Rolling Stone reporter who was embedded with the unit, and it attempts a historically accurate reconstruction of the events depicted in the reports. Some of the marines themselves were employed as consultants and had cameo roles although interestingly, Rudy Reyes is the only one who got to play himself in the series.

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This is an image from his website on which he sells a range of branded products advocating ‘Hero Living’. The most unlikely and most camp character, it transpires, is the most genuine – the point at which the dramatic reconstruction is anchored in the real. One of the key characteristics of representations of the war on terror on film and on television has been the proliferation of docudramas and documentaries. There is a range of reasons for this, but a central factor is the sense that documentary and, by extension, documentary realist drama, is an appropriately solemn narrative mode for such grim and monumental topics as warfare, terrorism, occupation, torture, human rights abuses and forced displacement. Film theorist Bill Nichols categorises documentary as a ‘discourse of sobriety’ positioned alongside the related discourses of economics, science, politics and history. Documentary, for Nichols is directed towards instruction and illumination and exposure rather than entertainment, and in the distinction drawn between fiction and actuality it is ethically committed to accuracy and politically effective representation. In this respect, the hybrid forms of docudrama are problematic for Nichols, but nevertheless docudrama invokes the authority and serious-mindedness of documentary.

The documentary vignettes in Gary: Tank Commander function therefore both as an acknowledgement of this documentary turn, and as a parody of it since they are narratively disconnected and consistently unilluminating.  More precisely what they parody is the implicit assumption underlying the narrative focus upon soldiers’ experience – in docudramas such as Generation Kill and Redacted, fiction films like The Hurt Locker which again is closely based on an embedded reporter’s article, and documentaries such as the 2010 Danish film Armadillo - that close attention to the soldier’s story will reveals truth about the conflict that is not otherwise available. Generation Kill is a text that emerges from one of the innovations of the war on terror, the officially approved embedded reporter since the initial reports were written by a journalist embedded with this unit of marines, and the reporter is a minor character in the series, riding in the convoy as they invade the country from Kuwait. Of course, embedding is a strategy designed to ensure that journalists are constrained both in terms of their movements and in terms of their critical perspective by their dependence upon a particular community of military personnel with whom they form a close emotional bond over time. The fascination with the mundane details of soldiers’ lives during a war, and the vicarious thrill of battle that are conveyed by Generation Kill are a direct consequence of this.

Sitcom and satire

As much of the commentary upon the form has observed, the sitcom opens up a potentially quite subversive space within the fabric of mainstream popular culture in which issues of racism, adultery, the dysfunctionality of the nuclear family and the spectrum of sexuality are explored directly. As Jane Feuer suggests ‘it has been the ideological flexibility of the sitcom that has accounted for its longevity’ (Feuer, 70). In this respect, the sitcom is no less effective a mode through to which to criticise the conduct of the war on terror than more familiar comic modes of satire and sketch comedy. There remains, however, something scandalously inappropriate about the homely frame of the sitcom as a means of addressing this subject matter. Where Generation Kill adopts the sober register of documentary realism in order to emphasise the horrors and exhaustion as well as the triumphalism and machismo of bloody combat, GTC adopts the apparently trivialising format of light entertainment. In this context the sitcom is the articulation of a ‘discourse of impropriety’ rather than a ‘discourse of sobriety’. However, it is this impropriety that gives Gary: Tank Commander its potential critical purchase.

In refusing to show us the ambivalently seductive spectacle of battle, the series refrains from the insistence that the war on terror is a conventional war – that, to allude to Baudrillard this was a war that was actually happening. In refusing to restage the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, making a virtue of a limited budget and relegating these events to off-screen space, the series refuses also to accept the crucial political significance and legitimacy of these conflicts which have been used to justify a state of exception in which colossal investment in the security and defence industry and the passage of repressive legislation are waved through. In its depiction of the British army as a class-ridden, under-funded and hierarchical organisation in which Scotland is a minor province, the series punctures the promotional, celebratory images of the modern army as a high-tech, surgically efficient fighting force. The soldiers of Gary: Tank Commander display all the efficiency and single-mindedness of the drivers and conductors of On the Buses, rather than the macho killing machines of Generation Kill.

Also, in its depiction of the soldiers as an affectionate family or gang, the series refuses the thrillingly reactionary masculinity that is crucial to the appeal of many of the accounts of the war on terror in film and television. At the same time, the series refuses the institutional framing of soldiers as heroes or traumatised innocent victims, a figuration that is deployed cynically to block or divert resistance with the insistence upon compassion, empathy and identification. While on the one hand, Gary has an eccentric and sometimes quite restricted understanding of why he’s been sent out to fight – in the pilot episode he explains that Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq because he was so annoyed by all the dust – on the other hand he is a professional soldier who’s happy to fight. In the pilot episode he’s pleased to find that on returning to Scotland after a posting in Iraq, friends and neighbours think he’s been on holiday because of his deep tan.

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This is not to impute a resistant or defiant agenda to the producers of the series – it may well be that the series was conceived as a contemporary reworking of a conventional sitcom genre, and Greg McHugh, who’s working on a third series has indicated that he intends to develop the sitcom identity of the series. Nevertheless, in the context of the breathless orgy of action films, TV docudramas and film and television documentaries that substitute the rhetoric and aesthetic machinery for critique, the sitcom is an appropriate narrative and generic frame for the treatment of the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this context Gary: Tank Commander constitutes an exceptionally interesting and acute gesture of scepticism, defiance and impropriety. In his treatise on comedy, Henri Bergson suggests that ‘Laughter indicates a slight revolt on the surface of social life’ (61b) and both despite and because of the formal and ideological conservatism with which the sitcom is generally associated, Gary: Tank Commander can be understood as just such an instance of slight revolt.

References:

Bennett, B. (2010). ‘Framing terror : cinema, docudrama and the “war on terror”’, Studies in Documentary Film. 4, 3, December 2010, 209-226

Bennett, B., Diken, B. (2011) ‘The Hurt Locker: cinematic addiction, ‘critique’ and the war on terror’, Cultural Politics, vol. 7, no. 2, July 2011, 165-188

Bergson, H. (1911). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Brereton, C., Rothwell, F., Temple of Earth

Feuer, J. (2001). ‘‘The Situation Comedy, Part 2’’, The Television Genre Book.

Ed. Creeber, G.. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 67 – 70.

Gilbey, R. (2011). ‘9/11 – How to tell a horror story’, New Statesman, 5 Sep. 2011. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2011/09/attacks-makers-world-away. Accessed: 18/9/12

Nichols, B. (1991) Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Sontag, S. (1967). Against Interpretation and other essays, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode

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