Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Black Mirror: The Waldo Moment

The final part of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series 2 aired last night, titled The Waldo Moment. I'll get this dash of negativity straight out of the way first of all by saying nothing could touch last week's episode White Bear which was possibly the best bit of TV I've seen since This is England 88. But The Waldo Moment was still smart satire; occasionally chilling, always clever but never quite hitting the highs of the previous two episodes of this series.

The Waldo Moment is all about a computer generated character voiced by a down on his luck comedian who finds that taunting and teasing politicians is the best way to grab attention. The character Waldo quickly becomes popular and the team behind him decide to put him in the running for the election. His knob gags, foul mouth and crude humour win the attention of the public and his putting down of the politicians makes him a refreshing alternative to their manipulative fakery.

I noticed in the credits of the episode that this one was based on an original idea by Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker from when they were working on Nathan Barley. I never saw that show but love a lot of Chris Morris' old stuff like The Day Today and Brass Eye. Nathan Barley was on TV in 2005 and what immediately struck me about Waldo was that he was based on Sacha Baron Cohen's character Ali G from the 11 o Clock Show and his own later TV series.

The tackling of politicians with ignorance and silly humour, the idea that the character would not work if he was given his own show and guests knew what to expect of him, the comedian hiding behind a character and satire to attack politicians but without suggesting alternatives all struck me as an attack on Ali G. I personally loved Ali G and found his early interviews for the 11 o Clock show some of the funniest television I'd ever seen. It did all go down hill when he was given his own show and the guests were in on the joke from the start. Sacha Baron Cohen could also always be accused of hiding behind his characters and causing apathy by humiliating everyone from feminists, to Tories to foxhunters to hippies. No target is safe from his satire and its easy for hime to take the piss mercilessly out of any of them.

The Waldo Moment seems to suggest that the public are stupid and easily led enough to allow someone like Waldo or Ali G with no policies, no party allegiance and no clue to run our country. It shows how an icon can be manipulated by darker forces back stage who want to gain power and it shows how if people cannot trust politicians then they might just turn to the more entertaining and seemingly truthful option, even if he is just a silly big blue bear who keeps getting his computer generated cock out. All this might of course have absolutely nothing to do with Ali G and I might be completely wrong.

The ending was a bit too abrupt for my liking and went a bit far in its depiction of a disturbing dystopian future. Its warning seemed a bit too far fetched (I hope) and revealed Brooker's complete lack of faith in humanity.

I must add all the scenes on the high street were filmed in my home town of High Wycombe and I actually remember running past as they were filming one day. I wish I hadn't been in such a rush and had stopped to check it out now! The Waldo wagon had drew a little crowd and people certainly had been drawn to the big blue bear so perhaps Brooker's vision isn't so far fecthed!

The Waldo Moment may have been the worst episode in the series but it's still better than most TV and plenty thought provoking. If you haven't seen the second episode of this series, titled White Bear, go find it now! You can still watch it on 4oD right here for the nxt 20 days or so. The first season is also all brilliant and I recommend you watch it before Hollywood starts its production of remaking them! I hope they give Black Mirror a third series.

Did you see it? What did you think?

Fox Culls and NHS Staff: Stuff I know little about

In my continuing quest to make a career out of writing, I am trying to write for anyone, anywhere, anytime and that includes writing barely informed opinion pieces over at Yahoo. My first piece for the Yahoo Contributor Network was actually quite well informed seeing as I'm a teacher and it was all about how we should encourage our students to speak better in the classroom. I showed it to some of my students who had a good laugh when I told them that the article might just be about some of the people in the class. Anyway the article got on the front page of Yahoo and then got over 130, 000 hits in one weekend which is nearly as much as this blog has had over its whole two year lifespan! Here's the link if you fancy a read:

Why there is ‘nowt’ wrong with teaching children to speak proper English

I then wrote another piece on the calls for a fox cull to help get rid of urban foxes from towns and cities. This was a response to all the media coverage of the attack on the baby when a fox got in a house and nearly dragged a child away, thinking it was fair game to eat. Now I'm no expert on this subject but I gave it my best shot writing something about it as I do feel strongly that foxes should not be slaughtered just because one baby was attacked. Anyway here is the piece:

Foxes threatened by pitch fork carrying city folk in calls for cull

Then today I just found out my other fairly ill informed piece on NHS staff and whether services should be offered seven days a week got published. My Mum has been a nurse virtually her whole life so I felt quite strongly that NHS staff deserve to be treated better (just like teachers too I might add) but I also think the seven day service thing is a good idea. So that is what I wrote about. The last piece on foxes didn't make it to the front page so the stats on that were a lot lower than my first article but it will be interesting to see how this article on the NHS does over the next few days. I would appreciate it a hell of a lot if you would share it, tweet it and spread the word about it in any way you can! Here's the link:

Why the NHS should provide seven days of service, but also care for their staff better

If you want to follow my writing at the Yahoo Contributor Network, then please head over to my profile page and become a 'fan'.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Moral Murkiness of Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty tells the ten year tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow it is a morally complex, ambiguous film that is both thrilling and intellectually stimulating.

It is a thoroughly engaging, if not a little hard to call entertaining, real life thriller. As an example of a film about the fight back against terror, it pales in comparison to United 93 in terms of raw emotional power but its realism and careful construction come close to that film’s documentary style. In the final sequence at bin Laden’s secret hideout, it is hard to believe at some points that it was not filmed at the exact location of the true events, so meticulous is the reconstruction. The thriller and the procedural elements are wholly gripping and powered by horrendous torture scenes, references to real life tragedies and a climax that is edge of the seat exciting and simultaneously depressing.

It is the politics however that make Zero Dark Thirty the most difficult to watch and comment on. It shows torture in all its disgusting glory from water boarding to treating detainees like dogs to sleep deprivation and humiliation. It positions scenes of torture immediately after the real life voices of the innocent victims of 9/11 fill your ears with cries for help giving context to why America would feel the need to commit such inhumane acts. It only shows the torture of detainees who are clearly guilty of some involvement in terrorism. It seems to almost implicitly suggest that more torture could have prevented later tragedies in 7/7 and elsewhere and it makes a CIA operative who commits the worst, most degrading and reprehensible acts of torture to be a reasonable, kind of nice guy who has to get out of the job because of what it is doing to his mental health. Torture it seems is a tough job but the film seems to say someone has to do it. When Obama comes on the television saying he plans to scrap torture, it puts a right spanner in the works of the characters we have come to care about.

But the film does not celebrate torture. It does not glorify it. And it even sort of suggests that torture failed and that instead good detective work solved the case of where in the world bin Laden was hiding. It suggests the impact torture has on the people who commit it but fails to say much about the devastation it causes detainees and certainly not the perhaps hundreds whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments’. It’s a streamlined Hollywood narrative film so perhaps there is no time for such issues but as it is, the film seems to suggest torture had its merits, might have been necessary and perhaps even should still be allowed. This strict sticking to narrative conventions also explains why there is no context to the 9/11 attacks, no sense of the CIA’s past sins or the reason for jihadist’s hatred of America; not that that would excuse the attacks, just as the attacks don’t excuse the murder of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. And on the subject of inexcusable, so is the using of 9/11 victims phone calls without the families’ permission.

But beneath the politics is a solid film, well acted, incredibly sombre in the face of what should have been a great victory and subtly feminist. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Maya, supposedly a composite of many CIA officers (mostly women) who were deeply and determinedly involved in the hunt for the world’s most wanted man. The score resembles the anticipation inducing dull thudding of United 93, a film that similarly created a pain staking reconstruction of real events.

One of the most interesting points of the film is where it makes your sympathies lie. You can’t help but sympathise for the torture victim despite his involvement with 9/11. You want Maya to succeed in her quest but then the final fire fight makes you sympathise with the people closest to bin Laden as they wail and weep. It’s a tricky, morally complex mess, just like the real situation.

Zero Dark Thirty certainly does not shy away from the controversy surrounding the ‘war on terror’ and should be commended for that. Simply as a film, it stands tall amongst real life thrillers. Its politics might me morally dubious but they are complex enough to provoke serious and stimulating debate and for that I highly recommend it.

Why do music videos exist?

Here is another post for my BTEC Media students as I am starting a new unit with them on Tuesday called Music Video Production. The first assignment is to explain the purposes of music videos. Here's a post to help them get started:

Without music videos, what would we watch while listening to music? Arguably we don’t need to watch anything at all. Music is for our audio pleasure not visual pleasure. But music is also a performance and from the very beginnings of humans making music, there would have been something to watch as we listened. We can’t all go to gigs every day and experience live music with an artist performing in front of us and similarly artists can’t just depend on live gigs for income either so they record their music and hope to sell it in the form of CD’s, vinyl and increasingly digital MP3 downloads.

In order to sell their music, artists need to promote it. They can do this through touring and interviews and typical forms of advertising such as posters and adverts in magazines but they can also get their music to be heard through a huge range of outlets by the use of a music video. Traditionally music would have been heard live but then with the invention of the radio and vinyl, recorded music could be listened to by music fans almost whenever they wanted. 

With the introduction of television, there was another outlet for music to be heard. However not all artists could play live on television all the time so the music video was invented so that recorded music could still be played on television but the audience would also have something to watch. Shows like Top of the Pops popularised the use of the music video and nowadays there are hundreds of music channels across the world, some even exclusively playing music videos. Then video and DVD came along and artists started selling collections of their music videos alongside their albums.

Most recently the internet has become the most common outlet for music to be heard and music videos are therefore available on a huge range of websites, most notably YouTube. Artists and songwriters and the record labels that represent them can all even make some money out of advertising revenue when people stream these videos online. Read more about how YouTube views can make songwriters money here. The risk is that people can also illegally download these videos and songs and therefore the producers lose potential revenue from single sales.

So a music video is a promotional tool that allows the artist and record label to extend the number of outlets that the song can be bought and heard in. It gives the consumer the choice to see something while they hear the song and can also make the people behind the song some money. Music videos can be dirt cheap but also very costly so advertising revenue is not the only way that they can generate income. As mentioned previously, they can also be put onto videos and DVD’s and sold to make more money but increasingly artists can get sponsorship and product placement deals. Music videos can be filled with conspicuous products and this can make the artist and/or record label a fortune. If the artists use the product, for instance drives the car, makes a call on the phone, drinks the drink or wears the watch, then they are likely to be paid even more than if the product is simply featured somewhere in the background. Apparently, Britney Spears made half a million dollars from the product placement in her music video for Hold It Against Me.

Sometimes a music video is tied in to a film release. This can be mutually beneficial for both the artist, record label and the film and its production company. The song features somewhere in the film and parts of the film are featured in the music video. This means every time someone sees the film, they will think of the song (and may even purchase it) and every time someone sees the music video, they will think of the film (and hopefully go and see it or purchase it). This can make more money for everyone involved and is often used for synergy purposes. This is when a company such as Sony that produces both films and music uses the different parts of the business to promote each other. Men in Black for example is a Sony film and the soundtrack featuring Will Smith’s title song is also released by Sony.

All this boils down to promotion and increasing sales. While some music videos are far more arty and do not appear to actually promote the artist in traditional ways, most music videos are simpler marketing tools. Major labels put lots of money into producing music videos that will help create an image of the artist that will appeal to the target audience. Independent labels might be more likely to produce more experimental videos for their artists and some artists, often not even signed to a record label, will even self-produce their own music videos just to give themselves a bigger presence on the internet.

Promotion is vital to increase sales and there can be a number of different goals to it. The aim might be to introduce and establish a new product (in this case the artist and their single is the product), it might be to better position the product in the right marketplace to ensure the target audience will be alerted to it and it might also be to retaliate or make the product stand out from its competition.

In a future post I will explore a number of specific examples of music videos in more detail in order to explain further why they exist.


Saturday, 23 February 2013

Funding and Ownership of the Film Industry

For my article on funding and ownership of the TV industry, please click here.

I'm starting a new unit with my media students on Monday that I have never taught before. It's called Understanding the Film and Televsion Industries and their first assignment will be to look into the funding and ownership of these two media industries. In order to get a few things straight in my head and ensure that I know what I'm talking about before trying to teach them, I thought I'd give the first assignment a go myself. So here is part one on the funding and ownership of the film industry and I will try to keep ahead of the students by producing part two on the television industry asap!

The film and television industries in the UK and the US are made up of many companies that are all owned and funded in many different ways. I will first discuss the film industry and then move on to the television industry, focussing on the ways these two similar but different media industries are funded and owned in the UK and the US, referring to a range of contemporary and historical examples.


The film industry in the UK is made up of a number of different parts. There are companies that are involved in Development, Production, Facilities, Distribution, Exhibition and Export. Skillset’s most recent research shows that there are ‘around 400 'permanent' (i.e. registered) companies in the film industry’ but this number can vary depending on how many film productions are being worked on in the UK at any time. Their research also shows that of these companies, ‘43% are production, 13% are distribution and the remaining 44% are exhibition companies’, meaning that much of the distribution side of the film industry is likely funded by foreign companies, often Hollywood studios that help to sell British films to US and international audiences.
The British film industry does not have quite the same power and wealth as the big Hollywood studios and therefore depends much more on public funding and financial aid from government intervention. In 2012 it was announced that ‘some £285 million of National Lottery money is to be put into the British film industry over the next five years’.  The British Film Institute (BFI) will determine how this money is spent after taking over funding responsibilities from the UK Film Council which no longer exists. Though there will be spending in other areas, much of the funding will be put into the production and development of future British films.

The producers of The King’s Speech for example had to scrape together the approximately £10 million budget from the following companies:

UK Film Council (presents)
Momentum Pictures (in association with)
Aegis Film Fund (in association with)
Molinare Investment (as Molinare, London) (in association with)
FilmNation Entertainment (in association with)
See-Saw Films (as See Saw Films)
Bedlam Productions (as Bedlam)

Some of these companies, for example the American The Weinstein Company, would invest in production in order to gain the distribution rights and therefore a larger share of the profits when it is released. ‘The Weinstein Company (TWC) is a multimedia production and distribution company’, independently funded by its own profits, and ‘also active in television production’ showing it is both vertically and horizontally integrated. Vertical integration is where ‘a company expands its business into areas that are at different points on the same production path’ so when a film company owns the means to produce films and then also the means to distribute them, it is said to be vertically integrated. TWC is also horizontally integrated because it has acquired ‘additional business activities that are at the same level of the value chain in similar or different industries’. Not only can it produce films but it has also expanded into producing television shows as well.

Concerns were raised in the past about the major Hollywood studios’ oligopoly over the film industry. The so called ‘big 5’ studios were vertically integrated to the point where they owned the means to produce, distribute and exhibit their own films which meant that other films did not have a chance against the poser of these big studios. The Paramount Decree passed in 1948 meant that the studios had to sell their cinema chains as this much vertical integration was seen as anti-competitive and therefore made illegal, diminishing the power of the old Hollywood studios.

However despite these moves to stop excessive levels of vertical integration, the film industry is still dominated in the US and UK by global companies such as Time Warner. Warner Bros. Pictures is a subsidiary of the global conglomerate Time Warner and produce films such as the Harry Potter franchise. But Time Warner also owns HBO, ‘the world's most successful pay-tv service’, the Turner Broadcasting System that ‘operates worldwide news, entertainment, animation, young adult & kids media networks and related businesses’ and Time Inc who are ‘one of the largest branded media companies in the world, with a portfolio of 96 titles’ which means they are horizontally integrated over television, film and print media. Warner Bros operates internationally all over Europe, Latin America, Japan and Australia leading to some concerns over huge companies like this and their potential influence over a global audience.

Bibliography so far:


 Part two on the television industry coming soon!