Thursday, 26 November 2009

YouTube's Dark Side


In light of the controversy over the doctored image of Michelle Obama appearing prioritised on Google’s search engine, I would like to dwell on the immoral lack of responsibility of YouTube, the immensely popular video sharing website that, since 2006, has been owned by Google.

YouTube is a phenomenon, there’s no doubt about it. On the site there are millions of uploaded videos that range from footage of the most important historical events of the last 100 years, to the most mind numbingly mundane non-events of the last minute. But the problem is: it uploads whatever is posted, and some are genuinely disturbing.

There are scenes of extreme violence, mutilations, wounds, suicides and fatal accidents. What’s more disturbing than the content is the accessibility of such material. Due to the graphic nature of some videos, a password is required, but anybody can lie about their age on the sign-up form. To think that there are young children and teenagers who have open access to this material is frightening.

To highlight the popularity of such morbid videos here are a few examples:

Sadam Hausen being hanged to death - 2,209,596 views

Fatal diving accident - 6,258,500 views

It is not unusual for other footage that includes graphic accidents and suicides to reach more than a million hits.

There are many video compilations on YouTube. Some are a montage of vehicle crashes. Quite often the compilation may be labelled as ‘funny crash bloopers’, yet amongst the edited footage there are fatal accidents where victims are flung from their vehicles, or knocked down. Sometimes there is an inappropriate soundtrack added. I wonder in horror how the relatives of the victims would react if they knew that their loved one's final moments were being watched all over the world, time and time again.

In the 80’s when only VHS was available, if any film contained a real death it would have been banned, instantly. Now, in 2009, scenes of death can be accessed instantly. And there is nobody out there to stop it.

In 2007 there was a Panorama investigation into mobile phone footage of bullying, fights and happy slapping finding its way onto YouTube and being viewed multiple times. When a controller was asked what would be done with such footage he basically held is hands up and admitted that he will do nothing. And so it continues. The link below will take you to a press release for the aforementioned Panorama programme.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

On Writing #1: The Writer vs The Editor

Whenever I’ve read a work of fiction, I’ve naturally assumed, perhaps naively so, that the content was entirely decided upon by the author. I never considered the work of the editor nor the extent of their influence. That was until I read The Final Cut, Sarah Churchwell’s revealing article in the Guardian’s 24/10/09 Review supplement.

In the article Churchwell illustrates the influence editors have had over literary giants such as Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For me, the article was a shocking revelation; editors not only advise but also rewrite, sometimes making huge decisions on the author’s behalf? Inevitably I was led to the question: how much is the author the author?

During the 70’s, Raymond Carver was a respected writer, having written the well-received Will You Be Quiet, Please? (1976), but far from famous. Then he wrote the collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1980), which received massive critical recognition. The collection was noted for its laconic and ‘minimalist’ style, a style that was labelled ‘Carveresque’. This distinct writing style was not so much created by Carver but by his editor, Gordon Lish. It could therefore be said that Lish had, in effect, ‘made Carver’s reputation’.

When Lish was handed the manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love he proceeded to edit, after he finished he had altered Carver’s original book’s title (Beginners), the characters’ names, the chapter titles and even the nature of the stories. Churchill writes:

‘… Lish not only made the stories much shorter: he also made them more elliptical, more open-ended, darker, more violent and callous, more working class and less overtly intellectual… changing their tone and overall attitude to women.’

I never realised editors had the power to take such liberties. I assumed the brave or ruthless editorial actions Lish took would scorn the author’s credibility and breach the extent to which editors can contribute to an author's work. I was clearly wrong, or maybe the Carver and Lish relationship was unusual. To me it seems that their collaborative relationship was so intermingled that the editor should be credited as much as the author, otherwise is that not a doing a disservice to the editor and fooling the reader?

After reading Churchwell’s article I went to my own shelf of books and rifled through a dozen or so, searching for the names of credited editors. I could not find one. So who knows who made the final decision of the final piece? Has the content been toned down? Who is responsible for the quality of the writing? How much have the author's original intentions been swayed by those of their editor?

Ironically the closest I came to finding an editor was in Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts (1993), a collection of 9 stories from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that inspired Robert Altman's film of the same name. The copyright goes to Tess Gallagher, Carver’s wife who has recently restored Carver’s original, un-Lished, version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, restoring even its title, Beginners (which now is 229 pages long, over 80 pages longer than before).

Afterthought........ Comparatively, in other works of art, for example painting, I wonder what it would have been like if there was an editorial artist who finished some of Dali's surreal landscapes, adding tones where they had consider it missing.

The editors of films are credited and well acknowledged. However, the real editors who notoriously use their power to cut are the producers and studio executives. But which one is superior: the director’s cut or the studio cut? The author’s vision or the populist package? Would you rather see Sergio Leone’s 229 minute cut of Once Upon A Time In America (1984) or the studio version which runs at 144 mintes?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Consumer Echoes and Tom Waits

There are some songs that suit the usual lead up to Christmas that were not explicitly created to capitalise on that period; what these songs do instead is perfectly encapsulate the feel (and the noise) of that period, not so much what we like about that period, more so what it is about that period that can give us a stabbing headache.

There is precisely such a song on Tom Wait’s 1976 album, Small Change, called Step Right Up. It is a typical Waitsian song: exhuming the shoddy demure of a barfly; the horse vocal that sounds like the devil singing with an inflamed throat after a protracted drag on a dozen cigars at once; the stripped down backing musicians nonchalantly playing a repetitive jazz riff; the lyrics that swing from plausible to implausible, from rhyming to jarring, from humourous to downright surreal. But this song is doubly relevant not just because it captures the hustle and bustle noise of Christmas, it also encapsulates the effects the recession has had on the consumer environment.

The song does not have a narrative or a single character like many of Waits’ songs do, Step Right Up is more of a stream of consciousness, an arbitrary snatch of taglines, the voices of a dozen fraught market traders rolled into one. Imagine a verbal collage of all the businesses we see and hear during the Christmas period, targeting our consumer-selves, whether it is from a catalogue, the warbles of a market trader, the host of a TV shopping channel or an advertisement in all its many forms. It’s that sheer barrage of information about cut-price sales, weird products we are made to think we need, the general hard-sell and desperation, that this song has captured so well.

The lyrics are reminiscent of what it has been like to walk through Plymouth city centre over the last year: ‘Everything must go./ Going out of business./ Going out of business/ Going out of business sale./ Fifty percent off original retail price./ Skip the middle man./ Don’t settle for less/ …We need your business. / We’re going out of business./ We’ll give you the business./ Get on the business end of our going-out-of-business sale.’ Bring images to mind of all the shops closing down, their slashed prices and the strident advertising frantically attempting to entice the consumers as they pass by.

Later in the song there is a bombardment of absurd but dream perfect products: ‘It mows your lawn and picks up the kids from school./ It gets rid of facial hair./ It gets rid of embarrassing age spots./ It delivers a pizza/ And it lengthens and it strengthens / And it finds that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks.’ This, I imagine, is how the subconscious feels, where the sheer scale of adverts, street hawkers and bartered products begin to blur into one and another, creating one heaving mass unit; a single product that can do everything and anything all at once.

So as Christmas looms ahead I will inevitably find myself shopping in the city, or online; and when I read and hear those sales people hollering I’m going to give the ruckus a jazz riff back beat and enjoy, rather than get annoyed, by this desperate and festive time. I’m going to try and hear the music amidst the grating hustle and bustle, and hear the rocking in the hocking.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Gig that got my Goat

Last night I went to Plymouth Hippo to watch Irish pop rock band Ash play. I've seen them once before, about 5 years ago and they do put on a really good live show. I enjoyed seeing them this second time but one thing stopped me fully enjoying it: people holding up their digital cameras and mobile phones filming an ENTIRE song.

This filming of gigs is so common (and let's face it, been going on for quite a while now) it has reached the point that when a popular song comes on, the view of the band is distorted my a sudden influx of raised hands, each holding one of these pesky gadgets, then the only way to see the chuffing performance is on somebody else's 1.5 inch squared screen! Which is exactly what these perpetrators are doing! One woman did it during the whole of Straight To You at a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gig, and at an Emmiliana Torrini gig, Emmiliana pleaded with audience members not to take photographs, only half took notice! Where's the respect?

Am I wrong to get miffed at this? If I went to a gig and raised up my Cannon XM2 Digital Video Camera for 3-5mins, would these camera misfits mind, and wouldn't that be illegal? Isn't that taking bootleggin' a bit too far?

Anyway, to get my revenge my aim from now on is to get right to the front of a gig and turn to face the audience, I'm going to wear platform shoes, put on weight to get an especially wide moon face and stare right back into those apertures, wrecking their amateur footage, appearing like Pezuzu, the subliminal demon face in The Exorcist, haunting them out of taking films next time. I urge you all to do the same!