OVERTHINKING: Is Vice TV post-convergence journalism?

I watch most of the new Vice TV shows at least sporadically. I would watch more often but I’ve gotten out of the habit of viewing traditional network tv. It’s only the shows which existed before the TV channel on YouTube that I have kept up with regularly, Matty Matheson’s Dead Set on Life and Action Bronson’s Fuck That’s Delicious. I’m expecting too that I’ll watch Damien Abraham’s new wrestling documentary when it is released even though I don’t like wrestling.

I watch these shows because I like the hosts and I realised recently I liked each of these personalities before they started tv shows. The Vice tv shows are almost a by-product or a side-hustle to each presenter’s original vocation. Matty Matheson is a successful chef and restauranteur, Action Bronson a successful rapper and Damien Abraham (an outlier to the argument) is the singer of the band Fucked Up who were successful but are less prolific than they used to be (though just as good) and is an increasingly successful podcaster.

The conventional wisdom in modern media would suggest these shows would not only need to build upon the established brand of the respective presenters but also cross promote the network shows and serve a set of sponsors to monetise the show and turn profit for the channel. This doesn’t seem to be the case and my impression is that these shows are a by-product of Matty Matheson’s food related appearances and Action Bronson’s music tours.

There are ostensibly few if any obvious sponsors. The locations and venues could, in rare instances, be a form of brand placement and there does seem to be a sort of eco-system with which Vice operates within and which producers occasionally double dip upon but I think more than anything the aim is to shirk conventional wisdom and provide candid and often rough food and travel television in the manner of traditional network tv.

       Impact of convergence:

In news reporting convergence has impacted journalists by requiring that they be skilled at multi-media reporting and can use the best platform or platforms available. Journalists can no longer specialise in just one form of reporting (i.e. print or radio) but must use multimedia to meet time or contextual demands of news for modern news consumers.

Another key impact of convergence is the need for adaptability. In Convergent Journalism: An Introduction (Flak, 2014) and The 21st Century Journalism Handbook (Holmes, 2014) convergence is examined in the context of the rising prevalence of smartphones and prevalent use of twitter. Technology and internet culture evolves so rapidly and in unexpected directions that, in 2017, the financial future of Twitter is uncertain though tools such as the GIF which were expected to become obsolete are now commonly used in meme imagery which, itself, has led to different semiotic signifiers. The Snapchat model of temporal consumption has affecte

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A meme about signifiers from a meme generator website. Author Unknown.

d the speed of image consumption and the perception of permanence. This model has spread to other platforms and is still being experimented with by big and small news providers as a method of reporting.

Increased internet literacy is constantly impacting on the idea of convergence and the role of the modern journalist. Clickbait journalism is an example of how quickly users quickly learnt the literacy of headlines and how to avoid clickbait articles. With the rise of the snapchat model of temporal imagery and meme language will journalists need to learn how to convey news in more rapid image based mediums?

Matheson and Bronson both benefit immensely from living in a digital age. They self-market with social media and the increasing popularity of their shows and their own social media documentation of filming along their tour stops adds also to the allure of their tours. It helps too that their shows, while roughly presented, look great. Dead Set on Life in particular looks amazing because of the frequent sweeping aerial shots from drone cameras. The accessibility of this technology to Matheson and crew means that their show looks better than all but the top tier (i.e. Attenborough) of previous travel shows.

Both shows have now run their third seasons. Where will they go next? Can they keep this sort of candid feel? Perhaps this is a new level of convergence which sees journalists required to not only multi-skill but also multi-career and side-hustle in this way? Will the hosts need to adapt and evolve with the VICE as a channel and their own career progressions or is the long-term goal of Vice to buck the trends and adapt a style that seeks to ignore convergence and continue to provide network style television? If so, and if this is post-convergence journalism/media it plays eerily like the pre-convergence.

Trumbo (2015)

Jay Roach

Such an amazingly mundane film and amazing because while assumedly isn’t hard to make a boring film it is surely difficult to make one so boring out of such interesting source material. The two-hour running time to this movie drags as an eternity as the film struggles with the formation of the red scare and McCarthyism in America in the wake of WW2 and the beginnings of the cold war.

I think most people are aware of the film because Bryan Cranston was nominated for best actor in the 2016 academy awards for his portrayal of the titular Dalton Trumbo. Knowing parts of the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10 from the You Must Remember This podcast and having also read about Trumbo in Steve Martins auto-biography Born Standing Up I’ve been eager to watch this film ever since I missed it in cinemas. Amidst the many amazing brushes with historical figures in Steve Martins book his interaction with Trumbo during the time Martin was dating his daughter stood out the most. Martin wrote that it was the first time he had been around such intellectual radicals and described Trumbo as an intense and passionate man despite the troubles he’d gone through with the Hollywood black lists and his time in prison.

On the screen, the film does many things well. It seamlessly interweaves original archival footage and recreates similar footage where necessary. The film is always well acted and the cast, one and all, do a great job of portraying some of the most influential players in Hollywood history.

But there is never a sense what it is to live in America at the time. Kong: Skull Island managed a better job in it’s opening credits with short introductory montage of news clippings and footage. Trumbo never seems confident enough to dive too far into history or examine closely why the cold war lasted for so long or why communism was pursued so vehemently domestically.

A particularly weak moment slowly passes by when the gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper threatens to publish the real, Jewish names, of the studio heads and the aura of anti-Semitism which operates in tandem with McCarthyism is left to the audience to be interpreted as a general fear of foreignness. This lack of general political and national scope to the film is problem enough but the film is even less effective with its central subject. There is no indication of how Trumbo came to be where he is. The film introduces him in his thirties as the highest paid screenwriter to date. There is no explanation for his communism or stubbornness or exploration of his past as a war correspondent or even how he grew as a writer. He is birthed fully formed into the film and as such there is never any reason to like him.

Even as Trumbo is blacklisted and jailed there are no real stakes. On Trumbo’s release from prison he and his family move to a palatial house in the city whereas in real life, they moved to Mexico. It is these kind of disconnects which not only, biographically, make it difficult for the film to explain key moments (such as the inspiration for his second Oscar winning film The Brave One) it also is just one of many instances where an opportunity for crisis or real stakes for Trumbo and his family are side-stepped for convenience. Keeping the film in Hollywood allows the filmmakers to concentrate the cause and menace of McCarthyism into the single villain of the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as played by Helen Mirren.

The only real crisis the film bothers to present is that as a workaholic Trumbo might be at risk of losing his family and even this small stake is discarded as his drug and alcohol fuelled work is shown to not be the mission of a stubborn obsessive but the ultimate foil to his nemesis Hedda Hopper. The film portrays this outcome between these two individuals as the main cause of the end of the blacklists, the red scare, McCarthyism and the whole dark chapter of American history. Meanwhile the epilogue cards explain that the blacklist was still in partial operation for a further twenty years and negate even the flimsy premise of crisis and battle the filmmakers invented.

The film is a boring failure made by a director of bad comedy films (notably the Austin Powers sequels) and a tv writer. Though the acting within the film is good I’m not even sure that Cranston deserved to be nominated for work in a film weighed down by such an ironically bad script.

I know now why I’ve never really met anyone who’s seen this film. Very few did. Though I would say to anyone that was interested that they would better spend their time listening to Karina Longworth’s much more interesting, entertaining and accurate stories of Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten on the You Must Remember This podcast.

trumbo three

 

 

 

 

(The) 25th Hour (2001)

David Benioff

25th Hour, originally published as The 25th Hour, is a rare example of a novel which was adapted into a much better film. Other examples I can think of, off-hand at least, include Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption which as a novella was great but as a film, The Shawshank Redemption, was enriched and perfected by extended narrative space. I would also argue Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a better film as there are fewer digressions about genital surgery and lounge singers.

Both book and film versions of 25th Hour have the same plot, the same narrative beats and, for the most part, almost identical dialogue. The protagonist, Montgomery Brogan, has been convicted of drug trafficking. The story explores his last 24 hours of freedom before he is sent to Otisville penitentiary for seven years. Flashbacks through both his perspective and as focalised through those close to him unveil key events which led to the present. There are elements of a thriller as Montgomery wonders who informed upon him and weighs up his options in the face of his incarceration. Will he will run, commit suicide, or resign himself to the oblivion of prison?

As with Shawshank, the film version of 25th Hour has an unfair advantage over the novel. The setting in New York city forms a large part of the novel but plays an even bigger part in the film. Directed by Spike Lee the film was the first to be shot in New York after the 2001 world trade center attacks. In the aftermath of the attacks and as rubble is still being cleared there is an added element of anger, fear and confusion imbued within the story and the setting. The novel, written and set before the S11 attacks, is about Montgomery as an individual and his own feelings towards others and the city as he travels through it on the last day of his free life. In the film, there is a sense that the whole city is angry, scared and confused and this both reflects and belittles Montgomery’s own feelings.

The greatest accomplishment of the story is the moral ambiguity of Montgomery’s characterisation. Benioff writes Monty as a likeable character and the moral push and pull of reconciling the sources of his riches and reason for his pending incarceration is left to his friends. In this way, the judgment and empathy provided towards Month shifts with the different focalisation and character arcs of his friends and loved ones. The character driven plot provides a natural countdown and Benioff dips in and out of the story time with expert use of segues to provide Monty’s back story.

I really struggle to criticise this book. Though it’s not perfect or great. Um… how about, the structure of a short linear story time interrupted by flashbacks is arguably generic and played-out. That’s some form of criticism but, even that, is a stretch. I am incredible biased because of how much I love the film. That too is the point. This is a prime example of a book that must be read before the film. With Spike Lee as director and David Benioff as screenwriter nearly every page and line of dialogue is perfectly recreated in the film. Perhaps I’m wrong and it is a great book or an amazing book but with such a perfect storm of cast, crew, score, cinematography and use of the city as character this, like Shawshank before it, is an example of a book which becomes redundant once you have seen the film.

the-25th-hour

Tech Waves and Evolution in Journalism

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Martha Gellhorn (L) and Kim Barker (R) reporting from different ends of the 20th century.

An initial goal of this blog and part of the meaning behind the name Pins and Strings was the intention for much of my writing to explore perceived or real connectedness in cultural influence and development.

In my upcoming run of reviews of foreign correspondent autobiographies, which began with John Simpson’s We Chose to Speak of War and Strife, I’m beginning to develop the idea different waves of journalism and journalist personality based upon the technology available in each journalist’s respective era. Simpson provides a very good history and evolution of journalism within his book but avoids defining eras. He is perhaps too close to the subject and his subjects to want to classify and instead hails all as iconic and heroic.

Which isn’t to say I think defining different waves of journalism based upon technology lessens the achievements of past or current journalists. It has however undoubtedly lead to different priorities and tactics in reporting. The autobiographies of Martha Gellhorn, Edward Behr, Marie Colvin and Kim Barker are almost representative, respectively, of each quarter of the 20th century. Barker and Colvin share many of the same personal qualities as Behr and Gellhorn but the latter spend much of their time dealing with manually typing stories and frantically searching for methods of mailing (Gellhorn) or wiring (Behr) their editors. Colvin and Simpson share occasionally similar frustrations as they struggle for satellite signals and Barker as she searches for internet. These searches are never as desperate as that of Gellhorn and Behr however.

In considering these eras or waves in the modern era it is not just the journalist and the methods and tools at their disposal but also the wants and needs of the news consumer which must be taken into consideration. Were Behr and Gellhorn subject to less from the end users of their news? If so was it commensurate with the challenges they face and the technology available?

Multimedia

The advent of the internet and smart phones led to the end of the telegram and much of the problems for journalists in lodging stories. It has also changed the way in which news is consumed. Today multimedia journalism, while not absolute, is increasingly the most common and widespread way of reporting and consuming news particularly for breaking and complicated stories.

In The 21st Century Journalism Handbook Tim Holmes explains this shift is due to the increased availability of high speed internet. This mean, he writes, that consumers can now ‘interact with what goes on around them like never before’ and are no longer ‘stuck with a local paper and a local radio or TV station’.

Gitner and Kennedy, in Multimedia storytelling for digital communicators in a multiplatform world, posit this ‘ability for the citizenry to talk back (18)’ means journalists must be ‘more flexible, faster and accountable even as technology makes this easier in a way’ and that this, in turn, only ‘Makes journalism richer and deeper’ (27).

journalists-libya
Journalists from various agencies in Libya

Looking forward news may become even more portable and instantaneous with the rise of snapchat like temporary stories and the provision of live streaming through various social media platforms. Developing issues in journalism may relate to how both professional and citizen journalists deal with the platforms curation and censorship of these livestreams.

Most ot of all I wonder what the likes of Martha Gellhorn and Edward Behr would have reported with the ability to instantly transmit, to provide background information through hyperlinks and film and edit video in the palm of their hands. With such media convergence what would someone like Martha Gellhorn have done with a smartphone as she embarked from her hiding place on a nurse’s boat onto the beaches of Normandy? What would we have learnt about Vietnam or Tiananmen Square if Edward Behr had live-streamed it? It’s easy to see why Simpson was reluctant to differentiate between generations of 20th century journalists though I think these few examples also illustrate just how much we take for granted in the age of multimedia journalism.

We Chose to Speak of War and Strife (2016)

John Simpson

John Simpson is the world affairs editor at the BBC. He has worked at the BBC as a journalist for his entire career and much of his work was as a foreign correspondent. He was once hunted by Robert Mugabe, avoided bullets at the Tiananmen Square massacre, bore witness to the Kosovo War, the first Gulf War and countless other pivotal world events.

This, his latest of several books which have detailed his life as a journalist, is more of a history of the evolution and role of the foreign correspondent. I first heard of the book in an interview between Simpson and Phillip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live. The segment was titled ‘The End of the Foreign Correspondent’ and in the interview Simpson posited that the role of foreign correspondent has all but been replaced by news services and freelance local journalists and implied his book was a sort of response.

This idea of an obituary to the profession is perhaps an angle which Simpson used to promote the book. Meanwhile, the back-cover blurb uses a different angle by name-dropping Hemingway (who only appears in the book tangentially in an anecdote), and also portrays the book as a series of hair-raising adventures.

In actuality, the book is neither an obituary to foreign correspondence or an auto-biographical tale of adventure though there are elements of each. Rather, Simpson has compiled an anthological history of the foreign correspondent. He has culled from history books, foreign correspondents auto-biographies, his own life, and his own auto-biographies.

I’ve a certain immediate and unfounded suspicion of Simpson based around generational difference and Australian/English colonial histories. I was interested in the subject but wary of both him and his book. As the structure of the book revealed itself to be neither searing indictment of modern corporate journalism or personal tales of adventure I was even more willing, perhaps even eager, to decry the book as little more than a lazy cash-grab copy-and-paste exploitative compilation of other journalist’s lives.

I do have small criticisms of the book but they do not relate to Simpson’s use of other writings. If anything, I applaud him for having curated such a diverse, interesting, and at times obtuse collection of writings on foreign correspondence. He is also humbly adept at backgrounding himself as a segue device between the various journalists.

In terms of criticisms the book does almost collapse under its own ambitions in the opening chapters. Simpson begins with a history of the origins of the foreign correspondent. He seems to be aware of the concentration required to keep track of the unfamiliar names, wars and monarchs involved in the first instances of foreign reporting. To keep the reader interested he intersplices elements of his own autobiography and the effect is that initially the book seems messy and self-absorbed.

Simpson also uses a wry, almost arch, tone of voice which is seemingly common to journalist biographies (including Edward Behr in the 60’s and Kim Barker in the 2000’s). I think the idea in using this tone is to avoid sensation but it often leads to anti-climax, detachment, boredom or even smugness.

Simpson also often misses the irony in romanticising the early decades of foreign correspondence and laughing at the many examples of its excess and drunken follies. After detailing the history of a profession that was often unnecessarily lavish Simpson ends the book decrying the extinction of the foreign correspondent. He posits that the living expenses of the foreign correspondent are seen as too expensive in the modern age.

I’m can’t speak to the veracity of Simpson’s assessment of the current state of foreign correspondence. In Kim Barker’s book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which details her time as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan in the 2000’s, there is an underlying theme of budgetary constraints. That said she is often stubbornly reporting on Afghanistan while her editors are asking her to look for different subject matter or report within different countries.

Thirty fives years earlier Edward Behr in his autobiography (entitled ‘Bearings: A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines or, alternatively, ‘Anyone here been raped and speak English?’) which was published in the early 70’s, also ends his book with the budgetary worries and concerns as both Simpson and Barker.

I don’t think it’s necessary new or surprising that there is an effort to curtail spending on foreign correspondents. In the wake of the global financial crisis many industries have had to scale back from past excesses and autobiographies of the music, movie and tv stars similarly lament the contemporary states of their respective industries while also yearning for the golden era of endless expense accounts.

Ultimately, it’s hard to truly know how objective Simpson and his views on the modern state of journalism are. He continues to occupy one of the top spots at the BBC after having lived through the golden era of foreign correspondence. Is the foreign correspondent really dying out? Will the news industry learn to adapt? Or will it copy its entertainment cousins of music and movies and adapt cry poor while still living rich?

Thankfully these questions are not the real aim of this book. I do wish that Simpson had been more willing to predict the future of journalism or provide some sort of guidance to up and coming journalists. Instead he provides a loving curation of the many chapters of the profession as lived and written by past heroes of foreign journalism such as Don McMullin, Martha Gellhorn, and Marie Colvin. The book cherishes and values the lives of these and many other individuals. Simpson celebrates their passion and work and grieves for those who were lost along the way. It is an invaluable resource as it acts as aa stepping stone towards dozens of other amazing journalist auto-biographies. A fatalist could call it the book an obituary to the profession. An optimist would view it as a sort of celebratory honour roll and call to arms.

 

*Edit 16/7 Kim Barker’s book was actually titled The Taliban Shuffle and adapted into a film with the title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

 

 

 

 

The Hangover 3 (2013)

Todd Phillips

I’ve watched this film twice. It was ok first time around albeit confusing. Did anyone ever think this was a trilogy series? Want it to be? Need a third film to provide closure to events? NO! The first Hangover movie was a massive success. The second hangover movie was a copy of the first set in a different location and with a few tweaks but still a success, and an ok film. With that trend established it seemed safe to assume the third hangover movie would be more of the same.

But it’s not. Not at all. Same actors, same director and to an extent the same setup but much different result. No longer is there a hangover as plot device towards a reveal detective story. I don’t think this film even has a hangover in it and I liked that they broke from the formula but found myself guiltily missing and yearning for it a third time.

The second time I watched the film and without preconceptions I enjoyed it. It was easier to cast aside what I knew from the previous movies and watch this as a standalone story. I’m almost certain that once upon a time the script for this film was had a different title but that the easiest, or only way, to get it made was to overlay the character template of the hangover films. Either that and/or the director, Todd Phillips, wanted to showcase his action movie credentials so that he could branch out in the future. This second theory is semi-confirmed with his follow-up War Dogs where Phillips puts to work all the flashy bro-comedy action he seems to have rehearsed here. In the meantime, Hangover 3 has some good duel antagonist work from John Goodman and Ken Jeong and strong duel straight men in Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper to the crazy of Zach Galifianakis. It’s an ok watch but only if you can pretend it’s not a sequel to two unrelated films.

 

Hangover3-five-panel

The trilogy no one expected? Although this poster is pretty representative of it’s action over comedy tone.