Tuesday, 31 March 2009

La Grande Illusion, Ambiguity and Anti-Semitism

Martin O'Shaughnessy revisits Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion in a contribution based on his recent paper at the Leo Baeck Institute, London as part of their series of talks, Jews: Heroes and Stars.

For a film that is now seen as one of the unquestioned pinnacles of French and European film-making, catching a great director at the height of his powers and pulling together a fantastic cast, La Grande Illusion has had a surprising and chequered reception history. Part of the reason for this lies in the necessarily implicit nature of its politics and the need to talk about the concerns of the 1930s in a coded manner in a film set in the First World War. Part of the reason also lies in the way the film explores the seduction of what it opposes (anti-Semitism, militarism, social hierarchy) rather than simply denouncing it, as less subtle films might have done. This is why some of those who loved it in 1937 (the film was a great success at home and abroad), did so for the ‘wrong’ reasons, finding nationalism in a film that was deeply internationalist in its spirit.

The Second World War complicated matters still further. Seen through the lens of the later conflict, the film’s sympathetic picture of Germans, its internationalism, its romance between a French proletarian and a German peasant woman, its exploration of anti-Semitism, all seemed difficult to swallow, with the memory of occupation, collaboration and Nazi atrocities so fresh.

The film had deliberately shown a stereotypical Jew (he’s in the fashion trade and part of a banking family that has bought up châteaux and land), but made him an overwhelmingly positive character and given him a core role in the narrative. But retrospectively, this strategic recourse to stereotyping could be made to look deeply problematic and accusations of anti-Semitism would haunt the film over a long period. The film shows a French aristocrat who sacrifices himself so that a proletarian Frenchman and bourgeois French Jew may escape from a prisoner-of-war camp, a story that encapsulates both the film’s refusal of anti-Semitism and the sense that the old, undemocratic order must give way to a new egalitarian one. The fact that people have often interpreted it in ways diametrically opposed to this ‘preferred’ reading underlines the inability of films to control their interpretation, especially when they work at the level of the implicit.
(Photo credit: p373. Permissions)

Friday, 27 March 2009

'At Least He's Doing Something': Jamie Oliver and 'Broken Britain'

Last Sunday, in the Observer newspaper, Jamie Oliver was announced to be the Observer Food Monthly's Food Personality of the Year. Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper declared him to be 'the people's chef' and 'a proper national treasure'. As these plaudits come in the wake of last year's Jamie’s Ministry of Food, Joanne Hollows and Steve Jones reflect on the significance of the show.

In autumn 2008, during our casual readings of the blogosphere, Jamie Oliver was a persistent presence. There was a seemingly endless stream of articles and user-generated comment about his latest series, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, and the wider significance of Jamie’s role in public life. In particular, a consensus appeared to have emerged that, unlike British people in general - and unlike the Government in particular - at least Jamie ‘was doing something’ about a range of social problems.

In our current work we’re trying to make sense of both the series and the reception of it. We’re exploring how Jamie Oliver’s celebrity image has been transformed. He is no longer simply a lifestyle expert within the culinary field but increasingly operates as a moral entrepreneur involved with a range of social enterprises from his charitable ‘Fifteen’ foundation (the subject of Jamie’s School Dinners) to his more recent attempt to teach the whole of Britain basic cookery skills to improve the health of the nation.

If Jamie’s Ministry of Food focused on the ‘problem’ of a British people without culinary skills, damaging their health with a diet of junk food and takeaways, then it also represented a particular portion of the British people – the working class – as the source and embodiment of this problem. We’ve been struck by the similarities between the show and earlier forms of ‘social exploration’ conducted by middle-class reformers among the working class. There are also similarities between the aesthetic strategies used in the programme and those found in the cycle of British social realist films from the late 1950s and early 1960s. These help us to understand how the series works to represent contemporary working-class cultures as pathological and in need of intervention and ‘reform’.

Finally, we’re interested in how Jamie’s Ministry of Food articulates with a wider series of concerns that are being played out in the political sphere about ‘Broken Britain’, aided by Tory leader David Cameron and The Sun newspaper. The series provided a focus for debates about the state of the nation which had been played out in the media and political rhetoric during 2007-8. Jamie Oliver’s willingness to ‘cut through the crap’ and ‘get things done’ resonated with the notion that Britain was a society in need of healing, and that local and national government were incapable of remedying this situation. We want to suggest that the representations in the show of fast food, obese bodies, sink estates, and poverty of aspiration and welfare-dependence delineated a general crisis which demanded direct action by an inspirational figure. In this way, the show legitimated Jamie’s new role as a moral and social entrepreneur who was an inspiration to the nation.
(Photo Credit: Matlock. Permissions.)

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Cracking Safes at WOMADelaide

Matt Connell continues his reflections on his experience of WOMADelaide 2009. His previous account can be found here.

Friday 6th March: 'No worries, we'll be able to use an oxy-acetylene blowtorch to cut into the safe tomorrow in time for your gig'

Was I dreaming? No, what a bizarre day this was for me, dominated by 'DJ Disaster Narrowly Averted.' Having locked all my valuables, including my precious CDs, into the hotel room safe, I was perturbed, but not unduly, when on Thursday evening I couldn't open it. A few hours later, when two duty managers and an engineer still couldn't get into it, I really began to worry. A pointed remark to the effect that I'd travelled 12 thousand miles for this gig and now my CDs were sealed in an reinforced metal box resulted in the 'assurance' about the blowtorch. So, I spent the night tossing and turning with nightmare visions of an Ocean's Eleven safe job resulting in a pile of melted plastic and DJ egg on my face. But, thank goodness, the next day a locksmith cracked the nut without any blowtorch and delivered my tunes into my shaking hands. The Hilton gave me a champagne breakfast and some drink and taxi vouchers to make up for the stress. Thus fortified, I was able to go ahead and played a blinder using all the loverly equipment that was installed in the Picture Palace without a hitch by the site crew. The soundsystem was really tasty and sounded sweet. It was a real pleasure - and a great relief - to finally get some sounds on!

More importantly, the main attraction - the painting of the hoarding - proceeded apace, and as the public flooded onto the festival site we began to get a steady stream of interested people staying to watch the painting for a while. Many people were keen to chat about their experiences of India and of Bombay films, and enjoyed reading all the exhibition information and looking at the collection of original film artworks. It was particularly interesting that people of Indonesian or Malay extraction (of which there are quite a few in Australia) had fond memories of these films, and of painted hoardings, because the films and the culture associated with them were exported all around South Asia, not just within the Indian sub-continent.

(Photo credit: Matt Connell: all rights reserved.)

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

In Love with Caravans

Matt Kerry, who has recently submitted his PhD on The Holiday, Britishness and British Film, reflects on some of the highlights of BBC 4's Motoring season which has been televised over the past few weeks.

In Penelope Keith and The Fast Lady, Keith reconstructed Dorothy Levitt’s pioneering 1905 solo journey from London to Liverpool in a vintage Dion-Bouton car. In Touring Britain – The Classic Motorist’s Way historian David Heathcote followed the 1930s' editions of the Shell Guides to Dorset and Cornwall, and contrasted the ways in which a ban on non-residents’ cars from entering Polperro has both preserved the small fishing village, yet simultaneously constructed the port as a holiday-retreat full of second homes which sadly lie empty for half the year.

Of particular interest (to myself), however, was Caravans: A British Love Affair which focused on the boom in caravanning holidays in the postwar era. Caravans offered a rather romantic alternative to the mass holiday camp and seaside holidays which were also popular at the time. As Professor John Walton of Leeds Metropolitan University pointed out in the programme, ‘the caravan really pioneers this idea of the individual family carrying its house on its back, and carrying its possessions with it’.

During the interwar years the British caravan holiday was mainly the preserve of the upper-middle classes, with timber-framed models which were expensive and relatively immobile. Sam Alper changed all this when he launched the first mass-produced and affordable caravan, The Sprite in 1948 which sold for approximately £200. It would appear from the programme that Alper was an entrepreneur second only to Billy Butlin, and publicised the durability of The Sprite by taking it on a 10,000 mile motoring tour of the Mediterranean in 1952. (Incidentally, Alper’s company Caravans International supplied the caravans for Carry On Behind (1975)).

The documentary foregrounded the caravan as a space where women could take control of the family holiday. Interviewee Christine Fagg, for instance, bought her first caravan because she wanted her children to be free from the restrictions of set meal times imposed by Bed and Breakfast landladies. She had also lost patience with her husbands ‘maniacal’ fascination for sailing and exclaimed: ‘There are more ways to women’s lib than burning your bra! My escape from the kitchen sink lay in the open road, towing a caravan behind the family car.’

Something for us to think about before we book our time away in August….

Monday, 23 March 2009

Guest Paper: The Children's Rights Movement in Brazil and the Construction of News Agendas

As part of the on-going ICAn seminar series, Lidia Maropo - a visiting scholar from the University of Fortaleza in Brazil and the New University of Lisbon, Portugal - will be delivering a paper entitled 'The Children's Rights Movement in Brazil and the Construction of News Agendas' on Wednesday 25th March.
This presentation analyses the relationship between the children’s rights movement and the news media in Brazil. In her research, Lidia Marôpo raised questions such as: the social movement succeeded in becoming a credible news source? What structure and resources were needed to influence the journalistic discourse? What strategies did the movement use? What was the social actors’ knowledge on the media’s working routines? Was there a professional management with the media? What agreements and conflicts existed between the media and the movement? The research findings were based on interviews with activists and on quantitative and qualitative content analyses of two Brazilian newspapers.
Time: 4.00-6,00pm. Place: GEE219, Clifton Campus, NTU.
Everyone welcome.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Jai Ho

Matt Connell continues his reflections on his visit to WOMADelaide. Earlier reports can be found here and here.

Thurs 5th: Had my stereotypical cultural imaginary of Australia as somehow being a bit 'Wild West' shattered today - the culture of Health and Safety is even more pervasive here than in the UK. I cut my finger (using a saw), and had to fill in a form to get a plaster (Action Taken to Prevent a Reoccurrence of the Accident = 'be more careful next time….'). But, joking aside, a big event like this has to take H&S matters very seriously - a chat with one of the site electricians revealed how one of his electrical inspections at another event discovered a bare wire contact with a tent frame that would have electrified an entire row of stalls if it hadn't been spotted - and with up to 70,000 members of the public expected to visit over the weekend, everyone is keen to make the site as safe as is possible.

The artists are continuing their outlining and underpainting of the hoarding - which is combining a classic Bombay film image (of the suffering heroine of Mother India pulling a plough) with an image referencing the recent box office smash Slumdog Millionaire. The Slumdog sweep of the Oscars has generated a huge amount of publicity in India, and has come at just the right moment for the Bombay Picture Palace at WOMADelaide - there seems to be quite a buzz around what we are doing, which is really nice. Although Slumdog is not of course strictly a Mumbai film, most of the crew for it were in fact from the Mumbai film industry. The Hindi phase 'jai ho' ('victory'), which forms the lyric of the climactic song from Slumdog Millionaire, is fast becoming our team catchphase and acting as an endlessly re-inflected lingua franca as preparations accelerate in anticipation of opening to the public tomorrow. Yesterday, I heard this song blaring from a record shop in downtown Adelaide, which was fantastic.

Had a lovely moment today when I invited an Indian taxi driver on site to have a look at what we are doing. On chatting to the artists and soaking up the atmosphere he was quite moved, and rendered palpably homesick for his family in India. He said he loved the venue, and was proud to see 'his people' doing something great in Australia. This was very satisfying, because despite the heartfelt efforts of committed organisations like WOMAD, the whole world music/cultural festival scene is of course prey to the sceptical accusation that it provides a merely 'orientalist' frission of novelty to white middle class audiences without providing any real cultural authenticity or engagement. We'll see what the public make of it all tomorrow….
(Photo Credit: mikecogh. Permissions.)

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Match Attax

Ben Taylor discusses the cultural and economic significance of football trading cards among children.

On 12 March, Match Attax Extras were released in the UK. These are Premier League football trading cards which are currently among the most sought after collectibles for children of primary school age. They are produced by Topps, an American company which has a long history of producing baseball trading cards in the US.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about football cards. Cigarette manufacturers first issued collectible cigarette cards featuring football players over 100 years ago. By the 1960s, Panini had launched collectible football stickers, still widely available today. Match Attax, launched in 2007 to replace Shoot Out cards, consist of over 400 cards featuring Premiership footballers released early in the football season. Each player receives a star rating, and the collection includes a number of limited edition cards. Match Attax Extras are an additional crop of over 100 cards reflecting mid-season transfers, players who have scored hat-tricks and fans’ favourites. The brand in part is marketed as a game: collectors can put together their own team and pitch themselves against another team in a match played out in relation to respective players’ star ratings. A world championship is due to be held in Hong Kong later this year. However, it is as a trading card game that Match Attax has really caught on, with cards being exchanged in playgrounds, toy shops and on websites such as eBay.

From a cultural studies perspective, there are three points I would raise here. The first is that the popularity of Match Attax is a reminder that we need to retain an interest in what goes on beyond electronic media forms. All too often, the discipline of cultural studies has become too media-centred, assuming that media experience is definitive of our experience per se. This media-centredness is often shared by broader debates about children and leisure, where anxieties are frequently expressed about the long hours spent in front of a screen, watching television or playing video games. Beyond the media attributes of Match Attax cards themselves, then, we need to undertake a rather different form of analysis of the practices of collecting and trading which surround them.

My second point concerns how we might interpret these practices. In one of the few pieces of academic work which explores trading cards, Daniel Cook argues that the practice of trading them represents a ‘form of training […] for competitive capitalism’ (Cook, 2001: 95). While in one sense there is clearly some legitimacy to this interpretation, in another sense the process of swapping cards is an example of commodities being reused without any exchange of money taking place. In this respect, it is a practice which represents a departure from the dominant forms of consumption found within capitalist society.

My third point relates to the commodification of sport. I am currently reading Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport, and in one of the essays in the book Garry Whannel explores the manner in which the commodification of sport enjoys both an economic and a cultural dimension (Whannel, 2009). This is clearly the case with Match Attax. Their success can be subjected to a fairly obvious form of economic analysis. They are, for example, manufactured under licence from the Premier League. A target for young children’s pocket-money expenditure, the release of the Extras series in the latter stages of the football season can be seen as particularly exploitative. But this economic analysis needs to be triangulated with an analysis of the cultural coordinates of Match Attax. As Whannel notes, the increasing commodification of football ‘has generated new cultural practices and rituals of consumption’ (2009: 84). Match Attax are one such practice and ritual. While they might seem peripheral to the core activities of Premiership football, they are quite central to the leisure practices of many schoolchildren, a vehicle for friendship and social contacts. In many cases, they generate a capacious knowledge of football and go hand in hand with a more general passion for the beautiful game, which in turn might lead to other forms of consumption of football-related commodities (replica kits, match tickets, satellite television and so on). Whannel is therefore correct to argue that we need to pay ‘close attention to the multiple levels in which’ commodification occurs (2009: 84), and I hope it is clear how the case of Match Attax illustrates this.

Cook, D. T. (2001) ‘Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children’s Leisure: Moral Panics in Children’s Culture at Century’s End’, Leisure Sciences, 23:81–98.
Whannel, G. (2009) ‘Between culture and economy: understanding the politics of media sport’ in B. Carrington and I. McDonald (eds) Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport, London: Routledge.
(Photo credit: robdebsgreen. Permissions.)

Monday, 16 March 2009

Work in Progress Papers: Diva Debts

Gary Needham will be presenting a paper entitled 'Diva Debts: The "Value" of Queerness in I Seen Beyonce at Burger King'.
This work in progress paper examines the videos of queer hip-hop artist Cazwell in order to demonstrate the ongoing relevance and diversification of queer theory. The value of queerness here is in a critique of capital’s reification of homonormativity yet, this effect also relates assimilative identities to the question of value in terms of capital. The outsider Cazwell is interesting because he also demarcates queer and homonormative forms of music culture through his mocking of Beyonce and the unquestioned politics of diva worship and the theme of diva debt.

What underpins this work is a larger interest in how queer theory can make sense of capital’s relationship to homonormativity, especially the potential for queerness and queer cultural production to act as a disorganising process that takes to task the economic factors that produce more than willing homonormative cultures and subjects.
The paper takes place on Wednesday March 18, 12.00-1.00pm in GEE219, Clifton Campus, NTU.
(Photo credit: Osei Thompson. Permissions.)

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Guest Paper - Lost Logos: Channel 4 and the Branding of American Event Television

Professor Paul Grainge from the University of Nottingham will be presenting this paper on Wednesday March 18 as part of the on-going ICAn seminar series.
For many television scholars, branding has become the defining industrial practice of the multi-channel era. This paper uses the franchise phenomenon of Lost to examine how network and programme brands function together in specific markets. Examining the identity of Channel 4 as the original brand home of Lost in the UK, it considers the ‘promotional surround’ of the series when launched on British terrestrial screens. In doing so, it puts at the centre of analysis the ephemeral media – the teasers, trailers, channel logos and series sponsorships - that helped position and domesticate Lost for British audiences.
Time: 4.00-5.30. Place: GEE219, Clifton Campus, NTU. Everyone welcome. For further information, please email Simon Cross.
(Photo credit: Roo Reynolds. Permissions.)

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Constructing a Festival

Matt Connell continues his reflections on his visit to WOMADelaide 2009. Find out about earlier stages of the process here.

Wednesday: The artists (a team from Studio Balkrishna in Mumbai, led by Mr Balkrishna himself) have really cracked on now: with the hoarding gridded up they set to mixing the paints. The concentrated powder pigment was mixed with linseed oil and cobalt drying solution (to speed up the drying time so that the finished hoarding can be hung at the end of the festival). The resulting paints are astonishingly vivid. Then, once a small sacred 'om' had been jotted on the surface to dedicate the painting, outlining of the figures commenced, with rapid progress being made.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have been decorating the marquee with coloured cloth, garlands, and Indian fabric decorations. Festival marquees tend towards the anonymous white cube look, and our challenge is to convert this into a vibrant space redolent of the sub-continent, in which to hang the Bombay Picture Palace collection of original posters and Bolly oil-on-canvas advertisments. The other task has been to begin technical liaison with the various wings of the site crew: electricians, lighting and sound crews, in order to ensure that the correct DJ equipment, lights and PA are successfully installed. I am responsible for this liason, as I am the most technically minded of the team. Thankfully, the WOMAD crew seem very efficient and helpful, so I am not anticipating any problems. But this equipment will be the last thing to be installed, so we won't really know all is ok until the last minute.
(Photo credit: mikecogh. permissions.)

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Laurent Cantet's The Class

Martin O'Shaughnessy discusses French director Laurent Cantet's 2008 The Class (Entre les Murs).

This film is really worth taking in. Its Cannes golden palm and Oscar nomination were fully deserved. One of the most interesting things about it is how it was made: inspired by a hit novel by an ex-school teacher, François Bégaudeau, its script was honed through workshops with its amateur cast of teachers, students and parents, each playing their own role. There was thus something profoundly democratic about how it was put together, a quality reinforced by the filming which typically used three high-definition digital cameras running simultaneously to record the classroom interaction through extreme long-takes. This allowed the dialogue to flow organically and signalled a desire on the part of the director to let go off the kind of control that the ‘well-made shot’ would normally require.

As always with Cantet, the film is profoundly interested in questions of power, as evidenced by the teacher’s ability to define legitimate and illegitimate language use and to set classroom norms. Beyond this, the film might be seen as a questioning of the neutrality associated with French republican citizenship and the school’s role in producing such a thing. While Brits and Americans are typically invited to bring their particularity into the public sphere, citizenship in France is based on a leaving behind of the particular. Helping young French people to rise above their religion, ethnic origin or social class, the school has a key role in forming republican citizens. Critics of this model say that one has only to scratch its surface to find the white, middle-class male lurking behind apparent neutrality and universality.

By allowing its protagonists to point to the class and ethnic biases in their teacher’s apparently neutral language use, Cantet’s film shows its awareness of these criticisms of republican citizenship. But despite this, it holds onto a sense of the school as a place where different groups can come together by transcending rather than erasing their differences.

A few years ago, in 2005, after rioting in the French suburbs, Nicolas Sarkozy called the rioters ‘la racaille’, the rabble. Providing an implicit answer to Sarkozy’s disqualification of protesting youth, this film gives its young people an equal right to be heard, recognising them as speaking subjects not as social objects. If the film seems to avoid any direct political intervention, the commitment it shows to equality before the word (both in its content and in the way it was written) underscores a political intent already brought out through its examination of power relations in the classroom.
(Picture of College Francoise Dolto by Gabyu. Permissions.)

Monday, 9 March 2009

Guest Paper: 'I've Stamped my Personality all Over it'

Sian Lincoln from Liverpool John Moores University will be delivering a guest paper entitled '"I've Stamped My Personality All Over It": The Meaning of Objects in Teenage Bedroom Space' on Wednesday March 11 2009 as part of the on-going ICAn seminar series.
Revisiting McRobbie's concept of 'bedroom culture' and adapting Lefebvre's notion of 'social space' this paper explores the meaning of material objects to teenagers in their bedrooms. Using ethnographic accounts, teenage bedroom spaces are discussed as complex, constantly evolving 'material' spaces with 'objects' acting as signifiers of a young person's participation in social and cultural life.
The event takes place from 4.00-6.00 in GEE219, Clifton Campus, NTU. For further information, please email Simon Cross. Everyone welcome.
(Photo credit: ciao-chow: permissions.)

Friday, 6 March 2009

Richard Johnson: Gender Insurgency and Neo-Liberal Reform: The Academy Twice Transformed?

A report on a paper by Richard Johnson delivered at the University of Birmingham 6th March 2009 in the series: 'Gender and Sexuality: The Discursive Limits of "Equality" in Higher Education'

This talk marked a kind of ironic homecoming for Richard Johnson, as he taught at the University of Birmingham, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from 1974 to 1993. CCCS was, unfathomably, closed in 1991 and a new Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology formed. It, too, was closed by the University in 2002, in the wake of rumours that this was revenge for the centre’s oppositional stance to the University’s administration. At this point Richard left Birmingham, and at Nottingham Trent many of us were privileged to enjoy his generosity of time and spirit, until his retirement.

Richard argued that neoliberalism didn’t just start in 1975, but we are now seeing an intensification of its embrace. While noting Karl Polyani’s view that economies are embedded in cultures, Richard made the point that these dominant models never wholly expunge other trajectories. The fact that neoliberalism is not all-encompassing is what makes it possible to critique the structures which attempt to govern and regulate us in the academy. Furthermore, as much as these other perspectives exist alongside the dominant ones, there remains the possibility of a looking back to a previous existence and perhaps a re-installation of that ethos.

Richard’s talk took a biographical turn as he reflected on the phases and transitions across his own academic career. This began in Cambridge in a collegial, but gender and class-segregated setting. At Birmingham there was less segregation of class, and slowly there appeared more women colleagues as feminists fought their way into academic space and legitimacy. Alliances with the 1968 student movement resulted in a greater democratization of the university and of power relations between staff and students.

The neoliberal phase began with Richard’s move to NTU, more or less in concert with the accession to power of New Labour. He reports finding many echoes at NTU of the Blairite interventionist impulse to over-regulate, inspect, audit and punish those who do not comply. However, despite this he was delighted to find that cultural studies at NTU was not a marginalised project. It was well embedded in the academy and successful in research. Ironically, he found, much of the exciting collaborative work fell away under RAE pressures to perform individually. In his view, the decision to buy in experienced researchers (such as himself) resulted in a reproduction of patriarchy, a teaching/ research divide and a gender hierarchy.

Richard left us with a call to subvert the neoliberal governmentality he saw at NTU and more generally in the ‘new’ and ‘old’ universities. He offered two strategies: a return to collective work, activism and the formation of ‘little networks’ (let’s hope this blog is a start!); also a revitalised demand for democracy in universities, with real representation on key decision-making bodies.

Heston's Feasts

How do we make sense of the new TV cookery series Heston's Feasts which started this week on Channel 4? By Joanne Hollows.

Heston Blumenthal is commonly regarded as one of the best chefs in the UK, frequently the best chef. His restaurant, The Fat Duck, has 3 Michelin stars and is regarded as one of the world’s best restaurants. While he has not courted the same level of celebrity as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay (helping to maintain his credibility as a serious chef rather than a media personality), he is relatively well-known for his use of scientific approaches to cookery (associating him with molecular gastronomy) and his challenges to culinary conventions, epitomized by signature dishes such as ‘Snail Porridge’ and ‘Nitro-scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice-cream’.

His first TV series – BBC2’s In Search of Perfection – cemented this image of geekish eccentricity as he went to seemingly inordinate lengths to make the ‘perfect’ version of Britain’s favourite dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Black Forest Gateau. While this was far more about a display of Heston’s culinary wizardry than instruction, there was the invitation to employ some or all of Heston’s techniques in your own kitchen (even if this involved doing strange things with a vacuum cleaner and a liberal supply of liquid nitrogen). However, by the time of a ‘Christmas Special’, the pretence that this might have anything to do with domestic cooking had been well and truly dropped.

This week’s Feasts maintained this focus, representing perhaps the logical outcome of some trends within TV cookery – it had become pure spectacle. As he went about creating a Victorian Feast inspired by Alice in Wonderland that would take his diners ‘down a rabbit hole’, the focus was on Heston’s skill, artistry and taste (combined with some healthy doses of wit, zaniness and erudition). The viewer could enjoy the visual spectacle of an edible garden populated by edible insects (in a nod to the reality show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here) and wildly wobbling absinthe jellies powered by mechanisms stolen from vibrators. We could also vicariously savour the taste of the food by watching the reactions and comments of his six celebrity guests.

Lest the audience had any illusions, the programme opened with a warning from Blumenthal: ‘Don’t try this at home’. Watching the show was clearly a spectator sport. And while the show featured some set pieces in which we followed the chef on his travels ‘in pursuit of perfection’ (including turtle fishing in the US), Feasts appeared to share more with arts programming than the cookery sub-genre Niki Strange has dubbed ‘tour-educative’.

There has been debate within media studies about how much contemporary TV cookery needs to be understood as a form of lifestyle television inviting us to makeover the self. Feasts appeared to decisively break with this format. We are only invited to take part as spectators on his culinary journey, receiving a culinary education rather than learning how to use cooking in a creative display of our lifestyle. While David Bell has argued that most TV chefs attempt the difficult balancing act of democratizing culinary capital while displaying their own distinction, the focus here was squarely on Heston’s distinction. As such it was also a perfect branding exercise, reminding us that we could never get The Fat Duck experience at home (a fortuitously timed exercise given that the restaurant was temporarily closed as the show aired amid concerns that diners had fallen ill after eating there.)
(Photo credit: Sifu Renka. Permissions.)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Media Anaysis, Media Production and Irate Users

What motivates us to analyse the media? By Dean Hardman.

As analysts of the mass media in general or of media discourse in particular, why do we do it? It’s likely that reasons can vary from person to person and that we all have our own. Chief of these, I suspect, is an innate curiosity and fascination with culture – a particular personal interest in film or television and their effects on people’s lives, for example. In my case, there are two main motivations. The first is outrage that I’ve often felt at ideologically loaded and biased reporting that I’ve seen in newspapers and television, the control or hold they seem to think they have (and do have) and a feeling that by pointing these out in a scholarly fashion, that the world will be, somehow, better. This is almost certainly very naïve.

The second is just mere fascination, and it is that fascination that has led me recently to dip my toe into the water of media production and to actually have a go at participating in the media. One relatively recent phenomenon in electronic mass media is 'user generated content' and 'interactivity'. Many media professionals – the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, for example – rage about the inane nature of user contributions, yet it seems to be the latest fad, with all national newspaper websites enabling readers to leave their thoughts in blogs (not unlike this one). Such user generated content is encouraged (or at least allowable) on the football website 'Football 365'. Here - and here - are two examples of my own contributions to the site, along with 'user comments'. These range from interesting thoughts on the issues raised in the pieces, to inane observations written by people who don’t appear to have even read the articles in question. Best of all, are the foul-mouthed aggressive responses, railing against the inanity of the articles themselves. Any thoughts about why people are motivated to abuse 'journalists' or bloggers are welcome in the comments section at the end of this blog.

My final excursion into the media production game comes in the form of a short sitcom script I entered into a competition called the Sitcom Trials. The play, 'From Riga to Rotherham' deals with issues of immigration and displacement, although suggesting that it is in any way more cerebral than that would be stretching things considerably. If you’re around the Leicester Square Theatre on Wednesday the 4th March, do pop in – although perhaps leave the 'interactivity' until after the show.
(Picture source: ario j's photostream)

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

WOMADelaide: the Bombay Picture Palace

Matt Connell continues his report from the WOMADelaide 'Sounds of the Planet 2009' festival, highlighting some of the complex 'behind-the-scenes' processes involved in producing cultural events like festivals.

The festival opens to the public on Friday. It's now Tuesday, and on site preparation in the beautiful Botanical Gardens in Adelaide is well underway, with stages going up and a real bustle about the place. There has been some heavy rain - v.unusual, and most welcome - firstly, because they need the water in South Australia, and secondly because usually the main problem at festivals here is dust. So long as it clears by the weekend, everyone is happy for some dampness now. Having survived a few very muddy festivals in the UK, it certainly feels strange to be happy about rain!

The Bombay Picture Palace tent is up, and decoration has begun. The main task for the team has been to check that the complex set of rigging kit, artists materials and shipped exhibition items has been correctly assembled. The process of long range ordering of materials by the Mumbai artists , which has taken place via the Charity Shop DJ team in England communicating with the WOMAD group in Australia, has involved various translation issues and the potential for 'chinese whisper' communication distortions. In fact, as everyone gathered around the boxes and crates and began checking everything off, everything was more-or-less as hoped for.

Building on the detailed organization by the CSDJ team in the UK, the WOMAD team over here in Australia have done wonders getting several hard-to-source items, and the relief of the Indian artists was palpable as they could see that they were now equipped to to what they've come to do. One of the more interesting aspects of this was their need for dry powder pigments, to be mixed and blended with linseed oil on site, to produce their own paint. This way of working is now more-or-less unheard of outside India, with almost all European, American and New World artists using pre-mixed paints - so tracking down the right powders and potions was quite a tricky task. Everyone is happy. The space is taking shape nicely, the shipped exhibition items have arrived (including the Bombay Picture Palace collection of Indian film posters, hoardings and paintings).

Prep work on the 'Bolly' hoarding that will take shape over the course of the festival will begin in earnest tomorrow, with the large boards being gridded up using thread and chalk (the chalk is rubbed on a thread which is stretched across the board and then twanged, leaving a dead straight chalkline across the board). The grid will then be used as a guide for penciling in the outline design. I'll let you know about that - and the pigment mixing - in my next post.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

On (at the) Broadway: Martin O'Shaughnessy

Martin O'Shaughnessy will be introducing Laurent Cantet's latest film The Class (2008) at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham on Thursday 5th March at 8.15. He contextualizes the movie within the director's other films and explores it's impact in debates about integration and the role of education in France.
(photo credit: vickibrown; permissions)

Monday, 2 March 2009

Constructionism: from Prince Potemkin's villages to George Bush's "Mission Accomplished" episode

Patrick Wright will be discussing these issues at the next ICAn Work in Progress seminar. Patrick writes that the key concerns of his paper are: 'We are probably all familiar with 'constructionism' as a methodological problem within cultural studies. I have been revisiting this question from a historical perspective, and will briefly suggest how various theatrical techniques of rigging have been applied to wider reality.'
The event will take place on 4 March 2009, 1.00-2.00pm in GEE215, Clifton Campus, NTU.