05. A letter and a questionnaire from Peter Watkins
March 21, 2010
I hope that the enclosed questions – which I wrote recently – can be helpful in the discussions around my films. Unfortunately, I am not at all familiar with Spain or it’s culture, so you must please excuse any questions here which for any reason
are not applicable to the reality in Spain.
Also, I have sent the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona several general texts on the media crisis and I hope you will be able to read them. As I write in one of these texts, my own films are certainly a part of the crisis, and I note how for a long time I was also using the Monoform, even if other aspects of my work were an attempt at a critique of the role of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM)
Having read the texts, you may still question how one may obtain a MAVM that
is less centralised and which is relatively free of the Monoform? I hope I am not
being so naive as to imagine that these questions can be answered without broad
reform across the entire political, social and ecological front. However, I do believe that if such reform is possible, it has to be with a parallel reform in the
mass audiovisual media. It is hardly possible to open up decentralised and pluralistic processes in society with a centralised MAVM in its midst.
The issue of the media crisis is immensely large, and very complex, and my brief texts can barely scrape the surface of all the levels that need examining and making part of a broad public debate. You may feel that I am discussing the
problems too much, and not enough the solutions. But “solutions” are not
possible without an understanding of the problems, and they are not something
that can be found without much collective discussion.
However, I have a chapter on my website which offer certain practical and pedagogical ideas for bringing about the discussion, and you will find them
at http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/public.htm (though, again, in English I’m afraid)
I sincerely regret not being able to come to Barcelona in May, but if any
participants in the discussions around my work would like to contact me,
I would be very pleased.
7, rue de Beaumont,
peter.watkins at orange.fr
The role of the mass audiovisual media (MAVM – cinema, TV, radio)
1. Let’s first consider their role and function in contemporary society. Is there a difference between what the role of the MAVM should be, and what it actually is?
2. The MAVM always claim that their role is solely to entertain and inform … to give the public what the public want. What do you think of this claim?
3. The MAVM claim that their news and documentary programmes are “objective”, “fair”, “balanced”, “impartial”, “neutral” (etc.) . The MAVM claim to take these aims and standards very seriously, and to incorporate them in their professional operating practices. Do you believe that these standards are either realistic or attainable?
4. The MAVM (and a large number of media academics and teachers) claim that the MAVM ‘popular culture’, such as TV soap operas, dramas, crime series, ‘reality shows’, commercial cinema films, etc., is not only harmless, but truly democratic, because it provides the public with a universal dialogue which springs from people’s interest in, and identification with, the characters, events and celebrities shown. Do you agree? And what of the violence and sexism which feature in much media ‘popular culture’?
5. In general, the producers of the MAVM only consider their output in terms of contents / agenda (subjects and themes). They rarely, if ever, discuss the form they use to present their subjects. Considering first content: do you believe that the subjects shown on TV and in the commercial cinema adequately reflect the key issues and problems confronting our planet?
6. The MAVM bombard us on every level with the ‘virtues and benefits’ of the consumer society. Do you believe that the MAVM adequately represent the views of those who are opposed to the consumer society?
7. There is so much famine, malnutrition and economic exploitation in the world. This problem appears to be growing, not decreasing. Do the MAVM represent this problem sufficiently? If so, how? In a way which balances their coverage of global materialism?
8. Now there is the issue of form .. the way the subjects are presented. First, would you agree that a message is shaped and coloured by the way in which it is delivered, and that this influences how it is received?
9. A message or a subject delivered by the MAVM is usually more than just its apparent content. It is also the way in which it is edited, how the camera is handled and what it shows (or doesn’t), the type of sounds heard, the words spoken, which image is used next to which (juxtaposition), the length of time the images stay on the screen, the type of narrative-structure used (classical Hollywood, or other) etc. Is it possible that this language-form plays a role in how the message is received and perceived?
10. For example, there are the questions of repetition and uniformity. If a number of entirely different messages (subjects) are presented in precisely the same language-form and process, day after day, night after night, could this affect one’s perception of the individual nature of any or each message?
11. Then there is the question of speed. If a message is delivered at great rapidity, with many images, followed by another message and then another, also at great speed, could this affect our ability to reflect on each message, or to distinguish and contemplate their individual subjects or our differing responses to them?
12. Over the past 50 years or more, especially since the arrival of TV, the MAVM have increasingly standardised their audiovisual presentation into the rapidly-edited, highly structured, intensely repetitious and fragmented language-form, accompanied by a dense bombardment of sound, with which we are now so familiar in both the cinema and TV and also – alas – many documentaries. This ‘Monoform’ (as I call it) is now systematically implanted over at least 95% of all audiovisual material produced for TV and the commercial cinema. It has also been copied by commercial radio. (This issue is covered in my website, and on pages 36-39 of ‘Media Crisis’.) Why have the MAVM done this? How does it affect our perception of the MAVM’s output? Do you think there is any relationship between the use of the Monoform and the way in which we perceive the issue of climate change (for instance)?
13. The prior question raises the issues of dissimulation and transparency.
Do the MAVM ever discuss with the public the many ways in which their language-forms and professional practices affect their messages or impact upon the public? Do the MAVM share with the public how these codes and practices are constructed, and why?
14. Turning now to the question of public participation in the social and political process: do you believe that we live in a genuinely pluralistic society, where problems such as climate change, declining civil liberties and inequality are openly and fully acknowledged, understood, debated, and acted upon by the public?
Or are these issues controlled by central powers, such as the government, financial institutions, multinational corporations, and security services?
15. If you feel that society has become overly centralised, to what extent do you think that the MAVM are responsible? To put the question another way: is the Monoform and the reasons whereby the MAVM enforce it, compatible with a truly pluralistic society?
16. I have often heard it said that one of the biggest problems facing democracy today is people’s belief that they are powerless to affect change. Would you say that the agenda and / or form of the MAVM contribute to this sense of powerlessness?
17. The act of communication is supposed to be a two-way process, a genuine exchange between two or more parties. Does this definition of ‘communication’ apply to the mass audiovisual media and their communications with the public?
18. Can we think of the relationship between the mass audiovisual media and the public as one of power? If so, who wields the power? And was the allocation of this power democratically voted upon?
19. The MAVM rarely mention the idea of developing concepts that would enable the public to participate directly in the process of creating mass (or local) audiovisual communications. It is usually believed by the professionals that only professionals, not the public, can create the media. Do you think that direct participation by the public in the creation of the audiovisual media could help to alleviate at least some of the problems referred to in these questions? If so, can you please elaborate?
20. Many people claim that the Internet has replaced the MAVM in supplying the public with the alternative information needed for public debate. Do you agree?
21. We could refer to the information on the Internet as content. What of the parallel issue of form? From the appearance of audiovisual tools such as YouTube, etc., it would appear that the Monoform has entered the mainstream Internet, and that public debate on this issue has once again been avoided. Is this a problem, and if so, what is its effect on the use and impact of the Internet?
22. When did you last hear of a debate – either national or local – organized to discuss the issues raised by the questions on these pages? If so, who organized this debate? What were the conclusions? And the actions taken?
23. Does your local or regional TV channel ever raise these issues? If so, how, and to what end? Many documentary filmmakers take serious themes, and present them using the Monoform. Does this affect their message?
24. There are many alternative movements today working with the serious issues facing the planet, such as climate change, civil liberties, famine, poverty, etc. Are you aware of any that integrate the media crisis into their critical analysis?
25. Amongst alternative movements there are the media activists. Do you know which issues they raise, and to what degree they address, for example, the media crisis, or the issue of the Monoform, or the relationship of the MAVM to climate change? By this I mean a critical examination of the way in which the audiovisual media are used in general in society (including whatever language-form media activists use in their own films and videos) and the relationship between this and the global crisis?
26. Throughout the world, academic institutions, universities and media training schools are teaching film and video, journalism and mass communications in one form or another. Are you aware which issues are taught in your own country, to what degree they critically address the media crisis, the Monoform, or the relationship of the MAVM to – for example – climate change?
27. As we know, it is possible to use image and sound in many ‘alternative’ complex and fluid ways, without reference to the Monoform. Do you feel that such audio-visual language-forms have a valid place within the process of the MAVM?
28. The MAVM repress those who attempt to use film or TV in alternative ways, or who refuse to use the Monoform. “We respect the right of filmmakers to work in their own way, but those will be the filmmakers whose work we won’t show!” paraphrases a typical statement by a MAVM executive. Many media teaching institutions are aware of this repression, but choose not to publicly confront it. To what degree are you aware of this situation? How do you feel this repression – and the accompanying silence – reflects media claims of “objectivity”and “fairness”?
29. Constitutions and Bills of Rights often proclaim the right of the media to liberty of expression, but rarely mention the right of the public in this respect, especially where it concerns the public relationship with the MAVM. Should the public have rights too? If so, to do what?
30. Many people working within the MAVM and media education claim that a principal role of film is – and should be – to give “pleasure”, and it is rare to find any form of holistic or critical debate on the role of the audiovisual media following screenings at most cinemas and film festivals. Can pleasure exist alongside a critical debate on the role of the MAVM? Why is the one allowed, and not the other?
31. A number of MAVM professionals and media teachers also claim that popular culture films and TV “empower” the public. Do you believe that this happens, and if so, in what way?
32. To continue with the issue of “empowerment”: Is “empowerment” the same as sharing power? Do you think it should be the responsibility or the role of the MAVM to share their power with the public? If so, how could this take place?
33. We hear about school children and students who are becoming less aware of history, or of the meaning of history. Is there a relationship between the MAVM and these problems? What about our collective memory? What of our link with all people through a shared history and a shared future?
34. The U.N. expects the world will have another 2.5 billion people to feed within 40 years, most of them in developing countries. Asia’s demand for food will have doubled. There is very little new land left for cultivation, and water supplies are already stretched to the limit. Given the constraints currently exercised by the MAVM on themselves, on open debate, and upon the whole of civil society, what are our possibilities as citizens to collectively participate in solving the global crisis?
35. Do you think it is possible that the future might see the growth of citizens’ groups within local communities and schools, where people and students organize alternative forms of pluralistic media for the creation of non-Monoform information, culture, debate, as part of a democratic process for confronting the global crisis?