Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins

Abstract: In 17th century Netherlandish painting, artists employed a complex visual system to assign a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral concepts and narratives. Such “disguised symbolism” was often used to reflect as well as express concern about the period’s wealth, hedonism, and habits of consumption through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms of the material world. This article will explore the adoption of disguised symbolic iconography in the television series Mad Men.  The article will focus on certain objects – the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster – that have acquired and accumulated meaning over time, based on art historical traditions and the past experiences of their collective viewers.  The article will argue that the way in which these objects were used, both in 17th century Netherlandish painting and in Mad Men, promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, they transcend the function of a visual narrative device and allow viewers access to “Truth” about consumption that is relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men (creator: Matthew Weiner) is a television series in which style and visual aesthetics are regularly praised for both enhancing the depth of the fictional narrative and contributing to the historical authenticity of the program. For instance, Jim Hansen has argued convincingly about the importance of appearances and the layers of meaning to be unpacked in regard to the corporeal image of Don Draper (Hansen 2013, 145-160). Meanwhile, Jeremy Butler has written about the “profound nature of things:” the objects that comprise the mise en scene as signifiers of 1960s culture and evidence of Weiner’s attention to historical visual literacy (Butler 2010, 55-71). So far, however, there has not been an attempt to combine these two valuable perspectives – Hansen’s search for deeper meaning through style with Butler’s focus on material paraphernalia – in regard to Mad Men. Yet, for art historians, it is a familiar practice to interpret the appearance of objects as a means of unveiling deeper meaning and creating an experience of revelation for the viewer. Employing the tradition of 17th century Netherlandish painting as a point of comparison, this article will explore the use of disguised symbolic iconography in Mad Men. The frequent insertion of historically symbolic item such as the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, the inclusion of these objects allows viewers of Mad Men access to “Truths” about consumption that are relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

The basic tenets of semiotics are essential in drawing a comparison between the use of symbolic objects in both Mad Men and Netherlandish painting. A simplified semiotic approach to the subject would argue that images (whether painted or motion picture) are signs, that signs are designed to represent something beyond themselves, and that an inherent part of human experience is to interpret the signs that we encounter in our daily lives. The act of creating any image is an act of arranging compositional elements to convey meaning; and the act of viewing an image is an act of translating and deciphering such elements to create significance. Hence, representations of objects – whether depicted in a painting or in a television program – always contain layers of potential meaning and symbolic value.

In Derrida’s semiotics, this process is constantly being negotiated and both sign and signified are always in flux, with authorship becoming less significant than viewership for determining value and meaning (Derrida 1982, 313-323). According to Bryson and Bal, an image is “by definition repeatable…[o]nce launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play…works of art are constituted by different viewers in different ways at different times and places” (Bal and Bryson 1981, 179). In his influential text Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger argues that images acquire and accumulate meaning over time, based on the past experiences of their collective viewers. The reason that certain historic images may still convey specific symbolism or meaning to us today is because our current experiences are not altogether unlike those of the individuals who first made and viewed the images in question (Berger, J. 1991, 24-33). Therefore, to argue that certain “signs” (symbolic objects) convey a similar meaning in both 17th century painting and on Mad Men in the fictional context of the 1960s, we must investigate potential similarities in context that would affect the production and reception of these images, all the while keeping in mind how the context of this article’s writing influences our interpretation (Derrida 1979, 81).

Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century was, in many ways, not so different from the Grote Markt district of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Europe had become socially and economically modernized and, proportionately, the Low Countries had financially benefited much more than any other area of the continent during the Renaissance (Snyder 2004, 433). Better methods of transport there led to massive increases in trade, empire, resources, and urbanization. These factors caused a shift in the distribution of wealth, as the flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants, bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a true middle class that was capable of consuming and patronizing the arts. On a visit to Antwerp in 1520, the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers” (Durer 1889, 96). Among these various strata of the population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent despite vocalizations of concern about the sins of gluttony and greed (Schama 1987, 3-15). Northern European cities were becoming renowned for every conceivable type of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels,” even though members of the population expressed anxiety about the way in which these practices countered traditional religious beliefs (Snyder 2004, 433). Art itself became a commodity, treated by some as an investment, by others as pleasurable decoration for increasingly large homes (Alpers 1983, xxii).

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

It was in this context, of increasing material wealth combined with Christian guilt at overabundance, that disguised symbolism became prominent in the paintings of the era. As described by Erwin Panofsky, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was, nevertheless, understood by a wide audience. Artists employing this strategy assigned a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral and historical concepts and narratives (Panofsky 1953, 131-148). Disguised symbolism was used as a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation” (Ward 1994, 12) through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world (Lane 1988, 114).

Intended as a means to “celebrate the triumphs of the Dutch culture of commodities [yet…] moralize against consumption” (Berger, H. 2011, 37-38), familiar objects were transformed into “emblems of mortality to remind the viewer how transitory and fragile his pleasures are and how easily beauty and life are broken” (Slive 1962, 488). In 1984, the art historian Ivan Gaskell convincingly argued that the inclusion of disguised symbolism is ultimately about a desire to reveal Truth. In his article, “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth,” Gaskell compares the iconography of a particular painting – Woman Holding a Balance – to Biblical verses, other period artworks, and 16th century guides to visual symbolism in order to demonstrate that the painting can be read as a contemplation of Truth as an antidote to the imbalance of worldly vanities (Gaskell 1984, 557-561).

The notion of balance that was integral to the emergence of disguised symbolism in 17th century painting was once again relevant in post-World War II America, when conflict about consumption again reared its head. Then, the United States experienced extreme economic expansion, fueling – and, in part, fueled by – a growing advertising industry with its locus of power on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1945 and 1960, America’s GDP doubled, and grew by an additional 46% in the ensuing decade, with major growth taking place in the service sector and in the manufacturing of consumer durables (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Plentiful jobs, higher wages, and better educational opportunities led to the rapid growth of the middle class and an increasing market for everything from processed foods to refrigerators, cars to a home in the suburbs. Television sets, in particular, became much more affordable to many Americans, and ultimately were made a ubiquitous part of post-war cultural life, with nearly 90% of all US households owning one by 1960 (Jordan 1996, 798).

Yet, many Americans were uneasy with such newfound wealth and increasing consumption. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, the fear that spending would lead to decadence was rooted in a long-standing sense of pragmatism and Christian morality that was skeptical of luxury and opulence (May 1988, 148). The advertising industry was highly influential in challenging these doubts, and took advantage of television’s ability to transmit messages straight to the living rooms of a public with more leisure time and greater disposable income than ever before. Corporate spending on advertising doubled in the decade immediately following the end of World War II, then doubling again within the course of just the next five years (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Representations of conspicuous consumption abounded in both print ads and television commercials of the era, demonstrating the power of the image by effectively encouraging Americans toward increasingly materialistic values and practices (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997, 278-294). As the market became saturated and consumers became younger and savvier over the course of the 1960s, a creative approach that would continue to attract and influence Americans was necessitated. Wit and humor, narrative and personality were incorporated into advertising, and subtly began to define not only the products being sold, but also the advertising industry itself. More and more Americans began to associate the trade with modernity, youth, and hipness, in addition to its traditional connotations of wealth, luxury, and indulgence (Meyers 1984, 122; Frank 1997, 132-167).

With the actual historical and locational context of the fictional program Mad Men aligning with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, we may now begin looking in earnest for shared “signs,” recurring images that appear in the television program and in historical Dutch paintings, encouraging deeper analysis as examples of disguised symbolism. Though there are many incidences of potential disguised symbolism to be found throughout Mad Men, this article focuses on four symbols – the mirror, the timepiece, the egg, and the oyster – that were of especial significance in the 17th century, and whose historical symbolism resonates particularly well in the 1960s storylines that Weiner constructs.

The very first episode of Mad Men (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) introduces the mirror as a symbolic element, of reflection and confrontation with a true image of self that is often denied. The opening scene finds Don sitting alone at a bar table, an empty book of matches and three snuffed-out cigarettes in the ashtray before him and a mirror above him, reflecting the bar’s patrons (Figure 1). Trying to come up with a new advertising strategy for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don asks the barman about his smoking habits. After a moment’s hesitation, he explains that he loves smoking, but then goes on to state that his wife “hates it” and that “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The camera then pans to the bar, at which the dozens of happy patrons, male and female, who were reflected in the mirror above Don’s head are seen puffing away on their cigarettes. Whether the smokers are oblivious to the dangerous nature of their habit, or just unwilling to confront it, the viewer is put in the position of an omniscient observer of Truth, privy to the reality and self-deception taking place in the scene, and the balance between the pleasures of the physical world and their potential relationship to death.

Even a casual observer might detect the symbolic possibilities that a mirror possesses, and their potential applications in Mad Men. A mirror is a vessel of verisimilitude, confronting the user with an image of self that might not correspond to the user’s perception of self. The mirror’s ability to strip away vanities and deception and reveal truth lends power to this object, as well as symbolic value. The fact that the image that appears in the mirror is temporal in nature, subject to change or vanish altogether when the subject himself moves or disappears, adds another layer of meaning to the mirror, suggesting the transient nature of self-awareness, if not life itself. In the disguised symbolism of the 17th century, this object was used to suggest the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthly delights as well as the foolishness, the deception, in valuing such ephemeral things.

When watching Mad Men, the viewer often occupies a position similar to that of a spectator of such a 17th century Netherlandish genre scene. The century prior had seen the development of a fascinating new artistic convention: the inclusion of reflective surfaces that depicted people or objects outside of the actual area of the representation, oftentimes the artist or symbols of his craft. For instance, Simon Luttichuys’ painting Vanitas (Figure 2, c. 1655) contains several elements historically representative of the passage of time and inevitability of death, including the hourglass, the fading flower, the blank page, and, of course, the skull. A mirror is also included in this assemblage, demonstrating that the symbolic value of this object is aligned with that of the others. Indeed, it reflects the back of the skull, suggesting that, though we often turn to the mirror for superficial reasons, to satiate our vain impulses, the mirror can actually reveal the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and demonstrate, instead, the true end that awaits all things of this world. In addition to the skull, another object appears in the mirror: an artist’s easel, with a canvas upon it. This inclusion invites the viewer to not only identify painting with a reflection of truth, but to identify personally with the artist, the omniscient maker of meaning, by seeing the scene from his point of view (Stoichita 1997, 186-197). The invitation to witness a moment in time from this vantage point – from which we can see both an object and its reflection, perception and truth, and are left to draw our own conclusions about the difference between the two – is also extended to viewers in Mad Men.

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Mirrors abound in every season of the program, offering views of several characters that both reveal the characters’ focus on superficiality and self-perception, yet allow us to also see a more critical, corrupted, “realistic” view of their true moral character – from an overweight Betty tightening her stomach in front of a mirror in Don’s new apartment, to Megan, sobbing in front of a bathroom mirror after her acting abilities are criticized, to Don, peering into his mouth with a mirror to look at his rotting tooth, a potent symbol of a decaying soul. “Maidenform” (Season 2, Episode 6) is an episode particularly dominated by reflection and repeatedly offering the viewer the opportunity to stand outside of the scene being depicted and to see the dual function of the mirror: as an object involved in vain pursuits as well as in the revelation of the fraud involved in such self-deception.

The episode opens with the three primary female characters – Betty, Joan, and Peggy – reflected in bedroom mirrors as they are donning undergarments. Here, the mirror represents the superficial focus of women striving to satisfy the gaze of self and/or other. Each woman attempts to construct a youthful and beautiful façade, to appear trim, well-formed, and tan (respectively), whether for their own approval or for that of those who might observe them (Figure 3).[1] Similarly, Peter Campbell uses a mirror in the same episode to seemingly overlook his own lusty sins and see instead a successful and desirable spouse. This scenario arises when Pete returns to the apartment he shares with his wife after a fling with a potential Playtex bra model who still lives at home with her mother. Creeping into a darkened house, Pete puts down his briefcase and catches a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror. After looking himself in the eye for a moment, he gave a slight, smug smile and looked away, perhaps relishing his newfound studly self-perception while ignoring the obviously roguish dimensions of his character. In all of these cases, the mirror is engaged in its primary function, serving as a reflective surface that allows those who stand before it to see what they want to see – a flattering version of themselves that is nonetheless constructed of fleeting qualities such as youth, beauty, and sexual desirability.

Later in the episode, the mirror takes on its second function, revealing to the omniscient viewer both the superficial reflection as well as the often-unpleasant Truth about what or who is shown in its surface. For example, midway through the episode, Don meets Bobbi Barrett in her hotel room, where she pours two glasses of champagne in front of a mirror. She looks up at Don, who approaches her from behind, and has a verbal exchange with him that ends in his request for her to “stop talking,” perhaps because her speech disrupts the desirable image that he saw reflected in the glass. They kiss and turn away, while the viewer continues to watch their lusty embrace in the mirror. Though the couple is surely attractive and desirable on the surface, the viewer sees in the mirror two individuals who are violating their marital vows as they head toward the bed that lies in shadow. Indeed, the scene quickly goes sour when Bobbi, in that bed, verbally reveals this truth that Don doesn’t want to face: he has developed a reputation around town for being a connoisseur in the field of extra-marital affairs.

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

In the final scene of the episode, the exchange with Bobbi is revisited, in a sense, as the viewer witnesses Don shaving before a mirror. His daughter Sally comes into the bathroom to observe him, reassuring her father that she “won’t talk” so as not to disturb him in the process – a verbal reminder of his own request to his mistress. He stops to look at her, then back at himself in the mirror. He is visibly shaken, and cannot continue his act of grooming, first looking himself in the eye, then averting his own gaze before sitting down on the toilet, with his back to the mirror above the sink, demonstrating an inability to confront his own infidelity as reflected back to him. However, the viewer is still privy to a mirror image of Don for, as the camera pulls back, we see the image of the “real” person slipping off-screen to the left, as a reflection of him in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door comes into view on the right side of the screen. For a moment, both images inhabit our field of vision, before the scene fades to black (Figure 4). Just as in Luttichuys’ painting, the viewer is put in the position of the omniscient meaning-maker, confronted with dueling dimensions of reality: Truth and perception. Here, the deceptive nature of the glass now becomes visible not only to Don, but to the viewer as well, whose ability to stand outside the scene and observe that which is simultaneously represented and that which is not, highlights the discrepancy between reality and reflection and drives home the need to challenge the acceptance of superficial appearances with honest assessments of cost and benefits.

The appearance of the wristwatch and its significance in several episodes of Mad Men also speaks to self-deception, particularly in regard to the denial of one’s mortality. The wristwatch, like the hourglass in Luttichuys’s painting and many other Netherlandish genre scenes, reminds the viewer that time is passing and will eventually catch up with us all, that the pleasures of indulgence and consumption will pass, and that we – like all material things – will ultimately age and die. This symbolism is driven home in Season 6, Episode 1 (“Doorways”), for example: an episode almost entirely about death. The episode opens dramatically, with the camera pointed toward the ceiling, a woman screaming, and a doctor’s face looming large up above, performing chest compressions on the person whose perspective the viewer occupies, putting us in position to contemplate the potential for an imminent and unexpected death. The scene fades to black, as the voice of Don reads the first sentence from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” A scene comes into view, of Don reading and Megan sunbathing on Waikiki Beach. Just a moment later, he picks up his wristwatch to check the time for Megan, only to discover that the watch is not working (Figure 5). He holds it to his ear, scrutinizes the dial, then hands it to Megan, who insists that Don must have gotten the watch wet. After a moment of consideration, she hands it back to him saying, “Who cares what time it is?”

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

The meaning behind this opening sequence revolves around an interpretation of the stopped watch as a symbol of death. In paintings, all watches and clocks are, of course, stopped, frozen by the artist at a distinct moment in time, for all time. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the disguised symbolism of 17th century paintings, the appearance of a “stopped” timepiece was not a mere side effect of the painting process, but a deliberately symbolic inclusion. In Peter Claesz’s 1630 Vanitas Still Life (Figure 6), a skull and bone rest atop a table, next to an empty and overturned glass, a common symbol for a life brought to an abrupt end. Beside the glass is an elaborate pocketwatch, open, with a mirror in its lid reflecting nothingness and its hands frozen in time. The watch, viewed in conjunction with the skull and glass, can be read as implying the end of time that precedes the darkness, the truth we wish to avoid, seen in the mirror. As the watch stops ticking, so, too, we are left to gather, does the heart of its owner.

This interpretation is particularly relevant in light of the juxtaposition of images – heart attack victim and Don’s stopped watch – seen in “Doorways.” The fact that Megan disregards the stopped watch may be a sign of her youth and naivety, her sense that there are still many more moments to be experienced, despite the fact that one never knows when he will run out of time, so to speak. Yet the observant viewer likely can recognize that this is a symbol not to be ignored, especially since it has appeared before – in Season 2, Episode 3 (“The Benefactors”), in which Don’s watch is again described as having stopped, only later to be repaired by Betty. Perhaps there, the broken watch was more metaphorical, a representation of Don’s marriage nearing its expiration date (this was, after all, the episode in which he begins his affair with Bobbi Barrett that later led to his divorce). In “Doorways,” however, the close visual link between the stopped watch and stopped heart suggest a more fatalistic reading in keeping with the vanitas imagery of the 17th century, which overtly drew parallels between timepieces and the end of all time.

The second-ever episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” seems to likewise directly reference the disguised symbolism popularized by 17th century Netherlandish painting. The opening sequence of the episode is a beautifully composed still life activated by the presence of the motion picture camera. In the first shot, an egg is cracked and broken, with the yolk poured out into a small bowl. A disembodied hand then reaches for a dish in which a lemon sits, halved. One half is taken away, placed in a cloth napkin, and squeezed over the yolk. In the background, the viewer can discern other bowls, piled high with croutons, cheese, and lettuce – the makings of a Caesar salad (Figure 7). Yet the focus is clearly on the egg, a highly symbolic food item that makes its way into dozens of 17th century paintings, as well as several future episodes of Mad Men.

Eggs have, in many cultures and for many millennia, been considered a symbol of fertility, reproduction, and regeneration. The egg’s physical characteristics and actual function – a vessel for a new life hidden within a rounded form that has been compared to both a testicle and a breast – are clearly responsible for these attributes, which occur in the art and mythology of societies as diverse as that of ancient Egypt, China, and Finland (Newall 1967, 3-32). The Christian artists of the Northern Renaissance imbued the egg with additional levels of disguised symbolism that were carried on in the works of 17th century Netherlandish painters. Within the Christian tradition, the egg became representative of the Resurrection of Christ (Jesus rising from the dead as the chick springs forth from a seemingly inert object) as well as the Incarnation (with the egg representing the womb of Mary, impregnated with the Christ child).

Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (Figure 8, 1436) illustrates this latter interpretation of the egg, demonstrating the new, distinctly religious dimension to the pre-Christian association of the egg with regeneration and fertility. In this painting – as well as other images of the Madonna by van Eyck, such as the Ince Hall Madonna – the Virgin Mary is enthroned in a domestic interior, nursing the newborn Christ child on her lap. To the right are objects such as a basin filled with water and a clear glass vessel that are traditionally read as symbols of baptism and of Mary’s intact virginity, respectively.[2] On the left side of the picture plane is a large leaded glass window through which light passes: a potentially symbolic inclusion, as Christ is often called the light of the world, the means by which divine truth is illuminated. The light beams pass through the intact glass (again, symbolic of the undisturbed virginity of Mary) to illuminate not only the Madonna and child, but two eggs that sit directly on the windowsill. The symbolism of the eggs parallel that of the other objects represented in the scene, in that they speak to the idea of new life being created and contained within something unbroken and intact. The fact that there are two eggs – mirroring the two human figures present in the painting – suggests that van Eyck is referring not only to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself. In both cases, fertility and reproduction were stripped of the “sinful” stain of sexuality; instead, they were connected to ideas of purity, wholeness, and the sacrality of familial life, which the egg, as a versatile symbol, took on.

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

In Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays,” the egg appears in a way that corresponds with the disguised symbolism just described. This episode focuses on Peggy Olsen and her relationship with religion in the aftermath of giving birth to Peter Campbell’s son. Despite her struggles with spirituality and the institution of the Catholic Church, Peggy agrees to do some pro bono advertising work for her home parish and develops a friendly relationship with the young pastor in the meantime. Through dialogue with her family, the pastor, Father John, finds out about the child Peggy bore out of wedlock. At the end of the episode, the third Sunday – Easter Sunday – has arrived, and an egg hunt is taking place on the church grounds. Father John approaches Peggy and the camera zooms in, then holds the image of the priest pressing a blue egg into the palm of her white gloved hand, “for the little one” (Figure 9). The Easter interpretation of the egg – as a sign of the risen Christ – is here eclipsed by the other symbolic value of the egg, as a sign of fruitful femininity and the proliferation of family life through new birth. Though Peggy’s virginity is, of course, no longer intact, the priest’s gesture seems to suggest a desire to restore wholeness to Peggy herself, and to her family life. Peggy, who ultimately gives her child up for adoption, seems uncomfortable with the gesture, perhaps not only shocked by Father John’s knowledge of her illegitimate child, but unwilling to adhere to the model of femininity and family life implied by the intact egg and visualized in van Eyck’s Madonna paintings.

Understanding the egg as a symbol of fertility and family with sacred undertones helps inform an understanding of an even more frequently seen image, repeated in several episodes of Mad Men: that of the broken egg. If the intact egg is a symbol of wholeness, virtue, and the life-giving role of sexuality in a familial context, the broken egg represents the shattering of innocence, integrity, and the familial bond. Broken eggs can frequently be found in Netherlandish paintings representing the cost of intemperance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and family life. For example, Jan Steen’s raucous Interior of an Inn (Figure 10, c. 1665) depicts a barmaid whose skirt is being lifted by an inebriated patron. Though she places one hand on his arm as though to restrain him, with her other hand, she touches her breast in a sensual manner. Two other men look on, one openly laughing and the other provocatively stuffing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with his pinky finger while staring at the female subject. On the floor before them all are opened mussel shells (the symbolism of mollusks to be discussed at length later in this article), an empty frying pan with an exceedingly long handle, and many broken eggshells.

While there might be a logical interpretation of the eggs’ appearance – surely, in a scene of such boisterous behavior, its reasonable to assume that a fragile food item might be disturbed – their staged appearance on the floor, in conjunction with the other objects that surround them and the previously established symbolic value of intact eggs, suggests disguised symbolism at work. The indulgence in the vices of smoking and drinking are overtly pictured in the work. Additionally, sexual indulgence is implied through the gestures of the painting’s characters and the phallic allusions of the pipe stem and pan handle juxtaposed with the receptive voids of the pipe’s bowl and pan’s bottom. The broken eggs add a moralizing component to this otherwise festive scene, alluding to the destruction of purity in the domestic ideal expressed by the intact egg, and signifying especially fallen womanhood (Thomson and Fahy 1990, 11).

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Breaking eggs serve a similar iconographic function in Mad Men, and are especially abundant in Season 3, appearing in Episode 4 (“The Arrangements”) and Episode 5 (“The Fog”) alike. In both cases, the egg’s historical value as a symbol of incarnation, birth, and familial life is relevant, but the fact that the egg is shown breaking seems to indicate the fracturing and dissolution of family life. In “The Arrangements,” the premise by which the breaking egg is introduced is, again, the making of a Caesar salad. Gathered around the table this time are Don, Peter Campbell, and Horace Cook, Jr. (“Ho-Ho”), one of Pete’s old school friends. Ho-Ho is presented as a spoiled rich kid, about to waste his inheritance by investing in jai alai. The dinner conversation revolves around father-son tensions – particularly, the distaste Horace Cook, Sr. has for his son’s leisurely lifestyle and investment choices – a theme that will repeat throughout the episode. As the men talk around the table, a new camera angle is presented, which places the salad preparation table – and, significantly, the breaking of an egg – in the foreground of the shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same episode features Gene, Betty’s father, dying, as well as an insomniac Don getting up in the middle of the night to stare at a picture of his father and step-mother: families shattered, just as the egg was.

In “The Fog,” Betty Draper gives birth to Gene, the child conceived even as her marriage with Don was falling apart. Again, the egg is given a place of importance, visually and, this time, in regard to dialogue as well. Don, taking care of Sally and Bobby while Betty is hospitalized, is shown cooking a late night snack of eggs and corned beef hash. He holds an egg up to the light, “checking for a chick” as Sally astutely guesses, before the camera closes in on the frying pan to show Don breaking the egg over the sizzling meat. Sally says that her teacher taught her that eggs from a store could never become a chicken, “even though they came from a chicken.” Sally then awkwardly transitions into a question about whether or not the baby will live in Grandpa Gene’s old room. The new life of the Gene, Jr. is juxtaposed with the death of Gene, Sr., visualized by the breaking of the egg. Perhaps as well, Don’s futile search for new life in the egg (the lack of a chick and Sally’s statement that he will never find a chick in eggs like that) represents the inability for his family to be reborn and recover from his adultery.

The image of the broken egg again reflects generational conflict and families divided due to intemperance in Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Taking place in the aftermath of the Drapers’ divorce, this episode finds Sally’s close friend Glen Bishop breaking into the family home (now occupied by Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis) and vandalizing it with the help of his friend. Glen, the product of a broken home himself, has been motivated to engage in this behavior by the confidences of Sally, who confesses extreme unhappiness in her new familial environment. The two young boys focus their destructive energies on the kitchen, and are shown dumping out the refrigerator contents on an empty counter. While there are a few food elements that are clearly visible (such as ketchup and cereal), there is again a focus on eggs, with the boys removing a carton and breaking individual eggs all around the kitchen. It is a scene of simultaneous abundance and squander, infused with anger. These representatives of the younger generation lay waste to the fruits of capitalism and consumerism as they express frustration with the seeming selfishness of their parents. The boys’ unhappiness with the divided Draper household – and their own, as well – is reinforced by the symbolic connection between broken eggs and broken families that echoes through the seasons of Mad Men.

A final symbolic element to appear in Mad Men is the oyster, verbally and visually alluded to in several episodes of the series. Throughout, the oyster serves as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, often with intemperance as an undertone. For example, in Season 2, Episode 2 (“Flight 1”), Peter Campbell finds out that his recently deceased father was insolvent, having spent his money on “oysters and travel club memberships” – seemingly frivolous and fleeting pleasures. This verbal association of the oyster with self-indulgence is enhanced by imagery in the series as well, such as that seen in Season 1, Episode 7: “Red in the Face.” Don and Roger, out for a bender of a lunch, are enjoying copious amounts of oysters and martinis. At the 34:33 mark, as Roger is ordering another pair of drinks and more oysters, the camera focuses in on the table before them. On the red and white striped tablecloth sit two platters piled high with the remains of a decadent lunch. Each hosts a dozen empty half-shells and several squeezed lemon wedges nestled on a bed of lettuce alongside a partially-full bowl of cocktail sauce. On a small plate between the two main dishes are two lemon wedges, one untouched and the other appearing squeezed. Directly adjacent to this plate is an ashtray, full of cigarette butts and ashes. Two small carafes of water appear half-full, and Roger’s martini glass, nearly empty (Figure 11). The visual connotes both extravagance and waste, abundance spent, with symbolism and a moralizing tone that are both borrowed from Netherlandish painting.

Ubiquitous in 17th century genre scenes, oysters were – then and now – a food that connoted luxury and indulgence, yet also perhaps danger. The European fascination with the oyster can be traced back at least as far as Greek mythology, which initiated the association of the erotic with the shellfish by situating the birth of the goddess Aphrodite on an oyster shell. “The oyster remained a symbol of Aphrodite throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and continued into the Baroque era,” bringing with it through the ages an association with the characteristics of “fertility, pleasure, and sex” that were attributed to the goddess herself (Cheney 1987, 135-6). The rise of the Dutch empire in the 1600s added another layer of symbolic meaning to the oyster. As the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in the waters of the Indian Ocean around the mid-century mark, pearl fisheries and oyster-rich waters came under the domain of the Netherlands, and the oyster became an accessible – if rare – edible indulgence that simultaneously represented the increasing power and possessions of the nation.

When seen through a moralizing lens, however, the positive identifications of the oyster with abundance, wealth, and sensual pleasure can be correlated to the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, many Dutch genre painters employed the image of the oyster in their works as a strategy for documenting the increasing luxury and materialism of their time while suggesting the fleeting nature of such earthly passions. In his 1618 tome Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum, Joachim Camerarius explained that paintings that illustrated the drinking of wine and eating of oysters spoke not only to pleasure, but to the dangers of over-indulging in physical desires (Camerius 1618, 120). The scholar claimed that the inclusion of oysters in an image were a means by which a nouveau-riche society that was, at the same time, historically abstemious could grapple with such conflicting aspects of its character (Camerius 1618, 121).

The duality of the oyster’s symbolism has much to do with the potential peril involved in its actual consumption. Raw shellfish carries a risk for bacterial contamination that can cause serious illness in those who consume a tainted sample. Illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, or even death by septicemia were not uncommon in centuries past, when refrigeration was lacking and proper handling techniques were not always employed. The literal link between indulgence and the possibility of an untimely death made the oyster a symbol ripe for exploitation by Netherlandish vanitas painters.

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

As such, it became “the focus of many genre paintings…frequently the principal food depicted, serving as a vehicle for moral comment” in scenes both superficially merry and serious (Cheney 1987, 135). For example, in Jan Steen’s Easy Come, Easy Go (Figure 12, 1661), the oyster meal is at the center of a seemingly festive gathering loaded with disguised symbolism. In the dining room of a lavishly appointed home, an elderly servant opens oysters for her laughing master, while a beautiful young woman offers him a full glass. The contrast between these two female figures is enough to indicate a negative interpretation of the oyster; associated with old age, not youth and beauty, with death rather than the full life that the brimming cup signifies. Other aspects of the painting add layers of meaning to the oyster’s symbolism. Behind the master of the house is a statue of the goddess Fortuna mounting a die and surrounded by strange sculptural elements. For example, beneath her are two cornucopias: the one on the right (the side of the young woman) overflowing with fruit and coins, while the one on the left (the side of the elderly woman and oyster) full of wilting brambles. Similarly, on the left side of Fortuna is a weeping putto, while on the right, a cheerful one reigns, scepter in hand.

The duality of the imagery here is reinforced by the inscription on the mantelpiece beneath Fortuna that reads “Easily Won, Easily Spent.” A simple explanation for this composition might relate the message and symbolism to the gambling that is taking place in the background of the scene: the viewer sees two men standing around a gaming table through a doorway painted in the upper left corner of the canvas, rolling dice in a game of backgammon. However, the action taking place in the foreground of the scene may be even more pertinent to understanding the fullness of the moralizing message Steen wished to express. Here, an oversized lemon is place on the seat of a chair in closest proximity to the viewer, its peel twisting off in a way that was meant to imitate the inner springs of a clock, symbolizing the passage of time. The lemon is placed next to a juicy oyster, though several empty shells also occupy the seat of this chair, as well as the floor. To the left of this chair, also in the foreground of the scene, is a representation of a boy adding water to wine, suggesting not only religious ritual, but the tempering that is desperately needed in this scene. Behind him on the ground are two empty glasses, perhaps representing the emptiness – even the death – that can be avoided through moderation. Overall, the oyster here serves as a symbol of indulgence and wealth, but is simultaneously associated with chance and even death. The contrast suggests the transient nature of earthly delights and urges moderation and restraint.

Steen’s intention, and that of the other painters of the 17th century symbolic genre scene, was to visualize the decadence of their culture that many members of the up and coming middle-income class of patrons idealized or perhaps even experienced. Yet, these artists sought to simultaneously problematize indulgence by reflecting on the true nature of mankind’s mortal existence and the ultimate cost of consumption by using symbols and signs that a contemporary audience could understand. Thus, Dutch artists could access the often complex, conflicting feelings – of both desire and guilt – that their audience possessed through images that were equally layered with duality of meaning. A similar sort of disguised symbolism works in Mad Men not only because the cultural climate of the 1960s had much in common with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, but because our contemporary 21st century context does as well.

Since Mad Men debuted seven years ago, its Western audiences have enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known — but with the knowledge that this abundance of riches often comes at the expense of other people, animals, and the environment. Like the Dutch as well as their American predecessors in the 1960s, the 21st century audience of Mad Men is experiencing the attraction of material pleasures (made all the more alluring by the ubiquitous advertising of our age) while simultaneously witnessing the social and environmental cost of consumption. The continuing conflict between consumption and conscience suggests that the use of disguised symbolism in Mad Men can transcend the function of a visual narrative device, and may also point viewers toward a course of action that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century: to seek Truth and strive for balance in the complex relationship between mortality, morality, and materialism.

 

Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The Art of Describing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. 1991. “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin 73/2: 174-208.

Berger, Harry. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting. New York: Fordham University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Butler, Jeremy. 2010.”’Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men.” In Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary Edgerton, 55-71. London: I.B. Tauris.

Camerarius, Joachim. 1618. Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum. Middleburg.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. 1987. “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism.” Artibus Et Historiae 8/15: 135-158.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1979. “Living On: Border Lines.” In Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by H. Bloom, et al., 75-176. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Dürer, Albrecht. 1889. Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer. Ed. W.M. Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaskell, Ivan. 1984. “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth.” Burlington Magazine 126/978: 557-561.

Hansen, Jim. 2013. “Mod Men.” In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, & Style in the 1960s, edited by Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, 145-160. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1996. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell.

Lane, Barbara. 1988. “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 18/3: 107-115.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Meyers, William. 1984. The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue. Los Angeles: Times Books.

Newall, Venetia. 1967. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore 80/315: 3-32.

O’Guinn, Thomas and L. J. Shrum. 1997. “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality.” Journal of Consumer Research 23/4: 278-294.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Slive, Seymour. 1962. “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91/3: 469-500.

Snyder, James. 2004. Northern Renaissance Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Stoichita, Victor. 1997. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, James and Everett Fahy. 1990. “Jean-Baptiste Greuze.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47/3: 5-54.

Vatter, Harold and John Walker, eds. 1996. History of the United States Economy Since World War II. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ward, John. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism.” Artibus et Historiae 15/29: 9-53.

 

Notes:

[1] This idea is reinforced by Don’s pitch to the Playtex company later in the episode, in which he says, “its about how they [women] want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.”

[2] While the basin’s likeness to a baptismal font makes for a relatively straightforward comparison, the importance of the glass carafe is understood best in light of period sources, such as this Nativity song quoted by van Eyck in another composition: “As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but not breaketh, so the Virgin, as she was, Virgin still remaineth.” See Panofsky 1953, 144.

 

Bio: Dr. Catherine Wilkins is a faculty member in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. She received a M.A. in Art History (2003) and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Cultural History (2008) from Tulane University. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was post-World War II German landscape painting and its use as a vehicle for social critique. Dr. Wilkins’ research on this subject was recently published as Landscape Imagery, Politics, and Identity in a Divided Germany, 1968-1989 (London: Ashgate, 2013). Her current research interests cover a range of topics in modern and contemporary art and popular culture. Additional publications include “Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media: ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter.” NMediaC, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 2009) and “Constructing Individual Identity in a Cybernetic Age.” Gerard Lange Cartograph/Jared Ragland Apropos (Rocky Mount, N.C.: Barton College Press, 2010).

“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.

Introduction

The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.

MORDRED Never.

MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Conclusion

Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.

 

References

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Bacon-Smith, Camille. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Battis, Jes. “The Kryptonite Closet: Silence and Queer Secrecy in Smallville.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 48 (2006).

Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Random House, 1982.

Brennan, Joseph. “Slash Manips: Remixing Popular Media with Gay Pornography.” M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture 16.4 (2013).

Brennan, Joseph. “Not ‘From My Hot Little Ovaries’: How Slash Manips Pierce Reductive Assumptions.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 28.2 (2014a): 247–64.

Brennan, Joseph. “The Fannish Parergon: Aca–Fandom and the Decentred Canon.” Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 3.2 (2014b): 217–32.

Brennan, Joseph. “‘You Could Shame the Great Arthur Himself’: A Queer Reading of Lancelot from BBC’s Merlin with Respect to the Character in Malory, White, and Bradley.” Arthuriana 25.2 (2015): 20–43.

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger. “Introduction.” In Queering the Middle Ages, edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, i–xxiii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Caspers, Kirsten. “Why Merlin Should Return to the Screen,” Den of Geek!, February 13, 2013, accessed September 3, 2015.

Chandler, Erin. “Pendragons at the Chopping Block: Elements of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the BBC’s Merlin.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 101–112.

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Edelman, Lee. “Seeing Things: Representation, the Scene of Surveillance, and the Spectacle of Gay Male Sex.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, edited by Diana Fuss, 93–118. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Edwards, Jennifer C. “Casting, Plotting, and Enchanting: Arthurian Women in Starz’s Camelot and the BBC’s Merlin.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 57–81.

Elmes, Melissa Ridley. “Episodic Arthur: Merlin, Camelot, and the visual Modernization of the Medieval Romance Tradition.” In The Middle Ages on Television: Critical Essays, edited by Meriem Pages and Karolyn Kinane, 99–121. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015.

endless_paths. “17th December: Breaking in a New Knights,” LiveJournal, December 17, 2012a, accessed September 7, 2015.

endless_paths. “A Knight Doing His Duty,” LiveJournal, December 31, 2012b, accessed September 7, 2015.

Fisher IV, Benjamin Franklin. “King Arthur Plays from the 1890s.” Victorian Poetry 28.3–4 (1990): 153–76.

Foster, Tara, and Jon Sherman, eds., “King Arthur in the Twenty-First Century: Kaamelott, BBC’s Merlin, and Starz’s Camelot.” [Special Issue] Arthuriana 25.1 (2015).

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Freud, Sigmund. “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 17, edited by James Strachey, 1–124. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Hills, Matt. “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-texts, and Fan Audiences.” In The Television Studies Reader, edited by Robert Clyde Allen and Annette Hill, 509–23. London: Routledge, 2004.

Hoffner, Cynthia, and Martha Buchanan. “Young Adults’ Wishful Identification with Television Characters: The Role of Perceived Similarity and Character Attributes.” Media Psychology 7.4 (2005): 325–51.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge, 1992.

Jones, Sara Gwenllian. “The Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters.” Screen 43.1 (2002): 79–90.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Lochrie, Karma. “Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies.” In Constructing Medieval Sexuality, edited by Karma Lochrie, James Schultz, and Peggy McCracken, 180–200. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Machat, Sibylle. “‘Prince Arthur Spotted Exiting Buckingham Palace!’: The Re-Imagined Worlds of Fanfic Trailers.” In Film Remakes, Adaptations and Fan Productions: Remake/Remodel, edited by Kathleen Loock and Constantine Verevis, 197–214. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. London: William Caxton, 1485.

McFarland, William P., and Timothy R. McMahon. “Male Archetypes as Resources for Homosexual Identity Development in Gay Men.” The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development 38.1 (1999): 47–60.

Mediavilla, Cindy. “From ‘Unthinking Stereotype’ to Fearless Antagonist: The Evolution of Morgan le Fay on Television.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 44–56.

Meredith, Elysse T. “Gendering Morals, Magic and Medievalism in the BBC’s Merlin.” In The Middle Ages on Television: Critical Essays, edited by Meriem Pages and Karolyn Kinane, 158–73. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015.

Moore, Robert L. The Magician and the Analyst: Ritual, Sacred Space, and Psychotherapy. Chicago: Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, 1991.

Moore, Robert L., and Douglas Gillette. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.

Moore, Robert L., and Douglas Gillette. The King Within: Accessing the King in the Male Psyche. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1992.

Padva, Gilad. “Dreamboys, Meatmen and Werewolves: Visualizing Erotic Identities in All-Male Comic Strips.” Sexualities 8.5 (2005): 587–99.

Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Volume 9. London: American Folklore Society, 1958.

Russ, Joanna. “Pornography by Women for Women, with Love.” In her Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts: Feminist Essays, 79–99. Trumansburg: Crossing Press, 1985.

Scodari, Christine, and Jenna L. Felder. “Creating a Pocket Universe: ‘Shippers,’ Fan Fiction, and The XFiles Online.” Communication Studies 51.3 (2000): 238–57.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Gender Asymmetry and Erotic Triangles.” In her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, 21–27. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Sherman, Jon. “Source, Authority, and Audience in the BBC’s Merlin.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 82–100.

Stewart, Mary. The Wicked Day. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. London: Archibald Constable and Company, 1897.

Sutton, John William. “Mordred’s End: A Reevaluation of Mordred’s Death Scene in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” The Chaucer Review, 37.3 (2003): 280–5.

Thomas, Jimmie Elaine. “The Once and Present King: A Study of the World View Revealed in Contemporary Arthurian Adaptations.” Ph.D. Thesis, University of Arkansas, 1982.

Tollerton, David C. “Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Religious Tolerance in Modern Britain and the BBC’s Merlin.” Arthuriana 25.1 (2015): 113–27.

White, T.H. The Once and Future King. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1958.

wishfulcelebfak. “Hugedicklover’s Top 10 Gift – Random Merlin Hunks Fucking,” LiveJournal, November 9, 2014, accessed September 7, 2015.

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Notes

[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).

 

Bio:
Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.

Volume 26

Contents

  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith

 

 

Read, Watch, Listen: A commentary on eye tracking and moving images – Tim J. Smith

Abstract

Eye tracking is a research tool that has great potential for advancing our understanding of how we watch movies. Questions such as how differences in the movie influences where we look and how individual differences between viewers alters what we see can be operationalised and empirically tested using a variety of eye tracking measures. This special issue collects together an inspiring interdisciplinary range of opinions on what eye tracking can (and cannot) bring to film and television studies and practice. In this article I will reflect on each of these contributions with specific focus on three aspects: how subtitling and digital effects can reinvigorate visual attention, how audio can guide and alter our visual experience of film, and how methodological, theoretical and statistical considerations are paramount when trying to derive conclusions from eye tracking data.

 

Introduction

I have been obsessed with how people watch movies since I was a child. All you have to do is turn and look at an audience member’s face at the movies or at home in front of the TV to see the power the medium holds over them. We sit enraptured, transfixed and immersed in the sensory patterns of light and sound projected back at us from the screen. As our physical activity diminishes our mental activity takes over. We piece together minimal audiovisual cues to perceive rich otherworldly spaces, believable characters and complex narratives that engage us mentally and move us emotionally. As I progressed through my education in Cognitive Science and Psychology I was struck by how little science understood about cinema and the mechanisms filmmakers used to create this powerful experience.[i] Reading the film literature, listening to filmmakers discuss their craft and excavating gems of their craft knowledge I started to realise that film was a medium ripe for psychological investigation. The empirical study of film would further our understanding of how films work and how we experience them but it would also serve as a test bed for investigating complex aspects of real-world cognition that were often considered beyond the realms of experimentation. As I (Smith, Levin & Cutting, 2010) and others (Anderson, 2006) have argued elsewhere, film evolved to “piggy back” normal cognitive development and use basic cognitive tendencies such as attentional preferences, theory of mind, empathy and narrative structuring of memory to make the perception of film as enjoyable and effortless as possible. By investigating film cognition we can, in turn advance our understanding of general cognition. But to do so we need to step outside of traditional disciplinary boundaries concerning the study of film and approach the topic from an interdisciplinary perspective. This special issue represents a highly commendable attempt to do just that.

By bringing together psychologists, film theorists, philosophers, vision scientists, neuroscientists and screenwriters this special issue (and the Melbourne research group that most contributors belong to) provides a unique perspective on film viewing. The authors included in this special issue share my passion for understanding the relationship between viewers and film but this interest manifests in very different ways depending on their perspectives (see Redmond, Sita, and Vincs, this issue; for a similar personal journey into eye tracking as that presented above). By focussing on viewer eye movements the articles in this special issue provide readers from a range of disciplines a way into the eye tracking investigation of film viewing. Eye tracking (as comprehensively introduced and discussed by Dyer and Pink, this issue) is a powerful tool for quantifying a viewer’s experience of a film, comparing viewing behaviour across different viewing conditions and groups as well as testing hypotheses about how certain cinematic techniques impact where we look. But, as is rightly highlighted by several of the authors in this special issue eye tracking is not a panacea for all questions about film spectatorship.

Like all experimental techniques it can only measure a limited range of psychological states and behaviours and the data it produces does not say anything in and of itself. Data requires interpretation. Interpretation can take many forms[ii] but if conclusions are to be drawn about how the data relates to psychological states of the viewer this interpretation must be based on theories of psychology and ideally confirmed using secondary/supporting measures. For example, the affective experience of a movie is a critical aspect which cognitive approaches to film are often wrongly accused of ignoring. Although, cognitive approaches to film often focus on how we comprehend narratives (Magliano and Zacks, 2011), attend to the image (Smith, 2013) or follow formal patterns within a film (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) several cognitivists have focussed in depth on emotional aspects (see the work of Carl Plantinga, Torben Grodal or Murray Smith). Eye tracking is the perfect tool for investigating the impact of immediate audiovisual information on visual attention but it is less suitable for measuring viewer affect. Psychophysiological measures such as heart rate and skin conductance, neuroimaging methods such as fMRI or EEG, or even self-report ratings may be better for capturing a viewer’s emotional responses to a film as has been demonstrated by several research teams (Suckfull, 2000; Raz et al, 2014). Unless the emotional state of the viewer changed where they looked or how quickly they moved their eyes the eye tracker may not detect any differences between two viewers with different emotional states.[iii]

As such, a researcher interested in studying the emotional impact of a film should either choose a different measurement technique or combine eye tracking with another more suitable technique (Dyer and Pink, this issue). This does not mean that eye tracking is unsuitable for studying the cinematic experience. It simply means that you should always choose the right tool for the job and often this means combining multiple tools that are strong in different ways. As Murray Smith (the current President of the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Images; SCSMI) has argued, a fully rounded investigation of the cinematic experience requires “triangulation” through the combination of multiple perspectives including psychological, neuroscientific and phenomenological/philosophical theory and methods (Smith, 2011) – an approach taken proudly across this special issue.

For the remainder of my commentary I would like to focus on certain themes that struck me as most personally relevant and interesting when reading the other articles in this special issue. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the themes raised by the other articles or even an assessment of the importance of the particular themes I chose to select. There are many other interesting observations made in the articles I do not focus on below but given my perspective as a cognitive scientist and current interests I decided to focus my commentary on these specific themes rather than make a comprehensive review of the special issues or tackle topics I am unqualified to comment on. Also, I wanted to take the opportunity to dispel some common misconceptions about eye tracking (see the section ‘Listening to the data’) and empirical methods in general.

Reading an image

One area of film cognition that has received considerable empirical investigation is subtitling. As Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz (this issue) so comprehensively review, they and I believe eye tracking is the perfect tool for investigating how we watch subtitled films. The presentation of subtitles divides the film viewing experience into a dual- task: reading and watching. Given that the media was originally designed to communicate critical information through two channels, the image and soundtrack introducing text as a third channel of communication places extra demands on the viewer’s visual system. However, for most competent readers serially shifting attention between these two tasks does not lead to difficulties in comprehension (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue). Immediately following the presentation of the subtitles gaze will shift to the beginning of the text, saccade across the text and return to the centre of interest within a couple of seconds. Gaze heatmaps comparing the same scenes with and without subtitles (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue; Fig. 3) show that the areas of the image fixated are very similar (ignoring the area of the screen occupied by the subtitles themselves) and rather than distracting from the visual content the presence of subtitles seems to actually condense the gaze behaviour on the areas of central interest in an image, e.g. faces and the centre of the image. This illustrates the redundancy of a lot of the visual information presented in films and the fact that under non-subtitle conditions viewers rarely explore the periphery of the image (Smith, 2013).

My colleague Anna Vilaró and I recently demonstrated this similarity in an eye tracking study in which the gaze behaviour of viewers was compared across versions of an animated film, Disney’s Bolt (Howard & Williams, 2008) either in the original English audio condition, a Spanish language version with English subtitles, an English language version with Spanish subtitles and a Spanish language version without subtitles (Vilaró, & Smith, 2011). Given that our participants were English speakers who did not know Spanish these conditions allowed us to investigate both where they looked under the different audio and subtitle conditions but also what they comprehended. Using cued recall tests of memory for verbal and visual content we found no significant differences in recall for either types of content across the viewing conditions except for verbal recall in the Spanish-only condition (not surprisingly given that our English participants couldn’t understand the Spanish dialogue). Analysis of the gaze behaviour showed clear evidence of subtitle reading, even in the Spanish subtitle condition (see Figure 1) but no differences in the degree to which peripheral objects were explored. This indicates that even when participants are watching film sequences without subtitles and know that their memory will be tested for the visual content their gaze still remains focussed on central features of a traditionally composed film. This supports arguments for subtitling movies over dubbing as, whilst placing greater demands on viewer gaze and a heightened cognitive load there is no evidence that subtitling leads to poorer comprehension.

Figure 1: Figure from Vilaró & Smith (2011) showing the gaze behaviour of multiple viewers directed to own language subtitles (A) and foreign language/uninterpretable subtitles (B).

Figure 1: Figure from Vilaró & Smith (2011) showing the gaze behaviour of multiple viewers directed to own language subtitles (A) and foreign language/uninterpretable subtitles (B).

The high degree of attentional synchrony (Smith and Mital, 2013) observed in the above experiment and during most film sequences indicates that all visual features in the image and areas of semantic significance (e.g. social information and objects relevant to the narrative) tend to point to the same part of the image (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011). Only when areas of the image are placed in conflict through image composition (e.g. depth of field, lighting, colour or motion contrast) or staging (e.g. multiple actors) does attentional synchrony break down and viewer gaze divide between multiple locations. Such shots are relatively rare in mainstream Hollywood cinema or TV (Salt, 2009; Smith, 2013) and when used the depicted action tends to be highly choreographed so attention shifts between the multiple centres of image in a predictable fashion (Smith, 2012). If such choreographing of action is not used the viewer can quickly exhaust the information in the image and start craving either new action or a cut to a new shot.

Hochberg and Brooks (1978) referred to this as the visual momentum of the image: the pace at which visual information is acquired. This momentum is directly observable in the saccadic behaviour during an images presentation with frequent short duration fixations at the beginning of a scene’s presentation interspersed by large amplitude saccades (known as the ambient phase of viewing; Velichovsky, Dornhoefer, Pannasch and Unema, 2000) and less frequent, longer duration fixations separated by smaller amplitude saccades as the presentation duration increases (known as the focal phase of viewing; Velichovsky et al., 2000). I have recently demonstrated the same pattern of fixations during viewing of dynamic scenes (Smith and Mital, 2013) and shown how this pattern gives rise to more central fixations at shot onset and greater exploration of the image and decreased attentional synchrony as the shot duration increases (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011). Interestingly, the introduction of subtitles to a movie may have the unintended consequence of sustaining visual momentum throughout a shot. The viewer is less likely to exhaust the information in the image because their eyes are busy saccading across the text to acquire the information that would otherwise be presented in parallel to the image via the soundtrack. This increased saccadic activity may increase the cognitive load experienced by viewers of subtitled films and change their affective experience, producing greater arousal and an increased sense of pace.

For some filmmakers and producers of dynamic visual media, increasing the visual momentum of an image sequence may be desirable as it maintains interest and attention on the screen (e.g. Michael Bay’s use of rapidly edited extreme Close-Ups and intense camera movements in the Transformer movies). In this modern age of multiple screens fighting for our attention when we are consuming moving images (e.g. mobile phones and computer screens in our living rooms and even, sadly increasingly at the cinema) if the designers of this media are to ensure that our visual attention is focussed on their screen over the other competing screens they need to design the visual display in a way that makes comprehension impossible without visual attention. Feature Films and Television dramas often rely heavily on dialogue for narrative communication and the information communicated through the image may be of secondary narrative importance to the dialogue so viewers can generally follow the story just by listening to the film rather than watching it. If producers of dynamic visual media are to draw visual attention back to the screen and away from secondary devices they need to increase the ratio of visual to verbal information. A simple way of accomplishing this is to present the critical audio information through subtitling. The more visually attentive mode of viewing afforded by watching subtitled film and TV may partly explain the growing interest in foreign TV series (at least in the UK) such as the popularity of Nordic Noir series such as The Bridge (2011) and The Killing (2007).

Another way of drawing attention back to the screen is to constantly “refresh” the visual content of the image by either increasing the editing rate or creatively using digital composition.[iv] The latter technique is wonderfully exploited by Sherlock (2010) as discussed brilliantly by Dwyer (this issue). Sherlock contemporised the detective techniques of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson by incorporating modern technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones and simultaneously updated the visual narrative techniques used to portray this information by using digital composition to playfully superimpose this information onto the photographic image. In a similar way to how the sudden appearance of traditional subtitles involuntarily captures visual attention and draws our eyes down to the start of the text, the digital inserts used in Sherlock overtly capture our eyes and encourage reading within the viewing of the image.

If Dwyer (this issue) had eyetracked viewers watching these excerpts she would have likely observed this interesting shifting between phases of reading and dynamic scene perception. Given that the appearance of the digital inserts produce sudden visual transients and are highly incongruous with the visual features of the background scene they are likely to involuntarily attract attention (Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2012). As such, they can be creatively used to reinvigorate the pace of viewing and strategically direct visual attention to parts of the image away from the screen centre. Traditionally, the same content may have been presented either verbally as narration, heavy handed dialogue exposition (e.g. “Oh my! I have just received a text message stating….”) or as a slow and laboured cut to close-up of the actual mobile phone so we can read it from the perspective of the character. Neither takes full advantage of the communicative potential of the whole screen space or our ability to rapidly attend to and comprehend visual information and audio information in parallel.

Such intermixing of text, digital inserts and filmed footage is common in advertisements, music videos, and documentaries (see Figure 2) but is still surprisingly rare in mainstream Western film and TV. Short-form audiovisual messages have recently experienced a massive increase in popularity due to the internet and direct streaming to smartphones and mobile devices. To maximise their communicative potential and increase their likelihood of being “shared” these videos use all audiovisual tricks available to them. Text, animations, digital effects, audio and classic filmed footage all mix together on the screen, packing every frame with as much info as possible (Figure 2), essentially maximising the visual momentum of each video and maintaining interest for as long as possible.[v] Such videos are so effective at grabbing attention and delivering satisfying/entertaining/informative experiences in a short period of time that they often compete directly with TV and film for our attention. Once we click play, the audiovisual bombardment ensures that our attention remains latched on to the second screen (i.e., the tablet or smartphone) for its duration and away from the primary screen, i.e., the TV set. Whilst distressing for producers of TV and Film who wish our experience of their material to be undistracted, the ease with which we pick up a handheld device and seek other stimulation in parallel to the primary experience may indicate that the primary material does not require our full attention for us to follow what is going on. As attention has a natural ebb-and-flow (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) and “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time” (p. 421; James, 1890) if modern producers of Film and TV want to maintain a high level of audience attention and ensure it is directed to the screen they must either rely on viewer self-discipline to inhibit distraction, reward attention to the screen with rich and nuanced visual information (as fans of “slow cinema” would argue of films like those of Bela Tarr) or utilise the full range of postproduction effects to keep visual interest high and maintained on the image, as Sherlock so masterfully demonstrates.

Figure 2: Gaze Heatmaps of participants’ free-viewing a trailer for Lego Indiana Jones computer game (left column) and the Video Republic documentary (right column). Notice how both make copious use of text within the image, as intertitles and as extra sources of information in the image (such as the head-up display in A3). Data and images were taken from the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project (DIEM; Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2010). Videos can be found here (http://vimeo.com/6628451) and here (http://vimeo.com/2883321).

Figure 2: Gaze Heatmaps of participants’ free-viewing a trailer for Lego Indiana Jones computer game (left column) and the Video Republic documentary (right column). Notice how both make copious use of text within the image, as intertitles and as extra sources of information in the image (such as the head-up display in A3). Data and images were taken from the Dynamic Images and Eye Movement project (DIEM; Mital, Smith, Hill & Henderson, 2010). Videos can be found here (http://vimeo.com/6628451) and here (http://vimeo.com/2883321).

A number of modern filmmakers are beginning to experiment with the language of visual storytelling by questioning our assumptions of how we perceive moving images. Forefront in this movement are Ang Lee and Andy and Lana Wachowski. In Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), Lee worked very closely with editor Tim Squyers to use non-linear digital editing and after effects to break apart the traditional frame and shot boundaries and create an approximation of a comic book style within film. This chaotic unpredictable style polarised viewers and was partly blamed for the film’s poor reception. However, it cannot be argued that this experiment was wholly unsuccessful. Several sequences within the film used multiple frames, split screens, and digital transformation of images to increase the amount of centres of interest on the screen and, as a consequence increase pace of viewing and the arousal experienced by viewers. In the sequence depicted below (Figure 3) two parallel scenes depicting Hulk’s escape from a containment chamber (A1) and this action being watched from a control room by General Ross (B1) were presented simultaneously by presenting elements of both scenes on the screen at the same time. Instead of using a point of view (POV) shot to show Ross looking off screen (known as the glance shot; Branigan, 1984) followed by a cut to what he was looking at (the object shot) both shots were combined into one image (F1 and F2) with the latter shot sliding into from behind Ross’ head (E2). These digital inserts float within the frame, often gliding behind objects or suddenly enlarging to fill the screen (A2-B2). Such visual activity and use of shots-within-shots makes viewer gaze highly active (notice how the gaze heatmap is rarely clustered in one place; Figure 3). Note that this method of embedding a POV object shot within a glance shot is similar to Sherlock’s method of displaying text messages as both the glance, i.e., Watson looking at his phone, and the object, i.e., the message, are shown in one image. Both uses take full advantage of our ability to rapidly switch from watching action to reading text without having to wait for a cut to give us the information.

Figure 3: Gaze heatmap of eight participants watching a series of shots and digital inserts from Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003). Full heatmap video is available at http://youtu.be/tErdurgN8Yg.

Figure 3: Gaze heatmap of eight participants watching a series of shots and digital inserts from Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003). Full heatmap video is available at http://youtu.be/tErdurgN8Yg.

Similar techniques have been used Andy and Lana Wachowski’s films including most audaciously in Speed Racer (2008). Interestingly, both sets of filmmakers seem to intuitively understand that packing an image with as much visual and textual information as possible can lead to viewer fatigue and so they limit such intense periods to only a few minutes and separate them with more traditionally composed sequences (typically shot/reverse-shot dialogue sequences). These filmmakers have also demonstrated similar respect for viewer attention and the difficulty in actively locating and encoding visual information in a complex visual composition in their more recent 3D movies. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) uses the visual volume created by stereoscopic presentation to its full potential. Characters inhabit layers within the volume as foreground and background objects fluidly slide around each other within this space. The lessons Lee and his editor Tim Squyers learned on Hulk (2003) clearly informed the decisions they made when tackling their first 3D film and allowed them to avoid some of the issues most 3D films experience such as eye strain, sudden unexpected shifts in depth and an inability to ensure viewers are attending to the part of the image easiest to fuse across the two eye images (Banks, Read, Allison & Watt, 2012).

Watching Audio

I now turn to another topic featured in this special issue, the influence of audio on gaze (Robinson, Stadler and Rassell, this issue). Film and TV are inherently multimodal. Both media have always existed as a combination of visual and audio information. Even early silent film was almost always presented with either live musical accompaniment or a narrator. As such, the relative lack of empirical investigation into how the combination of audio and visual input influences how we perceive movies and, specifically how we attend to them is surprising. Robinson, Stadler and Rassell (this issue) have attempted to address this omission by comparing eye movements for participants either watching the original version of the Omaha beach sequence from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) or the same sequence with the sound removed. This film sequence is a great choice for investigating AV influences on viewer experience as the intensity of the action, the hand-held cinematography and the immersive soundscape all work together to create a disorientating embodied experience for the viewer. The authors could have approached this question by simply showing a set of participants the sequence with audio and qualitatively describing the gaze behaviour at interesting AV moments during the sequence. Such description of the data would have served as inspiration for further investigation but in itself can’t say anything about the causal contribution of audio to this behaviour as there would be nothing to compare the behaviour to. Thankfully, the authors avoided this problem by choosing to manipulate the audio.

In order to identify the causal contribution of any factor you need to design an experiment in which that factor (known as the Independent Variable) is either removed or manipulated and the significant impact of this manipulation on the behaviour of interest (known as the Dependent Variable) is tested using appropriate inferential statistics. I commend Robinson, Stadler and Rassell’s experimental design as they present such an manipulation and are therefore able to produce data that will allow them to test their hypotheses about the causal impact of audio on viewer gaze behaviour. Several other papers in this special issue (Redmond, Sita and Vincs; Batty, Perkins and Sita) discuss gaze data (typically in the form of scanpaths or heatmaps) from one viewing condition without quantifying its difference to another viewing condition. As such, they are only able to describe the gaze data, not use it to test hypotheses. There is always a temptation to attribute too much meaning to a gaze heatmap (I too am guilty of this; Smith, 2013) due to their seeming intuitive nature (i.e., they looked here and not there) but, as in all psychological measures they are only as good as the experimental design within which there are employed.[vi]

Qualitative interpretation of individual fixation locations, scanpaths or group heatmaps are useful for informing initial interpretation of which visual details are most likely to make it into later visual processing (e.g. perception, encoding and long term memory representations) but care has to be taken in falsely assuming that fixation equals awareness (Smith, Lamont and Henderson, 2012). Also, the visual form of gaze heatmaps vary widely depending on how many participants contribute to the heatmap, which parameters you choose to generate the heatmaps and which oculomotor measures the heatmap represent (Holmqvist, et al., 2011). For example, I have demonstrated that unlike during reading visual encoding during scene perception requires over 150ms during each fixation (Rayner, Smith, Malcolm and Henderson, 2009). This means that if fixations with durations less than 150ms are included in a heatmap it may suggest parts of the image have been processed which in actual fact were fixated too briefly to be processed adequately. Similarly, heatmaps representing fixation duration instead of just fixation location have been shown to be a better representation of visual processing (Henderson, 2003). Heatmaps have an immediate allure but care has to be taken about imposing too much meaning on them especially when the gaze and the image are changing over time (see Smith and Mital, 2013; and Sawahata et al, 2008 for further discussion). As eye tracking hardware becomes more available to researchers from across a range of disciplines we need to work harder to ensure that it is not used inappropriately and that the conclusions that are drawn from eye tracking data are theoretically and statistically motivated (see Rayner, 1998; and Holmqvist et al, 2013 for clear guidance on how to conduct sound eye tracking studies).

Given that Robinson, Stadler and Rassell (this issue) manipulated the critical factor, i.e., the presence of audio the question now is whether their study tells us anything new about the AV influences on gaze during film viewing. To examine the influence of audio they chose two traditional methods for expressing the gaze data: area of interest (AOI) analysis and dispersal. By using nine static (relative to the screen) AOIs they were able to quantify how much time the gaze spent in each AOI and utilise this measure to work out how distributed gaze was across all AOIs. Using these measures they reported a trend towards greater dispersal in the mute condition compared to the audio condition and a small number of significant differences in the amount of time spent in some regions across the audio conditions.

However, the conclusions we can draw from these findings are seriously hindered by the low sample size (only four participants were tested, meaning that any statistical test is unlikely to reveal significant differences) and the static AOIs that did not move with the image content. By locking the AOIs to static screen coordinates their AOI measures express the deviation of gaze relative to these coordinates, not to the image content. This approach can be informative for quantifying gaze exploration away from the screen centre (Mital, Smith, Hill and Henderson, 2011) but in order to draw conclusions about what was being fixated the gaze needs to be quantified relative to dynamic AOIs that track objects of interest on the screen (see Smith an Mital, 2013). For example, their question about whether we fixate a speaker’s mouth more in scenes where the clarity of the speech is difficult due to background noise (i.e., their “Indistinct Dialogue” scene) has previously been investigated in studies that have manipulated the presence of audio (Võ, Smith, Mital and Henderson, 2012) or the level of background noise (Buchan, Paré and Munhall, 2007) and measured gaze to dynamic mouth regions. As Robinson, Stadler and Rassell correctly predicted, lip reading increases as speech becomes less distinct or the listener’s linguistic competence in the spoken language decreases (see Võ et al, 2012 for review).

Similarly, by measuring gaze dispersal using a limited number of static AOIs they are losing considerable nuance in the gaze data and have to resort to qualitative description of unintuitive bar charts (figure 4). There exist several methods for quantifying gaze dispersal (see Smith and Mital, 2013, for review) and even open-source tools for calculating this measure and comparing dispersal across groups (Le Meur and Baccino, 2013). Some methods are as easy, if not easier to calculate than the static AOIs used in the present study. For example, the Euclidean distance between the screen centre and the x/y gaze coordinates at each frame of the movie provides a rough measure of how spread out the gaze is from the screen centre (typically the default viewing location; Mital et al, 2011) and a similar calculation can be performed between the gaze position of all participants within a viewing condition to get a measure of group dispersal.

Using such measures, Coutrot and colleagues (2012) showed that gaze dispersal is greater when you remove audio from dialogue film sequences and they have also observed shorter amplitude saccades and marginally shorter fixation durations. Although, I have recently shown that a non-dialogue sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) does not show significant differences in eye movement metrics when the accompanying music is removed (Smith, 2014). This difference in findings points towards interesting differences in the impact diegetic (within the depicted scene, e.g. dialogue) and non-diegetic (outside of the depicted scene, e.g. the musical score) may have on gaze guidance. It also highlights how some cinematic features may have a greater impact on other aspects of a viewer’s experience than those measureable by eye tracking such as physiological markers of arousal and emotional states. This is also the conclusion that Robinson, Stadler and Rassell come to.    

Listening to the Data (aka, What is Eye Tracking Good For?)

The methodological concerns I have raised in the previous section lead nicely to the article by William Brown, entitled There’s no I in Eye Tracking: How useful is Eye Tracking to Film Studies (this issue). I have known William Brown for several years through our attendance of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) annual conference and I have a deep respect for his philosophical approach to film and his ability to incorporate empirical findings from the cognitive neurosciences, including some references to my own work into his theories. Therefore, it comes somewhat as a surprise that his article openly attacks the application of eye tracking to film studies. However, I welcome Brown’s criticisms as it provides me with an opportunity to address some general assumptions about the scientific investigation of film and hopefully suggest future directions in which eye tracking research can avoid falling into some of the pitfalls Brown identifies.

Brown’s main criticisms of current eye tracking research are: 1) eye tracking studies neglect “marginal” viewers or marginal ways of watching movies; 2) studies so far have neglected “marginal” films; 3) they only provide “truisms”, i.e., already known facts; and 4) they have an implicit political agenda to argue that the only “true” way to study film is a scientific approach and the “best” way to make a film is to ensure homogeneity of viewer experience. I will address these criticisms in turn but before I do so I would like to state that a lot of Brown’s arguments could generally be recast as an argument against science in general and are built upon a misunderstanding of how scientific studies should be conducted and what they mean.

To respond to Brown’s first criticism that eye tracking “has up until now been limited somewhat by its emphasis on statistical significance – or, put simply, by its emphasis on telling us what most viewers look at when they watch films” (Brown, this issue; 1), I first have to subdivide the criticism into ‘the search for significance’ and ‘attentional synchrony’, i.e., how similar gaze is across viewers (Smith and Mital, 2013). Brown tells an anecdote about a Dutch film scholar who’s data had to be excluded from an eye tracking study because they did not look where the experimenter wanted them to look. I wholeheartedly agree with Brown that this sounds like a bad study as data should never be excluded for subjective reasons such as not supporting the hypothesis, i.e., looking as predicted. However, exclusion due to statistical reasons is valid if the research question being tested relates to how representative the behaviour of a small set of participants (known as the sample) are to the overall population. To explain when such a decision is valid and to respond to Brown’s criticism about only ‘searching for significance’ I will first need to provide a brief overview of how empirical eye tracking studies are designed and why significance testing is important.

For example, if we were interested in the impact sound had on the probability of fixating an actor’s mouth (e.g., Robinson, Stadler and Rassell, this issue) we would need to compare the gaze behaviour of a sample of participants who watch a sequence with the sound turned on to a sample who watched it with the sound turned off. By comparing the behaviour between these two groups using inferential statistics we are testing the likelihood that these two viewing conditions would differ in a population of all viewers given the variation within and between these two groups. In actual fact we do this by performing the opposite test: testing the probability that that the two groups belong to a single statistically indistinguishable group. This is known as the null hypothesis. By showing that there is less than a 5% chance that the null hypothesis is true we can conclude that there is a statistically significant chance that another sample of participants presented with the same two viewing conditions would show similar differences in viewing behaviour.

In order to test whether our two viewing conditions belong to one or two distributions we need to be able to express this distribution. This is typically done by identifying the mean score for each participant on the dependent variable of interest, in this case the probability of fixating a dynamic mouth AOI then calculating the mean for this measure across all participants within a group and their variation in scores (known as the standard deviation). Most natural measures produce a distribution of scores looking somewhat like a bell curve (known as the normal distribution) with most observations near the centre of the distribution and an ever decreasing number of observations as you move away from this central score. Each observation (in our case, participants) can be expressed relative to this distribution by subtracting the mean of the distribution from its score and dividing by the standard deviation. This converts a raw score into a normalized or z-score. Roughly ninety-five percent of all observations will fall within two standard deviations of the mean for normally distributed data. This means that observations with a z-score greater than two are highly unrepresentative of that distribution and may be considered outliers.

However, being unrepresentative of the group mean is insufficient motivation to exclude a participant. The outlier still belongs to the group distribution and should be included unless there is a supporting reason for exclusion such as measurement error, e.g. poor calibration of the eye tracker. If an extreme outlier is not excluded it can often have a disproportionate impact on the group mean and make statistical comparison of groups difficult. However, if this is the case it suggests that the sample size is too small and not representative of the overall population. Correct choice of sample size given an estimate of the predicted effect size combined with minimising measurement error should mean that subjective decisions do not have to be made about who’s data is “right” and who should be included or excluded.

Brown also believes that eye tracking research has so far marginalised viewers who have atypical ways of watching film, such as film scholars either by not studying them or treating them as statistical outliers and excluding them from analyses. However, I would argue that the only way to know if their way of watching a film is atypical is to first map out the distribution of how viewers typically watch films. If a viewer attended more to the screen edge than the majority of other viewers in a random sample of the population (as was the case with Brown’s film scholar colleague) this should show up as a large z-score when their gaze data is expressed relative to the group on a suitable measure such as Euclidean distance from the screen centre. Similarly, a non-native speaker of English may have appeared as an outlier in terms of how much time they spent looking at the speaker’s mouth in Robinson, Stadler and Rassell’s (this issue) study. Such idiosyncrasies may be of interest to researchers and there are statistical methods for expressing emergent groupings within the data (e.g. cluster analysis) or seeing whether group membership predicts behaviour (e.g. regression). These approaches may have not previously been applied to questions of film viewing but this is simply due to the immaturity of the field and the limited availability of the equipment or expertise to conduct such studies.

In my own recent work I have shown how viewing task influences how we watch unedited video clips (Smith and Mital, 2013), how infants watch TV (Wass and Smith, in press), how infant gaze differs to adult gaze (Smith, Dekker, Mital, Saez De Urabain and Karmiloff-Smith, in prep) and even how film scholars attend to and remember a short film compared to non-expert film viewers (Smith and Smith, in prep). Such group viewing differences are of great interest to me and I hope these studies illustrate how eye tracking has a lot to offer to such research questions if the right statistics and experimental designs are employed.

Brown’s second main criticism is that the field of eye tracking neglects “marginal” films. I agree that the majority of films that have so far been used in eye tracking studies could be considered mainstream. For example, the film/TV clips used in this special issue include Sherlock (2010), Up (2009) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). However, this limit is simply a sign of how few eye tracking studies of moving images there have been. All research areas take time to fully explore the range of possible research questions within that area.

I have always employed a range of films from diverse film traditions, cultures, and languages. My first published eye tracking study (Smith and Henderson, 2008) used film clips from Citizen Kane (1941), Dogville (2003), October (1928), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Blade Runner (1982). Several of these films may be considered “marginal” relative to the mainstream. If I have chosen to focus most of my analyses on mainstream Hollywood cinema this is only because they were the most suitable exemplars of the phenomena I was investigating such as continuity editing and its creation of a universal pattern of viewing (Smith, 2006; 2012). This interest is not because, as Brown argues, I have a hidden political agenda or an implicit belief that this style of filmmaking is the “right” way to make films. I am interested in this style because it is the dominant style and, as a cognitive scientist I wish to use film as a way of understanding how most people process audiovisual dynamic scenes.

Hollywood film stands as a wonderfully rich example of what filmmakers think “fits” human cognition. By testing filmmaker intuitions and seeing what impact particular compositional decisions have on viewer eye movements and behavioural responses I hope to gain greater insight into how audiovisual perception operates in non-mediated situations (Smith, Levin and Cutting, 2012). But, just as a neuropsychologist can learn about typical brain function by studying patients with pathologies such as lesions and strokes, I can also learn about how we perceive a “typical” film by studying how we watch experimental or innovative films. My previous work is testament to this interest (Smith, 2006; 2012a; 2012b; 2014; Smith & Henderson, 2008) and I hope to continue finding intriguing films to study and further my understanding of film cognition.

One practical reason why eye tracking studies rarely use foreign language films is the presence of subtitles. As has been comprehensively demonstrated by other authors in this special issue (Kruger, Szarkowska and Krejtz, this issue) and earlier in this article, the sudden appearance of text on the screen, even if it is incomprehensible leads to differences in eye movement behaviour. This invalidates the use of eye tracking as a way to measure how the filmmaker intended to shape viewer attention and perception. The alternatives would be to either use silent film (an approach I employed with October; Smith and Henderson, 2008), remove the audio (which changes gaze behaviour and awareness of editing; Smith & Martin-Portugues Santacreau, under review) or use dubbing (which can bias the gaze down to the poorly synched lips; Smith, Batten, and Bedford, 2014). None of these options are ideal for investigating foreign language sound film and until there is a suitable methodological solution this will restrict eye tracking studies to experimental films in a participant’s native language.

Finally, I would like to counter Brown’s assertion that eye tracking investigations of film have so far only generated “truisms”. I admit that there is often a temptation to reduce empirical findings to simplified take-home messages that only seem to confirm previous intuitions such as a bias of gaze towards the screen centre, towards speaking faces, moving objects or subtitles. However, I would argue that such messages fail to appreciate the nuance in the data. Empirical data correctly measured and analysed can provide subtle insights into a phenomenon that subjective introspection could never supply.

For example, film editors believe that an impression of continuous action can be created across a cut by overlapping somewhere between two (Anderson, 1996) and four frames (Dmytryk, 1986) of the action. However, psychological investigations of time perception revealed that our judgements of duration depend on how attention is allocated during the estimated period (Zakay and Block, 1996) and will vary depending on whether our eyes remain still or saccade during the period (Yarrow et al, 2001). In my thesis (Smith, 2006) I used simplified film stimuli to investigate the role that visual attention played in estimation of temporal continuity across a cut and found that participants experienced an overlap of 58.44ms as continuous when an unexpected cut occurred during fixation and an omission of 43.63ms as continuous when they performed a saccade in response to the cut. As different cuts may result in different degrees of overt (i.e., eye movements) and covert attentional shifts these empirical findings both support editor intuitions that temporal continuity varies between cuts (Dmytryk, 1986) whilst also explaining the factors that are important in influencing time perception at a level of precision not possible through introspection.

Reflecting on our own experience of a film suffers from the fact that it relies on our own senses and cognitive abilities to identify, interpret and express what we experience. I may feel that my experience of a dialogue sequence from Antichrist (2010) differs radically from a similar sequence from Secrets & Lies (1996) but I would be unable to attribute these differences to different aspects of the two scenes without quantifying both the cinematic features and my responses to them. Without isolating individual features I cannot know their causal contribution to my experience. Was it the rapid camera movements in Antichrist, the temporally incongruous editing, the emotionally extreme dialogue or the combination of these features that made me feel so unsettled whilst watching the scene? If one is not interested in understanding the causal contributions of each cinematic decision to an audience member’s response then one may be content with informed introspection and not find empirical hypothesis testing the right method. I make no judgement about the validity of either approach as long as each researcher understands the limits of their approach.

Introspection utilises the imprecise measurement tool that is the human brain and is therefore subject to distortion, human bias and an inability to extrapolate the subjective experience of one person to another. Empirical hypothesis testing also has its limitations: research questions have to be clearly formulated so that hypotheses can be stated in a way that allows them to be statistically tested using appropriate observable and reliable measurements. A failure at any of these stages can invalidate the conclusions that can be drawn from the data. For example, an eye tracker may be poorly calibrated resulting in an inaccurate record of where somebody was looking or it could be used to test an ill formed hypothesis such as how a particular film sequence caused attentional synchrony without having another film sequence to compare the gaze data to. Each approach has its strength and weaknesses and no single approach should be considered “better” than any other, just as no film should be considered “better” than any other film.

Conclusion

The articles collected here constitute the first attempt to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives on the application of eye tracking to film studies. I fully commend the intention of this special issue and hope that it encourages future researchers to conduct further studies using these methods to investigate research questions and film experiences we have not even conceived of. However, given that the recent release of low-cost eye tracking peripherals such as the EyeTribe[vii] tracker and the Tobii EyeX[viii] has moved eye tracking from a niche and highly expensive research tool to an accessible option for researchers in a range of disciplines, I need to take this opportunity to issue a word of warning. As I have outlined in this article, eye tracking is like any other research tool in that it is only useful if used correctly, its limitations are respected, its data is interpreted through the appropriate application of statistics and conclusions are only drawn that are based on the data in combination with a sound theoretical base. Eye tracking is not the “saviour” of film studies , nor is science the only “valid” way to investigate somebody’s experience of a film. Hopefully, the articles in this special issue and the ideas I have put forward here suggest how eye tracking can function within an interdisciplinary approach to film analysis that furthers our appreciation of film in previously unfathomed ways.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Rachael Bedford, Sean Redmond and Craig Batty for comments on earlier drafts of this article. Thank you to John Henderson, Parag Mital and Robin Hill for help in gathering and visualising the eye movement data used in the Figures presented here. Their work was part of the DIEM Leverhulme Trust funded project (https://thediemproject.wordpress.com/). The author, Tim Smith is funded by EPSRC (EP/K012428/1), Leverhulme Trust (PLP-2013-028) and BIAL Foundation grant (224/12).

 

References

Anderson, Joseph. 1996. The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory. Southern. Illinois University Press.

Batty, Craig, Claire Perkins and Jodi Sita. 2015. “How We Came To Eye Tracking Animation: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach to Researching the Moving Image”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Brown, William. 2015. “There’s no I in Eye Tacking: How Useful is Eye Tracking to Film Studies?”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Cutting, James. E., Jordan E. DeLong and Christine E. Nothelfer. 2010. “Attention and the evolution of Hollywood film.” Psychological Science, 21, 440-447.

Dwyer, Tessa. 2015. “From Subtitles to SMS: Eye Tracking, Texting and Sherlock”, Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

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Notes

[ii] An alternative take on eye tracking data is to divorce the data itself from psychological interpretation. Instead of viewing a gaze point as an index of where a viewer’s overt attention is focussed and a record of the visual input most likely to be encoded into the viewer’s long-term experience of the media, researchers can instead take a qualitative, or even aesthetic approach to the data. The gaze point becomes a trace of some aspect of the viewer’s engagement with the film. The patterns of gaze, its movements across the screen and the coordination/disagreement between viewers can inform qualitative interpretation without recourse to visual cognition. Such an approach is evident in several of the articles in this special issue (including Redmond, Sita, and Vincs, this issue; Batty, Perkins, and Sita, this issue). This approach can be interesting and important for stimulating hypotheses about how such patterns of viewing have come about and may be a satisfying endpoint for some disciplinary approaches to film. However, if researchers are interested in testing these hypotheses further empirical manipulation of the factors that are believed to be important and statistical testing would be required. During such investigation current theories about what eye movements are and how they relate to cognition must also be respected.

[iii] Although, one promising area of research is the use of pupil diameter changes as an index of arousal (Bradley, Miccoli, Escrig and Lang, 2008).

[iv] This technique has been used for decades by producers of TV advertisements and by some “pop” serials such as Hollyoaks in the UK (Thanks for Craig Batty for this observation).

[v] This trend in increasing pace and visual complexity of film is confirmed by statistical analyses of film corpora over time (Cutting, DeLong and Nothelfer, 2010) and has resulted in a backlash and increasing interest in “slow cinema”.

[vi] Other authors in this special issue may argue that taking a critical approach to gaze heatmaps without recourse to psychology allows them to embed eye tracking within their existing theoretical framework (such as hermeneutics). However, I would warn that eye tracking data is simply a record of how a relatively arbitrary piece of machinery (the eye tracking hardware) and associated software decided to represent the centre of a viewer’s gaze. There are numerous parameters that can be tweaked to massively alter how such gaze traces and heatmaps appear. Without understanding the psychology and the physiology of the human eye a researcher cannot know how to set these parameters, how much to trust the equipment they are using, or the data it is recording and as a consequence may over attribute interpretation to a representation that is not reliable.

[vii] https://theeyetribe.com/ (accessed 13/12/14). The EyeTribe tracker is $99 and is as spatially and temporally accurate (up to 60Hz sampling rate) as some science-grade trackers.

[viii] http://www.tobii.com/eye-experience/ (accessed 13/12/14). The Tobii EyeX tracker is $139, samples at 30Hz and is as spatially accurate as the EyeTribe although the EyeX does not give you as much access to the raw gaze data (e.g., pupil size and binocular gaze coordinates) as the EyeTribe.

 

Bio

Dr Tim J. Smith is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, University of London. He applies empirical Cognitive Psychology methods including eye tracking to questions of Film Cognition and has published extensively on the subject both in Psychology and Film journals.

 

From Subtitles to SMS: Eye Tracking, Texting and Sherlock – Tessa Dwyer

Abstract

As we progress into the digital age, text is experiencing a resurgence and reshaping as blogging, tweeting and phone messaging establish new textual forms and frameworks. At the same time, an intrusive layer of text, obviously added in post, has started to feature on mainstream screen media – from the running subtitles of TV news broadcasts to the creative portrayals of mobile phone texting on film and TV dramas. In this paper, I examine the free-floating text used in BBC series Sherlock (2010–). While commentators laud this series for the novel way it integrates text into its narrative, aesthetic and characterisation, it requires eye tracking to unpack the cognitive implications involved. Through recourse to eye tracking data on image and textual processing, I revisit distinctions between reading and viewing, attraction and distraction, while addressing a range of issues relating to eye bias, media access and multimodal redundancy effects.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Press conference in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Introduction

BBC’s Sherlock (2010–) has received considerable acclaim for its creative deployment of text to convey thought processes and, most notably, to depict mobile phone messaging. Receiving high-profile write-ups in The Wall Street Journal (Dodes, 2013) and Wired UK, this innovative representational strategy has been hailed an incisive reflection of our current “transhuman” reality and “a core element of the series’ identity” (McMillan 2014).[1] In the following discussion, I deploy eye tracking data to develop an alternate perspective on this phenomenon. While Sherlock’s on-screen text directly engages with the emerging modalities of digital and online technologies, it also borrows from more conventional textual tools like subtitling and captioning or SDH (subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing). Most emphatically, the presence of floating text in Sherlock challenges the presumption that screen media is made to be viewed, not read. To explore this challenge in detail, I bring Sherlock’s inventive titling into contact with eye tracking research on subtitle processing, using insights from audiovisual translation (AVT) studies to investigate the complexities involved in processing dynamic text on moving-image screens. Bridging screen and translation studies via eye tracking, I consider recent on-screen text developments in relation to issues of media access and linguistic diversity, noting the gaps or blind spots that regularly infiltrate research frameworks. Discussion focuses on ‘A Study in Pink’ – the first episode of Sherlock’s initial season – which producer Sue Vertue explains was actually “written and shot last, and so could make the best use of onscreen text as additional script and plot points” (qtd in McMillan, 2014).

Texting Sherlock

Figure 2

Figure 2: Watson reads a text message in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

The phenomenon under investigation in this article is by no means easy to define. Already it has inspired neologisms, word mashes and acronyms including TELOP (television optical projection), ‘impact captioning’ (Sasamoto, 2014), ‘decotitles’ (Kofoed, 2011), ‘beyond screen text messaging’ (Zhang 2014) and ‘authorial titling’ (Pérez González, 2012). While slight differences in meaning separate such terms from one another, the on-screen text in Sherlock fits all. Hence, in this discussion, I alternate between them and often default to more general terms like ‘titling’ and ‘on-screen text’ for their wide applicability across viewing devices and subject matter. This approach preserves the terminological ambiguity that attaches to this phenomenon instead of seeking to solve it, finding it symptomatic of the rapid rate of technological development with which it engages. Whatever term is decided upon today could well be obsolete tomorrow. Additionally, as Rick Altman (2004: 16) notes in his ‘crisis historiography’ of silent and early sound film, the “apparently innocuous process of naming is actually one of culture’s most powerful forms of appropriation.” He argues that in the context of new technologies and the representational codes they engender, terminological variance and confusion signals an identity crisis “reflected in every aspect of the new technology’s socially defined existence” (19).

According to the write-ups, phone messaging is the hero of BBC’s updated and rebooted Sherlock adaptation. Almost all the press garnered around Sherlock’s on-screen text links this strategy to mobile phone ‘texting’ or SMS (short messaging service). Reporting on “the storytelling challenges of a world filled with unglamorous smartphones, texting and social media”, The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes (2013) credits Sherlock with solving this dilemma and establishing a new convention for depicting texting on the big screen, creatively capturing “the real world’s digital transformation of everyday life.” For Mariel Calloway (2013), “Sherlock is honest about the role of technology and social media in daily life and daily thought… the seamless way that text messages and internet searches integrate into our lives.” Wired’s Graeme McMillan (2014) ups the ante, naming Sherlock a “new take” on “television drama as a whole” due precisely to its on-screen texting technique that sets it apart from other “tech-savvy shows out there”. McMillan continues, that “as with so many aspects of Sherlock, there’s an element of misdirection going on here, with the fun, eye-catching slickness of the visualization distracting from a deeper commentary the show is making about its characters relationship with technology – and, by extension, our own relationship with it, as well.”

As this flurry of media attention makes clear, praise for Sherlock’s on-screen text or texting firmly anchors this strategy to technology and its newly evolving forms, most notably the iPhone or smartphone. Appearing consistently throughout the series’ three seasons to date, on-screen text in Sherlock occurs in a plain, uniform white sans-serif font that appears unadorned over the screen image, obviously added during post-production. This text is superimposed, pure and simple, relying on neither text bubbles nor coloured boxes nor sender ID’s to formally separate it from the rest of the image area. As Michele Tepper (2011) eloquently notes, by utilising text in this way, Sherlock “is capturing the viewer’s screen as part of the narrative itself”:

It’s a remarkably elegant solution from director Paul McGuigan. And it works because we, the viewing audience, have been trained to understand it by the last several years of service-driven, multi-platform, multi-screen applications. Last week’s iCloud announcement is just the latest iteration of what can happen when your data is in the cloud and can be accessed by a wide range of smart-enough devices. Your VOIP phone can show caller ID on your TV; your iPod can talk to both your car and your sneakers; Twitter is equally accessible via SMS or a desktop application. It doesn’t matter where or what the screen is, as long as it’s connected to a network device. … In this technological environment, the visual conceit that Sherlock’s text message could migrate from John Watson’s screen to ours makes complete and utter sense.

Unlike on-screen text in Glee (Fox, 2009–), for instance (see Fig. 3), that is used only occasionally in episodes like ‘Feud’ (Season 4, Ep 16, March 14, 2013), Sherlock flaunts its on-screen text as signature. Its consistently interesting textual play helps to give the series cohesion. Yet, just as it aids in characterisation, helps to progress the narrative, and binds the series as a whole, it also, necessarily, remains at somewhat of a remove, as an overtly post-production effect.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Ryder chats online in ‘Feud’, Glee (2013), Episode 16, Season 4.

While Tepper (2011) explains how Sherlock’s “disembodied” (Banks, 2014) texting ‘makes sense’ in the age of cross-platform devices and online clouds, this argument falters when the on-screen text in question is less overtly technological. The extradiegetic nature of this on-screen text – so obviously a ‘post’ effect – is brought to the fore when it is used to render thoughts and emotions rather than technological interfacing. In ‘A Study in Pink’, a large proportion of the text that pops up intermittently on-screen functions to represent Sherlock’s interiority, not his Internet prowess. In concert with camera angles and “microscopic close-ups”, it elucidates Sherlock’s forensic “mind’s eye” (Redmond, Sita and Vincs, this issue), highlighting clues and literally spelling out their significance (see Figs. 4 and 5). The fact that these human-coded moments of titling have received far less attention in the press than those that more directly index new technologies is fascinating in itself, revealing the degree to which praise for Sherlock’s on-screen text is invested in ideas of newness and technological innovation – underlined by the predilection for neologisms.

Figure 4

Figures 4: Sherlock examines the pink lady’s ring in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Figure 5

Figures 5: Sherlock examines the pink lady’s ring in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Of course, even when not attached to smartphones or data retrieval, Sherlock’s deployment of on-screen text remains fresh, creative and playful and still signals perceptual shifts resulting from technological transformation. Even when representing Sherlock’s thoughts, text flashes on screen manage to recall the excesses of the digital, when email, Facebook and Twitter ensconce us in streams of endlessly circulating words, and textual pop-ups are ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the blinkered way in which Sherlock’s on-screen text is repeatedly framed as, above all, a means of representing mobile phone texting functions to conceal some of its links to older, more conventional forms of titling and textual intervention, from silent-era intertitles to expository titles to subtitles. By relentlessly emphasising its newness, much discussion of Sherlock’s on-screen text overlooks links to a host of related past and present practices. Moreover, Sherlock’s textual play actually invites a rethinking of these older, ongoing text-on-screen devices.

Reading, Watching, Listening

As Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) explain, research into subtitle processing builds upon earlier eye tracking studies on the reading of static, printed text. They proceed to detail differences between subtitle and ‘regular’ reading, in relation to factors like presentation speed, information redundancy, and sensory competition between different multimodal channels. Here, I focus on differences between saccadic or scanning movements and fixations, in order to compare data across the screen and translation fields. During ‘regular’ reading (of static texts) average saccades last 20 to 50 milliseconds (ms) while fixations range between 100 and 500ms, averaging 200 to 300ms (Rayner, 1998). Referencing pioneering studies into subtitle processing by Géry d’Ydewalle and associates, Szarkowska et al. (2013: 155) note that “when reading film subtitles, as opposed to print, viewers tend to make more regressions” and fixations tend to be shorter. Regressions occur when the eye returns to material that has already been read, and Rayner (1998: 393) finds that slower readers (of static text) make more regressions than faster readers. A study by d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 202) found “the percentage of regressions in reading subtitles was globally, among children and adults, much higher than in normal text reading.” They also report that mean fixation durations in the subtitles was shorter, at 178 ms (for adults) and explain that subtitle regressions (where the eye travels back across words already read) can be partly explained by the “considerable information redundancy” that occurs when “[s]ubtitle, soundtrack (including the voice and additional information such as intonation, background noise, etc.), and image all provide partially overlapping information, eliciting back and forth shifts with the image and more regressive eye-movements” (202).

What happens to saccades and fixations when image processing is brought into the mix? When looking at static images, average fixations last 330 ms (Rayner, 1998). This figure is slightly longer than average fixations during regular reading and longer again than average subtitle fixations. Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) note that “reading requires many successive fixations to extract information whereas looking at a scene requires fewer, but longer fixations” that tend to be more exploratory or ambient in nature, taking in a greater area of focus. In relation to moving-images, Smith (2013: 168) finds that viewers take in roughly 3.8% of the total screen area during an average length shot. Peripheral processing is at play but “is mostly reserved for selecting future saccade targets, tracking moving targets, and extracting gist about scene category, layout and vague object information”. In thinking about these differences in regular reading behaviour, screen viewing, and subtitle processing, it is noticeable that with subtitles, distinctions between fixations and saccades are less clear-cut. While saccades last between 20 and 50ms, Smith (2013: 169) notes that the smallest amount of time taken to perform a saccadic eye movement (taking into account saccadic reaction time) is 100-130ms. Recalling d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker’s (2007: 202) finding that fixations during subtitle processing last around 178ms, it would seem that subtitle conditions blur the boundaries somewhat between saccades and fixations, scanning and reading.

Interestingly, studies have also shown that the processing of two-line subtitles involves more regular word-by-word reading than for one-liners (D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker, 2007: 199). D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 199) report, for instance, that more words are skipped and more regressions occur for one-line subtitles than for two-line subtitles. Two-line subtitles result in a larger proportion of time being spent in the subtitle area, and occasion more back-and-forth shifts between the subtitles and the remaining image area (201). This finding suggests that the processing of one-line subtitles differs considerably from regular reading behaviour. D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 202) surmise that the distinct way in which one-line subtitles are processed relates to a redundancy effect caused by the multimodal nature of screen media. Noting how one-line subtitles often convey short exclamations and outcries, they suggest that a “standard one-line subtitle generally does not provide much more information than what can already be extracted from the picture and the auditory message.” They conclude that one-line subtitles occasion “less reading” than two-line subtitles (202). Extrapolating further, I posit that the routine overlapping of information that occurs in subtitled screen media blurs lines between reading and watching. One-line subtitles are ‘read’ irregularly and partly blind – that is, they are regularly skipped and processed through saccadic eye movements rather than fixations.

This suggestion is supported by data on subtitle skipping. Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) find that longer subtitles containing frequently used words are easier and quicker to process than shorter subtitles containing low-frequency words. Hence, they conclude that cognitive load relates more to word familiarity than quantity, something that is overlooked in many professional subtitling guidelines. This finding indicates that high-frequency words are processed ‘differently’ in subtitling than in static text, in a manner more akin to visual recognition or scanning than reading. Szarkowska and Kruger find that high-frequency words in subtitles are often skipped. Hence, as with one-line subtitles, high-frequency words are, to a degree, processed blind, possibly through shape recognition and mapping more than durational focus. In relation to other types of on-screen text, such as the short, free-floating type that characterises Sherlock, it seems entirely possible that this innovative mode of titling may just challenge distinctions between text and image processing. While commentators laud this series for the way it integrates on-screen text into its narrative, style and characterisation, eye tracking is required to unpack the cognitive implications of Sherlock’s text/image morph.

The Pink Lady

Figure 6

Figure 6: Letters scratched into the floor in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Sherlock producer Vertue refers to the pink lady scene in ‘A Study in Pink’ as particularly noteworthy for its “text all around the screen”, referring to it as the “best use” of on-screen text in the series (qtd in McMillan, 2014). In this scene, a dead woman dressed in pink lies face first on the floor of a derelict building into which she has painstakingly etched a word or series of letters (‘Rache’) with her fingernails. As Sherlock investigates the crime scene, forensics officer Anderson interrupts to explain that ‘Rache’ is the German word for ‘revenge’. The German-to-English translation pops up on screen (see Fig. 6), and this time Sherlock sees it too. This superimposed text, so obviously laid over the image, oversteps its surface positioning to enter Sherlock’s diegetic space, and we next view it backwards, from Sherlock’s point of view, not ours (see Fig. 7). After an exasperated eye roll that signals his disregard for Anderson, Sherlock dismisses this textual intervention and we watch it swirl into oblivion. Here, on-screen text is at once both inside and outside the narrative, diegetic and extra-diegetic, informative and affecting. In this way it self-reflexively draws attention to the show’s narrative framing, demonstrating its complexity as distinct diegetic levels merge.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Sherlock sees on-screen text in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

For Carol O’Sullivan (2011), when on-screen text affords this type of play between the diegetic and extra-diegetic it functions as an “extreme anti-naturalistic device” (166) that she unpacks via Gérard Genette’s notion of narrative metalepsis (164). Detailing numerous examples of humourous, formally transgressive diegetic subtitles, such as those found in Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) (Fig. 8), O’Sullivan points to their metatextual function, referring to them as “metasubtitles” (166) that implicitly comment on the limits and nature of subtitling itself. When Sherlock’s on-screen titles oscillate between character and viewer point-of-view shots, they too become metatextual, demonstrating, in Genette’s terms, “the importance of the boundary they tax their ingenuity to overstep in defiance of verisimilitude – a boundary that is precisely the narrating (or the performance) itself: a shifting but sacred frontier between two worlds, the world in which one tells, the world of which one tells” (qtd in O’Sullivan 2011: 165). Moreover, for O’Sullivan, “all subtitles are metatextual” (166) necessarily foregrounding their own act of mediation and interpretation. Specifically linking such ideas to Sherlock, Luis Perez Gonzalez (2012: 18) notes how “the series creators incorporate titles that draw attention to the material apparatus of filmic production”, thereby creating an complex alienation-attraction effect “that shapes audience engagement by commenting upon the diegetic action and disrupting conventional forms of semiotic representation, making viewers consciously work as co-creators of media content.”

Figure 8

Figure 8: Subtitled thoughts in the balcony scene, Annie Hall (1977).

Eye Bias

One finding from subtitle eye tracking research particularly pertinent to Sherlock is the notion that on-screen text causes eye bias. This was established in various studies conducted by d’Ydewalle and associates, which found that subtitle processing is largely automatic and obligatory. D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 196) state:

Paying attention to the subtitle at its presentation onset is more or less obligatory and is unaffected by major contextual factors such as the availability of the soundtrack, knowledge of the foreign language in the soundtrack, and important episodic characteristics of actions in the movie: Switching attention from the visual image to “reading” the subtitles happens effortlessly and almost automatically (196).

This point is confirmed by Bisson et al. (2014: 399) who report that participants read subtitles even in ‘reversed’ conditions – that is, when subtitles are rendered in an unfamiliar language and the screen audio is fully comprehensible (in the viewers’ first language) (413). Again, in intralingual or same-language subtitling – when titles replicate the language spoken on screen –hearing audiences still divert to the subtitle area (413). These findings indicate that viewers track subtitles irrespective of language or accessibility requirements. In fact, the tracking of subtitles overrides function. As Bisson et al. (413) surmise, “the dynamic nature of the subtitles, i.e., the appearance and disappearance of the subtitles on the screen, coupled with the fact that the subtitles contained words was enough to generate reading behavior”.

Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) reach a similar conclusion, explaining eye bias towards subtitles in terms of both bottom-up and top-down impulses. When subtitles or other forms of text flash up on screen, they affect a change to the scene that automatically pulls our eyes. The appearance and disappearance of text on screen is registered in terms of motion contrast, which according to Smith (2013: 176), is the “critical component predicting gaze behavior”, attaching to small movements as well as big. Additionally, we are drawn to words on screen because we identify them as a ready source of relevant information, as found in Batty et al. (forthcoming). Analysing a dialogue-free montage sequence from animated feature Up (Pete Docter, 2009), Batty et al. found that on-screen text in the form of signage replicates in miniature how ‘classical’ montage functions as a condensed form of storytelling aiming for enhanced communication and exposition. They suggest that montage offers a rhetorical amplification of an implicit intertitle, thereby alluding to the historical roots of text on screen while underlining its narrative as well as visual salience. One frame from the montage sequence focuses in close-up on a basket containing picnic items and airline tickets (see Fig. 9). Eye tracking tests conducted on twelve participants indicates a high degree of attentional synchrony in relation to the text elements of the airline ticket on which Ellie’s name is printed. Here, text provides a highly expedient visual clue as to the narrative significance of the scene and viewers are drawn to it precisely for its intertitle-like, expository function, highlighting the top-down impulse also at play in the eye bias caused by on-screen text.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Heat map showing collective gaze weightings during the montage sequence in Up (2009).

In this image from Up, printed text appears in the centre of the frame and, as Smith (2013: 178) elucidates, eyes are instinctively drawn towards frame centre, a finding backed up by much subtitle research (see Skarkowska and Kruger, this issue). However, eye tracking results on Sherlock conducted by Redmond, Sita and Vincs (this issue) indicate that viewers also scan static text when it is not in the centre of the frame. In an establishing shot of 221B Baker Street from the first episode of Sherlock’s second season, ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, viewers track static text that borders the frame across its top and right hand sides, again searching for information (See Fig. 10). Hence, the eye-pull exerted by text is noticeable even in the absence of movement, contrast and central framing. In part, viewers are attracted to text simply because it is text – identified as an efficient communication mode that facilitates speedy comprehension (see Lavaur, 2011: 457).

Figure 10

Figure 10: Single viewer gaze path for ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Distraction/Attraction

What do these eye tracking results across screen and translation studies tell us about Sherlock’s innovative use of on-screen text and texting? Based on the notion that text on screen draws the eye in at least dual ways, due to both its dynamic/contrastive nature and its communicative expediency, we can surmise that for Sherlock viewers, on-screen text is highly visible and more than likely to be in that 3.8% of the screen on which they will focus at any one point in time (see Smith, 2013: 168). The marked eye bias caused by text on screen is further accentuated in Sherlock by the freshness of its textual flashes, especially for English-speaking audiences given the language hierarchies of global screen media (see Acland 2012, UNESCO 2013). The small percentage of foreign-language media imported into most English-speaking markets tends to result in a lack of familiarity with subtitling beyond niche audience segments. For those unfamiliar with subtitling or captioning, on-screen text appears particularly novel. Additionally, as explored, floating TELOPs in Sherlock attract attention due to the complex functions they fulfil, providing narrative and character clues as well as textual and stylistic cohesion. As Tepper (2011) points out, in the first episode of the series, viewers are introduced to Sherlock’s character via text, before seeing him on screen. “When he texts the word ‘Wrong!’ to DI Lestrade and all the reporters at Lestrade’s press conference,” notes Tepper, “the technological savvy and the imperiousness of tone tell you most of what you need to know about the character.”

There seems no doubt that on-screen text in Sherlock attracts eye movement, and that it therefore distracts from other parts of the image. One question then that immediately presents itself is why Sherlock’s textual distractions are tolerated – even celebrated – to a far greater extent than other, more conventional or routine forms of titling like subtitles and captions. While Sherlock’s on-screen text is praised as innovative and incisive, interlingual subtitling and SDH are criticised by detractors for the way in which they supposedly force viewers to read rather than watch, effectively transforming film into “a kind of high-class comic book with sound effects” (Canby, 1983).[2] Certainly, differences in scale affect such attitudes and the quantitative variance between post-subtitles (produced for distribution only) and authorial or diegetic titling (as seen in Sherlock) is pronounced.[3] However, eye tracking research on subtitle processing indicates that, on the whole, viewers easily accommodate the increased cognitive load it presents. Although attentional splitting occurs, leading to an increase in back-and-forth shifts between the subtitles and the rest of the image area (Skarkowska and Kruger, this issue), viewers acclimatise by making shorter fixations than in regular reading and by skipping high-frequency words and subtitles while still managing to register meaning (see d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker, 2007: 199). In this way, subtitle processing reveals many differences to reading of static text, and approximates techniques of visual scanning. Bearing these findings in mind, I propose it is more accurate to see subtitling as transforming reading into viewing and text into image, rather than vice versa.

Situating Sherlock in relation to a range of related TELOP practices across diverse TV genres (such as game shows, panel shows, news broadcasting and dramas) Ryoko Sasamoto (2014: 7) notes that the additional processing effort caused by on-screen text is offset by its editorial function.[4] TELOPs are often deployed by TV producers to guide interpretation and ensure comprehension by selecting and highlighting information deemed most relevant. This suggestion is backed up by research by Rei Matsukawa et al. (2009), which found that the information redundancy effect caused by TELOPs facilitates understanding of TV news. For Sasamoto (2014: 7), ‘impact captioning’ highlights salient information in much the same way as voice intonation or contrastive stress. It acts as a “written prop on screen” enabling “TV producers to achieve their communicative aims… in a highly economical manner” (8). Focusing on Sherlock specifically, Sasamoto suggests that its captioning provides “a route for viewers into complex narratives” (9). Moreover, as Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) note, in static reading conditions, “longer fixations typically reflect higher cognitive load.” Consequently, the shorter fixations that characterise subtitle viewing supports the contention that on-screen text processing is eased by its expedient, editorial function and by redundancy effects resulting from its multimodality.

Switched On

Another way in which Sherlock’s text and titling innovations extend beyond mobile phone usage was exemplified in July 2013 by a promotional campaign that promised viewers a ‘sneak peak’ at a yet-to-be-released episode title, requiring them to find and piece together a series of clues. In true Sherlockian style, the clues were well hidden, only visible to viewers if they switched on closed-captioning or SDH available for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. With this device turned on, viewers encountered intralingual captioning along the bottom of their screen and additionally, individually boxed letters that appeared top left (see Figs. 11 and 12). Viewers needed to gather all these single letter clues in order to deduce the episode title: ‘His Last Vow’. According to the ‘I Heart Subtitles’ blog (July 16, 2013), in doing so, Sherlock once again displayed its ability to “think outside the box and consider all…options”. It also cemented its commitment to on-screen text in various guises, and effectively gave voice to an audience segment typically disregarded in screen commentary and analysis. Through this highly unusual, cryptic campaign, Sherlock alerted viewers to more overtly functional forms of titling, and intimated points of connection between language, textual intervention and access.

Figure 11

Figures 11: Boxed letter clues (top left of frame) that appeared when closed captioning was switched on, during a re-run of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Figure 12

Figures 12: Boxed letter clues (top left of frame) that appeared when closed captioning was switched on, during a re-run of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Conclusion

On-screen text invites a rethinking of the visual, expanding its borders and blurring its definitional clarity. Eye tracking research demonstrates that moving text on screens is processed differently to static text, affected by a range of factors issuing from its multimodal complexity. Sherlock subtly signals such issues through its playful, irreverent deployment of text, which enables viewers to directly access Sherlock’s thoughts and understand his reasoning, while also distancing them, asking them to marvel at his ‘millennial’ technological prowess (Stein and Busse, 2012: 11) while remaining self-consciously aware of his complex narrative framing as it flips inside out, inviting audiences to watch themselves watching. Such diegetic transgression is yet to be mapped through eye tracking, intimating a profitable direction for future studies. To date, data on text and image processing demonstrates how on-screen text attracts eye movement and hence, it can be inferred that it distracts from other parts of the image area. Yet, despite rendering more of the image effectively ‘invisible’, text in the form of TELOPs are increasingly prevalent in news broadcasts, current affairs panel shows (when audience text messages are displayed) and, most notably, in Asian TV genres where they are now a “standard editorial prop” featured in many dramas and game shows (Sasamoto, 2014: 1). In order to take up the challenge presented by such emerging modes of screen address, research needs to move beyond surface assessments of the attraction/distraction nexus. It is the very attraction to TELOP distraction that Sherlock – via eye tracking – brings to the fore.

 

References

Acland, Charles. 2012. “From International Blockbusters to National Hits: Analysis of the 2010 UIS Survey on Feature Film Statistics.” UIS Information Bulletin 8: 1-24. UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Altman, Rick. 2004. Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press.

Banks, David. 2012. “Sherlock: A Perspective on Technology and Story Telling.” Cyborgology, January 25. Accessed October 9, 2014.

Batty, Craig, Adrian Dyer, Claire Perkins and Jodi Sita (forthcoming). “Seeing Animated Worlds: Eye Tracking and the Spectator’s Experience of Narrative.” In Making Sense of Cinema: Empirical Studies into Film Spectators and Spectatorship, edited by Carrie Lynn D. Reinhard and Christopher J. Olson. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Bennet, Alannah. 2014. “From Sherlock to House of Cards: Who’s Figured Out How to Translate Texting to Film.” Bustle, August 18. Entertainment. Accessed October 9. http://www.bustle.com/articles/36115-from-sherlock-to-house-of-cards-whos-figured-out-how-to-translate-texting-to-film/image/36115.

Biedenharn, Isabella. 2014. “A Brief Visual History of On-Screen Text Messages in Movies and TV.Flavorwire, April 24. Accessed October 13.

Bisson, Marie-Jos´ee, Walter J. B. Van Heuven, Kathy Conklin And Richard J. Tunney. 2014. “Processing of native and foreign language subtitles in films: An eye tracking study.” Applied Psycholinguistics 35: 399–418. Accessed October 13, 2014. doi: 10.1017/S0142716412000434.

Calloway, Mariel. 2013. “The Game is On(line): BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ in the Age of Social MediaMariel Calloway, March 8. Accessed October 14, 2014.

Canby, Vincent. 1983. “A Rebel Lion Breaks Out.” New York Times, March 27, 21.

Dodes, Rachel. 2013. “From Talkies to Texties.” Wall Street Journal, April 4, Arts and Entertainment Section. Accessed October 13, 2014.

d’Ydewalle, Géry and Wim De Bruycker, 2007. “Eye movements of children and adults while reading television subtitles.” European Psychologist 12 (3): 196-205.

Kofoed, D. T. 2011. “Decotitles, the Animated Discourse of Fox’s Recent Anglophonic Internationalism.” Reconstruction 11 (1). Accessed October 5, 2012.

Lavaur, Jean-Marc and Dominic Bairstow. 2011. “Languages on the screen: Is film comprehension related to the viewers’ fluency level and to the language in the subtitles?” International Journal of Psychology 46 (6): 455-462. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2011.565343.

McMillan, Graeme. 2014. “Sherlock’s Text Messages Reveal Our TranshumanismWired UK, February 3. Accessed October 14.

Matsukawa, Rei, Yosuke Miyata and Shuichi Ueda. 2009. “Information Redundancy Effect on Watching TV News: Analysis of Eye Tracking Data and Examination of the Contents.” Literary and Information Science 62: 193-205.

O’Sullivan, Carol. 2011. Translating Popular Film. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pérez González, Luis. 2013. “Co-Creational Subtitling in the Digital Media: Transformative and Authorial Practices.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (1): 3-21. Accessed September 25, 2014. doi: 10.1177/1367877912459145.

Rayner, K. 1998. “Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing: 20 Years of Research.” Psychological Bulletin 124: 372-422.

Redmond, Sean, Jodi Sita and Kim Vincs. 2015. “Our Sherlockian Eyes: The Surveillance of VisionRefractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Romero-Fresco, Pablo. 2013. “Accessible filmmaking: Joining the dots between audiovisual translation, accessibility and filmmaking.” JoSTrans: The Journal of Specialised Translation 20: 201-23. Accessed September 20, 2014.

Sasamoto, Ryoko. 2014. “Impact caption as a highlighting device: Attempts at viewer manipulation on TV.” Discourse, Context and Media 6: 1-10. Accessed September 18 (Article in Press). doi: 10.1016/j.dcm.2014.03.003.

Schrodt, Paul. 2013. “This is How to Shoot Text MessagingEsquire, February 4. The Culture Blog. Accessed October 13, 2014.

Smith, Tim J. 2013. “Watching You Watch Movies: Using Eye Tracking to Inform

Cognitive Film Theory” in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, edited by Arthur P. Shimamura, 165-91. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Accessed October 7, 2014. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199862139.001.0001.

Stein, Louise Ellen and Kristina Busse. 2012. “Introduction: The Literary, Televisual and Digital Adventures of the Beloved Detective.” In Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series, edited by Louise Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse, 9-24. Jefferson: McFarland and Company.

Szarkowska, Agnieszka et. al. 2013. “Harnessing the Potential of Eye-Tracking for Media Accessibility.” in Translation Studies and Eye-Tracking Analysis, edited by Sambor Grucza, Monika Płużyczka and Justyna Zając, 153-83. Frankfurt am Mein: Peter Lang.

Szarkowska, Agnieszka and Jan Louis Kruger. 2015. “Subtitles on the Moving Image: An Overview of Eye Tracking Studies.” Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Tepper, Michele. 2011. “The Case of the Travelling Text Message.” Interactions Everywhere, June 14. Accessed October 14, 2014.

UNESCO. 2013. “Feature Film Diversity”, UIS Fact Sheet 24, May. Accessed October 3, 2014.

Zhang, Sarah. 2014. “How Hollywood Figured Out A Way To Make Texting In Movies Look Less Dumb.Gizmodo, August 18. Accessed August 19.

Zhou, Tony. 2014. “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film”. Video Essay, Every Frame a Painting, August 15. Accessed August 19.

 

List of Figures

 

 

Notes

[1] While some commentators point out that Sherlock was by no means the first to depict text messaging in this way – as floating text on screen – it is this series more than any other that has brought this phenomenon into the limelight. Other notable uses of on-screen text to depict mobile phone messaging occur in films All About Lily Chou-Chou (Iwai, 2001), Disconnect (Rubin, 2013), The Fault in Our Stars (Boone, 2014), LOL (Azuelos, 2012), Non-Stop (Collet-Serra, 2014), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Stone, 2010), and in TV series Glee (Fox, 2009–), House of Cards (Netflix, 2013–), Hollyoaks (Channel 4, 1995–), Married Single Other (ITV, 2010) and Slide (Fox8, 2011). For discussion of some ‘early adopters’, see Biendenharn 2014.

 

Notes

[2] Notably, in this New York Times piece, Canby (1983) actually defends subtitling against this charge, and advocates for subtitling over dubbing.

[3] On distinctions between post-subtitling and pre-subtitling (including diegetic subtitling), see O’Sullivan (2011).

[4] According to Sasamoto (2014: 1), “the use of OCT [Open Caption Telop] as an aid for enhanced viewing experience originated in Japan in 1990.”

 

Bio

Dr Tessa Dwyer teaches Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne, specialising in language politics and issues of screen translation. Her publications have appeared in journals such as The Velvet Light Trap, The Translator and The South Atlantic Quarterly and in a range of anthologies including B is for Bad Cinema (2014), Words, Images and Performances in Translation (2012) and the forthcoming Locating the Voice in Film (2016), Contemporary Publics (2016) and the Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation (2017). In 2008, she co-edited a special issue of Refractory on split screens. She is a member of the ETMI research group and is currently writing a book on error and screen translation.

Volume 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

Contents:

1. Editorial Introduction — Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

2. Animating Ephemeral Surfaces: Transparency, Translucency and Disney’s World of Color  — Kirsten Moana Thompson

3. Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

4. Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric Worlds — John Farnsworth

5. The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — Kevin Fisher

6. Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

7. ‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

8. We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

Abstract: Digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. In this paper I map the development of concepts of intermediality and transmediality that are used to describe textual practice and audience engagement in order to explore these changes to communication practice. At the same time I explore the new kinds of audience engagement enabled by this technology, which includes active participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings. It also includes the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables. Finally I consider the possibilities for co-creationmy hardware, your software (or vice-versa)which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

Sherlock (BBC, 2010-- )

Sherlock (BBC, 2010– )

1. On thinking about inter- and trans-

The research for this paper led me through a range of ideas and arguments about the meanings of intermediation and transmediation, as well as their relationship to intertextuality (for example, Bakhtin 1984; Jenkins 2006; Herzogenrath 2012; Stein and Busse 2012; Phillips 2012). It led me to think about a multiplicity of texts that are all inter in some way—either intertextually related texts and the kinds of meanings they make or intermediated narratives that tell their story across a range of media and platforms—and about texts, producers and audiences that are most definitely trans—deploying a range of media and platforms to create a composite and complex world, engage with that world, and generate new meanings. This textual multiplicity in the contemporary media environment in turn raised questions about what has caused or generated these differing ways of telling a story and what is the significance of these different modes of story-telling: whether this reflects simply a change in technology (if that is ever truly simple) or if that change has consequences that move far beyond the material technologies involved—the material artefacts and related communication practices—to our ways of thinking and of being in the world.

My argument is that digital technologies have enabled new ways of communicating and relating to others and that this has fundamental consequences for being and for meaning. Further, we are only just starting to realise the possibilities and potential offered by this technology for new forms of relationship, knowledge creation and sharing. I work through these possibilities by reference to a range of texts that were suggested by my research and which recur in discussions of these new modes of story-telling and text production. My interest is not only in digital texts themselves, but also in the new forms of engagement they offer to readers, viewers and listeners to become active producers or makers of meaning alongside the creators of the work. This engagement includes our participation in the reconstruction of older narratives in new media and the potential this affords for new meanings; the dissemination of stories, old and new, across multiple platforms by both makers and audiences, who themselves become makers, and the proliferation of stories and meanings this enables; and finally the possibilities for co-creation—my hardware, your software (or vice-versa)—which can enable new forms of sharing and mutual knowledge-formation.

This exploration of shared storytelling and textual production occurs through my engagement with the theory used by media and cultural analysts to understand transformations in creativity, knowledge-formation and being. This work includes the concepts of intermediation, which explores the possibilities opened up by new media and focuses on the textual practices that enable new forms of audience engagement, and transmediation, which also explores the effect of new technologies on meaning-making but shifts its focus from textual practice to audience response. This is a subtle shift as both concepts essentially study the same phenomena (including both textual practice and audience responses), but it mirrors what Henry Jenkins called the development of ‘convergence culture’: “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want” (2006, 2). As I will go on to argue, this convergence, this sharing of and linking via new media technologies, has the potential to transform our experience of the world and, along with that, our formation of knowledge and fundamental understandings of being.

2. The Consulting Detective and The Doctor

My first thought when beginning this paper was to use the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) version of Sherlock (2010-) as my example of intermediation. One of the things that attracted me to this text was that it re-tells Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories in such a fresh and engaging way, not only through the revised characterisations of its principals (Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty, Mycroft) and the rapid editing and visual layering of the mise-en-scène that creates 21st century London as the technological and social successor to Conan Doyle’s 19th century industrial London, but also by the re-framing of familiar narratives to make them directly relevant to contemporary British society. For example, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) is re-written by Mark Gatiss as “The Hounds of Baskerville” (2012), a story about experiments with nerve agents and genetic mutation at a United Kingdom military base. The story focuses around a local man, Henry Knight who, as a child, saw his father torn apart by a giant hound on Dartmoor, near the Baskerville military establishment. Fear of the hound is produced not, as in the original story, by phosphorescence painted onto a large dog (though the local innkeepers have a large dog that they used to spread the ‘giant hound’ story to tourists), but by a hallucinogenic drug that is released into the air by nerve pads buried in a certain part of the nearby moors. We eventually discover that Knight’s father was killed accidentally when he wandered into the test area for these nerve pads. Under the influence of the air-borne toxin, Knight tripped and hit his head on a rock while attempting to run away from Baskerville scientist, Robert Frankland, who was wearing a gas mask and so appeared monstrous. The young Henry Knight witnessed his father’s accidental death but under the influence of the nerve toxin transformed the memory into the story of the giant hound, suggested to him by the initials H.O.U.N.D. on Franklin’s jumper.

Gatiss’s story uses elements of Conan Doyle’s original but reworks them into a contemporary story about the development of chemical and biological weapons and their production within an environment of secrecy that puts citizens’ lives at risk. The main characters (Sherlock Holmes [Benedict Cumberbatch], Dr Watson [Martin Freeman], Mycroft Holmes [Mark Gatiss] and Inspector Lestrade [Rupert Graves]) are also developed further in this story, including exploration of Sherlock’s ambiguous sexuality and his relationship with Watson, which is mapped explicitly onto the gay relationship of the local innkeepers. It is an engaging tale for the Conan Doyle enthusiast as it preserves the central motif of the narrative—the ghostly hound—but finds a way of re-presenting it that changes the story from one about evil aristocrats (the original Baskerville and his ruthless treatment of the local peasants) and modern greed (a villainous descendent of the original attempting to kill the successor to the title so that he inherits the family fortune) to one about weapons of mass destruction and government secrecy. It also presents a different ‘take’ on the sexuality of Holmes (also explored in the recent films directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson [2009, 2011]), opening up the possibility that he is either gay or bisexual whereas Conan Doyle presents Holmes as relatively asexual.[1] This re-working of the story and its characters constitutes the text as more than a period adaptation of Conan Doyle’s story, set in the late Victorian period with Holmes and Watson inhabiting the world of brougham cabs and steam trains. So is this an example of intertextuality or intermediality, with the literary creation of Conan Doyle cast as another text or medium that incorporates audience engagement with the story?

Perhaps the most obvious answer here is that this re-casting of the Holmes story is an example of intermediality, defined in an early essay by Dick Higgins as generated by “the desire to fuse two or more existing media” (1966). Berndt Herzogenrath notes, however, that Higgins saw intermediality not as the final text but as “‘the uncharted land that lies between’ … different media” (2012, loc. 129-142).[2] The intermediality generated by the Sherlock re-visioning of The Hound of the Baskervilles enables the presentation of different meanings (about weapons production and secrecy) while maintaining the bones of the original narrative (about the abuse of power and the production of fear). Herzogenrath notes that in Image-Music-Text (1977) Roland Barthes related intermediality to interdisciplinarity, which occurs:

… when the solidarity of the old disciplines breaks down—perhaps even violently, via the jolts of fashion—in the interests of a new object and a new language neither of which has a place in the field of the sciences that were to be brought peacefully together, this unease in classification being precisely the point from which it is possible to diagnose a certain mutation. (loc. 129)

This disciplinary transformation might seem a heavy burden to place on Sherlock, however it is certainly the case that this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles in a different medium tells different stories and interrogates different aspects of everyday life (military activity, government control, sexual identity) from Conan Doyle’s original. Moreover, as discussed further below, Mark Gatiss’s revision of The Hound of the Baskervilles might be seen as Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in practice with Gatiss’ story constituting another voice/telling that reiterates some original narrative elements whilst adding some and transforming others.

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

Jeremy Brett as/in Sherlock Holmes (1984-94)

From a contemporary perspective the transfer from literary text to television may not seem a case of disciplinary violence, however, some time ago it did. When television was younger and literature was a canonical art form, the production of a literary work as a television program led inevitably to discussions of what was ‘lost’ by the transfer to such an ‘impoverished’ medium. It is only far more recently that we have understood that an intermediated work is offering something new and different, unconstrained by the disciplinary shackles of the past. This realisation enables Sherlock to be written as a contemporary series, while retaining characteristics of its Victorian predecessor—as distinct, for example, from the older BBC series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett (1984-1994) that retained the Victorian setting for the stories. This successful relocation of the narrative for Sherlock depends on viewers being able to read across media platforms without the disciplinary blinkers of an earlier time; they no longer consider the narrative confined to a particular space/time as defined by the originary text. Instead, as regular consumers of postmodern pastiche, they adjust their reading practice for the complex network of intertextual references and narrative transpositions that constitutes this contemporary Sherlock.

This is more than simply a change in forms of entertainment or the emergence of new technologies. This radical unhooking of the narrative from its original space/time and the ability to read the stories for a different age, with different values and different concerns, is characteristic of the specificity and locatedness (sometimes read as relativism) of postmodernity. The postmodern producer appreciates the origin of textual forms and practices and is able to re-mediate them in order to make new meanings for a new time. Similarly, the postmodern consumer is able to appreciate the multiplicity of (textual) voices that constitute their world, and is not constrained to one major or canonical form of textual address as the bearer of cultural value. This is a reflexive consumer who maps networks of meaning extending beyond the confines of a specific text and its world; the viewer of The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) who knows to ‘follow the white rabbit’ to a looking-glass world that is our own world, and yet is not.

One of the means by which this reflexive writing and viewing practice has been understood is through the concept of intertextuality—used to describe the practice of referencing from one text to another via a character, icon, event or interaction, along with the meanings associated with that reference. Based on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin who saw every text as the premise for and related to every other text, via the heteroglossia (different voices) that constitute(s) our world, intertextuality is a way of mapping the complexity of communication practices and the meanings they convey, along with the impossibility of exerting total control over the meanings associated with a particular utterance (1984, 278). Intertextuality is about meaning and its constant deferral (in Derrida’s terms) not just the appearance of story elements in different texts. So intermediality acknowledges the use of different media or platforms to convey a specific narrative while intertextuality is a way of exploring the meanings constructed.

One way of mapping the possible meanings generated by viewer engagement with (intermediated) texts—including their constant deferral of meaning—is through the notion of genre, since this is the way that we typically classify texts in order to render them accessible. In a sense genre imposes order on the chaotic heteroglossia of our world so that it does not become an incomprehensible Babel in which each individual is isolated by a wholly idiosyncratic reading/viewing/meaning-making practice. Not only does genre identify the conventions or characteristics shared by the texts that we recognise as similar and so enable us to trace their history, it also identifies the kinds of issues commonly addressed by those texts. Science fiction, for example, commonly addresses the relationship between human beings and their technology, how technology influences our lives and even the fundamental nature of human being. This is evident in science fiction works such as Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and The Matrix (1999), both of which explore how we deploy technology and what this tells us about ourselves. And this exploration of identity and technology has its roots in what is commonly regarded the first science fiction text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ([1818] 1982), written at the height of the first Industrial Revolution in western societies, when steam power had transformed work practices and social relationships, obliterating older forms of labour and the classes who performed it and reconstructing society into new classes. This industrial context may not be explicit in every reference to Frankenstein but it echoes through portrayals of the angry, sad and abandoned creature and his deluded creator, who become the robots/androids of today and us, their sometimes deluded or unaware creators and users.

Sherlock and Moriarty

Moriarty and Sherlock

One of the striking features of Sherlock is its stylistic similarity to Doctor Who, generated by the visual aesthetic, costuming, editing, and the enigmatic and manic main character, Sherlock/The Doctor and his mirror self, Moriarty/The Master. This might seem unsurprising given that the same creative team is responsible for both programs; writers, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss devised the idea for Sherlock on the train to Wales to work on Doctor Who (which is produced in Cardiff). However, that fact does not explain the resulting program and its success. A generic analysis of the two series is suggestive, showing that both science fiction (Doctor Who) and detective fiction (Sherlock) have their story-telling roots in Gothic fiction, which was preoccupied with questions about being, the nature of the real, the nature of good and evil, and the dual (good/evil) nature of humanity. In science fiction those concerns are directed to an exploration of our relationship with new technologies, as discussed above.

The Doctor and The Master

The Doctor and The Master

Detective fiction focuses on the nature of knowing, personified in the detective, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant investigator, C. Auguste Dupin in stories the author described as “tales of ratiocination” (2010). Dupin employs a version of the scientific method (involving observation and analysis) leavened with imagination, which enables him to look beyond the obvious. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is even more scientific in his practice, but with the same disdain for conventional ways of thinking. This deployment of scientific method in order to solve social (rather than scientific) problems focuses attention on the process of knowledge formation (how we know and understand our world and each other) and its role in our understanding of morality (whether good and evil are easily identified) and of being (whether human beings are simply good or evil). The contemporary BBC Sherlock continues this tradition of the scientific detective informed by an eccentric imagination that enables him to step outside conventionalised patterns of thought and assumption.

Intertextually, Doctor Who and Sherlock share the Gothic preoccupation with interrogating the nature of being and of knowledge, which is evident in some shared generic conventions and preoccupations, though each also has other specific interests—technology (science fiction), the social construction of good and evil (detective fiction). The value of intertextuality is that it enables us to see how these texts are constituted by the kinds of meanings they are making. It allows us to understand why two genres that we now consider quite different can have shared ontological and epistemological preoccupations, because of a common generic ancestor.

Like intertextuality, intermediality is about textual practice. We saw above that the interdisciplinarity that was generated by the postmodern recognition of diversity and difference (and hence the rejection of certainty, grand narratives and canonical textuality) enabled the production of a Sherlock that is not a period drama but a contemporary construct, telling stories of today’s world. At the same time, as the brief intertextual study of genre shows, it also deploys a conventional detective with an eccentric mix of scientific method and artistic creativity whose ‘ratiocination’ at times leads him to find villainy not in evil individuals, but in the government and its representatives. Intermediality is useful for mapping that kind of practice, where a narrative devised in one medium is transposed into another where it deploys meanings enabled by its original production, but also produces new and different meanings that are generated via this transposition.

3. Spirituality and stained glass

The stained glass windows in Christian churches deploy a similar practice, taking stories from one medium (the Biblical word of God) and realising them in another medium (coloured glass). Interestingly the windows feature a complex iconography that would appeal to the modern gamer, with icons emblematic of values and ideas that cluster around the central theme and its story arc but open up depths of spiritual meaning. One reading of these windows is that they told these stories for illiterate peasants who had no access to written versions of biblical tales. Roger Homan notes: “The great transept window at Canterbury known as the Biblia Pauperium (poor person’s bible), for example, depends upon an extensive visual vocabulary of symbols and an awareness of the supposed theological links between the biblical scenes featured in adjacent panels” (2005). In this way the windows acted as a point of meditation for the viewer, recalling the story and its religious significance. Homan notes also that many scholars believe that preachers used the windows as a reference point in sermons, especially those delivered in the vernacular of the uneducated. They could literally point to the visual representation of the story and explain their exegesis, so that later viewings of the window would recall not only the details of the story but its religious significance.

In his study, Religious Art in France XIII Century (1913) Émile Mâle begins by noting:

To the Middle Ages art was didactic. All that it was necessary that men should know—the history of the world from the creation, the dogmas of religion, the examples of the saints, the hierarchy of the virtues, the range of the sciences, arts and crafts—all these were taught them by the windows of the church or by the statues in the porch. (vii)

Mâle goes on to explain that this art is not easily decipherable to the modern viewer who may mistake elements of the works as purely figurative, bringing a momentary pleasure to the eye. By contrast: “In mediæval art every form clothes a thought; one could say that thought works within the material and animates it” (viii). Roger Homan adds to this an appreciation of the role of the material used in the art-work:

But there are properties of coloured glass that are of deeply spiritual significance and have been recognized by, for example, Pseudo-Dionysius in the first century and Bishop Grosseteste in the thirteenth. We view not an image but the light beyond which it mediates for us. The image owes its life to that ultimate light. This sense is much keener than it is in respect of the reflection of light upon opaque surfaces. The stained glass image is therefore like an ikon: we are not to look at it but through it. (2005)

If we regard the stained glass window as an intermediated presentation of religious and spiritual concepts and stories, then Homan’s analysis leads us directly to the point of intermediation—the light generated by the glass, which is as critical to the meanings of the windows as the images and icons created. Homan speaks of the role of the stained glass as being “to sedate light”: “A stained glass window slows us down; it inclines us to proceed reverently and lower our voices” (2005). The sensory effect of the coloured light produced by the windows is to remove viewers from the everyday world, locating them in an otherworldly space in which to contemplate religious mysteries and spiritual truths. This is surely the essence of the intermedial experience, not a translation from one art form to another, but a transformation of being and knowing generated by the (sensory) engagement of the viewer. Again note that although intermediality does address the effect on viewers of a particular form of text, its focus is on textual practice rather than audience interaction. Which is to say, the concept of intermediality tends to address primarily the ways in which the text positions the viewer, rather than the multiple active engagements of viewers.

4.   Boba Fett, children’s television and transmediality

The term that seems to best capture the active engagement of audiences or consumers of contemporary texts is transmediality. Henry Jenkins popularised this term in his influential study, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, first published in 2006. Writing about the Matrix phenomenon that had recently developed through the Wachowskis’ interrelated films, games and online comics, Jenkins identifies the work as transmedia storytelling as follows:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinct and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice-versa. (loc. 1974)

This directly confronts older canonical notions of the text as a bounded entity, with the roles of the reader, viewer or listener being to unlock the meaning of that text. Instead it acknowledges the active role of the consumer (who moves between these different media) in creating story and generating meaning that is implicit in the notion of intertextuality. However, this is a different consumer from the medieval worshipper, and the key to that difference is the accessibility of a range of media.

Some thirty years ago, as a creative consultant to a network television producer of children’s programming, my job was to construct the world of a particular television program. Like Lucas’s enormously influential Star Wars series it was set in a different space—a set of planets orbiting a small star, each with their own names and characteristics. I no longer remember the details of the exercise but the project report was about forty pages long, and detailed everything a child might want to know about living on that planet. The aim of the exercise was to create a world that all the separate sequences of the program—games, stories, cartoons, write-in quizzes, the club—could refer back to, so that the show maintained a basic coherence. We wanted our viewers to feel at home in that universe, to feel a sense of engagement and belonging.

Lucasfilm led the way with this kind of world-formation by marketing a series of products that not only capitalised on viewers’ responses to the films, but also provided them with the tools to repeat and enhance that experience imaginatively. And, as Jenkins noted in Convergence Culture, Lucas did not simply endlessly repeat the story of the movie: “When Star Wars went to games, those games didn’t just enact film events; they showed what life would be like for a Jedi trainee or bounty hunter” (2006, loc. 2172). Later in the same chapter Jenkins notes that Lucas found that the value of developing toys based on secondary characters was that they might take on a life of their own: “Boba Fett eventually became the protagonist of his own novels and games and played a much larger role in the later films” (loc. 2273).

Again we might argue that this has happened before, with stories based on earlier texts that expand their imaginary world, including some based on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: for example, Nicholas Meyer’s novel Seven-Per-Cent Solution ([1974] 1993) presents a back-story to Holmes’ addiction to cocaine (the novel was made into a film of the same name in 1976). What is new, however, is both the number of different media to which consumers have access and the degree to which they can engage with those media. Jenkins quotes Janet Murray’s assessment of the ‘“encyclopedic capacity’ of digital media, which she thinks will lead to new narrative forms as audiences seek information beyond the limits of the individual story” (2006, loc. 2283). Jenkins goes on to argue that, unlike some critics, he does not see this as leading to the death of narrative: “Rather, we are seeing the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle, and end” (loc. 2323). Of course, it is crucial to know who is developing these new stories and how they relate to the original text.

If we use the example of the Matrix franchise, the whole massive narrative edifice stayed effectively in the control of the Wachowskis. For some viewers it was too complex to try to follow its development and they found the films increasingly difficult to understand, whilst the more dedicated fans were unhappy with the Wachowskis’ attempts to explain every aspect of their narrative, as Jenkins documents (2006, loc. 2436-2446). A fine line exists between the authorial control required to maintain the integrity of the narrative and the dictation of detail that closes down the engagement of the audience. Andrea Phillips discusses this in her practical introduction, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (2012). She argues “the most effective tool is to actually create a small piece of your world and give it to your audience to play with” (41).

Phillips’ description of transmediality is subtly different from that of Jenkins, perhaps because of their different roles (Jenkins as critic and theorist, Phillips as maker). In her role as storyteller Phillips is concerned not to shut out the audience, so describes her world-building in a way that prioritises audience engagement. In Chapter 8, “Writing for Transmedia Is Different” Phillips notes that “we’ll be concentrating mainly on the requirements of telling a single, highly fragmented story across multiple platforms, and most particularly across digital platforms—you might call it social media storytelling as much as transmedia. That’s because this is where the methods of traditional single-platform or flat narratives become inadequate” (74-75). She goes on to explain this distinction in terms of the strategies used to enable the world of the narrative to be expanded by the audience: “Transmedia storytelling is an exercise in open-ended storytelling, boundless where a traditional single-medium story is finite” (75). Phillips explains that the storyteller should suggest to the audience that the world of the narrative includes more stories than the one that they have been given (75).

As noted earlier, one of the great successes of Star Wars is that its narrative is not confined to a specific set of incidents, rather the narrative contains the seeds of many other stories, featuring characters such as Boba Fett whose role in the core narrative is relatively minor but has the potential for new storytelling and world-building. By contrast, die-hard Matrix fans were disappointed when the Wachowskis attempted to lock down the meanings of the trilogy to a specific story by resolving the mystery, leaving little scope for imaginative retellings by fans. Instead Phillips notes the value of deliberately leaving loose ends that might become the source of new stories, which directly contradicts conventional advice given to writers. Though she also notes that these narrative possibilities have to be executed judiciously so that you do not “accidentally create narrative expectations that never achieve any kind of payoff” (76). Hence her earlier point about the importance of a clear story arc: “It is especially important in transmedia to have a plot that goes from beginning to end before you launch” (57). Another strategy to enhance narrative openness is “to create story elements in one medium that have their payoffs in another medium” (78), such as a game based on a film. All of this has to be achieved in relation to the basic premise with which she opens the study: “every single element of a transmedia story has to be fulfilling a narrative purpose, without exception” (40-41). And as she notes the aim of transmedia storytelling, as well as the marketers who use it, is engagement: “Transmedia storytelling can provide more engagement and more potential points of sale for any given story, and when it’s done well, each piece can effectively become a promotional tool pointing toward every other piece of the whole” (39). Every strategy used by the storyteller, therefore, should be about giving the audience “things to do, not just things to consume” (117).

Phillips’ Guide addresses textual practice directly in relation to audience or consumer engagement, though Phillips also stresses the need for a critical understanding of textuality (63). This engagement is the both the reason for transmedia production (to sell products, to tell a story) and the result of audience access to multiple media. As Phillips reiterates in her book, this engagement, and the textual openness that enables it, makes transmedia storytelling different from earlier forms of media narratives and audience-media relationships.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

5. The joy of discovery and the fossilised dolphin

I return here to Jenkins’ crucial insight in Convergence Culture, that this different form of storytelling, described so well by Phillips, and common to the popular culture that preoccupies most children, signifies a new way of being and knowing:

Our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more within knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence. Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in such knowledge communities but popular culture may be doing so. (2006, loc. 2477)

For Jenkins this makes literacy training for children essential so that they can “develop the skills needed to become full participants in their culture” (loc. 5295), as Phillips argued when she stressed the need to be critical. The joy of transmedia engagement is that of discovery, of finding a way to contribute to the meanings of a text through your own creativity so that your stories are woven into that ever-expanding composite text. As Jenkins notes, however, this is more than a solitary venture. It is about being able to collaborate with others and to contribute to a collective venture without feeling a loss of individual achievement.

Digital technology has enabled this kind of sharing on an extraordinary scale—whether through kids playing games online with others across the globe, researchers collaborating on a project across cities, countries or continents or fans world-wide expanding a beloved narrative. It is also evident in the ways that older media such as radio and television use online resources to expand their research, engage their audiences, and incorporate audience responses and knowledge into their broadcast formats. Museums and libraries too are sharing resources and inviting visitors to become part of the knowledge-production for the institution. For example, by checking the digitisation of older manuscripts and newspapers for verisimilitude. On the one hand, this reflects economic necessity and the poor resourcing of many public institutions. On the other hand, it creates a wholly different, expanded knowledge base for the library, an enhanced level of engagement for visitors. Effectively, this visitor/user involvement changes the nature of the library from that of a central authority giving access to knowledge to a collaborative, creative, knowledge-building project. In December 2013 the British Library released an archive of over 1,000,000 images onto Flickr Commons for free use and reproduction. Dan Colman reported in Open Culture (2013):

The librarians behind the project freely admit that they don’t exactly have a great handle on the images in the collection. They know what books the images come from. (For example, the image above comes from Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme, 1867.) But they don’t know much about the particulars of each visual. And so they’re turning to crowdsourcing for answers. In fairly short order, the Library plans to release tools that will let willing participants gather information and deepen our understanding of everything in the Flickr Commons collection.

Many other libraries and art galleries around the world have released part of their archives to open access and at the same time invite visitors to join them in becoming producers of knowledge.

Recently the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. announced Smithsonian X 3D, a web portal that enables visitors to use the museum’s 3D scans of artefacts to build their own models using 3D printers. Günter Waibel, Director of the Digitization Program Office, explains:

These projects indicate that this new technology has the potential not only to support the Smithsonian mission, but to transform museum core functions. Researchers working in the field may not come back with specimens, but with 3D data documenting a site or a find. Curators and educators can use 3D data as the scaffolding to tell stories or send students on a quest of discovery. Conservators can benchmark today’s condition state of a collection item against a past state—a deviation analysis of 3D data will tell them exactly what changes have occurred. All of these uses cases are accessible through the Beta Smithsonian X 3D Explorer, as well as videos documenting the project. For many of the 3D models, raw data can be downloaded to support further inquiry and 3D printing.

And he concludes:

With only 1% of collections on display in Smithsonian museum galleries, digitization affords the opportunity to bring the remaining 99% of the collection into the virtual light. All of these digital assets become the infrastructure which will allow not just the Smithsonian, but the world at large to tell new stories about the familiar, as well as the unfamiliar, treasures in these collections.

This venture confirms many of Jenkins’ earlier predictions about how digital technologies will change our ways of producing knowledge. One of the artefacts currently available is the fossilised skull of an unknown species of dolphin, found in rocks that are 6-7 million years old. The Smithsonian X 3D website now supplies the software and instructions to print your own 3D copy of the skull. Even though this will not be the original skull, the value of a tactile engagement with the reproduction should not be underestimated. As a number of recent studies have argued (see Classen 2005, 2012; Howes 2005; Chatterjee 2008; Candlin 2010; Cranny-Francis 2013) tactile contact, indeed all kinds of sensory engagement, generate bodily responses that in turn produce new ways of knowing and understanding an object and our relationship to it. By sharing these knowledges, we learn more about not only the objects, but also ourselves.

6. Conclusion

The terms intertextuality, intermediality and transmediality map the development of new communication technologies through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. They all effectively interrogate older canonical notions of textuality and of reading, as closed practices controlled by the author. Intertextuality was used to argue that texts have never been closed but part of an infinite conversation to which all texts contribute, and that each textual reading adds another voice to the conversation. Intermediality reflected the beginnings of popular access to multiple media, enabling users to explore the ways in a particular narrative or text may be transposed from one medium to another, expanding or enhancing the original story or idea. Transmediality is an articulation of convergence culture, whereby audiences are able easily to traverse and correlate a range of media in order to explore a complex and growing narrative or argument. The difference between intermediality and transmediality is not simply quantitative, however, it reflects a new way of understanding our relationship to texts, knowledge, and each other. It reflects, as Jenkins notes, the development of a collective knowledge culture in which collaboration is a key component of thinking and being. Further, the materials and practices that new technologies are making available, which incorporate bodily knowledges into this collaborative production of knowledge, presage new kinds of understanding and self-knowledge. As both Jenkins and Phillips argue above, the element required to leaven this heady mix is critical awareness—of the texts we produce and the meanings we make.

 

References

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text: Essays Selected and Translated by Stephen Heath. Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana.

Candlin, Fiona. 2010. Art, Museums and Touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Chatterjee, Helen, ed. 2008. Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Classen, Constance. 2012. The Deepest Sense: a Cultural History of Touch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Classen, Constance, ed. 2005. The Book of Touch. Oxford: Berg.

Colman, Dan. 2013. “The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix.” Open Culture, December 1. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://www.openculture.com/2013/12/british-library-puts-1000000-images-into-public-domain.html.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. 1981. “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” In The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, 669-768. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Cranny-Francis, Anne. 2013. Technology and Touch: the Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies. London: Palgrave.

Herzogenrath, Berndt, ed. 2012. Travels in Intermedia(lity): reblurring the boundaries. Kindle edition. Hanover, NH: Darmouth College Press.

Higgins, Dick. 1966. “Synaesthesia and Intersenses: Intermedia”, originally published in Something Else,Newsletter1, No.1 (Something Else Press). Accessed May 19, 2014. http://www.artesonoro.net/artesonoroglobal/intermedia.html.

Homan, Roger. 2005. “Who Looks on Glass? The Spiritual Significance of Stained Glass.” The Social Affairs Unit, August 3. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk/blog/archives/000536.php.

Homan, Roger. 2006. The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art and Architecture. Farnham: Ashgate.

Howes, David, ed. 2005. Empire of the Senses: the Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Kindle edition. New York and London: New York University Press.

Lavigne, Carlen. 2012. “The Noble Bachelor and the Crooked Man: Subtext and Sexuality in the BBC’s Sherlock” in Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations.Kindle edition, edited by Lynette Porter, 13-23. London: McFarland & Company.

Mâle, Émile. 1913. Religious Art in France XIII Century: A Study in Mediaeval Iconography and Its Sources of Inspiration. Kindle edition. London: Dent.

Meyer, Nicholas. (1974) 1993. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. New York and London: W.W. Norton.

Phillips, Andrea. 2012. A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences Across Multiple Platforms.Kindle edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Poe, Edgar Allan. 2010. The Dupin Mysteries with The Gold Bug. London: Capuchin Classics.

Shelley, Mary. (1818) 1982. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, edited by Maurice Hindle. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stein, Louisa Ellen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2012. Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series. Kindle edition. London: McFarland & Company.

Waibel, Günter. “About Smithsonian X 3D.” Smithsonian X 3D. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://3d.si.edu/about.

 

Filmography:

Cox, Michael. 1984-1994. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.London: BBC.

Doctor Who. 2005 -. Wales, UK: BBC; Canada: CBC.

Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. 2010-. Sherlock. London: BBC.

Gatiss, Mark, and Moffat, Steven. “The Hounds of Baskerville.” Sherlock, series 2, episode 2. Original airdate 8 January 2012. London: BBC.

Lucas, George. 1977-2005. Star Wars, Episode I-VI. USA: Lucasfilm.

Ritchie,Guy. 2009. Sherlock Holmes. USA: Warner Bros.

Ritchie,Guy. 2011. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. USA: Warner Bros.

Ross, Herbert. 1976. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. USA: Herbert Ross Productions, Universal Pictures.

Scott, Ridley. 1982. Blade Runner.USA: Ladd Company, Shaw Bros, Warner Bros.

The Wachowski Brothers. 1999. The Matrix. USA: Warner Bros.

 

Notes:

[1]Steven Moffat has been reported as saying that he sees Sherlock as asexual. However, the iconography used with Sherlock and the way in which his relationships with Watson and Moriarty (among others) are presented allow for the many fan readings of him as gay or bisexual—as Carlen Lavigne argues (2012).

[2]References to Kindle books are given as locations, unless the book also provides page numbers.

Bio: Anne Cranny-Francis is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology Sydney. Her recent work includes ARC funded projects on the sense of touch and its deployment by new technologies, described in Technology and Touch: the Biopolitics of Emerging Technologies (Palgrave, 2013), and on ex-patriot Australian writer, Jack Lindsay.

 

‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

Abstract: In this paper I examine the television program True Blood’s allusions to gay liberation in terms of the biopolitical and neoliberal implications of consuming civil rights as a transmedia story. In the program, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. Home Box Office’s (HBO) use of Tru Blood to market the show is premised on the commodification of a (vampire) rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, which remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. The consumption of the True Blood story by fans thereby enacts principles of biopolitical management and containment of civil rights groups through HBO’s and fans’ willingness to enact play-political consumption and performance of rights in a transmediated public sphere.

rm1The television series True Blood (HBO, 2008-2014), based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris, features a number of allusions to gay liberation and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) politics in its depiction of ‘vampire rights’. In the fictional town of Bon Temps, in Louisiana, United States, where True Blood is set, vampires have ‘outed’ themselves to the population at large and in conjunction with the invention of synthetic blood (Tru Blood) are able to publicly participate in social and economic activities without harming humans. The production of Tru Blood as a commodity enables individual and collective groups of vampires to advocate for the civil and political rights enjoyed by humans. In the vampires’ attempts to become part of ‘mainstream culture’, there are several references to gay liberation. These include the American Vampire League, whose activism and media interventions mirror that of groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, the use of the phrase ‘coming out of the coffin’ to describe the increasing numbers of vampires publicly acknowledging their existence to humans, and the prejudice directed at vampires by humans, particularly by those with conservative or evangelical Christian beliefs. This specific cultural, political and religious milieu for vampire rights is telegraphed in the opening title sequence by a brief shot of a church sign, which reads, “God Hates Fangs”. Amongst the ostensibly non-fictional images of Southern quotidian life—swamps, road kill, baptisms, church choirs, bar brawls—it is the only indication in the sequence of the program’s focus on the supernatural.

The diegetic plausibility of the vampire liberation movement is aided by various transmedia paraphernalia simultaneously operating outside of and in relation to events in the show’s narrative. This includes the availability of Tru Blood beverages and merchandise, Facebook and social media material for the advocacy groups featured within the show and partnerships between Home Box Office (HBO—the channel that broadcasts True Blood) and advertising companies, such as Geico insurance, to produce fictional campaigns targeted explicitly towards vampire consumers but implicitly, True Blood fans. In this extension of the program’s narrative of vampire rights to other types of media and forms of consumption, True Blood is exemplary of the new practices of transmedia storytelling championed by Henry Jenkins. He defines transmedia as

a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (Jenkins 2011; original emphases)

For Jenkins, this type of storytelling enables and builds on audience participation in the meaning-making process of media texts (2006). This mode of storytelling is also closely associated with viral marketing, which utilises “pre-existing social networks like websites and YouTube in order to increase franchise or brand awareness” (Ndalianis 2012, 164). Transmedia forms of storytelling, like those employed for True Blood, can be quite complex and multi-faceted, involving the extension of a text across not only different types of media but also different geographical locations and consumer activities. In her excellent book, The Horror Sensorium (2012), Angela Ndalianis details transmedia stories and campaigns involving scavenger hunts, political rallies, social media tourism and urban graffiti that centre on the production of an embodied fan relationship with media texts. She argues that the transmedia stories deployed for texts such as The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008), Lost (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2004-2010)and True Blood “address the fiction/reality interplay by mitigating their stories more invasively into the social sphere” (165). They do this by encouraging fans and consumers to become ‘actors’ in a transmedia performance of a ‘living’ narrative (166). This performance produces a kind of meta-affect because fans “extract cerebral and sensory pleasure participating in and contributing to a highly crafted fictional world that’s in the process of unveiling itself” (169). An example of this type of meta-affective performance occurred in early 2009, in Auckland, New Zealand, when a series of wooden posters advertising True Blood were installed along public streets. Featuring information about True Blood’s airdate (the series was premiering on New Zealand television at this time), the posters had “In case of vampire” written across the top and “Snap here” at the bottom presented alongside flat wooden stakes. Potential fans and viewers of True Blood were invited to participate as performers in the program’s narrative by exercising vigilance and protection from the newly outed vampires by snapping off a wooden stake and carrying the physical textual detritus into their everyday lives.

trubloodbotWhat structures this kind of performance and participation by fans is the story and narrative used to extend a text via transmediation. In this paper I want to examine the execution of True Blood’s transmedia storytelling through a narrative of vampire rights that alludes to civil rights debates around gay liberation. I want to focus on the specifically transmedia dimensions of this narrative and how this particular media form interpellates viewers into a biopolitical and neoliberal mode of consuming civil rights. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of a rights based movement across a range of different story-telling mediums. On the one hand, this means that the program is drawing attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order. On the other hand, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse wherein the purported social ‘harm’ of granting minority groups equal rights can be mitigated by market forces and the cultivation of a constituency whose political power is linked to their ability to consume. Fans’ affective investment in vampire rights is then managed via consumption in a transmedia format that mirrors biopolitical strategies of management and containment of minority groups through civil rights discourse.

“No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead”: Vampires and biopolitics

In her essay “Technologies of Monstrosity”, Judith Halberstam argues that “[a]ttempts to consume … vampirism within one interpretive model inevitably produce vampirism. They reproduce, in other words, the very model they claim to have discovered” (1993, 334). For this reason, in her analysis of Bram Stoker’s Dracula she argues that the central figure is “not simply a monster, but a technology of monstrosity” (334). Representations of monstrosity in texts like Dracula function not so much to reify particular characteristics of monstrosity (be it sexual immorality or corporeal difference) but to produce and disseminate particular discourses constituted as monstrous. So if we take a particular representation of vampires to signify for example, minority rights, we are also at the same time producing an understanding of what minority rights mean in popular and political culture.

Given that monstrosity is typically construed as a threat to human life, textual portrayals of monstrosity are also concerned with the management of that threat and the balancing of the value of human life with the containment of monstrosity. The development and application of various governmental strategies designed foster the life and health of citizens is defined by Michel Foucault as biopower (1991b, 263). In order to maximise the economic productivity of the state, governments and state institutions have “to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize … the living in the domain of value and utility” (1991b, 266). One way to organise social practices around ‘value and utility’ is to encourage citizens to invest in a racialised and heteronormative construction of the family as the site through which life can be fostered or neglected (1991a, 99). As the management of the economic and social life of the polity comes to pivot on heterosexual familial reproduction, non-heterosexual or non-normative sexualities can be positioned in biopolitical terms as threats to the ‘health’ and productive order of a society. In her essay “Tracking the Vampire” Sue-Ellen Case explains:

From the heterosexist perspective, the sexual practice that produced babies was associated with giving life, or practicing a life-giving sexuality, and the living was established as the category of the natural. Thus, the right to life was a slogan not only for the unborn, but for those whose sexual practices could produce them. In contrast, homosexual sex was mandated as sterile—an unlive practice that was consequently unnatural, or queer, and, as that which was unlive, without the right to life. Queer sexual practice, then, impels one out of the generational production of what has been called “life” and historically, and ultimately out of the category of the living. (1991, 4)

In a biopolitical paradigm, subjects deemed unable to contribute productively to the life of a society can be excluded from the rights and protections offered by that society. This exclusion is then overlain with a naturalising discourse, which works to justify the asymmetries of legal and social recognition as simply part of the ‘natural order of things’. This is why Case sees a link between the cultural discourses used to frame both vampirism and homosexuality. In a dominant heteronormative order that conflates a particular kind of social and political life with life itself, both vampirism and homosexuality become aligned with death or unlife.

rm3The representation of the various kinds of harm vampire rights pose to humans in True Blood then seems an apposite metaphor for the biopolitical exclusion of LGBTI people from certain state-based rights. As a number of scholars have pointed out, True Blood’s treatment of vampiresis characteristic of a wider shift in textual portrayals of vampires “from the right to exile … to the right to citizenship in the postcolonial United States” (Hudson 2013, 663). Bernard Beck sees “[t]he plain message of today’s vampire lore” as evidence “that we are becoming less fearful and hostile, more curious and sympathetic to those we insist on defining as strangers” (2011, 92). This narrative shift from exclusion to inclusion in representations of vampiric difference is reflective of a broader social and political consensus around managing minority groups through integration rather than expulsion from a neoliberal economic order. Deborah Mutch notes that the narrative framework for the acceptance of vampires in book series such as Twilight and The Southern Vampire Mysteries are premised on “accepting human definitions of nation and race which are then superceded by globalised trade” (2011, 75).

While the supernatural genre has the ability to, as Dale Hudson puts it, “decolonize our familiar habits of thinking”, particularly with respect to cinematic and televisual “political realism” (2013, 662), textual portrayals of supernatural creatures nevertheless tend to incorporate dominant biopolitical conceptions of human life as the normative narrative bedrock against which other kinds of lives or living is measured. Hudson points out that in True Blood, vampirism is constituted as species difference through reference to characters as ‘vampire Bill’, whereas human characters are not described as ‘white Jason’ or ‘black Tara’ within the diegesis of the show (666). Where vampirism is discursively positioned as bodily distinct from human-ness, the nation on which this embodiment is placed remains invisible. True Blood’s representation of First Nations peoples and their interaction with vampires (those old enough to have arrived in North America during colonisation) is limited enough to suggest an erasure of colonialism as significant to the historical formation of the United States. As Hudson notes, “Indigenous nations appear only in the realm of the supernatural in True Blood” (669). For Hudson, the program’s use of the supernatural allows an imagining of “the New South as a space inhabited by multiple species on multiple planes of reality” (664), which invites consideration of “the right to rights” (685). My interest in this paper is how True Blood’s portrayal of “the right to rights” is linked to the public management and presentation of rights-based groups via transmedia texts, which are dependent on public forms of consumption and fan activity.

“You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children”: Vampire rights

In True Blood’s narrative conflicts around vampire rights, there are several allusions to civil rights and equality movements. The series has been received predominantly as a commentary on gay liberation. A New York Post article, for example, contends that “the fictional vampires’ quest for the same rights and social acceptance enjoyed by” humans “has become synonymous with the very real fight for gay rights” (Shen 2009). The author of the novels on which the show is based also seems to encourage this association (see Solomon 2010). As with the gay rights movement, vampires’ attempts to achieve equality are perceived by their opponents as a threat to the social and cultural stability of the polity they inhabit. However, the crucial difference between vampires and LGBTI peoples is that the alleged ‘harm’ posed to society by granting the latter civil rights is symbolic and imagined whereas vampires, within the diegesis of the show, do perpetrate considerable violence. In this vein, a reviewer of the show opined, “[t]hese vamps are assholes, not oppressed minorities. They deserve to be hated. If these murderous, evil creatures are figures for gay people, then they are figures for the religious right’s worst nightmare of what gay people are” (Newitz 2008). The program’s creator, Alan Ball, also avers with this reasoning “because the vampires on our show are, for the most part, vicious murderers and predators, and I’m gay myself, so I don’t really want to say, ‘Hey, gays and lesbians are basically viciously amoral murderers’” (Grigoriadis 2010).

outdoor-advertising-aimed-at-vampiresThe question of whether rights should be reserved only for those who are morally deserving is addressed in an interesting way by the American Vampire League (AVL) within the show. In the first episode (“Strange Love”, 1.1), the AVL spokesperson, Nan Flanagan (in an interview with Bill Maher) refutes assertions that vampires perpetrate large-scale murder and assault against humans (for lack of documented evidence) and counters that humans themselves are responsible for slavery and genocide. Later on in the series, another vampire Russell Edgington uses this same logic—humans have caused irreparable damage to the environment and the species they share it with—to reach a very different conclusion regarding vampire-human relations. For Edgington, vampires are right to insist on their superiority to and difference from humans. He broadcasts these views on a live news program and after deboning the anchor, proclaims to the human audience, “You are not our equals. We will eat you. After we eat your children” (“Everything is Broken”, 3.9). Human anti-vampire bigotry meanwhile stems from a corporeal vulnerability to vampires’ biological requirement for human blood. In its extreme form, anti-vampire prejudice manifests as a speciest right to survival exercised by vigilante groups such as the one seen in Season Five. This group of men don Barack Obama masks as they inflict violence and in some cases, death, upon vampires and other supernatural beings. This group mentions and appears to be linked to the ‘Keep American Human’ movement, which has its own website and promotional material. This doubly imbricated right to ‘America’ and to life is framed by anti-vampire humans as exclusive. One of the vigilante characters complains, “it’s some sort of crime now being a regular old human” (“In the Beginning”, 5.7) as if the uniqueness of being human cannot be co-extensive with the existence of other species.

Vampire prejudice thus goes beyond the simple fear of death or bodily harm and involves a speciest condemnation of vampire existence that is often inflected with a moral discourse. When the show begins, vampires have achieved a limited degree of civil equality such as the right to marry (in certain states in the US and if the unions are heterosexual) and are protected by anti-discrimination laws (businesses cannot refuse to serve vampires as customers), which are reluctantly enforced by police. There are also a series of moral and social codes, centred primarily on sexuality, that police vampire and human interactions. Humans who engage with or are thought to engage in sexual relations with vampires are derisively referred to as “fang-bangers”. The central character Sookie Stackhouse is often judged negatively in terms of her moral standing and character for her relationship with the vampire Bill Compton. The first season features a violent expression of this chauvinism in the form of a serial killer with a pathological hatred of women who sleep with vampires.

The corporeal vulnerability of humans to vampire attack is balanced by the portrayal of vampire blood as producing hallucinatory and amphetamine-like effects when consumed by humans. Vampire blood or V-juice is a highly sought-after but illegal commodity associated with the vampire bar scene and fang-bangers, which may allude to subcultural forms of clubbing and recreational drug use. In Season One, a lonely vampire named Eddie claims that he can only express and act on his homosexual orientation by trading his blood for sexual favours with human men (in particular Sookie’s co-worker and friend, Lafayette Reynolds). In an inversion of the life-giving connotations of heterosexual sex, one scene in the first season shows Sookie’s brother Jason and his girlfriend consume V-juice and make love whilst Eddie is tied up and tortured in the basement below them. Here it is an undead subject whose blood provides the impetus and facilitation of heterosexual sex.

The moral repugnance at the tarnishing of human life and sexuality bought about by vampire-human contact is aligned with most (although not all) forms of Christianity in True Blood. The second season features an evangelical group called the Fellowship of the Sun that promotes “pro-livin’ values” (Home Box Office 2012) and warns the human polity about the dangers of vampire rights and the “the wing nuts on the left” who advocate for them (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). In a television interview, the pastor of the church, Reverend Steve Newlin, explains that vampire rights threaten “the rights of our sons and daughters to go to school without fear of molestation by a bloodthirsty predator in the playground or in the classroom” (“The Fourth Man in the Fire”, 1.8). One of the advertisements produced by the Fellowship of the Sun, not featured in the show but distributed online and in poster form in some cities, depicts a young blonde boy with the caption, “To them he’s just a midnight snack” (Ndalianis 2012, 178).

The figure of the child here is important as Ben Davies and Jana Funke note, “the teleology of straight time is projected onto the sex act, which displaces its own meaning, significance or indeed non-significance for the production of the future” (2011, 6). In this way, the future viability of a heterosexual society is linked to the purity and protection of children. In a video press release for the advertising campaign, the elder Reverend Theodore Newlin passionately declares, “our children are our most precious resource, our lifeblood” (the video appears on YouTube under the category ‘Nonprofits & Activism’). On the Fellowship’s website, homosexuality is listed alongside vampirism as a social danger: “It’s nothing new for teenagers and young adults to flock to the newest trend, and it’s hardly uncommon for these fashion choices to be self-destructive, like smoking, drugs, tattoos or homosexuality. But the latest fad—a soulless eternity of drinking blood—can’t be undone with a laser treatment or rehab. Vampirism is forever” (Home Box Office 2012). While some organisations and US Republican presidential candidates view homosexuality as a choice or temporary lifestyle that can be cured or corrected, what makes vampirism especially pernicious for the Fellowship is that it cannot be erased or overcome, it’s “forever”. In another television interview, the younger Reverend Newlin says, “the vampires as a group have cheated death. And when death has no meaning, then life has no meaning. And when life has no meaning, it is very, very easy to kill” (“Nothing but the Blood”, 2.1).

Anti-vampire sentiment is not an opposition to the merits or otherwise of particular vampire rights, rather the opposition stems from the consequence that these rights serve to entrench vampire presence in civil and social spaces. It is precisely because vampirism constitutes a permanent state of being that the necessity of repealing vampire rights takes on an apocalyptic sense of urgency. Such rhetoric alludes to and perhaps parodies anti-gay rights activism, particularly the National Organisation for Marriage’s (NOM) Proposition 8 “gathering storm” commercials which featured activists and citizens expressing concern about marriage equality backgrounded by blue screens depicting severe lightening storms and flooding. Here the public recognition of difference is conflated with disaster. In the type of advocacy employed by the Fellowship of the Sun, and NOM, the out-group’s very existence seems to imperil a safe and normal social and political order.

Where NOM’s advocacy and rhetoric is left open to debate and parody in the marketplace of democratic political suasion, the Fellowship is clearly set up as an object of ridicule within True Blood. First Newlin (in Season Two) and then his wife Sarah (in Season Six) are positioned as villains whose attempts to instigate genocidal war against vampires figure as obstructions and then climatic battles against which Sookie and friends must contend. Hudson argues that “Steve’s punishment is to be ‘made’ vampire, presumably unleashing his latent desires for Jason” and he “becomes a self-defined ‘gay vampire American’” (2013, 672). Such a transformation is presented humorously as a revelation of the character’s moral and political hypocrisy because his hatred of vampires is ostensibly linked to a self-hatred of his orientation. The reading of groups such as the Fellowship as opposed to progressive social and political causes is reflected in scholarly and popular reception of the show. For example, J. M. Tyree explains the premise of True Blood by noting, “The resistance movement to vampire rights is formed out of the ideological dregs of fundamentalist Christianity” (2009, 32). An online recapper describes the vigilante Keep America Human group as “a bungling bunch of bigoted idiots who spew thinly veiled Fox News talking points like ‘lamestream media’” (Berkshire 2012).By framing the Fellowship and Keep America Human’s advocacy against vampires as villainous, True Blood can be seen as participating in progressive representations of civil rights wherein “proclaiming a future in which the current resistance to gay marriage will seem backward” allows those subjects who already accept civil rights to be “projected forward in time” (Davies and Funke 2011, 6).

True Blood’s vampire rights narrative enables the production and facilitation of a set of transmedia texts framed around advocacy. As various groups within the show vie for political, cultural, economic and species preservation, this sets up an affective biopolitical participation wherein fans and reviewers debate the merits of civil rights, equality and state protection. A positive reading of this biopolitical transmedia engagement with the show is that a popular political consensus around inclusion and integration encourages fans to view the contribution of violence and essentialised forms of prejudice to political debate in negative terms—whether in the form of the Fellowship’s moral inflection to humans’ right to life or vampires’ reduction of human ontological existence to food. In the next section of the paper, I want to unpack the implications of how this fan engagement with the biopolitics of vampire rights is achieved through transmedia storytelling as a specifically commodified activity.

“There’s no such thing as bad; or time for that matter”: Vampires and neoliberalism

Aside from some obvious corporeal differences—fast movement, sharp orthodontics, sartorial preference for dark, binding clothing—vampires in True Blood attempt, for the most part, to fit into the social and cultural environment around them. In an interview for The New York Times Harris explains that her vampires “are more sympathetic” than previous sanguisuge incarnations. Of Dracula she says: “He had disgusting personal habits. He had the three wives; he crawled up the sides of the buildings; he had the sharp teeth and fingernails. Mine are at least trying to look like everyone else, but it’s not working out too well for them” (Solomon 2010). While earlier representations of vampires tended to exacerbate their monstrosity as difference, in Harris’ novels and its televisual counterpart, monstrosity is framed around the problem with assimilation to a human-centred social and political order. This integration is premised on the presence of a biotechnological industry, economic infrastructure and political consensus enabling them to do so.

The AVL is able to advocate for the public acceptance of vampires, on the basis that they do not pose a threat to humans, because of the development of the synthetic Tru Blood replacement for human blood. Originally developed by a Japanese biomedical company as a solution for human blood loss and transfusions, an accidental side effect is that the product can provide sustenance to vampires. Thus while the show centres around the politics of integration, the fulcrum for this integration is the successful branding and marketing of Tru Blood as “a globally transported commodity” (Mutch 2011, 81). The second vampire we see in True Blood is shown purchasing the beverage from a 7-Eleven style convenience store. In this opening scene of the first episode, two bored white teenagers eagerly approach the store clerk, fashioned in dark clothing, piercings and long black hair, to inquire about the possibility of scoring V-juice. The clerk indulges the potential V customers, menacing them with intimations of violence, before abruptly revealing his status as human, to the delight of the male teenager and relieved anger of his female counterpart. A burly gentleman in military garb and a cap adorned with a Confederate flag comes forward to express his displeasure with the ruse. After the male teen excoriates the customer by saying, “fuck you Billy Bob”, ‘Billy Bob’ reveals his fangs and responds, “Fuck me. I’ll fuck you boy. I’ll fuck ya’ and then I’ll eat ya’” (“Strange Love”, 1.1). The vampire’s interactions with both the clerk and the young couple subvert generic expectations, from the characters within the show as well as the audience, of the vampire as reclusive and gothic. Hudson reads this scene as evoking “the lingering embers of ‘lost cause’ for white-male-human privilege” where “the privileged position of the white-male-human in the Old South might be restored only in supernatural terms in the New South” (2013, 672). Now a vampire, the Southern white Confederate man can still expect his purchasing power and public presence to proceed without humiliation or impediment.

The development and dissemination of Tru Blood for public consumption creates new forms of human and vampire interaction, which diverse sets of stakeholders attempt to negotiate and regulate in different ways. The AVL attempts to gain political enfranchisement through a Vampire Rights Amendment (VRA) while other supernatural species, such as werewolves, wait cautiously to see how vampires are treated before likewise revealing themselves publicly (Hudson 2013, 665). The means through which a pharmaceutical product propels the development of vampire rights reinforces Halberstam’s point that Gothic monstrosity is always “an aggregate of race, class, and gender” (1993, 334). In order to participate as good biopolitical citizens, vampires must have the capital to access Tru Blood as well as the legal protection to purchase and consume the product in a discrimination free environment. The fake commercials for Tru Blood, released on YouTube, attempt to help this economic and political process along by portraying Tru Blood consumption as alternatively cool and sexy or folksy and non-threatening. For example, in one commercial, three young white men approach a bar and place their orders in quick succession:

I’ll take that vodka with the really cool ad campaign.

Ridiculously expensive imported beer with a name I can’t pronounce.

I’ll have one of those exotic cocktails.

Their requests are interrupted by a conventionally attractive white woman who orders Tru Blood and then carries it to her wan date, languishing in the shadows of the bar. The men stare at the Tru Blood customer in astonishment and awe. The ad ends with the tagline, “Tru Blood, because you don’t need a pulse to make hearts race”:

The commercial has no branding for True Blood or HBO and is a self-contained transmedia text—the Tru Blood logo shown at the end even has small legalise advising potential consumers, “Synthetic blood products contain varied cellular content than actual blood. Please consult a Tru Blood Cellular Specialist for specific nutritional information”. True Blood fans are addressed as both consumers of the show and of the fictional Tru Blood beverage. These fans are positioned as savvy and media literate cognisors in a way that disarms the purpose of both the True Blood text and the Tru Blood advertisement to establish a blatantly commercial relationship with fans through a postmodern knowingness of alcohol marketing. The intended affective response here, as per Ndalianis, is to generate meta-pleasure in recognising the text’s transmedia connection to the show (in the absence of specific show branding) amidst the generic conventions of alcohol commercials.

Another commercial features a group of mostly white men camping and enjoying beer around a fire. We then see the group through a point of view shot from the darkness in a way that appears to show a predator sneaking up on them. In a reverse shot, a vampire emerges behind one of the men and snarls. The men are startled and then begin to laugh as they welcome the vampire as a recognised friend. “You boys got something for me to drink?” the vampire chuckles as his friends hand him a Tru Blood.

These commercials generate a convivial affective connection to the show anchored through transmedia commodity relations that mirror the internal commodity relations between characters in True Blood. The success of Sookie and Bill’s relationship for example, is implicated in the proliferation of cheap pharmaceutical substitutes. After a passionate bout of lovemaking and bloodletting, Bill tenderly instructs Sookie to take vitamin B-12 tablets to compensate for and replenish her blood loss. Coming out of the coffin is also made more consequential for some vampires due to their social media proficiency. Hudson notes that, “Unlike Jessica today, whose ‘babyvamp’ blog  is part of the series’ multiplatform format” Bill “could not interact with a human society that knew him to be a vampire” (2013, 665). Here the internal narrative of the show permits a younger character to be expanded into its transmedia storytelling in a way that would seem implausible and inauthentic to Bill’s character (at least before he is recruited as an AVL figurehead in Season Three). These video blogs, which are performed by the actors in character, also function to link consumption practices to vampire integration. One vlog has the vampire Pam dispense fashion advice to Jessica and her ‘audience’ about where humans should shop to avoid wearing silver (a metal that enkindles vampire flesh in True Blood). Extra-textually, the real brands that Pam lists off as acceptable for human-vampire contact also confirm to True Blood viewers which consumption practices will identify them as fans of the show (below).

Where once vampires could be seen to attest to “the consequences of over-consumption” (Halberstam 1993, 342), the vampires in True Blood reflect a different set of economic and biopolitical concerns. Writing for Newsweek Jennie Yabroff posits that the current crop of vampire films and televisions shows are permeated by “vampires who have enough self-control to resist the lure of human blood, reflecting, perhaps, the conservative direction the culture has taken” (2008). The popularity of vampires who are able to exercise self-control is politically conservative insomuch as it reflects a neoliberal focus on improving and maximising the capacities of the self. In such an economic climate, Stephen Ball writes that workers are encouraged “to think about themselves as individuals who calculate about themselves, ‘add value’ to themselves, improve their productivity, live an existence of calculation” (2001, 223). That this neoliberal calculation and control could be construed as vampiric speaks to cultural shifts in assessing social and economic success. In his book The Culture of the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett writes that workers who flourish in the contemporary business climate are “oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience”. This type of employee “is—to put a kindly face on the matter—an unusual sort of human being” (2006, 5). While this continual need to improve, calculate and enhance oneself and one’s resources can prove taxing to a living human, vampires have the physical capabilities as well as an endless amount of time to adapt to and thrive in volatile neoliberal economic conditions.

Vampires who are able to successfully pursue their business and political endeavours recognise the strategic value of performance. Despite her exhortations that vampires can ‘mainstream’ through the consumption of Tru Blood, the AVL’s Nan Flanagan presents herself quite differently to humans in comparison with her fellow vampires. In the episode, “Everything is Broken” (3.9), Russell Edgington kills a human on live television and Nan is revealed watching the event unfold mid-snack on a female human. When Bill is invited by Nan to appear at the AVL-sponsored Festival of Tolerance (“Let’s Get Out of Here”,4.9), he queries the political efficacy of only having three vampires present at the event, “it’s like having a civil rights protest without any black people”. In response, Nan scolds him, “They’re called African Americans and maybe those protests wouldn’t have turned into the blood baths they became if they hadn’t been there, ever consider that?” This cynical and racist understanding of minority groups as responsible for the institutional and social violence inflicted on them is an instrumentalised version of strategic essentialism (see Spivak 1987). The disjunction between Nan’s private ‘life’ and the AVL’s public management of vampire behaviour and comportment draws attention to the ways identity politics bargains on the securing of certain rights at the expense of the lived, or undead, complexity of the identities being politicised.

The shifting between rights discourse in Nan and Bill’s conversation, from the African-American Civil Rights Movement to vampire rights, is indicative of True Blood’s dual treatment of historical inequality as a topic that is both serious and linked to a post-industrial commodification of identity politics. The program typically presents critical views of the US’ racist history through the character of Tara. She is sceptical of Bill’s intentions when they first meet because he admits that his family owned slaves (“The First Taste”, 1.2) and complains, “People think just cause we got vampires out in the open now race isn’t an issue no more” (Hudson 2013, 674). Later Tara is ‘outed’ as a vampire to a former high school classmate who patronisingly affirms her identities by saying, “now you’re a member of two minorities!” (“Somebody That I Used to Know”, 5.8). The politics of being ‘out’ as a vampire are also refracted through allusions to racial segregation. Where Eddie and Steve Newlin’s status as vampires allows them to act on their sexual attraction to men (albeit in different and limited ways), other vampires do not have “built-in privileges of masculine whiteness” (672). For Tara, her body reads as both vampire and African-American, Bill meanwhile is discursively positioned as simply ‘vampire Bill’. As Arlene Fowler explains to her child (upon seeing Bill), “No darlin’, we’re white, he’s dead” (“Sparks Fly Out”, 1.5), whiteness and race are embodied by the living first and non-white bodies second. While the AVL stakes an authoritative claim to what constitutes ‘good’ vampire behaviour, vampires must negotiate their public presence among humans along normatively defined lines of race, gender and sexuality.

These intersections of vampire rights and human-centred identity politics are dramatised in transmedia texts which portray vampires’ attempts to police themselves according to competing sets of claims about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vampire behaviour. In one of her vlogs, Jessica politely advises Tara to avoid saying phrases like “it sucks” now that she is a vampire, for fear of alarming her audience and the public at large (see vlog below).

The ways in which vampires in True Blood are portrayed “both as a threat and as a fully paid up part of civilian life” (Matthews 2011, 200) exemplifies a biopolitical order which depends on the self-policing and disciplining of subjects according to social norms so that excessive external coercion by the state is not required (Foucault 1977). In this sense, True Blood is the culmination of a representational trajectory of vampires as ostensible outsiders to ciphers for sensible consumption, civic pride and business ethics. In an AVL sponsored Public Service Announcement entitled “Accept the Truth” (below), various vampires describe themselves as ordinary “Americans”, for example, “I’m a short-order cook in New York City, I’m cold to the human touch”, and “I run a horse ranch in Northern Montana, sunlight turns me to ash”.

These dramatic declarations of nationality read as humorous precisely because audiences are used to seeing vampires as obviously different from and suspicious of human life. The extension of the True Blood narrative primarily through these media texts, which simultaneously exhort and parody ‘good’ performances of citizenship and consumption, interpellates fans into a transmedia public sphere along the same lines, through HBO-approved forms of consumption. In the final section of the paper, I want to unpack the distinctions and comingling of political-play as consumption and activism in terms of the role of transmedia storytelling and marketing in disciplining the use of public space.

But please remember I can rip your throat out if I need to”: Vampires and political-play consumption

I have argued so far that True Blood’s vampire trope conjoins civil rights with consumption and civic pride based on a neoliberal performance and management of the self. The program’s focus on the performance of vampirism enabled by a state protected mode of consumption is carried over into fans’ engagement with the show through officially sanctioned forms of consumption. The program’s production and broadcast through the premium HBO cable channel enables a much more explicit and liberal portrayal of sex and violence than traditional broadcast television, and this is undoubtedly a significant reason the show was pitched to and commissioned by HBO. The positioning of the show as both risqué and compatible with a politically progressive demographic is used in marketing material for the show.

For example, one HBO commercial (above), advertising the Season Two DVD box set, has a white family unwrapping Christmas presents from a young woman, presumably their daughter. In response to her Grandma’s query, “What’s this honey?”, the woman gives a quick recap of the season culminating in this description, “and the whole town has a huge orgy. Merry Christmas Grandma, I love you so much”. The commercial’s tagline is “The perfect gift for almost everybody” . The marketing of True Blood’s sexually explicit and graphically violent content as different to or in opposition to the ‘safe’ television programming that your grandmother enjoys sits at odds with the class and cultural capital required to actually consume the show. This includes access to premium cable or at least reliable broadband Internet to download or view the program as well as the supplementary web material that accompanies the program and is designed to satiate audience interest in between episodes and seasons. Whatever form of risk or subversion the vampires in True Blood present to the existing textual order of vampirism is incorporated into an already safely established mode of television production and consumption.

As Ndalianis points out, the goal of an effective transmedia campaign and story is to make audiences “forget that they’re a marketing strategy devised to sell a product” (2012, 166). Fans are encouraged to immerse themselves “in an emerging narrative that isn’t fixed or pre-staged but which they perform a key role in unraveling” (189) and “the participant is invited to literally play and become part of a performance as if it’s real” (172; original emphases). The unfolding of transmedia participation in ‘real-time’ is precisely how the constructed nature of the story is obfuscated. While fans can unravel or make sense of a transmedia story in diverse ways, the underlying narrative which structures the assemblage of transmedia texts is nevertheless necessarily fixed or pre-staged in order to generate an economy of performance that will move the story along.

The framing of transmedia stories around questions of rights, survival or torture can legitimate biopolitical performances through the commodification of fan activity. For instance, Ndalianis describes an aspect of The Dark Knight campaign, which “included phoning a security guard and trying to convince him to save someone being tortured” (168). In this scenario, fans can ‘create’ their own story based on their conversations with the ‘security guard’ but the narrative economy of bargaining over torture still remains intact. An interesting feature of the transmedia campaigns analysed by Ndalianis are the attempts to import ‘real’ protest into the fictional political campaigns devised for Harvey Dent, the protagonist/antagonist in The Dark Knight,and True Blood’s AVL. In the former, Dent’s campaign website was overlain with graffiti that painted his image with clown make up, signifying the Joker’s growing ‘invasion’ of the movie’s promotion (186). In the latter, AVL ads promoting the VRA were covered over, after their initial ‘clean’ public presentation, with anti-vampire slurs such as ‘Killers’ (179). The more consumers interacted with the campaigns, the more oppositional dissent was introduced into their advertising. This ‘dissent’ then becomes an entertaining spectacle, in which fans can participate, that drives the unfolding transmedia narrative as a story about biopolitical conflict; i.e. what are the democratic limits to expelling the Joker and criminals from Gotham City and vampires from public space in True Blood respectively.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that the “impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion” (2006, 19). To illustrate this point he talks about the impossibility of staging a ‘fake’ bank robbery and assumes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements” (20). It is impossible therefore, to stage something that remains “close to the ‘truth,’ in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation” (20). I would argue however that successful transmedia campaigns illustrate the degree to which the simulacra of political and juridical order is routinely accomplished by corporate and commercial interests and even accommodated by municipal councils and local governments. These transmedia activities seem to be premised on an expectation and acceptance that political campaigns which ostensibly aim to address crime and inequality will inevitably meet public backlash or violent acts of civil disobedience. Contestation over rights and public space are a normalised feature of transmedia campaigns.

Presumably this is entertaining in the context of a performance for a fictional text, albeit one that requires performance in the non-fictional social and political realm of everyday life, but we might compare this transmediation of political contestation with the everyday disciplining of activism in the public sphere. For example, in 2012, pro-Israel advertisements placed in New York subways by the American Freedom Defense Initiative were defaced with words such as “Racist” and “Hate Speech” and activists such as Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy were arrested for spray-painting over them (Holpuch 2012). Here the spectacle of the invasion and countering of advocate discourse is swiftly disciplined by police and security forces, who acted to protect the purchase of advertising space by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. In New Zealand, 2007 saw a series of anti-terror raids resulting in heavy fines, long court proceedings and jail time for anarchist and Māori activists. Among the evidence used to surveil and arrest the defendants were recorded conversations detailing an apparently jocular suggestion that former US President George W. Bush could be assassinated on his next visit to New Zealand by launching a bus at his person (see Operation 8 [Abi King-Jones and Errol Wright, 2011]). Vijay Devadas (2008) provides a thorough examination of the events by situating them within the convergence of government and private security agendas during the ‘war on terror’. I note here that in distinction to transmedia campaigns that compel play-performance of public safety and order issues, parodic suggestions in the execution of advocacy by marginalised communities exacerbate rather than diminish their biopolitical position as threat.

Of course the difference between these ‘real’ events and transmedia storytelling is that the latter involves “a cognitive and sensory satisfaction that relishes in the performativity and playfulness of the text” (Ndalianis 2012, 183). The playfulness and enjoyment of transmedia fan participation seems to occur by virtue of the lack of substantive social and political consequences to transmedia performances. Where Baudrillard might see such performances as testing the authoritative apparatus of juridical and state institutions in such a way as to restate the latter’s epistemological authority to delineate ‘real’ from ‘fake’ civic activity, I would argue that transmedia activity, provided it is authorised by corporate and municipal bodies, does not test ‘the apparatus’ of a juridical and institutional order so much as it ‘simulates’ this order safely and with a positive affective disposition protected by officially authorised forms of consumption.

Ndalianis’ work maps out a framework of analysis, which takes into account the embodied, affective and urban social participation of transmedia storytelling as a significant dimension of fan activity. Given that transmedia storytelling involves the cultivation of activity and participation in the public sphere and urban environment, by connecting private acts of consumption to a theatre of public brand performance, it would be productive to extend Ndalianis’ analytic framework to an investigation of the types of affective relations emerging between fans, the public sphere, media texts, corporate industry and processes of social and political inclusion and exclusion. Does transmedia storytelling encourage a positive affective relation to biopolitical performance so long as this performance is confined to the ‘fictional’ realm? Do media scholars need to account for the consequences of transmedia ‘play’ such as the mass-shooting which took place in an Aurora, Colorado, cinema during a screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises by a young man impersonating a character from the Batman textual archive? How might we compare the increasing surveillance of political advocacy and creative protest with the seeming acquiescence of municipal and city councils to permit corporate branding to invade civil and public spaces for transmedia storytelling campaigns? Notwithstanding the possibility for resistance or divergence on the part of fans with the ‘intended’ transmedia story, the type of narrative used to anchor transmedia campaigns nevertheless frames and orients fan relations to texts through modes of consumer engagement that are legitimated by corporate, state and municipal institutions. Although my focus here has been on the ways in which transmedia consumer engagement legitimises biopolitical modes of performance and debate around civil rights, it may prove fruitful to investigate other types of relations that emerge from embedding fans into state institutions and discourses via transmedia storytelling.

Conclusion: “That’s the sickest shit I’ve ever seen … and I watch Dance Moms!”

In this paper, I have examined how biopolitical imperatives and constraints around vampire integration in True Blood are mediated through transmedia forms of storytelling and marketing. The transmediation of vampire rights involves fan immersion in discursive and representational practices which (re)produce vampirism as an allusion to gay liberation and LGBTI politics. The program’s use of Tru Blood, both intra- and extra-textually, is premised on the commodification of identity politics but also attests to the permeation and popularisation of a rights-based consensus for minority groups. In a positive reading of the program’s allusions to gay rights, True Blood’s transmedia storytelling appears to evince an inclusive textual and representational landscape for LGBTI politics. At the same time, the program draws attention to the biopolitical function of rights discourse by suggesting that it is the management of particular kinds of life, through particular kinds of consumption, that remains valuable to the dominant political and economic order rather than the identities these rights are attached to. In this sense, the mapping of vampirism onto civil rights also functions to legitimise a political discourse that measures some rights against others in terms of the strategic economic and social benefits such rights grant to the polity or fan community as a whole. This weighing up and measuring of rights in terms of who deserves social and political life, and what ‘life’ can be ‘good’ for the community, is surely more monstrous than anything True Blood’s vampires are capable of.

 

References

Ball, Stephen. 2001. “Performativities and fabrications in the education economy.” In The Performing School: Managing teaching and learning in a performance culture, ed. Denis Gleeson and Chris Husbands, 210-226. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard, Jean. 2006. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Beck, Bernard. 2011. “Fearless Vampire Kissers: Bloodsuckers We Love in Twilight, True Blood and Others.” Multicultural Perspectives 13 (2): 90-92.

Berkshire, Geoff. 2012. “‘True Blood’ recap: Roman’s fate revealed ‘In the Beginning’.”

HitFix, July 23. Accessed April 27, 2014. http://www.hitfix.com/monkeys-as-critics/true-blood-recap-romans-fate-revealed-in-the-beginning.

Case, Sue-Ellen. 1991. “Tracking the Vampire.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 3(2): 1-20.

Davies, Ben, and Jana Funke. 2011. “Introduction: Sexual Temporalities.” In Sex, Gender and Time in Fiction and Culture, edited by Ben Davies and Jana Funke, 1-16. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Devadas, Vijay. 2008. “15 October 2007, Aotearoa: Race, terror and sovereignty.” Sites 5(1): 124-151.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel. 1991a. “Governmentality.” In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1991b. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” In The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, edited by Paul Rabinow, 258–272. New York: Penguin Books.

Grigoriadis, Vanessa. 2010. “The Joy of Vampire Sex: The Schlocky, Sensual Secrets Behind the Success.” Rolling Stone, September 21112: 54-59.

Halberstam, Judith. 1993. “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies 36(3): 333-352.

Home Box Office. 2012. Fellowship of the Sun. Accessed January 1, 2012. fellowshipofthesun.org. [site archived here: http://archive.today/9Nr9]

Holpuch, Amanda. 2012. “Activist Mona Eltahawy released after arrest in New York subway protest.” The Guardian, September 26. Accessed April 26, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/sep/26/mona-eltahawy-released-new-york-subway.

Hudson, Dale. 2013. “‘Of Course There Are Werewolves and Vampires’: True Blood and the Right to Rights for Other Species.” American Quarterly 65 (3): 661-687.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2011. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html.

Matthews, Nicole. 2011. “Noughties Reading.” In The New Politics of Leisure and Pleasure, edited by Peter Bramham and Stephen Wagg, 195-210. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mutch, Deborah. 2011. “Coming Out of the Coffin: The Vampire and Transnationalism in the Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse Series.” Critical Survey 23(2): 75-90.

Newitz, Annalee. 2008. “Let’s Face It: ‘True Blood’ Hates Gay People.” io9, November 1. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://io9.com/5071755/lets-face-it-true-blood-hates-gay-people.

Ndalianis, Angela. 2012. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson: McFarland Publishing.

Sennett, Richard. 2006. The Culture of the New Capitalism. London: Yale University Press.

Shen, Maxine. 2009. “Flesh & ‘Blood’.” New York Post, June 23. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://nypost.com/2009/06/23/flesh-blood/.

Solomon, Deborah. 2010. “Once Bitten: Questions for Charlaine Harris.” The New York Times, April 30. Accessed April 28, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02fob-Q4-t.html?_r=0.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Methuen.

Tyree, J. M. 2009. “Warm-Blooded: True Blood and Let the Right One In.” Film Quarterly 63(2): 31-37.

Yabroff, Jennie. 2008. “A Bit Long in the Tooth.” Newsweek, December 15. 152(24).

 

Filmography

Ball, Alan. True Blood. 2008-2014. USA: HBO.

King-Jones, Abi and Errol Wright. Operation 8. 2011. NZ: www.cutcutcut.com.

Lieber, Jeffrey, Abrams, J. J., and Damon Lindelof. Lost.2004-2010. USA: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment.

Nolan, Christopher. 2008. The Dark Knight. USA: Warner Home Video.

 

Notes

[1] My thanks to the anonymous referee for their thoughtful comments and suggestions for improving the paper’s analytical focus. I am also grateful to Kevin Fisher for sharing his insights on Baudrillard and transmedia during the writing of this paper and to Katharine Legun for her help with improving the clarity and coherency of the paper. An early version of this paper was published in the magazine Cherrie. The original version of the paper can be found here: http://gaynewsnetwork.com.au/feature/vamps-and-queers-5136.html

 

Bio: Holly Randell-Moon is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her publications on popular culture, gender, and sexuality have appeared in the edited book collections Common Sense: Intelligence as Presented on Popular Television (2008) and Television Aesthetics and Style (2013) and the journal Feminist Media Studies. She has also published on race, religion, and secularism in the journals Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, borderlands and Social Semiotics and in the edited book collections Religion, Spirituality and the Social Sciences (2008) and Mediating Faiths (2010).

 

Passing Time and Ruin: Michael Richards and the Afterlife of Performance in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – Elliott Logan

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

This article appreciates the Michael Richards episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s online video series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle, 2012-).[1] I claim the episode is distinguished among the series by its unexpectedly poignant images of Richards giving performances, and of people watching them. The episode achieves this distinction and poignancy by treating Richards’s onscreen presence, both within the episode’s limits and beyond, as a ruin. This treatment stems from the history of Richards’s image built-up through his decade-long role as Kramer in the sitcom Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), and of the shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during a 2006 stand-up routine at a Los Angeles comedy club. It will also been seen to rely upon the way long-running television representations are related to the concepts of fragment and ruin developed in Romantic criticism.

Jason Jacobs has pointed to this relationship as a way of thinking about how television serials develop as a series of fragments, of individual episodes and seasons formed as discrete works with their own borders, which are at once clearly demarcated “yet also blurred” by their relationship to the show’s past history, and to its future history that will yet unfold. Under the pressure of time, Jacobs writes, “[c]haracters and their shows become ruins” (2001, 444, 445). Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee treat Michael Richards as a ruin in order to excavate the long history of his image as a television performer. This excavation does more than show Richards’s current inhabitation of self to be a palimpsest of past performances. Rather, our continued witness to his singular performative presence in the here and now evokes his past talent and reveals its continuing present vitality, as a force seemingly able to overcome Richards’s fractious personal history to restore, from its tarnished, time-worn condition, an earlier sense of his comic persona. Does television’s deep bank of history (such as that accumulated by Seinfeld’s decade-long run), and its capacious future histories, make its performers peculiarly susceptible to ruinous degradation over time? But does it also allow them a special capacity for the gradual restoration or recovery of that ruined presence and self?

Before investigating these claims and questions about Michael Richards in Comedians in Cars, it should be acknowledged they might be seen as a bit grand for what could appear to be a fairly ephemeral piece of online curiosity, one intended to do no more than while away fifteen minutes of cheap time. Indeed, it seems right to greet the altitude of my claims with some scepticism, and so therefore necessary to more strongly justify my treatment of the series in the terms above. The scepticism feels appropriate because my claims to poignancy and profundity appear substantially at odds with the initial appeal of the series itself. As noted, the series is distributed online, through both a stand-alone website and YouTube. So it already courts insignificance by being placed on the Internet, a media flow that, in my experience at least, strongly lends itself to a fickle mood conducive to only momentary fragments of absorption, flotsam quickly lost amidst a sea of distraction. Another important aspect of this is Seinfeld’s heritage as a “show about nothing”. The style of Comedians in Cars does little to upset these assumptions about the demands it will make on our attention, yet, if closely considered, reveals time and its pressures to be a central concern. The opening moments of the first episode, which features Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, give us a good lesson in these aspects of the show. “Larry Eats a Pancake”, the title already framing events as inconsequential in the extreme, begins simply with a series of close-up and long shots of a well-kept blue Volkswagen Beetle. These are relatively banal images that quietly invite our gentle admiration of the vehicle’s endearing design, and of the owner’s obvious appreciation and care for it, registered in the perfect sheen of the paintwork and the beaming chrome inside the engine bay. The sense that not very much is being asked of us is encouraged by the music, a generic jazz-funk muzak number, the kind of thing you’ve heard a dozen times while being kept on hold; music to wait patiently to. This interest in evoking an experience of time develops as the episode gets past its first segment, in which the vehicle and guest are introduced. As Seinfeld and Larry meet up, the music moves into a related but changed mood, from being on hold to waiting in the cocktail lounge of a hotel lobby; it’s all light and jangly piano keys with lots of space in-between, space in which to wait for friends to arrive, to share in the leisure of passing time, together. Just prior to the announcement and introduction of the guest, the title design of each episode also inducts us into a world of undemanding simplicity. The background is an image of milk being poured into black coffee, over which the straightforward, right-to-the-point title appears, word by obvious word.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

But what especially ushers in a sense of homespun, nostalgic innocence is the font. Each word is rendered in a hand-drawn white outline, hastily crosshatched, as if sketched in a hurry on an easel-mounted chalkboard. This evokes the elementary, returning us to a childhood time in which our materials were more straightforward, the stuff of play insulated from a world of adult dilemmas, which are difficult to straighten out and put right. But by evoking the classroom, the font also suggests we are entering a world concerned with something like education, that a kind of learning might be at stake. However, this more serious suggestion is for the moment only a slight undercurrent. It is soon after submerged by the more immediate sense that we are in for a day of leisurely time wasting and the avoidance of serious obligation. This is declared in the voice-over recording of Seinfeld telephoning Larry and inviting him to coffee, the first instance of what will become a structural motif given varied repetition across each of the episodes. Seinfeld asks Larry if he wants “to do something”, a proposition about which Larry is enthusiastic, prompting Jerry to be amazed that he even has the time: “Really, you’re free?” Larry gives a painful groan of uncertainty, but then eventually buckles: “Yeah, I can be free.” Variations on this exchange are repeated each episode. One of my favourites is the one with Alec Baldwin, who features in the fourth episode of season one. Baldwin responds to the invitation with a sharp fit of disbelief (“Right now?”), but almost immediately recognises the appeal of an unexpected excursion, and puts away his other plans: “Uh, I’ll be downstairs in what, thirty minutes?” Or consider Sarah Silverman, excited in episode one of season two: “Come pick me up! What am I, busy?”

At this point it has to be acknowledged that, of course, the outings are organised ahead of time, and the participants are possibly renumerated for that time. (Don Rickles, at the very beginning of season two’s fourth episode, concedes this in a crusty wisecrack: “Okay, listen, hurry up, ‘cause for the money you’re payin’ me, this should be over.”) However, these factors only amplify my claims, because they mean these exchanges early in each episode take on the character of deliberate performative choices, further licensing us to ask: Why are they here, like this? The matter of the intention behind them becomes both legitimate and urgent. It is urgent because these exchanges are something like bedrock for one of the series’ central attractions, a crucial component of what makes it so pleasurable to watch. They evoke a world in which there are no impediments to unplanned propositions to hang out and chat, or at least one in which there are such obstacles, but they are not so serious that they can’t be overcome.

So Comedians in Cars declares itself as a strange species of talk show, which Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Fact of Television”, understands as the format that has “the most elaborate” of television’s “requirements or opportunities for improvisation”.[2] This elaborateness comes from the format’s “monologues, and hence the interruptions and accidents that expert monologues invite, and with their more or less extended interviews” (Cavell 1982, 87-88). These qualities of television talk are central to what Cavell sees television to be a medium for. Cavell claims that through television we “monitor” what we fear is “the growing uninhabitability of the world” (1982, 95), that it can “no longer be humanly responded to” (1982, 88). Important to my argument about Comedians in Cars, a talk show whose attraction is spontaneous conversation, is Cavell’s claim that the strongest sign of the continued existence and force of such human response is “improvisation” (1982, 88). In a brilliant recent essay that takes up Cavell’s under-utilised ideas, Alex Clayton writes that “[f]oregrounding the capacity for improvisation, aliveness to one another … is one way in which the medium pacifies this terrible thought” (2013, 91), the thought of the world’s “growing uninhabitability”. The implication of Cavell’s essay for my argument is that the time Seinfeld and his guest spend together becomes a measure of the continued availability and power of improvisation and conversation in a world otherwise pressurised against these forms of human response, a potential pressure registered by the initial (or implicit) uncertainty of each episode’s opening moments of talk.

What Seinfeld and his guests then go on to talk about, and the way the show handles this talking, links the series’ ambient interest in time and improvisation to its other major concern: performance. The wonderful Alec Baldwin episode gives a good example. In an early segment the pair drives around New York City, discussing their respective lives and careers in terms of effort expended and reward gained over many years. Shortly after Baldwin mockingly characterises Seinfeld’s life as “one unbroken boulevard of green lights”, Seinfeld asks Baldwin “Who do you think has worked harder to get where they are: you, or me?” Then, once Baldwin has had a chance to do an amazing bit of impression about the petty professional rivalry between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, he and Seinfeld get lunch. Among other things, the two talk about whether Seinfeld ever wished to pursue a career as, in Baldwin’s words, a “straight” actor, and whether or not he possesses that ineffable quality that earns brilliant screen actors the right to so powerfully compel our attention and imagination; “You can look in my eyes, you can see it’s not there,” Seinfeld says. (Baldwin notes it might be more a matter of whether or not Seinfeld has the psychological wherewithal to realise those qualities more fully.)

After many digressions that allow Baldwin to demonstrate his skill at improvisation and impression, not only to Seinfeld as his audience but also to the camera, their conversation leads Seinfeld to observe that Baldwin’s misfortune (albeit an enviable one) is to be a “gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” (The rhythm and alliteration of “unbroken boulevard of green lights”, the spilling tumble of which evokes an accidental but miraculously graceful roll downhill, is one display of Baldwin’s talent for writing, even if that talent is realised through improvised performance of mock outrage: acting as writing on the spot.) So the free-ranging attention of their restless conversation, which seemingly alights on whatever will throw up some laughs at lunchtime, has a consistent and strong undercurrent about the individual capacities of body, voice, and mind that these two actors each possess, and about the gifts and torments and rewards and regrets that attend the exercise (or waste) of those capacities before a wide public over time.

The Alec Baldwin episode is a useful illustration of Comedians in Cars because it clearly reveals how one of the show’s central interests is worrying about performance. Indeed, in each episode, Seinfeld and his guests can be said to reflect on what George Kouvaros, in his astonishing study of the Magnum photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (Huston, 1961), identifies as a central subject of the changing postwar image of acting: “acting as labor” (2010, 88). In these photographs, “the emphasis is on the backstage business of being a star: the moments of preparation and waiting that are normally out of public view” (Kouvaros 2010, 84). Kouvaros traces how these images form part of an emerging postwar tradition or subgenre of photojournalism oriented around, and exerting influence upon, Hollywood star image and the related image of acting during the period.

The argument Kouvaros patiently elaborates is a deeply rich exploration of traditions of absorption and theatricality in eighteenth century painting and twentieth century photography in relation to changing historical understandings of the private self in public life.[3] Important to my purposes is his summary of the how these changing ways of photographing film stars like Monroe impacted the image of acting in the postwar period. For Kouvaros, these photographs reveal how “the glamour and ease once associated with playing to the camera has been transformed into something tentative and fundamentally uncertain” (2010, 101). That Comedians in Cars also understands acting and performance as tentative and uncertain can be seen in the way it treats them as professional activities that need to be obsessively turned-over and worried about through talk. The conversation between Seinfeld and Baldwin is evidence of this: it shows two highly successful actors focussing on how the demanding effort to pursue excellence and recognition through their craft over time produces not only the rewards of success, but also regret, weariness, and rivalry. This is crystallised in their attempts to measure their respective reservoirs of confidence and energy, which they acknowledge to have diminished in comparison to the over-brimming vitalities of youth. As Baldwin puts it in one of the episode’s final lines: “Only young people can keep those flames burning, those pots boiling all that time.”

Kouvaros’s writing helps to illuminate one way acting is talked about in Comedians in Cars in general: as a form of labour. Beyond this, he suggests a richly generative framework within which to consider the special poignancy of the Michael Richards episode in particular, and the way it handles the history and ruin of Richards’s image as an actor. Kouvaros provides this framework when he goes on to describe what thinking about acting as labour implies, which is “an understanding of acting untethered to action or to any clear outcome: acting as bearing witness to time” (2010, 143-144). The phrase is useful to the extent that it resists static definition in order to be powerfully evocative. This being said, it runs the risk of falling prey to the kind of fuzzy incoherence that often attends this sort of high-altitude abstraction. So to bring things more down to earth, what might “acting as bearing witness to time” look like onscreen? Kouvaros gives the example of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in particular L’Eclisse (1962). He writes that the movie’s “sense of tiredness indicates that L’Eclisse begins at the point after something has ended. Although we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily on the actors’ gestures and actions” (2010, 144). Kouvaros sees this tone as a product of Antonioni’s “temporal elongations”, the way he tends to allow shots and moments to linger longer than seems necessary, choices which “give rise to a form of acting based on qualities of observation and attention … to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, are incidental” (2010, 144-145).

We can understand Comedians in Cars as being generally linked to Kouvaros’s idea of “acting as bearing witness to time” through its own mode of apparently drifting, seemingly aimless attention. This is a kind of attention that, as I pointed out above, is mainly anchored by an interest in capturing objects, places, moods, gestures, and spoken words that cleave in various ways to the inexorable passing of time. Within this general tendency of the series, the Michael Richards episode especially resonates with “acting as bearing witness to time” through its particular connection to Kouvaros’s description of L’Eclisse. This connection is established through the scenes of Michael Richards performing in the episode, which gradually evoke and work-over the history of his image as a performer: the image sedimented through his nearly decade-long television role as Kramer, the shameful public shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during the 2006 stand-up meltdown, and his subsequent appearance alongside Seinfeld on David Letterman’s Late Show. Even this broad summary should make apparent the episode’s parallel with Kouvaros’s account of “acting as bearing witness to time” in L’Eclisse: that it “begins after the point something has ended”, and that even if “we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily” (2010, 144).

This connection is useful because through it the Michael Richards episode gives us an opportunity to consider the opportunities television provides for “acting as bearing witness to time”. As mentioned above, television series like Seinfeld are long-running works that rely for their force on a particular sense of time and the building-up of histories: histories of fictional worlds and characters, and histories of our relationships to those fictions. Serial television, in other words, has a particular “ability to generate a shared history with us”, and partly relies for its force on “our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (Jacobs and Peacock 2013, 12). So serial television, as a medium of “mutual inhabitancy” over time, is one that produces works that—like cities built atop ruins—continually accrete layers of history as both they and we live into our shared, indeterminate futures. Might these attributes of television—what Horace Newcomb called its qualities of “intimacy, continuity, and history” (Newcomb 1974, 245)—allow for not only the close, long-range tracking of corrosion upon the features and presence of Richards, but also for the gathering, from that same history of collapse, some form of resource for recovering and reviving our earlier sense of his talent and gift?

These issues are quite difficult to clearly make out, but a way to consider how the episode presents them will emerge if we precisely note how, in the segment when Seinfeld introduces the vehicle, a sense of “time weighing heavily” first becomes apparent in the episode. As mentioned in my description of the Larry David episode and the blue Volkswagen Beetle, the series’ cars might at first seem to function as objects photographed merely for our appreciation of their autonomous formal qualities, whether for their elegant ease of line (a 1967 Austin-Healey roadster), or jolly oddity of angle and temperament (a run-down 1950 Citroën). The sense of pleasure for its own sake also stems from the connection between these vehicles and Seinfeld’s image as a wealthy collector of Porsche 911s, a mark of opulently pointless eccentricity. However, the Michael Richards episode finds a particular expressive relationship between Seinfeld’s chosen vehicle and his guest. The car is a 1962 Volkswagen van with a flatbed tray. As we watch the beaten-up oddity trundle about the streets of Los Angeles, Seinfeld informs us, in a voiceover that strikes the distanced appreciation of a car salesman on his shop floor, that the coat is “Dove Blue, Primer Grey, and Rust. The interior is grey vinyl, and duct tape.” Seinfeld tells us he was attracted to the weathered van because it was used as a service truck for a Porsche repair shop, but his voice betrays a stronger note of satisfaction in revealing that, in addition to the flatbed and two rows of seats, it has “an extra door on one side!” The shots of the car, and Seinfeld’s description spoken over them, immediately evoke and demand attention to the sedimentation of built-up exterior layers, and to their gradual erosion, revelation, and disintegration over time.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

As well, Seinfeld’s enjoyment of the strange asymmetrical design (“an extra door on one side!”) raises eccentricity as a nicely surprising refusal of conventionally reassuring balance. So the car in this instance functions as more than just a pleasurable excursion into the lives of the well-off. With its visible layers of built-up and peeled-back paint, its wounded, barely held-together interior, and its off-kilter design, the Volkswagen is put to work as an emblem of Richards himself. In doing so, it instructs us about the episode’s interest in Richards: as a shifting palimpsest of character and persona that has been dynamically built-up and ground-down over time, his fictional exterior as ‘Kramer’ rudely ripped apart one night in a Los Angeles comedy club, our superficial idea of him stripped away to reveal a more pathologically eccentric and manic psychology than we ever imagined was contained within the oddball onscreen.

The metaphorical resonance between this vehicle and Richards is important because it asks us to revise our consideration of the role that the bodies of cars, and their surfaces, play in relation to the presence of performers in the show. What this means is that, despite the apparently undemanding simplicity of its style, Comedians in Cars requires consideration of a complex synthesis of the human presence of performers onscreen with other aspects of film style, such as camera position, mise-en-scène, and sound. Andrew Klevan describes well this relationship of mutual integration when he appreciates V.F. Perkins’s writing on coherence of performance and film apparatus in The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942): “The actor’s and the camera’s behaviour are mutually considerate; each trusts the other to enhance understanding and to relieve them of the sole burden of making themselves known” (2005, 14).[4] There is of course at least one important difference between the kind of work Perkins and Klevan admire in Welles, and that being undertaken by Seinfeld and his collaborators in Comedians in Cars. This point of difference is that the comedian’s talk show series is also a documentary and so does not display the type of intentional mastery and control of mise-en-scène that Welles engineered and enjoyed.[5] Nevertheless, the Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars uses its documentary attention to details as they pass by to find, in the world, a real-life mise-en-scène of significant relationships between setting, space, gesture, voice, and history.

Attending to these relationships reveals the episode’s testament to the effects of time’s passage on Richards’s image as a performer, and the way his presence as a performer can be seen to somewhat reverse this passage. It does so by calling forth memories of his earlier image that are able to in some way transcend the marks left by time. What I evoke is  a process that works upon the relationship between memory and physical aging that Walter Benjamin describes in his account of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. For Benjamin, the passage of time “in its most real—that is, space-bound—form … nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and ageing without” (quoted in Kouvaros 2010, 109).[6] In the Comedians in Cars episode, Richards’s long history of performance is the basis for memories that are shown to in some way overcome, if only for moments, aging without. I want to call this the afterlife of performance. It is a continued force of compelling human presence that is here accrued by our long history of intimate acquaintance with Richards’s inhabitation of Kramer. An objection could be that I am just describing something like ‘star presence’ or charisma, the capacity of some individuals famous for screen acting to continue compelling our attention and admiration beyond any single onscreen appearance. But here I think the word ‘afterlife’ captures something peculiar to the connection between Richards’s long, marbled history as Kramer, and his appearance in Comedians in Cars. It is to do with the episode’s negotiation of the potentially fatal damage caused to his image as Kramer by his catastrophic outburst on the Laugh Factory stage in 2006, and how certain moments of performance in the episode show him able to overcome this ruin.

Figures 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

The first instance of such performance occurs during an early segment of the episode, which also works to frame the history of Richards’s persona and star image in terms of ruin. As the pair drive north along the California coast towards Malibu, Richards points out to Seinfeld the monumental Getty Villa perched atop the cliff above them, and the camera’s views of the mansion make clear its dilapidation. The once-proud stone walls are marred by threatening structural cracks, and the swimming pool has already collapsed down the cliff face, exposing an empty void that was once a place of spirited frolicking and enjoyment, but is now only a testament to the inevitability of ruin as the world gives way beneath us.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

For Richards, this becomes the topic of a sprightly comic ‘bit’, improvised to the incredible delight of Seinfeld, clearly enraptured by the company and performance of his long-time friend. Basking in the afterglow of his hysterical laughter, Seinfeld says to Richards: “You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.” Seinfeld recalls in particular a moment from their show’s eighth season, the Kenny Rogers chicken episode (“The Chicken Roaster”, 8.18), in which Kramer opens Jerry’s door to the hallway and is snapped over backwards by the red light shining into Jerry’s apartment from across the corridor.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Despite not remembering the moment, Richards seems quietly pleased, and tells Seinfeld he gets the sense that being around his old friend will cause him to slowly become “that crazy character” again.

Across this segment, the episode quietly seizes and works upon the documentary detail of the day’s events so that the minutiae of two men’s ordinary words and gestures, as they pass, meet the grand scale of a monument of cultural achievements, collapsing as the earth subsides beneath it. The camera shows the villa as a fragile housing of riches, which attempts to recover a history that has in one sense passed, but that still presses on the present. One way the collapsing building and cliff connect with Richards is through their ambient resonance with how his face is also marked by time, not only by the fact of biological aging, but surely also by the inner travail of his terrible public shame and exile. Richards was of course not a young man by the time he was starring on Seinfeld, but his presence on the show was characterised by a seemingly irrepressible inner brightness that shone through a face able to always carry a mood youthful in spirit if not in flesh. What we saw of Richards in the wake of his meltdown, an image that ghosts his presence here, is something like what confronts Kouvaros in Richard Avedon’s portrait of Humphrey Bogart: “His bow tie and sportcoat link him to his screen roles. But, positioned inches from the lens, the iconic stature of Bogart’s face has crumbled. We are still looking at the face of Bogart, but what we also see is a face whose age and mortality compete on equal terms with its iconic status” (2010, 109).

This sense of competition between ageing and iconicity is heightened when Seinfeld evokes Richards’s bit of sprightly slapstick on their sitcom. This implicit juxtaposition of bodies reminds me of the way Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950) harnesses the moving image’s powerful testament to ageing by giving Gloria Swanson a dual presence onscreen, through her role as a former silent film star, and through the screening within the film of those earlier starring roles. As Stanley Cavell writes, “when we watch her watching her young films, the juxtaposition of the phases of her appearance cuts the knowledge into us, of the movie’s aging and ours, with every frame” (1979, 74). Wilder’s movie is a tragedy at least in part because the yawning gulf between images, personas, and times cannot be bridged, and so the Gloria Swanson character is attended by a sense of irrecoverable loss. By comparison, Comedians in Cars displays Richards as a man who still possesses his earlier performative capacities, and can find spaces and audiences hospitable to their exercise. The Getty Villa segment suggests these might overcome the ‘crumbling’ of his image and persona. This suggestion is in the effect of Richards’s bit about the villa’s disintegration, which sees Seinfeld given over to intense laughter, through which he remembers their wonderful work together so many years ago.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

So the moment not only evokes past joy, but reveals also the ongoing availability of Richards’s vital companionship as a fellow comic performer, his continuing capacity to enliven Seinfeld despite what has fallen apart in the years in-between. Indeed, it is to Jerry’s reaction as a witness to performance that Richards responds with his promise he might become Kramer once more, recognising in Jerry’s hilarity the continued, present force of his own past, supposedly ruined comic persona.

 

Indeed, the episode’s views of Richards reveal how Kramer’s mannerisms of speech and gesture live on as a substrate of Richards himself, that ‘Kramer’ is still available for him to assume, an availability surely in part opened up by the deep intimacy between performer, character, and audience accrued over Richards’s decade inhabiting the role on television. This can be seen in intermittent shots of the pair making their way along the footpath, in which Richards unselfconsciously ambles in Kramer’s trademark gait, balancing between an elegant dignity and an ungainly lack of self-possession and awareness. A key moment that points to Richards’s boundary-blurring capacity to conjure an idea of his own ‘self’ while also being a conduit for the image of ‘Kramer’ is when, interrupting his meal with Seinfeld in the Malibu café, Richards acts-out his dramatic encounter with a homeless, chess-playing savant on a street in Hollywood, a man who seemed like a bum but beat Richards twice in quick succession and refused to play him again. Richards handles this story in a way that makes it a piece with one of Kramer’s more memorable moments of one-man performance in Seinfeld. This is the scene from “The Fire” (5.19) in which Kramer re-enacts for Jerry and George his experience frantically commandeering a city bus to drive an amputated toe to hospital while fighting off a mugger and making scheduled stops (“Well, people kept ringin’ the bell!”).

As in that scene, in the Malibu café we are again reminded of Richards’s wonderful capacity to not only craft a performance of himself as he narrates his own past, but also to turn, in an instant, his own typical manic gestures in ways that allow him to convincingly and generously bring to life the individuality and essence of other people, and to inhabit them before us. But the scene Richards conjures here, as he turns a café floor into a temporary stage, is more compelling than the Seinfeld moment precisely because of the way Richards uses his body to deftly manage our point of view, incrementally reversing our early view of his standing in relation to the homeless man. Clayton notes how moments of slapstick “metamorphosis” can “externalize[e] a dialectical negotiation between two potential selves” (2007, 188). Here we see that slapstick negotiation of an embodied ‘split’ take particular form in Richards’s enactment of a wish to transcend the limitations of past and body, and the boundaries they each erect around the future. This can be found in the way the scene serves as a microcosm of the ruination of Richards’s own image, and a wished-for rehabilitation of his self. Across the short skit, Richards’s initial superiority is slowly degraded moment-by-moment, until at the end he is left charging desperately after the homeless player, Richards now the beggar, pleading for another chance to re-set the game and begin again on an equal footing. Richards embodies the savant challenger and victor, on the other hand, so that what at first looks like clueless disconnection from the world shifts into a peculiar expression of dignified self-possession, a distinct elevation from his starting position down in the gutter, the lowly subject of Richards’s curious and superior gaze from above. The performance pivots on Richards’s fluent balance between his competing qualities of ungainliness and dignity, the sliding of one state of being into the other tipping him between duelling comportments that each compete for hard-won respect, and that pursue the chance for past failures to be set aside in order for Richards’s central appeal to be found afresh.

So there is not only a transformative quality to Richards’s capacity to slip his usual self and inhabit, within the same skin, an alternative but overlapping identity, but also in this slippage a desire for transformation, a wish that something in the past, or about the self, could be overcome or evaded. In this respect it is telling that the episode explicitly mentions only one moment of Richards’s long performance on Seinfeld: Kramer’s reaction to the red Kenny Rogers Chicken light. The brilliance of that gesture, described above, is to imbue the light with a physical power and force its appearance onscreen would otherwise not carry, indeed to transform what we can see of it. Through Richards, light onscreen is less an ethereal presence we see, and more a physical force we feel. Similarly, in Seinfeld’s enraptured fixation on Richards’s story of the former television superstar’s run-in with the homeless chess savant, we see that Richards’s talent is still to make the world become more present and alive to us. The juxtaposition of star image in Sunset Boulevard is attended by the irrecoverable loss of an unbridgeable gap between an image then and its ruins now. For Jodi Brooks, aging female film star characters like Swanson’s are connected to “forgotten moments of cinema”, and that, as “sole witnesses to their own disappearance, they have, it would seem, only one option—to reproduce and direct that disappearance, now with an audience, through performing an excessive visibility” (2001, n. pag.). Unlike Gloria Swanson’s film presence in Sunset Boulevard, Richards conjures his past television role as Kramer in ways that acknowledge it has passed, but is not lost, not “forgotten”. It is as if Richards’s long inhabitation of Kramer has, in our imagination of the two figures, fused them in such a way that Richards’s return from exile does not purely restage that exile, but seems able to recover from collapse the transformative force of his earlier image and comic persona. They persist not as mere remains of the past, but by remaining present, and powerful. What does the episode say about the source, nature, and limits of this continued presence and power?

The source, nature, and limits of this presence, call it Richards’s talent, are plumbed by the episode’s final segments and closing moments, which hinge around a matter raised when Seinfeld and Richards first arrive in Malibu: the weight of public performance. This weight can be understood as one cost of the labour of acting. Kouvaros describes how, in the images of Monroe on the set of The Misfits, this labour is attended by external and internal pressures of visibility that produce expressions of exhaustion, alienation, and anxious uncertainty.[7] The Comedians in Cars episode is first touched by such moods when Richards and Seinfeld step out of their car to walk across the coffee shop parking lot. Richards appears genuinely anxious about appearing in such an ordinary public place, and goes to the extent of wearing a wig and dark glasses in a comical attempt to disguise himself.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

At this point the as-yet unspoken memory of Richards’s last, so infamous public appearance pushes-in on the episode to the point of discomfort, although its seriousness soon dissolves when his awful disguise almost exactly matches the real haircut of a man nearby.[8] By the episode’s end, this weight lifts in silent images of Richards pleasantly interacting with groups of people as he and Seinfeld make their way back to the truck.

Crucial to the point of these images in relation to the weight of public performance is the way Richards’s 2006 Laugh Factory disaster is raised following the chess savant routine. Richards’s controversial history comes up when he and Seinfeld reminisce about their nine years of sitcom work together, from which Richards takes the lesson that the ideal mode in which to perform is one of “selflessness”, and that his failure on the Laugh Factory stage was a mark of his more typical “selfishness”. The catalyst for this conversation is Richards’s comment that performing “was always a struggle”, a remark accompanied by hand gestures that conjure a broiling inner tempest, ceaselessly churning over-and-over within. Richards’s effort to perform his easy-going role as Kramer is captured in Seinfeld’s observation that Richards would rehearse his lines with his face pressed up against the set’s walls. This is an image of an actor struggling to eke out whatever privacy he can from the publicity of the set, forcing his otherwise private self into a mode of being that could support appearing in public as someone else. The image is relevant to the weight of performance because its evocation of a face pressed into a surface expresses as a flattening burden the pressure that attends such highly public visibility. Seinfeld’s story of the way Richards would prepare on-set, and Richards’s tempestuous hand gestures, are important because each suggests why Richards might be invested in the perpetuation of his image and persona as Kramer, in the continued vitality of that presence. This is because the story and the gestures convey the mood of troubled despair to which Richards seems vulnerable when he is left without a marked-out context in which to perform some version of himself to a receptive audience, such as in those anxious moments of waiting and preparation before taking the stage. Richards’s collapse into violent, racist profanity on the Laugh Factory stage can be thought of as another moment in which he troublingly slipped the reassuring boundaries of his typical self-performance.[9] On David Letterman’s Late Show, Richards’s own, disturbing account of his experience that night legitimates this claim. Defending himself as “not a racist”, Richards nonetheless conceded: “And yet it’s said. It comes through. It fires out of me.” These acknowledgments frame the event as one beyond the control of deliberate performance, an unrestrained expression of unmediated interior ferment, one hinted at by the anxieties that marked his daily effort to perform in Seinfeld.

Yet, although the pressure of performing on the long-running sitcom was something of a torment for Richards, it is evident his performance on the show, one that drew heavily on his own personal qualities, also provided him some relief from torment. This can be seen in a YouTube video, “Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like [sic] When his Co-Stars Mess Up”, a compilation of Seinfeld out-takes in which other cast members ‘break’, accidentally shedding their act in fits of hilarity.

In one exemplary moment, Jason Alexander as George cannot help but slowly break into laughter during a scene. Richards stays frozen in place as if to preserve the fictional moment before its interruption, and, barely even prepared to move his mouth, quietly says “George, please … You don’t know how hard this is for me, please.” That Richards refers to his fellow actor by character name betrays the strength of his need to sustain the performative space of the fiction around him; he understands this need to be greater than that of his fellow actors, who seem to more breezily enjoy the breakdowns.

In the context of Seinfeld’s anecdote about Richards’s habitual preparation on the sitcom set, the YouTube compilation helps us understand the importance of the long-running television series to one dimension of the continued afterlife of Richards’s performance. It suggests the nine-year sitcom provided an ongoing space in which Richards could continue to sustain a performance of self that might stave-off the inner uncertainty and anxiety that evidently haunted him to some degree outside of that space. That Richards desired this sort of continuity is revealed in the initial moments of his reflection on the Seinfeld days and the Kramer character. “I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life,” Richards says. “That character would have fit into any situation, there was a great universality to the soul of that character.” These words carry a wish for some form of unity and acceptance: to become a person who can keep alive a state of being in which he can stand to inhabit the world. The ongoing improvisation within sitcom scenarios and characters on Seinfeld provided just this.

What they also provided was a deep history of shared public witness to, and memory of, Richards’s wonderful performances. This is what Jacobs and Peacock, quoted earlier, describe as the long-running television series’ “ability to generate a shared history with us, and our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (2013, 12). This history and mutual inhabitancy explains another dimension of the continued force of Richards’s talent that is so movingly on display in Comedians in Cars: his ongoing capacity to enliven and transform the experience of those who bear witness to him. To borrow Benjamin’s words once more, Richards’s presence allows his audience’s memories within to overcome ageing without. This is best displayed in the episode’s closing moments, the montage of Seinfeld and Richards leaving the café and moving to the car. The fragmentary images are silent but for the underscore of slow piano jazz, which evokes a mood of retirement to a comfortable chair, to sit out the evening on one’s own in contemplative stillness and quiet. As they pay, a man recognises Richards as the actor reaches his beanpole arm across the counter, and a wonderful, child-like smile of pleasure spreads over the man’s elderly face, surely in welcome and gratitude for this unexpected visit from his memories of Kramer.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

As Seinfeld and Richards walk to the car, we see them greeted and enjoyed by passers-by. One group pose for photos with the pair, and Richards takes their camera, clowning for them, snapping his own close-ups, imprinting his personal stamp on these mementoes of that time they met Jerry and Kramer. If the episode announced its interests in the place of Kramer the character within Richards the performer by considering the ruins of a once-monumental villa crumbling into the sea, then the ending of the episode is telling about that place. This is because the image of an elderly man’s face enlivened with a child-like smile reveals the power of Kramer still alive inside Richards, still able to compel the attraction and enjoyment of everyone he is shown to meet, able to withstand the marks of age, to tap a youthfulness within himself and others that shines through the reminders of history and mortality without. The memory of all those episodes and moments of comic brilliance live inside Richards’s body, not entirely snuffed out by the darkness of that rageful night at the Laugh Factory and the melancholy despair of the Letterman appearance, although those past moments continue to haunt his present image with their shadow.

Richards’s talent for improvised performance is to make the world more alive to us, and it provides him a mode of response to the world that keeps at bay a pressing sense of, in Cavell’s words, that world’s uninhabitability. Yet the closing moments of the episode ask us to consider that this talent is not his gift, as its exercise is presented as a difficult form of labour, not without risk, loss, or pain. It is instead revealed as a gift to the world as Richards passes through it, one that allows the personal ruins left by time to be momentarily overcome by the afterlife of brilliant human performance, and by our witness to it. Our intimate ‘mutual inhabitancy’ of his sedimented role as Kramer allows Richards to recover in public view from the ruin of the Laugh Factory catastrophe. But the very final moments of the episode suggest these intertwined histories carry a considerable weight, the deforming pressures of which defy the possibility of erasing the marks of time’s passage on the memory and image of Richards. As he and Seinfeld drive back down the coast, the final words of the episode are these of their lasting friendship:

Seinfeld: I do hope you consider using your instrument again, because it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen.

Richards: Oh, Jerry— thanks, buddy.

As these words are spoken, the last image we see is their van driving into a tunnel, a row of guiding lights running down each of its sides.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

This is an apt way to close the episode because tunnel imagery provides opportunities for evoking moments of balanced suspension between past and future. This instance in particular contains the striking details of the twinned rows of lights stretching into the darkness, figuring benign guidance into an unknown future, towards a new light and view of the world. Yet in a final acknowledgment that Richards’s future is unlikely to fully shed the burden of his past, perhaps destined to become an irrecoverable ruin, a finally mute instrument, the choice is made to keep that light from view, ensuring it remains out of sight around a corner yet to come. As we absorb the silent wake of Richards’s thanks, the tunnel’s darkness engulfs the small truck.

References:

Benjamin, Walter. 1992. “The Image of Proust.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt, 197-210. London: Fontana.

Brooks, Jodi. 2001. “Performing Aging/Performing Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Senses of Cinema 16.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Cavell, Stanley. 1982. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus 111 (4): 75-96.

Clayton, Alex. 2013. “Why Comedy is at Home on Television.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 79-102. London: Bloomsbury.

Clayton, Alex. 2007. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson: McFarland.

Fried, Michael. 1980. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fried, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jacobs, Jason. 2001. “Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (4): 427-447.

Jacobs, Jason, and Steven Peacock. 2013. “Introduction.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.

Klevan, Andrew. 2005. Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, Short Cuts. London: Wallflower.

Kouvaros, George. 2010. Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: “The Misfits” and Icons of Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Newcomb, Horace. 1974. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Perkins, V. F. 1999. The Magnificent Ambersons. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI.

Perkins, V. F. 2006. “Moments of Choice.” Rouge 9. h

Sennett, Richard. 1977. The Fall of Public Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yancy, George. 2012. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moving Image Works Cited

Antonioni, Michaelengelo. 1962. L’Eclisse. Italy: Cineriz.

David, Larry, and Jerry Seinfeld. 1989-1998. Seinfeld. USA: NBC.

Huston, John. 1961. The Misfits. USA: United Artists.

“Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like when His Co-Star Mess Up.” YouTube video. Posted by “Ryan Evans”, December 8, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fge0sIjrNps.

Seinfeld, Jerry. 2012-. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. USA: Crackle. www.comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com.

Welles, Orson. 1942. The Magnificent Ambersons. USA: RKO.

Wilder, Billy. 1950. Sunset Boulevard. USA: Paramount.

Notes


[2] My interest in Comedians in Cars as a talk show is not to relate the show to its genre more broadly. I instead aim to use Cavell’s ideas about talk shows within his broader account of television to think about performance and improvisation in the Michael Richards episode.

[3] In making these arguments, Kouvaros draws on Michael Fried’s art history on traditions of theatricality and absorption in eighteenth century painting, and Richard Sennett’s sociological history of transformations to public society since the same period. See: Fried (1980), Sennett (1977). For Fried’s later exploration of absorption and theatricality in photography, see: Fried (2008).

[4] Internal citation: Perkins (1999, 58-9).

[5] For a clear illustration of Welles’s mastery of his workspace and mise-en-scène on The Magnificent Ambersons, see Perkins’s account of Welles’s requirement that the sets for the movie’s outdoor scenes be built inside a refrigeration plant: Perkins (2006).

[6] Internal citation: Benjamin (1992, 207)

[7] These moods are given expression in photographs described throughout Kouvaros’s book. For exemplary instances, see: Kouvaros (2010, 99-101, 114-15, 125, 136-37).

[8] Early on, the episode is explicit to declare all events in the episode a coincidence, with the grave onscreen title: “Some events in this episode appear set up. They were not.” I think we should take the episode’s more outlandish events (such as the visit to Sugar Ray Leonard’s house that interrupts the visit of Seinfeld’s acquaintance to the house of Jay Mohr, a stand-up) as mere coincidence and chance, if only because the scenarios’ mildly amusing comic pay-offs hardly seem worth the effort that would have been required to orchestrate them. More than this, the episode’s need to declare their happenstance nature betrays the importance it places on improvisation.

[9] George Yancy reads Richards’s Laugh Factory outrage and his subsequence appearance on the Late Show in terms of an “opaque white racist self” that resists conscious self-knowledge and examination, “one that is alien to itself” (2012, 168-69). (Thanks to Fiona Nicoll for bringing this to my attention.) If Richards’s slapstick metamorphosis, in Clayton’s terms, hopes to overcome his alienation from some aspect of himself, it makes sense that the breakdown of such performance might result in the expression of an “alien” aspect of the self. The frightening exposure of this unmediated anger is perhaps what is most deeply unsettling about the footage of Richards’s tirade, as it tears down the more reassuring channelling of mania through so many years of performances.

 

Author bio:  Elliott Logan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. His work covers a range of topics related to film and television aesthetics, particularly issues concerning film style, meaning, and evaluative criticism. His current project is an appreciation of acting and performance in recent US serial television fiction.

 

 

 

Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

Abstract: While scholars have paid much attention to YouTube in a Web 2.0 environment, the YouTube blockbuster is yet to be discussed as part of this convergence culture. It differs from transmedia storytelling in that no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts. Once users have elevated videos with rich narrative qualities to the heights of fame within YouTube and other virtual social networks, they are taken from the YouTube archive by global commercial media and given new exchange values in traditional media forms such as books, films, television shows and ancillary products, using fragmented classical narrative techniques to do so. This paper traces the history of the blockbuster as a way of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change after World War II, to its refinements in the 1970s to cater for younger audiences and changes in the media landscape, to its most recent incarnation in YouTube. We argue that the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being transformed and refigured by the new form it has begun to take within convergence culture.

Introduction

Susan Boyle is a dowdy, middle-aged Scottish singer with bushy eyebrows and frizzy dark hair. She was the “fairytale for the YouTube generation” (Wooley, 2010) in 2009 and now has one of the world’s fastest selling debut albums of all time. The story began when Boyle surprised audiences with her faultless rendition of Les Miserables’ “I dreamed a dream” on the hit reality television show Britain’s Got Talent. The Washington Post later reported that the judges and audience were “waiting for her to squawk like a duck” (McManus, 2009). Within hours of her performance, a snippet of footage was uploaded to YouTube by a computer user and shared among millions of people throughout the world. Another piece of footage, uploaded by the producers of the television show, has received almost 100 million hits. Boyle is now one of the world’s most recognizable faces, with guest television appearances, stories in newspapers and magazines, books and record deals. Ironically, the 48-year-old songstress had never heard of YouTube before her performance. She told one interviewer: “I hadn’t even seen a computer…Google what’s that? Is that some kind of gargle?” (Wooley, 2010).

This paper argues the Susan Boyle phenomenon is an example of an emerging media form – the YouTube blockbuster. Just like its cinematic forerunner, this is an example of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change. The two forms retain much in common and we will highlight the work of Marco Cucco (2009) to outline these similarities. Importantly, however, we aim to show how the two models differ within a convergence culture.  The traditional blockbuster model developed by Hollywood in the 1960s and `70s depends upon corporate media investing significant economic capital to produce and market a product with an expectation it will appeal to mass audiences and generate huge profits. Its production has always been controlled by single media conglomerates which make the final decisions on plot and character development as well as licensing agreements for ancillary products. Elana Shafrin (2004) argues that in recent times cinematic blockbusters have been “infused with new modes of authorship, production, marketing and consumption” (Shafrin, 2004, p.261). She uses case studies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchises to discuss how a growing number of “active” or “participatory” fans (Jenkins, 1992) exhibit a sense of ownership that includes an investment in the creative development of these productions. Shafrin shows how internet clubs and websites have provided venues for fans to establish connections to Jackson and Spielberg and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production and political activism.

The YouTube blockbuster is different because its character and plot development is not determined by a single media conglomerate, nor are the licensing agreements for its associated merchandise. It begins with huge interest within participatory media culture before the corporate media make any significant investment and it is dependent on both “bottom up” participatory culture as well as “top down” corporate media (Jenkins, 2006, p.242) to drive its production. Media scholars including Tiziana Terranova (2000), Andrew Ross (2009), Robert Gehl (2009) Banks & Humphreys (2008) and Banks & Deuze (2009) offer different perspectives in the debates surrounding co-creative labor and free labor, who controls content and information flows, who benefits and who profits. There is not space to work through these arguments here. YouTube does, however, provide an example of these complex, yet interdependent co-creative relationships as it thrives on its ability to function as both a business and cultural resource. YouTube has its own brand channel, provides transparent advertising platforms and offers advertising placements in frames on the site, but with its catchcry “Broadcast Yourself”™, it also provides a global stage for creative expression and is celebrated for its participatory culture. It allows everyone with an internet browser to produce, share, find and watch videos stored in its vast digital archive. It is the free, participatory culture of YouTube that is so attractive to “top down” corporate media. It offers a symbiosis with new media, as well as opportunities to build on YouTube success with a range of narratives and products. The YouTube blockbuster is unique within convergence culture as it has progressed from transmedia storytelling, the term used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to describe the ways in which the movie blockbuster production process changes when multimedia platforms are used to tell and sell a story. This paper also argues that a common feature of both old and new blockbusters is the use of narrative, even though it may be constructed in different ways. While classical Hollywood theorists claim narrative has been lost in the industrialisation of film culture, we will argue it is what helps bind new and old media in the production of the YouTube blockbuster.

Blockbuster production: A brief history

The term “blockbuster” is a synonym for something big and is commonly used to describe any cultural product that is a hugely popular commercial success, from art exhibitions to novels. However, it is most closely associated with film where the term was originally coined to describe a big budget production with mass popular appeal.

Cucco (2009) traces the blockbuster’s evolution in Hollywood to the 1940s and ‘50s when the industry was in a state of a crisis brought about by the large-scale, post-war demographic shift towards the new suburbs where there were very few cinemas. The baby boom reduced cinematographic consumption, and the birth of new media competition, especially television (Cucco, 2009, p 217), left movie houses struggling to attract audiences.

In the Studio Era of the 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood enjoyed some successes with films including Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, but it was in the 1970s that it appeared to have found a concrete solution to its crisis with the release of films such as The GodFather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1976). These were big budget films that recorded phenomenal takings at the box office – Jaws alone grossed $470.6 million in its initial release worldwide and cost $7 million to produce (Box Office Mojo, 2010). No three films had ever made so much money more quickly (Bordwell, 2006). They heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster and provided a successful business model for media conglomerates to create big and expensive productions that could appeal to mass audiences and generate massive profits. According to film historian Thomas Schatz (2002), the emergence of the blockbuster signified what the New Hollywood was all about, that is “the studio’s eventual coming-to-terms with an increasingly fragmented entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global markets and new delivery systems” (2002, p. 185). The rise of the blockbuster was met with strong criticism that such films signified the death of classical narrative and that Hollywood was relying on spectacle and special effects alone to tell and sell a story. Filmmaker Jean Douchet claimed post-classical cinema had given up on narrative and the image was “designed to violently impress by constantly inflating their spectacular qualities” (Buckland, 1999, p 178).  Schatz says film became:  “…so fast-paced and resolutely plot driven that character depth and development are scarcely on the narrative agenda and this emphasis on plot over character marks a significant departure from classical Hollywood” (Schatz, 2002, p. 194). Justin Wyatt (1994, p. 18) argues the cinematic blockbuster can be summarised on one sentence or image, usually called a logline, to make it easier to market. He gives examples from the 1980s including Flashdance (1983) and American Gigolo (1980), which were designed around the public’s taste and market research, and required a simplification of narrative in favor of the image as major appeal.

Most recently, Cucco (2009) has outlined three distinctive features of the cinematic blockbuster which we argue apply to the YouTube blockbuster as well. They include a high economic investment using both technology and human resources; a promise of a “spectacular” or something that is “must see”; and an ability to supplement the earnings from its audiovisual receipts with receipts from merchandising (Cucco, 2009, pp. 219-222). We will consider how each of these features applies to the YouTube blockbuster in this paper, beginning with the third feature – merchandising potential. This is best understood by considering how the blockbuster and ancillary products first came to co-exist.  Instead of competing with television, the blockbuster of the 1970s embraced it as a tool for massive advertising. The release of Jaws, for example, was preceded by a large-scale television promotional campaign to entice audiences. Gomery (1998) says the huge success of Jaws proved saturation advertising was the strategy that would redefine Hollywood (Gomery, 1998, p. 51). The print campaign featured a poster depicting a huge shark rising from the water towards an unsuspecting swimmer, while the radio and television ads exploited the well-known Jaws theme music (Schatz, 2002, p. 191). Bordwell (2006) argues that by the early 1980s, merchandising was added to extend the lifespan of the story beyond the cinema, so tie-ins with fast-food chains, automobile companies and lines of toys and apparel could keep selling the movie.

Scripts that lent themselves to mass marketing had a better chance of being acquired and screenwriters were encouraged to incorporate special effects. Unlike studio era productions, the megapicture could lead a robust afterlife on a soundtrack album, on cable channels and on video cassette. (Bordwell 2006, p.3)

The blockbuster strategy flourished within a new media environment where conglomerates controlled how and when a story could be produced and promoted across a range of mediums from television to the internet. Jenkins (2006) calls this “transmedia storytelling”. He uses the example of the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, which gives audiences pieces of the story and narrative through films, books and video games. Jenkins argues that within this idea:

Each medium does what it does best so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105).

Although the story is told across mediums, Jenkins argues that transmedia storytelling still depends on a central media company selling the rights to unaffiliated third parties to manufacture products while licensing limits what can be done with the characters or concepts to protect the original property. The production of most ancillary media is achieved by a combination of labor but ultimately the licensor has “the power”, for example the production of “tie-in novels” (Clarke 2009) depends on freelance and supervisory labor but the licensor has ultimate control over timeframes, characters and narratives. This marks the most fundamental difference in the evolution of the YouTube blockbuster because no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts.

 Beyond transmedia storytelling

Cucco (2009) outlines the use of high economic investment using both technology and human resources as a feature of the blockbuster. To understand how this relates to the YouTube blockbuster, we must acknowledge the identities and forms of agency that underpin the success of products of convergence culture such as YouTube. While there is not space here to look closely at this debate, scholars have tended to focus their discussions on the political economy of media production or classical development versus dependency theories (Jenkins, 2006; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Gehl, 2009). There was always a clear division between the role of the producer and consumer in the traditional market-driven cinema model, but that division has blurred since the “people formerly known as the audience” began creating content, uploading photos and videos and sharing information online. Croteau (2006) suggests “mega media products, along with other forms of traditional media, will increasingly be competing for attention with a constantly changing population of literally millions of media producers” (Croteau, 2006, p. 343). The YouTube blockbuster highlights this interdependency. As van Dijck (2009) observes; “YouTube’s role as an internet trader in the options market for fame is unthinkable without a merger between old and new media” (van Dijck, 2009, p. 53).

The production of the YouTube blockbuster depends on a variety of human resources, motives and objectives. They include those responsible for hosting YouTube, the people who upload content online and those who view and pass on links to popular footage via email, blogs, websites, telephone and word of mouth. Global commercial media are also involved, and their role includes extending the life of YouTube footage beyond the online archive by creating new plot developments and ancillary products of their own.

In her research to assess the future of Web 2.0  social networking sites, Kylie Jarrett (2008, p. 132) highlights that it is the appeal of, and control provided by community structures rather than corporate intervention which is fundamental to the success of sites such as YouTube.  Burgess and Green (2009) describe a continnum of cultural participation in YouTube where:

…content is circulated and used without much regard to its source, it is valued and engaged with in specific ways according to its genre and its uses within the website as well as its relevance to the everyday lives of other users, rather than according to whether or not it was uploaded by a Hollywood studio, a web TV company or an amateur video blogger (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 57).

YouTube is owned by Google, yet Google does not charge licensing fees to those who wish to upload content or enforce subscription fees on anyone who wishes to view material on the site. This allows for large-scale site traffic, providing people have internet access and can invest in the necessary equipment for video editing and uploading. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the YouTube blockbuster. The relatively free, participatory nature of YouTube is what attracts the interest of global media companies seeking to create their own exchange values from popular content. Often the original creator of material is not acknowledged in the archive and if copyright restrictions are unclear, anyone can take advantage of this ambiguity and control the way the content is developed outside of the archive.

This shows that the YouTube blockbuster has moved beyond Jenkins’ (2006) transmedia storytelling, which depends on a central media company driving production. It does, however, reinforce Cucco’s idea that the success of the blockbuster depends on its ability to generate merchandizing and ancillary products. Without this ability, there would be no large-scale investment in popular YouTube footage from global media.  This investment can range from deploying resources such as journalists to report on the phenomena for commercial media, to book deals, movie rights or merchandizing.

The ‘Singing Spinster’ spectacle

Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was first recorded and uploaded by computer users. There was no initial large-scale investment apart from the costs associated with the production of the reality talent show, but this hardly compares with the massive budgets afforded to create Hollywood blockbusters. The YouTube users who uploaded footage had made some minor investment with basic computer equipment and internet access to upload content onto what is considered a cultural resource. But there were no special effects or spectacle deployed on YouTube, in fact the footage of Boyle is grainy and poor quality and lasts for less than four minutes. Once footage was uploaded, news within the YouTube community spread like a virus. Boyle became a spectacle through viral videos, word of mouth and email. The first international news reports came after the YouTube footage had received millions of hits. Newspapers across the world were reporting less than 24 hours after her television appearance of her global success on YouTube with international headlines such as “Scottish spinster a world media sensation” (no author (a), 2009, p. 16) and “Unlikely singer is YouTube sensation” (Lyall, 2009, p. 1).

Large-scale economic investment in the Boyle phenomena was made after the footage was a massive hit in YouTube and corporate media saw value in its production outside of the archive. In the case of traditional media, it provided a chance to “gobble up its most promising prospects” for its own financial gain (Croteau, 2006). Until now corporate media has always had to take a gamble that their large-scale investment in blockbusters will pay off with audiences. They have had to rely on previously successful formulas and market research (Wyatt, 1994). In the case of YouTube phenomena, television stations and talk shows such as Oprah, newspapers across the globe from the Washington Post to The Australian, magazines and book publishers all sought a slice of Boyle only after the footage had been endorsed in YouTube on a grand scale. There were media reports in May 2009 that Catherine Zeta-Jones had asked about the film rights to the singer’s life story and that Oscar-winning film director James Cameron wanted to direct the film (no author (b), 2009, p. 54) Fremantle Media, the producer of Britain’s Got Talent which discovered Boyle, found even it was scrambling to maximise potential from the phenomena and it was only after millions of hits had been received that it negotiated to set up a YouTube channel and sell advertising around official Boyle clips.  The Sunday Times of London reported in April 2009 that more than £1 million in potential advertising income had been lost because no deal was in place before Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’ was viewed more than 75 million times.

No single media conglomerate could control the way the Boyle footage was used outside of YouTube. Whereas J.K. Rowling can control the licensing agreements that govern how her creation Harry Potter is portrayed in merchandizing products, sequels and plot development, both internet users and global media can take the story surrounding a piece of YouTube footage in almost any direction they choose.

YouTube says in its corporate website that every minute a mind boggling 13 hours of video is uploaded and attracts millions of users and viewers. To understand why Boyle has become a YouTube blockbuster we must identify the qualities that make her ‘I dreamed a dream’ stand out from the millions of other video clips in the YouTube archive. The Boyle footage has attracted 300 million hits worldwide and its rich inter-textual narrative appears to differentiate it from other highly popular videos such as “Where the Hell is Matt”, which is not well known to traditional media audiences but has attracted more than 25 million hits and appeared on YouTube’s list of most popular clips. We argue that strong narrative qualities can elevate certain YouTube footage to blockbuster status. International audiences can identify with the story and the corporate media can use the narrative to extend the footage’s appeal beyond the YouTube archive.

Cucco emphasises that a common feature of the blockbuster is the need for a spectacle or something that is “must see”. The spectacle of the YouTube blockbuster is not the footage itself, but the hype created around the footage. We argue this is achieved through narrative techniques, which critics say has crumbled under the industrial weight of the blockbuster.

There are several noteworthy scholars who argue that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters still have narrative structure intact, regardless of quality. Kristin Thompson (1993) examined dozens of post 1960s films such as Jaws, Alien (1979) and GroundHog Day and found dense plot developments, rather than incoherent and fragmented ones. Schauer (2007) further argues that transmedia storytelling has the potential to improve upon the standard film narrative rather than fragment it to the point where it becomes obsolete. He argues that his study of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was an important example of transmedia storytelling as ancillary products were part of director George Lucas’s marketing strategy from the beginning, but that the film still displayed strong connections to narrative.

The use of classical narratives within the global media has also been noted by scholars, particularly within the field of media and journalism. Traditional narrative themes are often used in news stories where journalists portray the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress. Bell (1991) calls journalists the professional storytellers of our age: “The fairy story starts: ‘Once upon a time’. The news story begins: ‘Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged’.” Stories define actors moving through sequences of events filled with victims, villains and heroes (Woodward, 1997). Propp (1975) is well known in media studies for identifying recurrent patterns, set characters and plot actions in all fairytales. The main characters include villain, donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero.  More recently, Booker (2004) has outlined seven basic plots that are structural transformations of ancient tales: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy. Carroll (2001) identifies and explores key stories or archetypes at the source of Western culture from the virtuous whore; the troubled hero; salvation by a god; soul-mate love; the mother; the value of work; fate; the origin of evil; and self-sacrifice.

In their research on news reporters’ use of YouTube, Hess and Waller (2009) argue that journalists create disjointed and hybrid narratives to extend the appeal of YouTube footage for their audiences. The way the news media use classical narrative and archetypes to create new exchange values from YouTube deserves attention, especially if we consider narratives in the media as simply a way of selling something (Fulton, 2005).

This paper aims to highlight that a strong connection to classical narrative is emerging as a key feature of the YouTube blockbuster. The story of Susan Boyle bears strong resemblance to those themes identified by Booker such as rags to riches and the classic folk tales Cinderella and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. The global media identified these themes and many stories retain some of the narrative structure of these tales with headlines such as “A life lesson on looks turns into the fairy-tale ending” from the Chicago Tribune and The Sunday Times in Singapore headline “Beauty in ‘Ugly Ducking’ Susan Boyle”. This extract from the British Daily Mirror also highlights the way the news media developed a storybook theme:

…The only man (Brian) to have kissed singing sensation Susan Boyle claimed yesterday it would be a privilege for any lucky guy. The Britain’s Got Talent wonder –nicknamed the Hairy Angel – now has millions of fans worldwide but revealed she has never found a man to love or kiss. “I never knew her to have a birthday party because she was busy caring for her mother,” Brian said. Brian also told how Susan, born with learning difficulties, was targeted by louts. He said: “They would call her names, throw snowballs at her door and dare each other to knock and run away”. (Daily Mirror, 2009).

British journalist Nicci Gerrard wrote a comment piece shortly after Susan Boyle was reportedly admitted to a celebrity rehab clinic after suffering an emotional breakdown in June 2009 (Cooper, 2009). In her article, “The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale” she writes:

Even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas) … it’s actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (gives you that essential happy ending). You have to be able to cry and make others cry.

Conclusion

Only rare YouTube moments are imbued with qualities that not only attract millions of viewers, but have the potential as bankable products for media conglomerates that can ultimately propel them to blockbuster status.  This paper has focused on Susan Boyle, but there are other examples of this new form of blockbuster, such as “Christian the Lion”, which possesses the same kind of rich, universal narrative qualities as the Boyle story. This YouTube blockbuster captures a tale of remarkable love between beast and man in just a couple of minutes of low-quality, grainy 1970s footage in which the lion embraces its former owner. It has spawned best-selling books for children and adults, documentaries and massive international news media coverage and commentary.

The global reach of popular YouTube footage is unprecedented and YouTube phenomena such as the Susan Boyle footage can attract as much, if not more attention from fans and audiences than some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. Martin Conboy (2002) says the popular press survives on its ability to maintain a dialogue with contemporary cultural trends. So it comes as no surprise that YouTube, a new form of popular culture, attracts interest from global commercial media.

The YouTube blockbuster shares some of the features of its cinematic forerunner – most importantly, it has the “must see” quality that Cucco describes. It also attracts massive global audiences, offering opportunities to reap big profits from merchandizing and spin-off media products. But the nature of the hype that traditionally surrounded the blockbuster has been transformed and democratised by new media communities and technology. It is no longer a case of marketeers rolling out slick promotional campaigns designed around public taste and market research to build expectations for months before a blockbuster is released. The circulation of viral emails and links from social network sites alert increasingly large networks of people to the existence of “must see” YouTube footage and they are able to access it instantly. In the process, both the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being redefined. It was once under complete corporate control, big budgets and big profits were its hallmarks and slick production, spectacle and special effects were the drawcard. The YouTube blockbuster is first and foremost under YouTube user control, it’s relatively cheap to produce, the nature of the “spectacle” has changed and production values are relatively unimportant. Narrative is in the ascendancy.

The global commercial media is still coming to terms with the latest transformations of the media landscape in which corporate control is slipping. As in the post-war period and again in the 1970s, creative industries must find new ways to profit. The Susan Boyle blockbuster is an important example of the media redefining itself by finding ways to meet the challenges posed by the new cultural forms, delivery systems and diversification Web 2.0 presents. YouTube users make large investments of human capital and small investments in technology at the front end of the YouTube blockbuster, but media spectacle and big profits are still possible for the global commercial media when it takes the guaranteed popularity of a YouTube clip and can spin it into traditional media products such as news, documentaries, books, films and audio recordings.

But the YouTube blockbuster is a fragile entity and models of storytelling in convergence culture are evolving as rapidly as the technology itself. YouTube is both a business and a cultural resource co-created by its users and the larger in scale and demographic reach, “the more that is at stake and the more significant the tensions between labour, play, democracy and profiteering become” (Burgess & Green, 2009, pp. 35-36) Already there have been disputes over claims of copyright infringement with Viacom, and most recently Warner Bros’ battle over music video clips. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the blockbuster. If corporate interests intervene, for example, through the introduction of subscription fees, then the community framework which supports the blockbuster will surely weaken.

The blockbuster phenomenon highlights the synergies between new and old media in a convergence culture. No one can predict what the next blockbuster will be, nor can they orchestrate it, but what is certain is that unlikely stars will continue to be rocketed into this new media stratosphere such as the “Hairy Angel” Susan Boyle.

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Bios:

Kristy Hess is a Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her current research projects focus on social justice and the regional media; social capital and the media (PhD); parent/student learning partnerships to improve literacy; and developing national curriculum resources as part of the Reporting Diversity project. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. Email: kristy.hess@deakin.edu.au

Lisa Waller is a part-time journalism lecturer and a full-time Phd student in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. As a recent graduate of Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of Higher Education and now a member of the GCHE advisory board, she is interested in the education of tertiary educators. She is also interested in curriculum and pedagogy in higher education, especially curriculum renewal and the scholarship of teaching in higher education. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal.