Archive for October, 2010
This is the moment when the main protagonist in the East German film The Architects says goodbye to his wife and daughter who received permission to escape to the West. In the background you see a sign that says ‘Ausreise’, or ‘Emigration’, a word so rarely applicable to the citizens of the closed-off German Democratic Republic. As the director Peter Kahane has explained in an interview, filming the scene was fraught with difficulties because as The Architects was produced in 1989, the borders between East and West Germany were in themselves evaporating. The bizarre encounter between fictional and real events in The Architects is best encapsulated in the moment the daughter leaves her father behind, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands East Germans escape to the West in actuality. The painful breakup of the family becomes the reminder of the traumatic breakup of the Germanies more than four decades earlier.
Director Peter Kahane in interview.
The central plot of the film focuses on the planning of a large housing estate on the outskirts of East Berlin by a young team of idealistic architects. The architects’ disillusionment with the construction of the housing estate can be read as a critique against the repressive state apparatus. The state’s constant meddling with the architects’ plans for the estate therefore becomes a metaphor for the lack of civil liberties in the German Democratic Republic. Considering that The Architects was granted full financial support from the East German funding body for propaganda films (DEFA) as early as 1988, the film is not only surprisingly critical towards the communist regime, but the support of the film itself signifies the collapse of an ideology even in institutions considered loyal to the regime.
The filming for The Architects began in earnest in September 1989, just as the border between East and West Germany began to erode. The constant flow of people to West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 even threatened the very production of The Architects itself, as the director Peter Kahane feared for losing his production team. Far from merely depicting the dissolution of ideological and geographic borders, The Architects is in itself an active constituent of this collapse in its own right. While it might not be the End of History as postulated by Francis Fukuyama, The Architects does nevertheless cinematically mark the end of a particularly autocratic and stifling version of communism in East Germany. It would become one of the last films ever funded by DEFA, also marking the end of nearly 40 years of propaganda films and visual culture produced for the indoctrination of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic. One of the ironies of The Architects is that as the political events of 1989 unfolded so rapidly, by the time the film came out in spring 1990, the history it depicted was already buried in the past. The Architects, caught up in the collapse of the regime it sought to critique, would eventually flop in the deserted cinemas of a united Germany.
This blog post is an abbreviated version of an extended book chapter titled ‘The Collapse of Ideology in Peter Kahane’s The Architects‘ to be published in the forthcoming collection Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema, 1945-2010 edited by Raita Merivirta, Heta Mulari, Kimmo Ahonen and Rami Mahka.
Images are powerful. This truism can currently be observed in the row over ‘seriously saucy’ photographs published in GQ Magazine depicting three cast members of the American hit TV show Glee. Importantly, Glee is a TV show about high school students, catering to children, teenagers as well as adults. In one of the photographs taken by the veteran fashion photographer Terry Richardson, the main actress Lea Michele can be seen, skimpily dressed, in a gym locker room. She leans into an open locker, exposing her white panties, and licking a red lollipop. The redness of the lollipop is mirrored by the interior of the locker also painted in bright red – a colour that signifies love and lust. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud would be quick to point out here that the lollipop, above all, signifies the phallus and that Michele’s licking is an obvious reference to oral sex. The scene played out in front of the viewer is that Michele, about to take her clothes off after gym, is sexually available. The locker room is otherwise deserted, except for you (the viewer) and the character played by Michele. Another photograph in GQ further heightens the sexual tension. Still in the locker room, Michele sits on a bench with her legs spread wide open. Her white panties are now fully on display to the camera. The open locker on the left is a visual play on Michele’s opened legs. While still holding on to the lollipop, Michele is now licking her lips instead. Maybe most significantly, Michele’s arms are raised in such a way that she appears to look defenseless against the camera, the photographer, the viewer, and the imaginative narrative unfolding in the locker room.
There is nothing new about these photographs of the body. Terry Richardson is utilizing photographic techniques that can be seen anywhere, from the internet to men’s magazines (and GQ is a men’s magazine). In their article, GQ made several sexual references, saying that the actors had a lot of T&A, that is talent and ambition – a reference to a common abbreviation for the physique of the female body. The headline of the article is ‘Glee’ Gone Wild – an even less veiled reference to the extremely popular franchise of quasi-porn movies called Girls Gone Wild. Despite the wide availability of this type of gender representation, the photographs caused a major scandal in America. The Parents Television Council (PTC) was most most outspoken in their criticism, by issuing a statement that read: “It is disturbing that GQ, which is explicitly written for adult men, is sexualising the actresses who play high school-aged characters on ‘Glee’ in this way,” … “It borders on paedophilia. By authorizing this kind of near-pornographic display, the creators of the program have established their intentions on the show’s direction. And it isn’t good for families,” it added. PTC’s statement points to an important issue in the debate about the photographs, and that is the dichotimization of myth and truth. It says that the photography spread in GQ “borders on paedophilia”, even though the main subject in the photographs, Lea Michele, is 24 years of age. In other words, because Michele plays a high school girl in the TV show, she was not supposed to be photographed in that fashion. The easy targets for the critics are the photographer Terry Richardson, and the subjects of the photographs Lea Michele, Dianna Agron and Cory Monteith. Agron in fact personally apologized to her fans by writing on her blog: ‘these photos do not represent who I am.’ Again, we have a clash between myth and truth. That all the subjects are professional actors, and that they are playing to the photo camera, as much as they do to the TV camera, appears to have been lost in the raging criticism against the GQ photographs.
By employing Terry Richardson to take the photographs, GQ knew fully well what type of photographs he would be able to supply them with. This is a man famed in the fashion industry for being a serial exhibitionist, taking his clothes off in front of his female subjects, while seeking to convince them to do the same. In a shoot for the fashion house Sisley, Richardson depicted his models as they suck milk from an utter (again signifying the phallus) of a live cow. My point is that long before the photos of the Glee cast were published in GQ, the scandal was already in the making. Richardson equals scandal and by employing him, GQ got what they asked him to deliver. GQ’s attempts of sexualizing the Glee cast also fits into a larger corporate strategy. GQ is run by Condé Nast, a powerful company with a long and legendary history of publishing stylish magazines and, more recently, websites. Since December 2009, Condé Nast is in a digital joint venture, which grouped together five of the world’s biggest publishing companies: Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst, Meredith and, importantly, the parent company of Fox Broadcasting, News Corp. Fox is the very same company that also produces Glee, and the clear implication here is that, GQ magazine also acted on behalf of Fox. The scandal surrounding the Glee photographs benefits everyone involved: Fox creates international awareness to their TV show, GQ increases readership of their magazine, and the internet has another scandal to feed off from.
The irony is that Fox is a right-wing propaganda machine and a beacon of Evangelical Christianity most prominently in the form of the commentator Glenn Beck. That Glee belongs to their most prized possessions is an apparent idiosyncrasy to begin with. The TV shows is filled with sexual innuendo, references to girl-on-girl action, teenage pregnancy, masturbation and so on. The so-called Celibacy Club in Glee completely mocks the preaching of Evangelicals as all its members are as promiscuous as any other teenager that is represented in the show. Nevertheless, the show seeks to contain it’s sexual undertone with a veil of innocence. With Glee, Fox has created a complex sign system that functions extremely well in the American market: on one hand sex is omnipresent, on the other, it’s never fully apparent and disguised by a veil of innocence. The GQ shoot breaks this apparent agreement between Fox and the viewer’s of Glee – a groups so powerful that they have their own nomenclature: Gleeks. The most common criticism by Gleeks and non-Gleeks alike is that the photos ‘go too far’. But was that not exactly GQ and Fox’s strategy to begin with: that the photos rupture the belief that the protagonists in Glee are innocent teenagers? The GQ shoot represents a coming of age of the Glee cast as signs in a complex and paradoxical sign economy. It’s also not the first attempt by the producers and makers of Glee to rupture this belief. In April 2010, the Glee cast member Naya Rivera, playing a cheerleader in the show, was photographed for the men’s magazine Maxim. The title of the article was ‘My First Time‘ as if to signify the sexual awakening of Glee’s cast members, but also of the show itself.
Here, Fox is entering well trodden territory. Various parallels can be drawn to Miley Cyrus, the main cast of the super hit TV show Hannah Montana, who, according to the Daily Mail “has gone to great lengths to shed her ‘good girl’ image”. The Mail calls her recent performance at the G-A-Y club in London, her ‘raunchiest’ yet. Before Cyrus, it was Britney Spears who signified the transition from ‘good girl’ to woman exerting sexual awareness, even dominance. The producers of Glee fully recognized the importance of Britney as pop cultural icon who has successfully made this transition by devoting an episode to her and her music. The episode, in which Britney Spears has a cameo appearance herself, aired in September 2010 and became Glee’s highest-ranking episode ever. From Naya Rivera’s Maxim photo shoot in April and the Britney episode in September, the ‘seriously saucy’ photo shoot in the November issue of GQ simply represents the logical progression of a corporate strategy that was long in place. One aspect in the infamous GQ shoot I have thus far not mentioned however: while the female cast members of Glee are seen in their underwear, their male counterpart is, at all times, fully dressed. The implication here is clear: the sexual coming of age of Glee is defined along strict gender boundaries. In other words, the sexual awakening of Glee is specific to the female subjects of the show. Of course the GQ photographs do not represent who the subjects in them really are. Nor do they represent the vision of a photographer making use of every toolkit in his box. Rather, the scandal surrounding the GQ photos is representative of a sexual sign economy in the mass media and culture that Fox/News Corp and GQ/Condé Nast have carefully nurtured and universally benefitted from.
To subscribe to this blog, please enter your email address here and check your inbox for the verification email.
Guillaume Bertrand/Reuters, official caption in the New York Times reads “scuffles were reported between rock-throwing students and riot police firing tear-gas in the outlying neighborhoods of Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie.” 19th of Coctober, 2010.
It’s October 2010 and the protests against the pension reforms in France are turning violent. The visual representation of these manifestations, or manif in short, makes for rich material. In above photograph, the viewer (the person looking at the photograph) is situated behind the police cordon. This perspective is greatly affecting the reading of the image. The ideological implication here is that the police, or what Louis Althusser has called the Repressive State Apparatus, is protecting you, the viewer, from the ‘rock-throwing students’. The telephoto lens chosen by the news agency photographer is further signifying that the trouble makers should be kept at a distance and that the only buffer between you and them is the state apparatus. The focus, quite literally, is on the youths who are the source of violence and rioting. The rock one of the students is throwing can actually be seen flying through the air. It is a photograph that makes a clear distinction between two sides: the rioting youths on one side, the viewer on the other side, and the police in between.
Another aspect is quite striking in this photograph: all the subjects in the distance are masked. An immediate association might be with the masked faced of a guerrilla fighter, such as in Susan Meiselas’ iconic photographic series ‘Nicaragua’. The masked face of the students in the distance has important implications: as the identity of the students is unknown, their struggle too, is further disassociated from the viewer him or herself. The face mask, bandanna or the hoodie also further exoticises the students’ struggle. The viewer does not know who these people are and what they protest against. Is it really the pension reform? Particularly the hoodie evokes strong connotations of the banlieue and the ‘ethnic riots’ in France in 2008. The caption specifically refers to the Parisian suburbs Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie – suburbs that have large ethnic minorities and not coincidentally on the very periphery of the city. Again, the subject matter is located at a distance in relation to the viewer.
But the ‘hoodie’ is not a phenomenon specific to the Parisian suburbs or France in general. In the United Kingdom, the hoodie emerged in parallel to an unprecedented rise in surveillance technologies after the murder or James Bulger in 1993. The CCTV camera has become an omnipresent part of public (and sometimes private) life in Britain. The ‘hoodie’ simply preempts his surveillance by covering his face. The ‘hoodie’ is quite simply the logical consequence of a Big Brother society. As France is following Britain’s lead in terms of surveillance capabilities, the emergence of the ‘hoodie’ in the French suburbs came as a natural progression. Rather than signifying the violent struggle associated with guerrilla warfare, the face masks of the ‘rock-throwing students’ signifies the evolution of surveillance technologies in France.
As French students go on the barricades in October 2010, the inevitable comparison to the May 1968 protests will be made. There are a great number of similarities in how these events are photographically represented: the stone throwing student, the overturned and burning cars, the graffiti and banners contextualizing the desires of a generation. But the above photograph also greatly differs from the representation of students in 2010. Most importantly with regards to the emergence of a surveillance society, none of the students seek to cover their identity. Also, the vantage point of the camera is far more empathetic to the students hurling projectiles at the police, who are not even part of the photograph itself. I am of course using this comparison in order to exemplify a point here: that the representation of protest does give clues as to what type of a society this protest is occurring in. The black and white photograph taken in May 1968 is one of the most iconic representations of that event. I hesitate to guess that if a single iconic image will emerge from the ongoing protests in France, it will depict a masked man shot with a telephoto lens.
For more on this topic, please read Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.