Sunday, January 25, 2009
Stories without words
When media presenters and reporters talk about stories ‘breaking’, they are referring to the crude refinery that is a news room. It is like a well gushing. They take the crude oil or data with all its impurities and makes a sharp, clean, narrative from it, thereby excluding the dross (ie that which doesn’t fit or add anything to the story). We watch and listen to it attentively, blearily accepting the authenticity and moral stance of the service, tut tutting here and there, wondering why such and such a fiend has not been assassinated YET, annoyed at the prominence of this or that, irritated by the amusing tales they insert so that we don’t reach for the Stanley knife at the litany of bad news. Sometimes we focus a little more and argue aloud at the tv set, because the party line of the programme OBVIOUSLY doesn’t confirm our own ideals or philosophy. I do this quite a lot with Sky News. Recently, one of the royal brats showed his blue blood colours on video, when using offensive terms to his non WASP brother soldiers (all in the spirit of friendship, of course) and Sky prefaced the news item with “some of you might find what the prince had to say, offensive”, as though there were any doubt about the matter. Getting your news unprocessed and comprehensive is a search that the faint hearted may as well resist. Most news is propaganda, one way or another. Some of it is in your face but most is hidden in the sub-clauses of polite and glossily dispassionate rhetoric. In hope I watch CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC World to try to extract another view, another perception, even one depending on an alien ideology.
Two recent experiences seem worth relating in this regard. The first was on Euronews. It’s a programme I watch in France and it is available here in Ghana, too. It runs an extremely hypnotic section every hour which is labelled underneath: “No Comment”. There is no voice over, just a series of images taken from some event from war torn Gaza to Chinese children in school. Well, before you rail at this blog, I know that images can be selected to imply or underwrite the subjectivity of the camera-wielder but the long panoramic sweeps, the tight focus on details, the minutes-long takes, allow me to look around and not be chased into a particular view by the commentary. Thus it was that, after seeing Obama being inaugurated on one channel, I switched to Euronews and was spellbound by tracking shots of the presidential limo with its inches thick metal and glass, heading for the White House. It took forever and made it feel as though you were in a Godfather film. The car inched along flanked on four corners by Agents-Smith from The Matrix and further State security guards hanging out of the doors of accompanying cars. When the camera swept upwards, there were the snipers on roofs. When the camera panned the crowd, herded behind rails I was like the guy in Jaws, watching for the shark to leap and take someone. Not another JFK my mind muttered.
Speaking of sharks (I don’t need to mention them again!), the notion of animal as killing machine came to the fore last night when probably the most riveting natural narrative to come out of a camera lens was documented on National Geographic. Eight and a half minutes of being in the right place at the right time and with a loaded zoom movie camera. This was the ‘plot’. Tourists, cameras flashing, watching a herd of buffalo, A pride of lions attack and cut off a buffalo offspring, forcing it into the water. Suddenly there are five or so lions mauling it. It screams. At this moment there is a ferocious geyser of water and at its head flies a big crocodile. The lions are bemused like the cat in your house when presented with something alien. It snaps and shows its teeth, then grasps the baby victim. There is a tug of war and the croc is pulled out of the water. Too much. He lets go and the lions prepare themselves for the feast with much purring and gnashing of teeth. The baby continues screaming. Then, out of the left side-frame of the image comes the herd, again. They come close to the lions, indecisive at first because of their apparent ages-old enmity. But one – a Darwinian change agent – suddenly transcends fear and charges, forcing a lion away from the pack and chasing it off. Another (was it the same beast returning?), charged again and lifted a lion into mid air with its horns. Then the calf was miraculously free and melting into the herd to be replaced by rows of lowered horns. The lions ran, ignominiously, though that’s my word and terrible anthropomorphism! Eight and a half minutes of pure gold camera work. No cutting room. No voice over, except for yells of shock, disbelief and triumph from the tourists.
It’s on YouTube and millions have watched it so far. Will you?