Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Simon Turner - Form and Novelty and Ghostwatch: Some Thoughts

Earlier on this evening I was speaking to my illustrious co-editor, and for those who care (not many of you, I'll wager) much of the conversation - the parts I can repeat here, anyway - revolved around questions of narrative tropes, their impact in the socio-political sphere (media representations, the restrictions of totalistic ideology on dialogue and thought-processes, the usual spiel), and the means available to the individual to escape them: basically, we were riffing on what George had posted earlier in the week, because our lives are that self-absorbed.  Then, obviously, we got on to Thor

George promises me that he'll post in depth about Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of the Marvel superhero, which he claims is something of a masterpiece of the genre, at a later date.  I'm pleased, as I've not seen the film yet, so any comments I might have would be entirely speculative and apocryphal in character, so I won't try.  But George's enthusiasm for the movie - bear with me, this is leading places - got me thinking about the question of narrative and form in purely artistic terms, and how forms tend to revivify themselves through the incorporation of alternative modes and techniques.  Indeed, in its early stages of existence, any form (the novel, say, or cinema itself) might neccesarily have to leech its ideas, at least to a certain extent, from pre-existing forms, just to get the ball rolling.  Early novels, for example, took journalism and autobiography as their starting points (see Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year and Robinson Crusoe, which both use the trappings of existing non-fiction forms to tell their wholly fictional narratives, not because Defoe was a post-modernist before the fact, but because the novel, being so young, didn't have any conventions yet, so ready-made conventions needed to be imported for the stories to be told).  A little later, letters became a staple mode for the novel to adopt (hence Richardson's Pamela, and the creation of the epistolary novel, a long-running subspecies of fiction that shows little sign of abating). 

The advent of modernism(s) in the 20th century, meanwhile, saw an explosion of possiblities in all of the arts, and one of the consequences was that the novel became increasingly omniverous in its approach to borrowing forms: Nabokov's Pale Fire takes the shape of a scholarly exegesis of a long poem (also included); Mark Dunn's Ibid, meanwhile, is composed entirely of (fictional) footnotes to a destroyed (and equally fictional) manuscript; whilst Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, ingeniously tells its story of a relationship falling apart through the photographic form of an auctioneer's catalogue.  It's a truism to say that poetry refreshes itself through translation, but form can stagnate as well as language, and can just as easily be translated across boundaries into new contexts and continuities.

The run of movies, stretching back to The Blair Witch Project - and beyond - that use the visual language of 'found footage' to tell their stories is a good example of this process.  There's nothing more tired than a haunted-house horror (Paranormal Activity), or the monster-on-the-loose-in-New-York schtick (Cloverfield), but both cliches are energised by being recontextualised through the imported, realtively new forms of, respectively, handheld camera footage and closed circuit television.  (The use of cinema verite techniques such as these adds another frisson to proceedings, as such methods draw attention to the act of looking and recording, making these movies self-reflective texts by default.)         

I say 'relatively new', because a lot of this kind of thing had been done before - and to much more devastating effect - by the BBC in 1992.  Ghostwatch - available in its entirety on Google videos, for anyone who wasn't traumatised by the original broadcast - remains the most controversial moment in the corporation's history, and goes down as the only program on record to cause PTSD in some members of its audience.  Ghostwatch, shown as part of the Screen One series of films on Halloween Night in 1992, took the (fictional) form of a live boradcast purporting to investigate 'the most haunted house in Britain' (in Northolt, but it had to be somewhere).  In the studio, Michael Parkinson, a living legend and an entire nation's favourite Yorkshire uncle, acted as master of ceremonies, whilst the show's field reporters were Sarah Greene (of Going Live! and the subject of a million schoolboy crushes) and Craig Charles (of Red Dwarf and, hopefully, NOT the subject of a million schoolboy crushes), on location at the house in question

Ghostwatch is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least which, in the light of George's postings about anti-narrative, is its wilfully counter-intuitive approach to storytelling.  By neccesity, the pretence of a live broadcast needs to be maintained, so nothing really happens for the first 45 mintues or so.  Indeed, some very smart games relating to narrative truth and reliability are played midway through, and a number of curveballs are thrown at the audience in quick succession, which makes the final act of the piece all the more troubling.  Aside from the often disturbing content of the narrative itself, Ghostwatch is troubling precisely because of its refusal to draw a clear boundary between fiction and fact: it's not a question of its being a 'hoax' - it was clearly billed and trailed as a drama; I was 12 and knew it wasn't true, but was frightened nonetheless - more the fact that it draws attention to the narrative tropes of 'factual' television years before Big Brother blurred comparable boundaries in a 'factual' setting.  One comes away from Ghostwatch a more sceptical human being, distrusting everything the tv tells you is true.  For that reason alone, it's a radical treasure.  In essence, Ghostwatch did for tv what Hayden White did for historical study: shatter its conventions and reconstruct them anew.

Eyepopping hyperbole: the blogger's best friend.  That's all for now folks.  I've some longer - and, hopefully, more intellecually rounded - posts in the pipeline.  To anyone who's interested, feel free to use the comments to point the Editors towards any other texts - film, fiction, poetry - that revivify their chosen medium through the importation of new or antithetical elements.  Let's build a hydrid canon...

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