Maron and the Radio/Podcast Antagonism

As a podcast producer and an academic interested in podcasting from a research perspective watching episode 10, season 2 of the Netflix comedy Maron entitled ‘Radio Cowboy', I was struck by how the show riffed on many of the conceptual debates around the definition and status of the medium. The episode cleverly explores the hierarchical animosity between purveyors of 'old' and 'new' platforms in an uncertain media landscape. Maron is based on an exaggerated version of Marc Maron's own life as a comedian and host of the highly successful podcast WFT with scenes being shot in Marc's famed garage, showing his trademark confessional monologues and conversational interviews. This episode, however,  directly comments upon the technological, social and cultural distinctions between podcasting and radio which are tied to Maron's insecurities as a central figure in podcasting's expansion as a influential medium.

The episode begins with Maron being ‘interviewed' on a stereotypically low-brow morning talk show with the obnoxious hosts wasting no time in disparaging the podcast as a form:

Presenter 1: In addition to Marc being a comic, he is also the host of a popular podcast.

Presenter 2: Hold on, there's no such thing as a popular podcast

Maron: ohhh, zing, sorry but I actually got a pretty good listener base and you know I used to do radio but I prefer podcasting. A lot more freedom.

Presenter 1: So you prefer not to make money?

This opening exchange rehearses familiar criticisms concerning low levels of distribution and the lack of a viable economic infrastructure. Maron's defensive repost regarding the freedom that podcasting offers is illustrated immediately as the second presenter awkwardly segues into incongruous and awkward advertising bit. In an allusion to the amateur, DIY sensibility of podcasting the radio presenters then joke about Marc producing his show from his garage.  This first scene ends with, Maron launching into a rant about radio's obsolescence:

Maron: You guys can goof all you want but you are making fart noises on the Titanic. You think anybody is entertained by this? Maybe before there were choices, but you are losing listeners every day. This isn't interesting, it's not engaging. This is a hostage situation for people who don't have a smartphone. And your format restrictions are ridiculous. Why do you feel compelled to give out the time every 5 minutes? All cars have the time. All computer screens have the time on them. There are clocks everywhere. Yet with OCD precision you are always compelled to give out the time. It's horrendous.

 Presenter 2: It's 8:25.

Clearly, this encounter seeks to highlight, as a basis for the comedy, many of the sideswipes that Maron has obviously heard time and again regarding podcasting's status compared to its established rival. As a podcast producer and researcher, such criticisms are very familiar particularly the difficulties concerning economic self-sufficiency. Indeed, economic viability is the great unanswered question at heart of debates around the digital revolution. However, the counter-arguments around creative and intellectual freedom for both producers and listeners define its appeal along with the sense that podcasting still possesses an aura of dissenting, edginess.

Maron's disdain for radio is tempered however when, while channel surfing in his car, he comes across an inventively funny late-night mock talk show. Marc is so impressed that goes down to the station and befriends the host Bill Shepard (Phil Hendrie). The two immediately hit it off as Maron recognises the host as a virtuoso of the live broadcast, someone who can create an entertaining, multi-layered conversation using only his voice. Shepard introduces Maron to some of his ‘Radio Cowboy' friends who all lament the way that corporate radio has treated them, yet they still torment Maron about his defection to podcasting. Interestingly, the central objection is the lack of liveness, which Shepard and his colleagues see as the fundamental ingredient that gives radio its identity and its relevance. The sense of connection and interactivity with the audience underpins radio's immediacy and what in academic parlance is called co-presence: the intimacy that the listener experiences knowing that what they are hearing is happening in real time.

The response is from Maron is that podcasting’s interactivity with its audience has to be integrated with the creative use of social media. Undoubtedly, in the internet era broadcast radio also utilises the likes of Facebook and Twitter to reach its audience but it is not integral to the building of, and relationship to, the audience in the way that podcasting is. This epitomises the liminal nature of the podcast in that it operates in an "in-between" space, reliant on the cross-platform, networked infrastructure of the internet while also drawing upon many of the traditional, formal aspects of radio. Indeed, it is interesting how this serialised television comedy, available through an online streaming service, and drawing upon the podcast in a visual and narrative sense, exemplifies visual/audio/networked trans-mediation.

After his encounter with Shepard and the other 'radio cowboys' Maron records a monologue in which he reconsiders the merits of radio broadcasting and how it taught him to "talk solo" and "riff out", skills that allowed to become perhaps the first podcast star. Also, Shepard grudging compliments Maron as a pioneer and states he is envious of his independence from the corporate machinery that compromised his own career and the art of radio. Maron is, at the end of the day, a comedy, but its writing draws astutely on hierarchical enmities between those invested in competing notions media success and status and pointedly foregrounds how ‘liveness' is at the root of the conceptual distinction between podcasting and radio. But is also rightly asserts that the two forms are deeply interconnected by the same fundamental DNA.

High-Rise: Audacious Masterpiece or Underwhelming Mess? (some spoilers)

So I finally got to see Ben Wheatley's adaptation of High-Rise which I had been anticipating for some time (see blog of December 31). I have to say however, that I left the theatre in an state of ambivalence. In many ways the form in which Ballard's difficult novel has been translated to the screen should have really immersed and provoked me, yet I couldn't help feeling that the film was actually less than the sum of its parts.

On a positive note, one cannot help but be impressed by the visual audacity. Evoking a tone which amalgamated 70s kitsch, modernist brutalism and baroque fantasy, the beauty of the images, many of which are aesthetically mesmerising, imbues the social break-down with a ironic and sickening aura. Certain shots are slowed down almost to allow full contemplation of the beauty/horror, but this is counterposed with a lot of heavy editing between different scenes and characters. Wheatley plays with the visual metaphor of child's kaleidoscope both in specific framings and within the editing structure, which alludes to the drug fueled hedonism. There is a randomness to the collage of images, which on the one hand, reflects the chaos of societal disintegration, however for me it came at the expense of a build-up of any real tension.

As the film progressed, with all aspects of structural rule collapsing, the editing becomes more frenzied; and whereas one can see and understand that the director is fusing content with form here, the effect bordered on becoming incoherent and tiresome. Furthermore, obsession with individual images and overwrought editing led to an underdevelopment of the 'character' of the building itself; the brutalist architecture, the ultra-striated spaces, the cold uniformity of interiors, all could have been evoked much more centrally as the underpinning to the social hierarchy and, in turn, the cause of the social disintegration. The film's relentless cultivation of its form and style ended up getting in the way of a more allegorical exploration, which I was craving.

It is certainly the case that my familiarity with the book, and hence my preconceived expectations, were influencing me and perhaps in a negative way. The film doesn't attempt to answer obvious questions that I had when reading the book, i.e. why doesn't Laing just leave? Indeed, I think Wheatley's production design is aimed at offsetting such instrumental questions, and watching the film with a realist mindset is a non-starter. But that's fine. My memory of reading the text was of the nuanced yet prescient allusions to the influence of spatial organisation on behaviour, class distinctions, the inherent inequalities of capitalism, the narcissism of the modern subject, media and notion of spectacle, and the encroachment of technology on the human condition. Ballard was able to strike a balance between portentousness and satire, between intellectual substance and stylistic flair. This balance was, to me, somewhat uneven in the film. The social allegory was overwhelmed, rather than enhanced, by the film's aesthetics. Indeed, I wondered what those who hadn't read Ballard's novel would get this through the film. In the end I felt that, as with many adaptations, High-Rise might have worked better if it had taken the novel as a reference point rather than attempting to be so faithful.

My reaction to the cast, or perhaps more accurately the characterisation, added to my somewhat exasperated reaction. Tom Hiddlestone was very good as Laing showing a sense of uncertainty in negotiating the social mores of his new surroundings: how immersion within and detachment from the unfolding situation was a comment on human adaptability and survival. The problem was, both visually and in terms of his approach to the role, he seemed be in a different film from everyone else. All the other actors were embodying a louche 1970s sensibility that went way over the top at times. James Purefoy and Luke Evans was a particular offender in this regard, but in all fairness this was perhaps more of an issue overall direction and tone. The film occasionally falls into the campy territory of BBC nostalgia trip Life on Mars (even before Keely Hawes turns up).  

These moments undermined a sense of real darkness and savage political bite that I wanted the film to have. It is clear that High-Rise is very much indebted to A Clockwork Orange and the production design, soundtrack and cinematography also reminded me somewhat Nicolas Winding-Refn's Bronson. Visually, High-Rise can definitely compare but it is doesn't go as far as those films in terms of barbaric ruthlessness, cruel yet knowing humour or, particularly in terms of Kubrick classic, cultural pertinence.

The film has certainly had a polarising effect.  In reading other reviews there seems to be not much grey area between explicit praise and utter rejection. There were at least 6 walkouts in the screening I was in. I wonder whether this was anything to do with the postmortem face peeling, the dog roasting, the sexual violence, or whether they thought the film just didn't go anywhere,  all of which could be true. It's kind of how I felt.  My overarching sense, however, was of a film in which the obsession with surface and style choked the fundamental thematic and political underpinning. Because of this, it played as a visually stunning yet curiously dissatisfying retro mash-up which lacked the allegorical weight I really wanted it to possess.

 

In Anticipation of High-Rise

Ballard.jpg

One of the positive outcomes of a bout of Christmas Eve manflu is that it affords the opportunity to lie in bed and tackle a novel from cover to cover. J.G. Ballard's dystopian science-fiction novel High-Rise sat on my 'to read' shelf expectantly for some time and I was determined get to the book before the release of Ben Wheatley's film adaptation in March this year. First published in 1975 High-Rise is a terse and brutal tale of the breakdown of social organisation within the confines of a huge, self-contained luxury apartment building. Rather than a singular sinister force enacting power through surveillance and control however, the book deconstructs the mechanisms of social propriety with the interior of the tower providing both a microcosm of ingrained yet precarious social hierarchies and an arena that frames and amplifies the resultant carnage.

As in most effective sci-fi, the ideas highlighted in the book have an allegorical prescience that still registers even though its tone and setting place it within the 1970s. Certainly there is a pointed critique of an alienated existence resulting from the functional architectural trends of the mid 20th century, along with prophetic allusions to the beginnings of a total saturation of image based culture. It is the interrelationship between physical space and social class that is perhaps the central concern. Ballard sets up the implicit habitus of the three protagonists through their differing positionings within the physical space of the building and, concomitantly, specific social groupings. There is somewhat of an inevitability of the familiar class distinction becoming aligned with the lower, middle and upper sections of the High-Rise. What I found particularly ingenious was the way even the mechanics of the class system disintegrate, firstly into feudally factions and then into a pure and savage individualism. Each apartment, corridor staircase and concorse become symbolic and material battlegrounds in a fight for personal survival. These thematic developments take on a blackly ironic prescience when one thinks of the seemingly inexorable force of neoliberal ideology today. 

There are many obvious comparisons with the dystopian fiction of Orwell, Huxley, Phillip K. Dick. The spectres of Joseph Conrad and William Golding are also apposite with the allusions to the precariousness of civil society and the latent primitivism of the human condition. Knowing a film adaptation has been completed and is shortly to be released, one is drawn into envisaging the cinematic possibilities. Certainly there is a Battle Royal/Hunger Games element to the gladiatorial violence and at times when reading the book one can envisage a more conspiracy/paranoia slant, a la The Conversation or The Parallax view, that plays with the incongruousness of 70s high-life chic with the rigid, utilitarian and oppressive aura of the high-rise tower. The production design possibilities even offer the promise of a more experimental visual approach, something that might be as uniquely memorable as A Clockwork Orange, Brazil, Gattaca or Snowpiercer.

From the short snippet of the film I have watched, along with the fantastic poster by Jay Shaw (right), the film looks to be part of what seems like the current cultural obsession with nostalgia and retro. It not only looks to be set in the 1970s but mimics the formal aesthetics of that cinematic era. I'm wondering as to whether this approach will yield anything more than a flat pastiche. On reading the novel I thought that a film adaptation could potentially be more reflective of present concerns about economics, technology, identitiy politics and cultural geography. The proof, as always will be in the watching. Ben Wheatley is undoubtedly a promising choice as director. His horror credentials - with Down Terrace and Kill List - demonstrate a skill for creating tension building scenarios and gut-churning outcomes and his latest feature A Field in England possesses visual narrative and flair. These creative elements all bode well in a turn to dystopian fiction and the hope for me is that High-Rise Joins Under the Skin and Ex_Machina as part of a highly accomplished cycle of British inflected, 'hard' Science-Fiction. 

On what a blockbuster should be: Mad Max: Fury Road

I don't like contemporary blockbusters. Or more accurately I don't like the contemporary blockbuster machine or the films it produces. The franchising of vapid, comic book worlds reliant on weightless CGI, overwrought with incomprehensible plotting and undramatic drama, and populated by superficial ciphers for the most egregious stereotypes. Perhaps most of all I hate the unquestioning fandom, not that fans don’t criticise (my word they do) but the belief that such opinions carry a weight that somehow transcends their economic obedience is, for me, at best naïve, at worst, cultural dupery in the extreme.  Fans, in investing in the trans-media universe, which may once have been considered the realm of geeky outsider, have helped entrench the new mainstream corporate hegemony. In this context ‘creativity’ has the patented framework of videogame repetition, ‘uniqueness’ is sandblasted by the laser precision of digital effects forging a ‘reality’ without any danger of the ‘real’. Critical judgement reflects this sanguine narrowness with the apologetically harmless 3 star review extolling the ‘great action sequences’ and bemoaning ‘lack of character development’. Thankfully, perhaps even accidentally within this environment, Mad Max: Fury Road restores faith in possibility that an overwhelming, viscerally cinematic experience is still possible.

But hold on isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road a remake/reboot of an existing franchise? Technically yes. But it’s a film that succeeds spectacularly by rejecting prevalent mantras that afflict the majority of its contemporaries. Firstly, it creates a world that is preposterous yet wholy believable in its own terms. It does this by almost entirely foregoing pseudo-technical exposition, which almost always creates gaping plot holes, and stripping the narrative to its minimalist requirements. Instead, intricate subtleties of visual storytelling create layers of meaning, which are not definitively explained but build an immersive, believable cinematic fabric. The post-apocalyptic milieu is beautifully grotesque reducing ‘civilisation’ to a barbaric, sickening totalitarian machine within which humanity is barely recognisable.  It is at once disturbingly alien and unerringly familiar but the film requires the viewer to work to actively bridge the gap. Mad Max is bursting with the quality most mainstream blockbusters lack: imagination.

The action is quite simply incredible. This is primarily because it retains the weight of live  filming while appropriately amalgamating CGI via the increasingly lost art of good editing. Unlike the obfuscatory visuals of many action films the frenetic pace does not hamper the ability so see what is going on. In a clear allusion to Mad Max 2 the action centres largely around the chase of huge truck which metaphorically becomes the lifeboat to freedom. A pursuing army of customised vehicles look like pieces of industrial artwork which come to life as monsters without any need to ‘transform’. The action thus treads the fine balance of being totally ridiculous while retaining believability in the boundaries of its own world. Furthermore, there is a self-awareness here, and welcome lack of pious, Nolanesque darkness. Case in point is the riotously over-the-top flame throwing guitar player, accompanied by a phalanx of drummers mounted of on the back of one of the trucks, who had the audience in uproar but actually served a purpose in inserting a diegetic sound accompaniment to the chase sequences.

In amongst the visual mayhem there is a full sense of cinematic subtlety and intellectual awareness. The film manages to simultaneously sit in linear progression with the previous Mad Max films, retaining certain stylistic and thematic motifs, while unashamedly rebooting for the uninitiated viewer. The film’s central section slows to allow a painterly depiction of the empty desert symbolising the human frailty and battle for survival. These sections are as mesmerising as any of the action sequences and serve to build camaraderie between the central protagonists and empathy in the audience. An underlying feminist sensibility emerges that actually takes one by surprise. There are cues of gendered spectatorship, which set up traditional representational expectations, but these are pointedly undercut in a way that sits coherently within the story. Central to this is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa whose represents the central journey of the film while Tom Hardy, the eponymous Max of the title, remains is a psychologically anchored in his own personal hell. Not to mention how the film reinvents motherhood as the underpinning to a violent action bad-assery. 

There are some of the problems seemingly inherent to the contemporary mainstream blockbuster. The action sequences (and therefore the film as a whole) goes on too long, the ending is the patented sentimental celebration with the potential for a sequel left open. Tom Hardy is stoically monosyllabic, which is fine, but when he does speak his accent is Russell Crowe level unfathomable. Yet the film epitomises what blockbuster cinema can and should be, using cinematic visual language to transport you to another world, but one which is self-contained in its own textual boundaries. Mad Max: Fury Road gives you the space and the credit to be able to actively engage with its aesthetics and themes and it does't assume you are a naive consumer or a cultural infant.