Friday, March 11, 2011

The West Virginia Mine Wars

The Republicans in Congress are trying to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities out of the federal budget, essentially eliminating all federal support for the arts, including support for documentary films. That's just one more way to stifle independent voices.

At a time when protests -- both non-violent and violent -- are sweeping the Middle East and Africa, and American unions -- supported by college students -- are struggling to fight off Republican attacks on the remnants of the labor movement, let's recall the kind of documentaries public money has helped produce.

Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Mine Wars (1985), directed and edited by Danny L. McGuire, was produced by WPBY-TV and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority with money from The Humanities Foundation of West Virginia and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a simple documentary -- narration, still photos and interviews -- that recreates the beginning of the labor movement in America, and the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It packs a surprising wallop.

In 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners -- many of them WWI vets -- marched up Blair Mountain to get at the coal mines and company towns on the other side of the mountain, triggering the bloodiest fight between labor and capital in America's history. The mine owners defended their mines and shanty towns with 3,000 hired thugs -- armed with rifles, machine guns and a small cannon -- dug in at the top of Blair Mountain, and hired private planes to bomb the miners with explosives and tear gas. Finally, Warren G. Harding sent federal troops to Blair Mountain to disarm both sides. Until the documentary was made in 1985, Blair Mountain had dropped out of American history.


Even the Heavens Weep, WV Educational Broadcasting Authority

Even the Heavens Weep is an important historical document, pulled together from archival photos and news clippings, framed by a good script. The photographs of the working conditions in coal mines before the unions and of the living conditions in the "company towns" at the West Virginia mines are, at the same time, a grim reminder of the past, and a horrifying glimpse into what the future of workers might look like in America, Inc.

Even the Heavens Weep is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. For anyone interested in the labor movement and in understanding what that movement was originally about -- whether or not you know who John L. Lewis and Mother Jones are or where the name "redneck" came from -- it's more than worth the effort to get it.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the mine owners’ determination to smother the nascent union movement early in the 20th Century and corporate government’s determination to finish off the vestiges of the union movement now.

But it’s even harder not to see the differences. The early unions had the energy of youth and the excitement of their discovery of solidarity and brotherhood on their side, and the course of history was in their favor, even if it took ten more years, the Great Depression and the New Deal to establish the unions. (By the time Roosevelt threw the weight of the federal government behind the unions, every working man and woman in American would be hurting from the economic collapse that followed the drastic consolidation of wealth into hands of a few, privileged Americans that touched off the Great Depression.)

Nowadays, the union movement is on the wane. Fighting to protect public employee unions feels almost like fighting to protect an endangered species. Many Americans are hurting, and, in fact, will never work again. But there are too many Americans who are not hurting this time. The country and the economy is too big for 10,000 marchers to make a difference, even if they were armed — is that even conceivable anymore — and could find somebody to march against. It feels like the only thing left to document is the end of the labor movement in America. And maybe we won’t even bother to do that.

Films like Even the Heavens Weep don't cost a lot of money to make, but they do take time and dedication. And it takes backing to get the kind of interviews with historians McGuire uses to pull the archival footage and photos together. Without the mantle of the CPB, the NEA or the NEH, particularly for young film makers, getting access to credible sources can be extremely difficult --almost impossible -- to do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

mise-en-scènes: Most Of The Web's Are A Mess

We're all McLuhanistas now.

We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web, for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the world wide web, television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its content.

The web started out where the media that preceded it ended up, as a mass distribution network. The content of the web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films. (Or, for that matter, the way film, created for televison, is made "episodic.")

There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the web will look like -- unless it is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the web and real life as, essentially, one and the same -- much less, what the "art" of that medium might be.

Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to cable television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage -- usually without adding value -- to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the world wide web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content --print, film, television and the other media -- to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the web is -- with a few notable exceptions  -- a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die.

The history of television is instructive.  Film has been kinder to books than television -- the medium the web resembles most -- has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended time of series like The Sopranos, Rome, and Angels in America have given audiences more time with the characters and mise-en-scènes of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène -- a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script -- takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mise-en-scènes of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes whose blocking and cinematography develop the illusion of depth on the screen and recreate the real world.

Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up -- along with made for TV movies -- feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television -- just as novels may end up as films -- but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.

The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases, designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.

The web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing.

Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the world wide web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. (Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense.)

The web has not found a way to adapt content -- to transform a subject -- without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event -- a favorite of muckraking sites and tabloids -- their mise-en-scènes are, frankly, a mess. They quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.