Habits of Consumption When You’re (Lock)Down and Out: The Efficacy of Old Forms in the Time of a ‘New Normal’
Cinema has time and time again foretold of its own slow death — any change to its established forms is often met with a disdainful hostility: the introduction of sound in the 1920s, the prominence of television in the 1950s, and from there we have the dawn of video/online piracy, digital filmmaking and projection, and now the age of streaming. Each time, the existential dilemmas that it places upon itself fade away, and all this fuss over some false cinematic doom is less tragedy and more tragic. The superhero boom of recent years is as much an industrial declaration of cinema’s visual potency in reaction to the rise of small-screen media as CinemaScope was towards the threat of television. For CinemaScope and TV however, the outcome was not a victory of attrition but an inevitable armistice.
The same can be said of contemporary cinema, as well as even traditional television, and streaming. Disney figured this out, and now everybody’s favourite cine-monopolists have brought out Disney+. Elsewhere, the industry is still trying to figure out its own relationship with streaming services. You have the likes of Martin Scorsese wholeheartedly embracing the increasingly digital nature of screen culture with The Irishman (2019) — but you also have Quentin Tarantino whose love for the forms of 60s screen culture, as evidenced in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), is far more dismissive of the trends of the present. Tarantino’s indifference is understandable, if not a tad reactionary — the increasing dominance of digital streaming does indeed pose a threat, but only as a tool; as something manipulated. Digital streaming is often seen as synonymous with a mass-production/mass-access culture that contemporary capitalism has allowed to thrive; a synonymity to be challenged. The likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime may churn out ladleful-by-overspilling-ladleful of its own thin and flavourless data-driven broth, but this is not totally representative of the potential that this mass-access jungle hides. Services like MUBI offer a more curated experience of streaming, combatting the 500-channels-and-nothing-on ennui of mass streaming. Then there’s piracy which, for all its legal and cultural scepticisms, has been an essential — if imperfect — method of not only consumption but also production and distribution. Private tracker sites like Karagarga have been crucial in the digital conservation of visual art which both soulless legal barriers and the demand-driven world of digital corporatism has complicated. The challenge therefore is to create a language around digital streaming, and the technology of mass-access, that is framed outside of the capitalist mode of consumption and production — an undoubtedly difficult one.
There is an assumption that the coronavirus pandemic has somehow “exposed” the follies of neoliberal capitalism — on the contrary; if anything, it has actively sought to exploit this crisis to further itself. It may have highlighted some of the failings of liberal democracy, but even that remains a contempt which here in Britain has insubstantial popular praxis behind it. Many of us have developed far more insular habits, but for those who are unable to follow social distancing or work-from-home due to whatever personal circumstances, (i.e. frontline health and care staff, sex workers, shopkeepers, etc’), that “stay at home” declaration becomes both an ideal and a site of privilege. Mass-access media has dictated our consumption habits, and consequently, these consumption habits have shaped production. Now Netflix and the gang have effectively resurrected the cinematic monopolies that the Paramount Decree sought to destroy, supplanting high-street picturehouses with cyberspace — an idea now exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. Francesco Casetti considers our move towards a culture of mass-access an example of “hypertopia” — an inversion of Michel Foucault’s proposed heterotopias — whereby these experiences now come to us rather than vice versa. The worry now with this accelerated hypertopian situation is the idea that there is “progress” being made — that this hypertopia is an idealised next-step in a grand technological narrative that seeks to erase, or at least dismiss, the technologies of the past. It is a tremendously problematic notion; one that helps legitimise both the highly-exploitative nature of an emerging gig economy and the dismissal of alternative forms out of cultural conversation.
Personally, this newfound time — or what time I actually have outside of being ill and general lethargy — has also been spent around older media. The relationship between myself and the media in my immediate environment has mainly (although certainly not exclusively) gravitated towards the contemporary mediums of streaming and online gaming. I have piles of unopened Blu-Rays and DVDs in my bedroom, but even they continue to go undiscovered. The promises of being pro-active during lockdown are difficult to keep — but there is an unnecessary guilt aimed towards laziness, especially at times like this: that ultimately we shouldn’t feel shameful at our lack of productivity. And although indulging in cinema is one of my ultimate joys, sometimes I just have to confess— I’m not in the mood. So, I ended up digging deeper beneath old clothes and unopened copies of ‘Shanghai Noon’, only to find another neglected substratum. An old GameBoy Advance which, to my amazement, had a whole eight seconds of battery life still left in it. My dad’s limited edition Terminator VHS boxset, released around the time of Terminator 2: Judgement Day back in 1992, a whole three years before I was even born. Blank CD cases with my old music recordings on them (CDs which will subsequently be burned). Even deeper down — an old miniDV camera I had bought while I was at primary school. From memory, this was one of my oldest experiences with “filmmaking”:
…When I was 10, a friend’s sister had a made a series of backyard comedy skits for her A-level media class — he was the star. I remember being profoundly jealous of his access to a camera. It’s only later that I could begin to understand that this jealousy was one of misplaced class envy. My family are not strictly working class, but have never had the luxuries or ease-of-living that many of my upper-middle or outright-rich school friends enjoyed. We existed somewhere in the gray space between upper-working and lower-middle— a family consistently trying to appear as middle-class as possible. Many of my friends had broadband internet, while we were still getting by on dial-up. My friends owned their homes, while we rented. My friends had 50-inch HD TVs and Sky packages, while we still had a CRT and freeview. I remember my friends getting Pokémon LeafGreen and FireRed in the autumn of 2004 — I got LeafGreen for Christmas, but by the time the new year had begun, the trend had died out. I remember going to a friend’s birthday party, watching Star Wars on his big television before going up to his room, choosing between three consoles, before settling on a run ’n’ gun game for the Xbox (its name escapes me).
These complaints are very ‘petty bourgeois’ in hindsight and speak of a specific anxiety of early male/class identity, but that alienation, inexpressible as a kid — and an autistic kid to boot — manifested itself as confusion. It was one strain of my anxiety that I began to read as “I don’t have this therefore I’m not cool”. Now I realise this friend-on-film was not well-off either — not that this mattered to me at the time. And so, my parents eventually bought me a camera and I made a skit with my friend. It was unfunny, it was forced, and it was never shown to my classmates because it was replete with blasphemy — something which generally does not sit too well with rural English church schools…
Exorcising childhood anxieties aside, it reminded me of the importance of nostalgia — or rather the fragility of it. Remembrance that exists somewhere between the material and emotional — one which can become a dangerously addictive thing to appeal to, but if understood and unpacked, can be a therapeutic experience. The Sega Dreamcast pictured above was not the same one I owned back when I was five, neither was the copy of Ready 2 Rumble or Sonic Adventure. Yet one day, in an urge of stoned nostalgia, I decided to buy it. The true original experience, of course, cannot be channeled. Sonic Adventure as a game has aged dreadfully, as painful as that opinion is to express, but there is more than just function and form to take away from this. Keith Stuart writing for Eurogamer expresses an oh-so-true statement about the legacy of the Dreamcast:
When you look at Jet Set Radio and Rez now, it’s clear Sega’s studios were really thinking about the future of video game design — they were channelling the music, imagery and dynamism of Tokyo into fresh interactive experiences. With each new console generation, manufacturers often talk about photographic realism as the ultimate aim, but with the Dreamcast and its Naomi arcade offshoot, the instinct seemed to be more transgressive — it was about using the technology to explore different visual ideas and possibilities. Rez treated sound as a material, as a physical realm, its graphics providing a kind of three-dimensional score to the thumping beats. Crazy Taxi and Jet Set Radio both created cities that were weird and loud and primary-coloured rather than cities that resembled the real world. Sometimes, I wonder if Sega knew the end of was coming when it began to support the Dreamcast with games such as these, and with Seaman, SegaGagaga and ChuChuRocket — if it thought there was a future, how could it have been so brave, so reckless?
Let it be said that the Dreamcast was not a perfect console — its controller is a bulky uncomfortable mess, its design feels cheap and unsophisticated when rivaled with Sony’s PlayStation and later PlayStation 2, and its disc drive will likely get you noise complaints from the neighbours. Yet in both style and content, this was a console that saw gaming’s creative potential heading somewhere other than just the CPU-destroying dry realism and trend-driven mechanics that dominate contemporary AAA development. And for all of Sonic Adventure’s flaws, the aesthetic details that it flaunted fundamentally shaped the sensory aesthetics which I appreciate to this day. The music alone has not only influenced the music I have written, but also the music I find myself listening to. For that, I cannot simply dismiss it.
Media nostalgia has, however, reached an interesting fork in the road. Some technologies like DVDs have yet to hit that potent nostalgia mark, likely because they are still a viable (albeit dwindling) media source. The rise of commercialised nostalgia with the vinyl boom and to a lesser extent VHS cassettes may have given some an anxiety about “forgetting” the DVD, whilst simultaneously many still wonder when exactly DVDs will fade into obsolescence. However, it is difficult to render a clear nostalgic language around DVDs if they are never allowed to be forgotten — that is to say: you cannot miss what you have never allowed yourself to lose. The hypertopian reality of the coronavirus has, for me at least, provided a dual media existence: one in touch with the media that comes to me and the media that was with me from the beginning; incomplete/damaged/forgotten or otherwise.
This begs a question — within this extreme hypertopia, what can we interpret of individual works released and consumed within this new media context? Time spent reflecting on old media during this pandemic is one thing, but what of the viability of new media and its offerings in this time? The two works which come to mind for me are Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness — pop culture bodies that have, in their own ways, dominated the discourse of pandemic-time pop cultural consumption. The success of both can be attributed to the fruits of mass-access — however, both AC:NH and Tiger King represent opposing ideological workings located within this same new cultural context. For AC:NH, the appeal is very much in the triviality of its central conceit — you move to a new island, carry out various daily tasks and objectives to earn rewards, then use these rewards to contribute towards improving and managing the layout of island life. Though there are goals and objectives, there is no endgame — instead, it emphasises a more patient and contemplative design conviction. The contextual irony of escapist idealism will not be lost on the audience; a game which projects the pleasures of being outdoors and the importance of social interaction, while outside of that red-and-blue frame the opposite has become a necessity. While this may seem like an obvious observation, it is nonetheless crucial when placed into context with the implied politics of shows like Tiger King. The show deals with the world of big cat breeders and keepers, focusing on human hyperbole Joe Exotic and his beef with Carole Baskin, proprietor of the Big Cat Rescue sanctuary. In all admittance, Tiger King is (in spirit if not explicitly in content) another shade of the true crime deluge that has proved so popular over the past decade — felt in its episodic rhythms, E!-journalistic style of analysis, commodified sense of tonal control, and self-justified need to continually repeat and pad and saturate the screen with information. At times, it seems like a caricature of an explicitly American masculinity and even hints at explorations of white Southern queer identity. It succeeds at neither; and as with Netflix’s previous true-crime trend, Don’t F*** With Cats, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin clumsily allow its subjects to become icons. If there are conversations to be had over the moral efficacy of exotic animal storage, then allowing the entitled misogyny of Joe Exotic and his fellow cat breeders towards Carole Baskin to take precedent in that conversation shows a remarkable failure on the filmmaker’s part.
Contrary to surface readings of their tonality, it isn’t unfair to say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a work of far greater maturity than that of Tiger King. AC:NH may not be any great masterwork of political action or anarchist passion: an in-game turnip-based stock market, placating somewhat to colonial fantasies, and the presence of Tom Nook betray this, even if the absence of money is not the threat of death it is within the reality of capitalism. Yet its pervasive philosophy of spirited collectivism and meditative interaction is a far-cry from that of Tiger King’s hegemonic pandering and cynicism. AC:NH uses its platform in a time of great social introversion to extol the virtues and whimsies of extroversion — meanwhile, Tiger King feels much more like a tool in Netflix’s exploitation of a crisis. Undoubtedly AC:NH has benefited from this crisis too, but as is the Netflix way, Tiger King feels far more like it was conceived within a cold data womb. Its view of the world outside is not a joyous one, as its message is wrapped up in the inelegant narrative politics that buy into the very cults of power we should be questioning right now.
Though many (including myself) have joked that we’ve all got previous experience with this so-called self-isolation, few of us could have predicted simply how uncomfortable self-isolation would be. After weeks, it feels like more than simply cabin fever: zoom chats and constant instant-messaging are no surrogate for face-to-face contact, and opening your window or going into your garden (for those lucky enough to have one) is no substitute for even the simple act of walking down the street. My wish then is not to declare that “all art under lockdown must be optimistic/happy/celebratory” — on the contrary, the reality of the pandemic feels decidedly opposite. For those who aren’t able to commit to lockdown procedures, these calls for positivity are loaded with privileged condescension — like Gal Gadot and her celebrity cohort singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ from the comfort of their mansions. Rather I wish to simply express that the art and mediums I have warmed to the most in these times are the ones which disrupt and/or provide alternatives to the narratives which seek to exploit this crisis. Those which leave us questioning our assumptions of technological progress, reflecting on the importance of community and empathy, wishing for optimism over misanthropy, and constructively critiquing the icons that dictate and dominate our current hypertopian screen-fuelled moment.