Unsound bites

Unsound bites

The launch marketing of The American foundered on a clash between two cinematic cultures, which is ironic given the subject of the film. The abuse of marketing in US and UK politics threatens social and cultural integrity itself.

When Anton Corbijn’s The American was released it was sold as an action vehicle for George Clooney, set in gorgeous Italian landscapes. I wasn’t excited at the prospect, so when I recently caught up with the film I was pleasantly surprised. Although the film has the semblance of a thriller plot (Clooney plays an assassin lying low after some kind of screw up in Sweden), it was barely an action movie at all, but rather a meditation on the dehumanising effects of living without commitment or the emotional burden of ethics.

Clooney, and indeed all the other actors are very good. Once you’ve worked out where it’s going the story is predictable, but then the story’s not really the point. The film is engaging, in a laid back way. It doesn’t have anything complicated to say, but quite a lot to show.

It’s easy to see the film itself as a working through of feelings about the influence of Hollywood on European cinema. There’s even a pointed scene where Sergio Leonie’s Once Upon a Time in the West is showing on a TV in a bar. Clooney’s presence sets up expectations of the kind of film this might be, and then goes off in a different direction. It’s an acknowledgement of American craft and skill, while insisting that there’s a bigger universe out there.

The American had a limited budget and has made a decent profit, but it didn’t have its producers’ desired impact on release. Perhaps the trailers were part of the problem, editing together some of the film’s few action sequences, so the reality was bound to disappoint people who’d gone along expecting something like Taken.

Marketing is an important part of the Hollywood machine. It can account for 60 per cent of a blockbuster’s budget, which seems ironic when you’d have thought the point of a blockbuster concept is that it should more or less sell itself. The reality is more complicated, particularly in a world where there are so many competing claims on our attention (worryingly for Hollywood, US cinema attendance by those under 24 has fallen sharply in recent years).

But you have to wonder at the wisdom of trying to sell a film (or anything) as something that it’s not. Some kind of backlash will always be likely, and social media will amplify that backlash.

It also goes against what I’d always understood as a fundamental principle of marketing, which is to match the nature of a proposition to its most likely receptive audience, and to make sure they get to hear your story. This means the proposition has to be grounded in truth.

To take another, smaller example, one of my favourite films of the last 20 years is Peter Chesholm’s Funny Bones. It’s a quirky British film, about the nature of comedy, and coincidentally also considers transatlantic influence. It’s apparent from the cover of the DVD that the marketing people didn’t have a clue how to sell it: the box carries an image of Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt which doesn’t appear in the film, contrived to suggest that this is a zany mainstream comedy, which it really isn’t. Fans of The Nutty Professor are not likely to be pleased. It’s as though the marketing people, faced with a difficult task, decided to perform a different task. In doing so they betray the film, and indeed the audiences they’ve misled. Perhaps they thought that if they could just persuade people to have a look at the film they’d be enchanted anyway, their lives enriched by pleasant surprise, but this for the most part is not how things work.

We can probably blame Edward Bernays for the creep of advertising’s dark arts into practically every aspect of our lives, really from the 1920s and his now notorious campaign to create a female-friendly image of tobacco, but it would probably have happened anyway with the development of mass media (alongside the development of psychology as a kind of science).

The manipulations of advertising, PR, or marketing don’t matter too much when they’re focused on your choice of washing powder, or even which films you might want to see. But they have to be more worrying when used in the service of more important decisions. The disconnect between promotion and reality around The American might have damaged the reputation of the film initially, but the film’s reality could be trusted to assert itself without long term consequences. This isn’t true of the political or social world, where the honing of the soundbite now threatens the democracy it was supposed to serve.

Consider the current favourite with the Brexit camp here in the UK: “take back control”. It took the campaign a while to get to this one, and it seems to be playing well with the disaffected British public, as I imagine the focus groups said it would. It’s not surprising, because the slogan does two simple things. It’s a dog whistle to anti-immigration sentiment (”take back control of our borders”) and an attempt to plug in to the widespread alienation from the political world. It promises power to those feeling powerless and disenfranchised, a power which could start with a cross on a ballot paper.

As a practitioner in this sleazy world of messaging I have to concede a certain amount of admiration for the craft of it. As a resident of the wider world, I can only express my disgust at its cynical duplicity. Immigration is unlikely to change whatever the result of the referendum, because the forces driving it are more complex and economically necessary than EU rules about freedom of movement. Nor will it hand power to ordinary people, but instead will strengthen the hands of those already gleefully tearing up the post-war social democratic settlement in this country.

It’s worse than a lie (though it is, without doubt, a calculated lie). It promises liberation, and a reinvigoration of the political process. When those hopes are inevitably disappointed it will only create further disillusionment and cynicism, as well as ushering in a plague of unintended consequences.

In a sense advertising has always been about crafting dissatisfaction, so it can offer a way forward to a different state. In doing this it’s trodden the margins of the real, the grey zone between the aspirational and a verifiable means to meet those aspirations (typically in the form of product features). But in political advertising we’ve already passed into the Orwellian world of newspeak, where war is peace, lies are the truth, where the most famous slogan in British advertising history (”Labour isn’t working”) ushered in a government that happily trebled unemployment within a year. Although it uses the tools of marketing, it’s actually the opposite of accepted marketing wisdom, and it can get away with this because unlike the commercial world, in the political world reality can take longer to assert itself.

We endure this as we endure the rain, as if it were a force of nature, as if nothing can be done. But it’s not like the rain. It’s more like a cancer eating at the body of society, and we need to recognise it for what it is if we’re ever going to find a cure.

Faith and openness

Faith and openness

I’ve been thinking about Jonathan Rowson’s latest enquiry within the RSA’s Social Brain project, asking what it is that people mean when they say they are “spiritual but not religious”. It’s a good question, and Rowson argues that the answer (or at least the enquiry) should help us understand better what’s going on around us in these troubled times.

In this light I found myself watching the Wachowski siblings’ film of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which plays around Buddhist-like (but unspecific) notions of rebirth and the possibly transcendental significance of our individual actions (I’d say the film is by turns entertaining and irritatingly pretentious, but that’s not my main focus here).

I’ve also just finished reading Peter Hoeg’s The Elephant Keepers’ Children, a much more playful (and generally funnier) piece of work. It’s ostensibly about religious faith, but more about the way reality keeps crashing in on our schemes of things, urging us to a kind of acceptance which is not transcendental in its claims: it is a celebration of diversity and absurdity, a comedy that’s the polar opposite of satire.

Satire divides and deliberately demeans. It highlights absurdities which we would do better to remove from our lives. Hoeg’s comedy, which works in the tradition of gentle humorists like James Thurber and Flann O’Brien (albeit with a higher octane level of caricature), asks us to embrace and enjoy that absurdity in each other, to accept the hopelessness of our dreams of a higher state, while understanding that those dreams are an important part of what we are. It is virtuously inclusive and life-affirming in the process.

Religion at its best promotes that same openness towards others and to life, usually expressed through some developed notions of love and compassion. This may be one of the core elements shared by all major faiths. It may be part of what people mean when they say they are spiritual but not specifically religious.

Religion at its worst does the opposite, dividing the saved from the doomed (usually with pretty clear rules setting out how you qualify for each category) and encouraging its followers to look away from the pleasures and pains of this life to some kind of further significance after death. It’s the latter baggage that the spiritual-but-not-religious usually want to reject.

Rowson’s starting point is a little more anthropological, suggesting that faith might be a commitment to certain cultural norms rather than matters of belief (such faith he suggests doesn’t need to equate with a series of propositions about how the world is). The trouble is that this is probably not how most believers would see their own faith. Or at least it seems more like a description of how the vaguely religious treat the procession of births, marriages and deaths in their lives, a vagueness that the Church of England in particular has been very tolerant of, though from personal experiences I’d say Catholicism is far more demanding and I’d imagine that those drawn to more evangelical faiths feel the same way (I am not denigrating earnest or committed Anglicanism in this, but observing the way mainstream faith has worked at least in England, though it’s interesting to note that this is less true in other parts of the UK).

None of this makes Rowson’s question any less interesting, but rather it suggests that the focus should not be on those with formal faith, but on those who can’t embrace such formality, and still want to reach in some way for the metaphysical, especially if this is how the majority of the European population would describe itself.

I’d probably place myself somewhere in that very broad… er, church. Religious statements about life after death seem to me ridiculous, not because the idea itself is ridiculous, but because there is nothing sensible any of us can say about it, and that includes any notion drawn from superficially attractive Eastern traditions of rebirth (which seem to dance like a reflection off water through Cloud Atlas). At the same time a rigorously materialist view of our existence, while in a sense irrefutable, doesn’t seem quite adequate. It’s like explaining music in terms of mathematical relationships: you can do this, and it’s often interesting, but it won’t help you hear the music for what it actually is.

We have a pretty fundamental need to make sense of whatever is going on around us, which often enough will entail making sense of the senseless, or of trying to find meaning in the meaningless. Conventional religion addresses this need by offering a different frame of reference (“God works in mysterious ways” ). This other frame of reference seems to me as random as the things it’s trying to explain, but this shouldn’t lead us to ignore the important presence of our imaginations in how we experience the world. It may be that those imaginations are a product of routine brain function, but again this doesn’t tell us anything about what’s going on in and around our heads. As the younger Wittgenstein put it, it is not how the world exists that is mysterious, but that it exists.

I’d guess that those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious are articulating the feeling that there is something more to life than the clash of atoms. In doing so they will often reach for a barely-articulated sense of the connectivity of things (hence the irritating platitudes of the Cloud Atlas film). I agree with Jonathan Rowson that we need to understand this sense and work with the grain of it in any ambitions we might have to make our lives or societies better. We need to understand better what it might mean if only because the current government’s notions of a happiness index, which I suspect are trying to get at the same thing, are themselves too crude to tell us very much.

Perhaps we need to be working to help the people who say they are spiritual but not religious to understand better what they mean, to help us all get beyond the platitudes. It may even help the religious if we can all move away from untenable notions of certainty. Rowson touches on this when he suggests that ethics may be better understood as a social disposition than something intrinsically rational. This doesn’t mean that everything is optional in what we believe. It is to accept that our beliefs, like our consciousness, are embodied, whether literally in our bodies or in our social and cultural institutions. The ramifications of this are pretty big, and I guess that’s why Rowson is pushing the Social Brain project down this particular road. It’s a journey we need to make though it’s fraught with difficulty, not least in how we balance an apparently attractive openness with the knowledge that some beliefs really are crazy, and many are pernicious. I want to think more about how we can respect beliefs we judge to be wrong in future entries.

You can find Jonathan Rowson’s blog on the subject at


The real and self-consciousness

I looked again at Hitchcock’s Vertigo last night, for the first time in many years. The film has a mad hallucinatory quality throughout, appropriate enough for a story about love and obsession. Afterwards I was thinking about its structure … the way it switches from the decidedly languorous pace of its first 90 minutes to the packed revelations of the last half hour, which in that intensity feel even more hallucinatory. It occurred to me that the film’s voice of reason, the doting Midge, disappears after speaking to the psychiatrist about James Stewart’s chances of recovery from his second breakdown, and in that last half hour without her you’re locked into the intensity of Stewart’s disturbed obsession. It struck me too that the story’s twist, in which Kim Novak has in fact colluded in the murder of the villain’s wife, could have been a fantasy in the broken Stewart’s mind, through which he tries to make sense of his devastating experience and loss.

You don’t have to read the film this way. There’s nothing to suggest it’s the “right” way to look at it. But it’s an interesting, perhaps enriching possibility and it made me think again about the consolation of stories, and the sense of “what really happened” that sometimes disturbs your reactions to a piece of fiction, and that I touched on when talking about Eden Lake a couple of months ago.

The questions were raised too in a recent discussion of Ian McEwan’s writing in the London Review of Books, which praised the end of McEwan’s Atonement for its self-referential sophistication, the way it teases the reader with expectations of resolution while veering off to worry about the writer’s need to make things good. I can see and praise the skill of much of the writing in Atonement, but thought the ending revealed a conceptual muddle and a betrayal of an underlying compact with the reader, a compact that in one way or another defines the form of a story (I probably need to explain that idea about form a little more, but not now).

The observation that we can be caught up in stories, that they can change our sense of reality, sometimes with serious consequences, may be worth noting in a context like this blog, but it’s not enough in itself to make for a satisfying work of art. Vertigo makes fruitful use of this idea, but it is not what the film is about (it harnesses your possible awareness of its own artifice to deepen your sense of the pressure of the unreal on the protagonists). My problem with Atonement is that while playing with the play of stories on our imaginations, it ends up only being about the act of writing. I can’t help feeling that when a writer ends up writing about writing s/he has nothing much to say.

That’s the problem with so-called post modernism (or at least, one of its many problems). Being self-conscious isn’t much of an end in itself. It can complicate the relationship between artist and audience, but I want to know that it’s complicating it for a reason. Ian McEwan may be worried about the kind of pleasure he offers his audience, but that worry needs working out in a way that continues to offer some kind of pleasure or formal gratification. The structural problem with Atonement is not so much that its aesthetic worries don’t make sense. It’s that you don’t care about the writer Briony in the way you cared about the main protagonists.

Hitchcock mastered that balance of artifice and formal gratification more than fifty years ago. McEwan, (an often great writer I hasten to add) who made his name with a sense of the everyday macabre that Hitchcock would have appreciated, could do with going back to his roots.

Out of the loop

I haven’t seen Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop but it seems an Act of God that it should appeared on our screens at the dawn of the MP expenses row. The film (like the TV series it sprang from) excoriates the culture of spin that has so dominated these Labour governments, obscuring their many real achievements. The expense row could well be the end of that culture. It’s about time.

It’s important to note that the spin culture did not come out of nowhere. It was the media themselves who transformed and trivialised political discourse in this country. It was media hunger for big stories that left public figures unable to speak straightforwardly and honestly for fear of distortion. This is not confined to politics but part of a general malaise where a problem had to be described as a “challenge” and the word translated back by its readers. If someone had dared say “problem” people would not have thought “at least he’s being honest”. They would have thought “it must be really really bad then.”

Enlightened thought in business communication has for several years been arguing that the deep impact of the internet is the pressure it creates for a new transparency in all of our affairs. If there’s a fault in your product, it will come out. If you’ve been treating people badly, the internet will spread the word. You could not afford to treat CSR as a PR tool. You had to mean it. Many businesses were only just beginning to understand the implications when the tsunami of the credit crunch overwhelmed us. With senior management reputations in tatters it won’t be the same when the flood subsides.

Secrecy runs like a jugular vein through political life, and always has done. It’s part of the culture of power. So it’s probably not surprising that politicians have been even slower than business people to grasp the nettle of transparency. Now they have been stung all the same. We have a Freedom of Information Act because of this government, albeit one hobbled from the beginning by the kicking and screaming of the civil service, and the civil servants were right that the Act we have would prove the thin end of the wedge.

The Act might accelerate change, but it is not driving it. There’s a cultural shift in our expectations. In the past power partly relied on your ability to hide things, to control perceptions. Now you can expect to get away with nothing. That’s going to be a hard lesson for the current generation of politicians, but there’s a reasonable hope in the air that if they don’t learnt it they will be finished.

It’s very uncertain where traditional media will fit in this new reality. The justification for traditional media has usually been the need to hold our leaders to account, but with the journalists themselves accountable for whatever they put forward. Somehow we’ll need to ensure that scrutiny still works in the blogosphere, or indeed works better (the cost of litigation has meant that it was largely a tool for the rich).

But the confluence of catastrophes in the last 12 months means that the age of spin may decisively be over. Political and business leaders are going to have to learn a new language, as part of a real shift in their behaviour. It will be a refreshing change.